A Scary Night on Long's Peak

It was to be a classic day: the forecast was perfect for the time of year, August 22: calm, clear and warm. I was to lead a CMC rock climb up the North Ridge of Spearhead, and had formed a strong team. Kent Crites, a mountaineer of deep experience, was my co-leader, and Heather Pore was the sole participant, both strong climbers. Since Spearhead is about four mile hike in, and since Kent and I were a little older (in our fifties), we decided to hike in the night before and bivouac below the climb to have a fresh start in the morning. Heather, a mere 20 something, of course thought nothing of hiking in and climbing the same day, so she was to meet us the next morning.

Kent and I enjoyed a pleasurable and leisurely hike in the balmy weather. Rocky Mountain Park was in its full summer glory, as we drank in the majestic sights that make up Glacier Gorge: Mills Lake, MacHenry's Peak, Spearhead, Chiefshead, Arrowhead, Pagoda Peak and, of course, the west face of Long's Peak. This is certainly one of the most scenic valleys in the park, and the compact clustering of high quality rock routes makes it especially exciting to climbers. Arriving in the cirque below Spearhead, we chose a flat grassy area about mid-way up the slopes towards the start of our route. With such benign weather, we would be fine sleeping without a tent, bedding down under the starry sky. We cooked and ate our simple meals, enjoying quiet conversation as dusk deepened into twilight. We were alone in the cirque, and savored the immense silence.

All seemed well as I snuggled into my bag, glancing up at the first stars appearing in the inky sky. The dark rocky ramparts of the west face of Long's were directly across the valley from us, the exact ridgeline hard to make out in the dark, as I tried to make out exactly where the Keyhole would be. All of a sudden, I noticed two tiny points of light moving slowly along, bobbing and winking; a few seconds of steady observation confirmed that they must be hikers returning along the Keyhole route, the most popular trail up Long's. I called over to Kent, and he noticed them too. Those poor guys! It was past nine o'clock, but they looked like they would be through the Keyhole soon, and, I thought, at least they would then be past the most exposed and dangerous part of the route.

A few minutes later, this assumption of safe harbor for the hikers seemed to be going terribly wrong: instead of the two bobbing lights going up and over the ridge as they neared the Keyhole, they seemed to be going down the ridge, toward Black Lake! I spoke in alarm to Kent, who confirmed what I saw -- but there was absolutely nothing we could do. Communication was impossible at that distance, and we couldn't call anyone for help; nor was it advisable to leave our camp to try to reach them in such dangerous terrain. I knew what that face looked like in daylight: steep, large, loose boulders, even large blank sections of rock face; at night, even with headlamps, it would be a nightmare to negotiate. But down they went, first left, then right...at times the lights would disappear, and I could only think the worst. I half expected one or both of them to suddenly begin descending rapidly, indicating a fall. Slowly but surely, they kept up their hesitant, zig-zag descent. When they were about half-way down, Kent and I could both hear cries of help; still, there was nothing we could do, other than pray for their safety.

Somehow though, unbelievable as it seemed at the time, after about an hour and a half, they were nearing the lower third of the black wall across the valley. The lights began to veer more to the right, indicating horizontal traversing on more level ground; this was good. They were going to make it! As the lights changed direction, now heading more directly into the eastern rim of the valley floor, we could just make out their voices: animated, strong, exhuberant. I couldn't make out the words, but I could pick up on what it meant: two young guys, probably inexperienced, but very excited to have survived a dangerous escapade in the mountains. Ah well! I thought, that's good; now all they have to worry about is hiking all the way out Glacier Gorge, at night, with their car probably parked at the Long's Peak trailhead -- a mere triviality, having cheated death! Kent and I congratulated each other on not having to participate in a rescue, and turned back into our bags, finally able to go to sleep. We never heard anything about the pair again; just another scary night in RMNP...

--Rick Casey

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