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Rocky Mountain National Park Climbing Longs Peak

You can't miss this mountain. At 14,259 feet, Longs Peak towers above all other summits in Rocky Mountain. The flat-topped monarch is seen from almost anywhere in the park. Different angles show the great mountain's unique profiles. Changing weather reflects Longs Peak's many moods.

In the summertime - the season when thousands hike or climb to Longs' summit - those moods are fairly predictable. Early mornings break calm, clear and blue. Clouds build in the afternoon sky, often exploding in storms of brief, heavy rain, thunder and dangerous lightning. Begin the trek early, way before dawn, to be back in the car before the weather turns.

The Keyhole Route, Longs Peak's only non-technical hiking pathway, is eight miles long one-way with an elevation gain of 4,850 feet. See our climbing Longs Peak brochure (PDF) and our High Country Hazards page (HTML) for essential information. Typically free of ice and snow from mid-July through mid-September, this challenging route was the choice of celebrated British adventurer Isabella Bird in 1873. Her words of wonder and praise for Longs Peak, which concluded that it was "much more than a mountain," ring true today as if the ink on her book A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains was still fresh.

Bird, who ascended Longs in the company of mountain man "Rocky Mountain Jim" Nugent, was not the first woman to climb Longs Peak. She was preceded to the summit that same year by Anna Dickinson. Both women followed in the footsteps of Addie Alexander and a "Miss Bartlett," two women who successfully climbed Longs in 1871.

Keyhole Route hikers may not know it, but they pass reminders of the past - both happy and sad - on their way to the summit.

The Boulder Field Inn (1925-37), whose stone foundations still can be seen near the Boulder Field Campsite, was the home of young Tiny Collier. Her father owned a popular lodging and guide service. Legend has it that a party of serious mountaineers encountered 7-year-old Tiny during its ascent of the Trough, an arduous gully that challenges most of the 15,000 people who climb Longs each year. Tiny was riding her tricycle.

"What are you doing here little girl?" the surprised climbers asked.

"I'm playing," she responded.

"Where do you live?"

"I live here!"

Tragically, there are those who never left Longs Peak alive. A stone gazebo at the Keyhole formation displays a plaque memorializing Agnes Vaille, a well-known climber in the 1920s. The pioneer of numerous mountain routes in the Rockies, Vaille attempted the first winter ascent of the mountain's precipitous east face in January, 1925. She and her climbing partner, Walter Kiener, succeeded after more than 24 hours of dangerous mountaineering through frigid blizzard conditions. While descending the North Face, Vaille fell 100 feet down the rock cliff, coming to a stop in a snowdrift. Her injuries were minor, but because of fatigue and hypothermia, Vaille was unable walk. Battling frostbite that would cost him toes and fingers, Kiener promptly summoned help. Vaille's rescuers arrived to find her dead from exposure.

Agnes Vaille and about 50 other climbers have lost their lives on Longs Peak. It is not a mountain tolerant of the unprepared. But hiking and technical climbing on the mountain are exciting and rewarding experiences. And they are comparatively safe if common-sense safety principles are applied. Keyhole route hikers should be properly outfitted with clothing, food and water. Use caution when ascending or descending steep areas. Don't be afraid to back down when bad weather threatens.

Once climbed, or even viewed at a distance from the safety of a car, Longs Peak is not a mountain easily forgotten.

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