Longs Peak, My First 14er (secular version)

Author's Note: I was unprepared for the challenge of this hike from the onset. Fortunately, it was a good day, and I was successful in my endeavor. Back in 2000, I thought the basic mountaineering training I'd completed as a youth in relatively tame mountains of southern New Mexico was adequate for the challenges I would face in Colorado. A mountain's a mountain, right?

Now, nine years later, I've climbed about 30 or 40 more peaks, and the school of hard knocks and experiences of friends have taught me I can never be too educated on the subject of mountaineering. Having a guidebook in my hands does not qualify me for peakbagging. Before climbing a mountain, always make sure you have appropriate gear and skills to survive whatever Murphy's Law might throw at you.

* * *

Longs Peak had called out to me for years. I'd wanted to shoot Chasm Lake, at the base of the mountain's diamond-shaped east face, at sunrise since the day I first pulled into the Estes Valley from Longmont.

Then I turned 40. For a variety of reasons, I decided it was time to fling my fear of heights and prove I am no wimp. I wanted to be able to say I'd accomplished something special. I'd had many difficulties raising my kids that year, and I was beginning to believe I'd always be alone, always single, forever. I wanted to prove that being 40 and single was not a bad thing.

Longs Peak, here I come!

Mmmm, breakfast...

In mid-August, the kids and I set our alarm clock and set out on the trail at the recommended 3 a.m. start time. We planned to watch the sunrise on Chasm Lake, then backtrack to the summit trail, ringing the mountain all the way to the top. The 100mph or so wind, however, pounded on us, so we chickened out and turned back less than a half a mile into our trek.

About 60 other brave souls were attempting the climb the same time as us, but they didn't turn back. I personally thought they were nuts.

Two days later, the first snowfall of the season fell upon Longs. Surely that would revert the trail back into a technical climb, which I did not have the experience to attempt.

Later that month, I learned the Keyhole Route still hadn't been deemed technical. I decided to try alone on Labor Day. I happened to be childless that day. No whiney complaints, "How much longer", no "I have to go to the bathroom" and no one to laugh at me if I didn't make it.

I slept five hours Sunday afternoon, then hit the road at 8 p.m. The sunset as I drove toward Estes Park was spectacular. The sky turned crimson red, and the purple silhouette of Longs Peak seemed to beckon to me the entire way.

I slept quite comfortably in my car until 2:45 a.m. I was the eighth "party" to sign the registry that morning. Most of the seven parties ahead of me consisted of more than one person. A couple of other loners were being brave, like me. By the time I finished writing my name, a line of 16 more people waiting to log in had formed. Cars were pulling into the parking lot, and many hardcore hikers were digging in their open trunks, gathering their gear for the climb. It was going to be a busy day on the mountain.

Most of the other climbers wore helmets with high-powered flashlights mounted on top. They would have light everywhere they turned their heads.

I, on the other hand, carried a three-inch mini flashlight powered by two AA batteries. In my pack I carried a backup flashlight, a two-inch flashlight powered by one AAA battery and attached to my key chain.

I know this sounds silly, climbing a giant mountain with two measly flashlights, but I wanted my hands to be free for the rocks I expected to encounter. A big flashlight seemed like it would just get in the way, I had reasoned. Besides, two flashlights would outlast the three hours of darkened climb I faced, right?

The first mile and a half of trail through thick forest rose at about a 20-degree grade. I couldn't see the sky, and I couldn't see the outline of the mountain. I did, however, see a mouse scurry across my flashlight's beam. I paused momentarily to watch the little guy climb alongside the trail. I was empowered just a bit because I could take one step to his tiny 100 steps and get a whole lot further! As big as this mountain seemed to me, to him, it must have seemed like a whole planet to climb!

On the south ends of the switchbacks, I could hear the pounding of the Roaring Fork, offering audible evidence of why it's called a "Roaring" river. It drains from Columbine Falls, which spill out of Chasm Lake. The near deafening noise gave me mental pictures of the beauty awaiting me at the falls and lake.

When I finally broke treeline, the trail leveled out a bit for a while. I was treated to the glorious cookie cutter view of city lights from Boulder, Longmont and Denver just on the other side of Twin Sisters, the bumpy peaks scraping the skyline between Longs and Boulder.

Above me the sky was cloudless. I saw one shooting star after another, and I made a wish on every one: "I wish I can make it to the top."

Ahead of me, I could see perfectly the route to the famed Boulder Field, a giant flat (although slightly tilted) granite garden on the north side of the mountain. The trail was dotted with headlights of climbers ahead of me, dim yellow beams of light dancing in the darkness like tiny fireflies. Eventually, though, the trail forked. The other climbers were all peak-minded. Few hikers bother to do both hikes in one day. Serious climbers don't even bother with Chasm Lake, unless they are planning to ascend the sheer Diamond with ropes or tackle one of the other 107 technical routes up the peak. I walked alone in the dark along the Chasm Lake trail with no twinkling lights ahead of me to guide me when the trail turned from well-worn path to glacier-strewn boulders.

Someone, probably a century ago, placed one of the long, flat boulders across the Roaring Fork for a safe crossing. I crossed over, but could not find the trail on the other side. I wandered about the tundra as the light of my trusty flashlight became faint and burnt orange. I kept returning back to the stream to see if I could find where the trail would have emerged, until finally, I saw two twinkling lights coming up the trail toward me. Two more Chasm Lake sunrise watchers!!!

As the hikers drew closer, I was able to discern both were men, and that they were not together. They were loners like me. It also was apparent they weren't going to the lake. They had ropes, carabiners and crampons. I tucked away my dead flashlight, pulled out the smaller one and waited, hoping the oncoming trekkers would be able to help me find my way back to the trail, even though we had different destinations.

Not only did they help me find the trail, which abuts the stream instead of crossing the tundra where I'd been looking, but they also encouraged (i.e., begged, pleaded, beseeched, implored, short of demanded) me to stay with them until our routes divided because they didn't feel manly about leaving "a girl" alone anywhere on this mountain with what they called a "cigarette lighter flashlight." My tiny key chain provided enough light for me, in my opinion, but these experienced peakbaggers assured me I'd be safer staying with them because the trail ahead could get slippery.

That, it did. I slipped on one mossy rock, but was uninjured. I told my newfound temporary companions my bobble was intentional: It sparked introductory conversation: "Are you all right?" "No, I'm Deborah." "Huh?"

One of my new dark trail partners introduced himself and told me he drove out from Atlanta to climb this mountain. The other guy said he is from Boulder and that he had climbed Longs several times, trying a new route each attempt. The two, after stumbling across me, decided to pair up because "no one should be taking this mountain alone." My distress, they concluded, was a stroke of luck for them, although I well knew they probably would have paired up in the long run with or without my assistance.

My temporary climbing companions inquired about my climbing experience. Awed by my response, they commented I'd picked a devil of a mountain for my first 14er. "A devil of a mountain." Those were their exact words.

Both the men verbally praised my "hearty ambition," attempting both Chasm Lake AND Longs in one day, first time out. Both of them wished me luck when the route divided at a locked shelter cabin below a rock outcropping they said forms the lake's natural dam. They made sure I was going to be okay before they headed off for the Beaver, a rodent-shaped spike flanking the Diamond face. Soon I was alone again to climb a talus (loose rock) slope. The skyline to the east began to take on a dark orange glow, and the falls sounded tremendous. I could picture in my mind how far the water from the lake must be falling. Before deciding I was ready to try this hike, I had read about the trail, thinking that would prepare me for what I was about to do. The book included a section on Columbine Falls, which were aptly named for the flower that now symbolizes the infamous high school massacre. The state flower grows in abundance along the falls, according to the book. Columbine typically blooms in June and July, though, so I likely wouldn't be seeing any once daylight hit.

Chasm Lake Sunrise

I climbed up the rocks for about 100 feet before reaching a clearing. Ahead of me, I could see the faint reflection of the midnight blue sky on the ground... I had reached THE lake!

The wind picked up. It wasn't steady, and it wasn't impossible, but when the strong gusts hit, I felt like an ice cube. I didn't have to turn off my flashlight; it died, saving me the trouble. As I waited for my eyes to adjust, approaching daylight began to paint crevices on the Diamond, now the closest I'd ever seen it.

In the book I read, photographers are advised to take a wide angle lens because they wouldn't be satisfied with anything else. They wouldn't be able to get the whole mountain AND the lake into one picture. I could never hike anywhere with only one lens, but I knew taking all my equipment would be unnecessary exertion during such an intense hike. So I brought only three lenses. Before I was able to reach back into my pack and pull out my camera, I got hit by a strong gust of wind. My balance wasn't all that stable, since my camera-laden backpack made me rather top heavy. I toppled to the ground like an upside down bottle of fingernail polish. I struggled to prevent my pack from absorbing the impact.

I was shaken and shaking. Dressed in tank top and shorts, I had not felt chilled until I quit moving. The uphill climb had kept me quite warm. Now, standing on the edge of the lake in the wind, I was downright freezing!

I huddled on the side of a big boulder to escape the wind and reached into my backpack to pull out my long-sleeved shirt and jacket. I had them and my gloves on in no time, but my legs were still shivering. For the next 20 minutes, I kept coming out of "hiding" to check the eastern horizon. A long band of clouds ran along the horizon, but I was quite sure there would be a sunrise anyway, even if it lasted only a few seconds. The Diamond and the lake were going to turn orange and gold whether they liked it or not! I had NOT come all this way in the dark to shoot a gray mountain!

Just as the sun began to peek over the eastern horizon, I heard a clear "VRRRRRIP" echo across the lake and back. Momentarily paralyzed with fear and still unable to make out any recognizable animal shapes in the twilight, I was completely at a loss as to what would make that kind of noise. Then it hit me... a tent zipper! I was not alone!

I had been so quiet, though, the two campers at the far edge of the lake didn't know they weren't alone anymore. I scared them as much as they scared me. Once we determined none of us were going to have each other for breakfast, we relaxed to watch the mountain transform into gold.

Sunrise was spectacular! It couldn't have been any better. The Diamond, jutting a half mile into the sky from the lake bed, went from deep purple to mauve to soft pink to magenta to flaming orange to muted gray in the time it took me to click off about four shots. It seemed only a few seconds had passed before the sliver of the sun crept behind the bank of clouds, which was glowing orange and yellow, too. I packed up my gear and headed back down the rocky slope to get my start on the real hike, thinking the sunrise had completed its sole performance of the day.

Six minutes later, however, the mountain was bathed in bright yellow light as the sun re-emerged. I wished I had stayed at the lake a few more minutes to capture that, but I was equally dazzled with my first glimpse of Columbine Falls. The falls seemed as tall as the Diamond! All I could do was stare, mouth gaping. The landscape was so beautiful!

Columbine at Columbine Falls

The next step I took resulted in a slide, feet first, legs scraping the boulders below me, about 15 feet down the slope. I quickly stood to see if I could feel any damage; I'd protected my camera once again by keeping my body forward so the backpack couldn't make contact with the rocks. However, my legs took quite a beating in the process.

As I worked the stiffness out of my left thigh, I realized for the first time that I had climbed, in the dark, the cliff I was now standing face to face with. The only difference was that now I could see where I was going. I could see ahead on the trail what a steep drop-off it was to a string of lakes about 600 or 800 feet below. The trail didn't seem quite so scary in the dark!

I kept telling myself that if I could do this in the dark, I could do it in daylight. Whenever I got scared, I would turn around and look back at the Diamond, which now seemed to have a strand of liquid silver pouring from the bottom of it. The view would give me courage to keep going, until the time I glassed the view with my telephoto lens. I could see a faint line, cracks in the rock face, squiggling across the Diamond. I assumed that must be the Narrows my Estes Park friends had spent eight years teasing me about. I'd never make it to the top, they'd continually laughed. I'm too afraid of heights. I'd take one look at the Narrows and turn around and go back home, they mused.

I knew that moment I would never make the summit. Looking at that line across the Diamond, I knew my friends had correctly assessed my abilities. I would make it to the Narrows, but no further. I turned and trudged on down the steep and slippery trail.

It had taken me three hours to reach and shoot Chasm Lake. The downhill retracing of my steps back to the Keyhole trail took less than an hour. At the junction, about 30 people, climbing together as a group, were putting sunscreen on each other and taking a liquid break.

I chuckled to myself, knowing these kids had just begun their trek, and I'd already accomplished the first leg of mine. I passed them and headed up the mountain alone again.

About 30 people were scattered along the trail ahead of me as far as I could see. Some were going up; some were coming down. I passed some people, and some people passed me. Sometimes I passed someone, only to have them pass me back later.

One of the incredible things that happens along the Longs Peak trail is that all the hikers, absent verbal negotiations, form an informal partnership. People who get tired of carrying their water, their packs or their sleeping bags set them down alongside the trail, and their items are still there for them on the return trip. People who are hiking alone pair up with others hiking alone at relatively the same speed. Experienced hikers encourage first-timers. Everyone shares stories when they stop for breaks. Climbers who went up before first light take a nap on the Boulder Field while people hike right by them later in the day. Hardcore hikers camp in rock shelters on the Boulder Field and leave all their stuff right their in the makeshift shelters while they scale ice or dangle from ropes. People going up make room for people going down without traffic lights. And when you get to a really rough spot you can't do alone, the people on both sides of you help you. It's simply amazing.

The Boulder Field is huge. From Trail Ridge Road or elsewhere in the Park, you have no concept of the expanse of the field of rocks. You can't even tell from far away that there is a flat area. The mountain slopes appear to sit at a 45-degree angle, all the way up, all four sides, with no flatness. I once read that the Boulder Field is the equivalent of five football fields wide.

The next thing I noticed was the sky was still clear. That's odd, especially during late summer. The soaring temperatures typically conjure up wicked afternoon thunderstorms. That's why hikers start up the mountain so early. Everyone wants to get off the mountain before the first bolt of lightning strikes. Fifty-five people have been killed by lightning on Longs Peak since Rocky Mountain National Park was created.

Next I noticed the lack of wind. When you ask anyone in Estes Park what they hate most about the area, you always get the same answer: "The wind." Trees along the edge of the tundra shouldn't be called trees at all. They are stripped bare by the wind, gusts of 200 miles per hour or better in winter. Even the newspaper in the nearby town of Allenspark takes its name from the least popular aspect of Rocky Mountain life: "The Wind."

I made it to the Keyhole, where many people turn back. The trail from there on is for experienced climbers only. One of the trail descriptions I found AFTER my hike claims the Keyhole Route is not for the faint-hearted or for people afraid of heights. (If I'd read that before my hike, I probably never would have had any desire to summit at all. Ever.)

The Keyhole is a rock ledge, maybe six feet across at its widest point, with an overhang shaped like, you guessed it, a keyhole. The overhang is attached to a sheer cliff shooting skyward toward the peak, about 1,500 or so feet, at about a 40-degree angle, gripped on the north slope by dirty, wind-carved ice fields shaped like unkempt beards.

A rock shelter at the base of the Keyhole was built by the father of a woman who died in a storm while trying to climb the mountain in winter (IN A LONG DRESS!) at the turn of the century. The hut is supposed to provide shelter for climbers who get caught in thunderstorms, or worse. Many of the hikers waiting their turn to climb through the Keyhole said when they've needed the roofed but open-windowed shelter, it's full to the brim with drifted snow. I heard all kinds of harrowing tales about how slippery the Boulder Field gets in the rain. A couple of guys even told about the time they tried to climb Longs during winter. They finally had to turn back because they couldn't navigate the 10- and 20-foot snow drifts on the Boulder Field.

Later in the day, though, I heard even more winter climbers tell of ice-picking their way to the top. So apparently, it can be done. (I feel no need to perform this fete myself to verify the stories are true.)

Poking your head through the Keyhole is like poking your head into another universe. If the wind ripping through the hole doesn't suck you through, the precipitous drop forming the rim of Glacier Gorge will. It's like looking into a giant rock ice cream cone with a bite taken out of one side. There are traces of "ice cream" all along the bowl, and the whole terrain seems to slide off into the bottom of an empty gray cone. There are no trees, no signs of life other than other hikers, no sounds except the wind whipping the straps of your backpack against the back of your head.

Once you climb through the Keyhole and onto a narrow rock shelf below it, the wind is gone, but you can still hear it swooshing through the Keyhole above you. Now you have to make your way across rocks on a 80-degree slope to a 600-foot talus slope called the Trough about half a mile across the bowl.

I took one look and climbed back through the windy Keyhole. There was no way I was going to try to hug a mountain just to get to the top. The peak had no more appeal to me. I was done for the day.

On the other side of the Keyhole, I ran into a pair of hikers I had played trail tag with prior to the Boulder Field. We'd passed each other so many times, it felt like old friends seeing each other after a long absence.

"You can't turn back," they said. "You can do this."

"No, I can't. I'm afraid of heights. Seeing the other side of the Keyhole was quite enough for me, thank you very much."

"You've seen the worst part. You can do it! We'll help you."

They convinced me to try to get across this one boulder just on the other side of the Keyhole. They said if I could scale that thing, I could do the whole mountain. They said the boulder wasn't very far, and that they'd help me back through the Keyhole if I couldn't make it.

So back through the windy gap I crawled. I hugged the side of my ice cream cone all the way to this stupid triangle-shaped boulder big as my closet sticking out of the mountain like a petrified wart. I tried not to look down. I don't know how many thousands of feet down the drop is, but it's rock the whole way, until you get to the bottom of the gorge, which has a lake to cool you off once you're done sliding. As if you'd have any skin left to feel the cool water.

I don't remember how I got across that orange boulder, but I did indeed make it. Sure enough, those two guys did help me. They and a few other people around us congratulated me and encouraged me to keep going. So I did. I can be so foolish sometimes.

There were more boulders like that to navigate, and lots of ledges I had to lean on just right because they wobbled or rocked under my weight. Bull's-eyes painted on some of the rocks along the way show hikers the best route. I kept trying to figure out how anyone in their right mind would have taken paints and paint brushes up that mountain and effectively drawn a map along the way. There were even places where I could tell the bull's-eyes had been touched up or repaired after a rough winter. Who would do such a thing!?!?

When we reached the Trough, we stopped to eat a granola bar and sip some well-deserved water. The air was dry, and the overall weather was perfect. Not a cloud in sight, and the wind was completely tolerable. Every once in a while there would be enough of a breeze to chill me, but not to knock me off the mountain. I kept hearing all these tales about how lucky we were to have such a rare weather treat. Longs was never this calm and mild, experienced hikers kept telling me.

While my newest set of hiking companions were talking about upcoming Scouting trips, I watched other hikers making their way up and down the Trough. I couldn't imagine how bad the Narrows must be if that was the worst part of the trail, because this part looked mightily intimidating to me. All of the rocks are loose. There is no real trail. The path one hiker takes might not exist two minutes later because almost every step sends rocks sliding down the gully. I kept hearing warning calls such as "Slide!" or "Rock!" or "Watch out!" A couple of rocks even made it down to me at the bottom of the Trough.

The Trough seemed so endless, so unforgiving and so unconquerable. Yet people were cheerfully going up and down, waiting for each other, helping each other across the rough spots. I really didn't want to go any farther, but my feet started moving when my companions finished their snacks. My mouth didn't protest, and my brain must have been stunted by the thin air. I was literally too exhausted and scared to put up a fight.

Chasm Lake Way Past Sunrise

And yet, there was the tingling urge inside of me to be able to recount to my kids and my co-workers the next day the details of my adventure. Everyone knew what I was trying to do. They would all ask, one by one, throughout the day, if I'd made it. My trek would be the talk of the office. How would I ever be able to confess if I chickened out?

Three or four rock slides into the climb up the Trough, my hands were getting raw. The rocks were ice cold and rough as sand paper. So I stopped and pulled my gloves out of my pack. I decided to snap a photo while I was at it. Now I wish I had taken more so I would have something to show the difficulty of this section of the trail.

Half an hour later, I still wasn't halfway up the Trough, and I was beginning to grow discouraged. One of the guys ahead of me stopped to wait for me and find out if I was okay. He offered to switch packs with me because mine was so heavy. He had been offering to do that since the Keyhole, but I didn't want to be a wimp. Now, my stance was unsteady because of the weight of my camera equipment in a bad place on my back. This guy, a Scoutmaster, told me I needed to be more balanced the rest of the way, and he said he'd really appreciate the workout my pack would give him. Once he got it on, he made the standard jokes about how much junk women pack for day trips.

"What all did you put in here?" he asked. "This feels a lot heavier than just a kitchen sink!"

I told him I scooped up a few boulders while no one was looking so my kids would have some great souvenirs.

He said as long as my sense of humor remained intact, I would make it up that mountain. I didn't respond.

Half an hour later, we reached a bottleneck that, in my opinion, was the most difficult part of the whole mountain, going up or down. A large granite boulder wedged in the cliff blocked the view of the top of the Trough. The boulder was about three feet taller than me, just big enough to keep me from being able to reach over the top to pull myself up. People coming down were able to hang from the top and jump to the 14-inch-wide rock below. People going up, except for me, were able to pull themselves up by getting leg-ups from others or by just jumping and pulling themselves over.

I couldn't do that, though. I'd made the mistake of looking down. About 580 feet down. Straight down. Loose rocks all the way. My feet seemed bigger than the rock I was standing on to try to find a handhold to be able to pull myself up. Even with the lighter pack on, I didn't have the arm strength to pull my weight over that boulder. I was beyond terrified. At that point, I wasn't thinking at all. Panic, plain and simple.

The Scoutmaster promised to catch me if I fell. I told him I would probably take him down the mountain with me. He insisted he wouldn't let either one of us fall. I still didn't want to go over that rock.

"If you can make it across this rock, you can do the whole mountain," he grinned mischievously.

"Haven't I heard this before?" I wailed.

"And you made it across that rock, didn't you?"

I still didn't want to climb over that boulder. So my newfound friend led us away from the busy bottleneck, where many people were patiently waiting for me to get out of their way, pulled his water out of the pack on my back and asked if I wanted my water. He reached into my bag and pulled out my water as he began telling his favorite Scout story, one I could share with my son once I'd climbed this mountain.

It was a good story, the snake on the mountain tale. He said I would appreciate it more after I had climbed a difficult mountain. In the meantime, he had put away our water bottles and begun climbing again. He had gotten over the evil boulder while he was telling me the moral of the story. I was trying to pull myself up and over. He had successfully diverted my attention long enough to get me started up the Trough again. But the story wasn't long enough. It needed about two more paragraphs. It was over, and I was stuck between a rock and a hard place. A very high hard place. Terror set in once again. I began to cry. I tried not to let anyone waiting on me see the fear slashing through my soul.

The Scoutmaster was standing on the edge of the boulder, looking down at me and encouraging me to keep going. A guy below me told me to put my dangling foot on his shoulder. Someone right above me called out for me to grab his hand. I did everything everyone told me to do, and within seconds, I was on top of the rock. My legs were shaking so badly, I was afraid I was going to fall over backwards. I was too terrified to look back to see what I had maneuvered over. Over my rescuer's shoulder was yet another straight drop-off. I was almost on that sheer rock wall, the Diamond, I thought. The Narrows awaited.

I sat down on a rock to regain my composure and allow everyone who had helped me to move along. Once the traffic jam flowed away, I stood and began following my walking partner around the rocks to the Narrows. I tried not to think. I never looked down again the whole rest of the time I was on the mountain. People kept trying to get me to see where I'd come from earlier in the day, but I couldn't make my eyes go east, no matter how hard I tried. I kind of regret that now, but I don't know that I would have made the summit had I looked. I guess that view was my snake. I didn't pick it up, no matter how tempting the pleas.

The Narrows isn't the scar across the face of the Diamond, as I'd thought. Instead, it isn't a ledge at all. It's just rocks to climb above the top edge of the Diamond. Sometimes there is enough room for two or three people to stand in the same place, but most of the time there is barely room for one person. As with the Trough, one bad step, and down you go. This one a 90-degree drop. Nothing to grab onto along the fall. There's not even a place for snowflakes to settle. The Diamond never has any snow on it, even when the peak is buried beneath 20 feet of accumulation.

Every once in a while we'd pass a US Geological Survey pin, a metal marker displaying the elevation. We were about 200 feet below the summit, with a little less than half a mile yet to climb. The one good thing about the Narrows is that it is the most level part of the whole trail. At least you're not out of breath while trying to navigate it.

My nameless traveling companion kept telling me I had become part mountain goat because I was doing the Narrows "so well." We reached the Home Stretch, a 200-foot rock wall, not unlike the walls my kids loved to scale at sports gear stores. My heart literally stopped beating. You grab onto crevices in the rock and literally pull yourself up the wall, another seemingly near-90-degree tilt, 200 feet straight up.

Picture me, the photographer who has to be helped down a ladder after taking lightning pictures from a rooftop, coming down a 200-foot rock slab. I began to hyperventilate, except there is no air at 14,035 feet. I wasn't as scared of the climb as I was of having to come back down. I knew I couldn't do it. I can't even go down ladders.

My climbing companion told me to look at the people coming down the Home Stretch. The downward flow had thinned out dramatically. It was pretty late in the day to be attempting the summit, except the sky still was blue in all visible directions. About nine people were trying to make their way down the Home Stretch, while five of us were on the way up. My companion's real hiking companion was already on top, watching us and yelling for me to keep going, that I was almost there.

Other hikers tried to encourage me, too. They kept saying it was worth it. They kept saying I was almost there.

One hiker, though, was helping his wife down. She was crying. He was apologizing for making her come up the mountain. He was doing everything he could to help her down the Home Stretch. My eyes fixed on them, and suddenly I didn't care anymore who saw me cry.

The Scoutmaster told me I would hate myself the next day if I quit now.

"You're almost there," he said. "It isn't that much further. This isn't even the hardest part."

He said all kinds of other stuff; I think it went in one ear and out the other. When I finally resolved that I was stupid for trying to do this, I turned to him and roared, "I don't care if I never make it to the top of any mountain. I want to go home!"

He took a deep breath. Of what, I'm not sure, because every time I gasped, I almost fainted due to lack of oxygen. So I was violently forced to control my deep heaves. The thin air did nothing to hamper him. My stubbornly paralyzing fear served as no deterrent. I had unwillingly become his "mission."

"What are you going to tell your son when you get home?" he quietly asked.

He hit me in about the only place he could have to jolt me out of my self-pity and back into action. I reached up above me and pulled and pulled and pulled without stopping until I dragged myself across the ledge, signifying the end of the climb.

I made it to the top.

Instead of jumping for joy and feeling the tremendous achievement, I fell on my back and sobbed because I knew I would never get off that mountain. They would have to send a rescue squad to bring me home on a stretcher.

One of the hikers who reached the top before I got up off the ground made me laugh. He asked where the hotel was. Two other guys who were already on top had cell phones. They spent their entire time on the summit calling all their friends to announce they were calling from atop a 14,000-foot mountain.

All I could think about was going back down the Home Stretch and the Trough. As my head began to clear, I thought that maybe if I could make it back to the Keyhole, I might be proud of what I had done. Jumping up and down on the Boulder Field would be a heck of a lot safer place to jump for joy anyway.

After I "came to," I reached into my pack, which my friend had kindly set next to me while he patiently waited for me to get up off of his, for my water bottle. While I was sipping, he told me I'd better start shooting off some of the film I'd had him tow up the mountain because we would need to start back down soon.

That set me off again. I cried as I walked to the four corners of the summit to shoot my obligatory views from the top. The summit wasn't as big as I thought it looks from down below. About two acres; still a lot of land, but I'd always pictured it being bigger. Definitely not big enough for a hotel. But plenty big enough for a helicopter. You can send one up any time now, I thought to myself. I'm ready to FLY home.

The guys instructed me to sign the summit register. Summit registers typically are several sheets of lined paper rolled inside a bank drive-through tube anchored to a big rock with a strong cord. I signed. I looked up to see if any helicopters were coming. But to no avail.

We started back toward the Home Stretch. The guy who'd carried my pack apologized for deceiving me on the way up. He said didn't want me to give up without trying. He told me to look around at how many women we had seen alone on the trail. There weren't many women, and none of the women we saw were alone.

Longs Peak from Rock Cut on Trail Ridge Road at Sunset

We whispered a quiet and reverent prayer together before lowering ourselves back onto the Home Stretch. If anyone ever needed proof God hears and answers prayers, they could have had it that day. I made it down that mountain, slowly but surely, crying only at the big boulder on the Trough. I spider-walked most of the way down the Home Stretch and the Trough, crawling on all fours, but I didn't hug the wall as much on the Narrows or on the Ledges.

When I got to the Keyhole, the wind seemed to be ripping my facial hair away from my skin. While still clinging to the rock with my left arm, I reached into my pack, pulled out my camera, took one shot without adjusting anything, and then stuffed the camera back inside my pack. My camera didn't come out of the pack again the rest of the day.

I didn't feel the elation I anticipated upon reaching the safety and somewhat level ground of the Boulder Field. I still wanted nothing more than the feel of my warm, soft, comfortable bed wrapped around me for the rest of the week.

I practically ran the rest of the way down the mountain after the Boulder Field because I didn't have spare batteries and didn't want to risk negotiating downhill in the dark. One rather annoying thing that happened on the way down was that a kid, maybe 15 or 16, RAN by me when I was about a mile from my car. He had climbed around me on his way up while I was slowly making my way down the Trough. What had taken me 17 and a half hours had taken him less than four!

Fifty-six hours later, I finally felt the surge of adrenaline from climbing my first 14er. I could barely move the day after the climb. The second day was better, but my knees still shook every time I remembered the Trough or the Homestretch. Thursday morning, everything on my body worked fine when I awoke. I quickly woke my kids to excitedly boast, "I CLIMBED LONGS PEAK!!!"

"Yeah, Mom, you told us that already. Can we go back to sleep now?"

Less than 30% of the people who attempt to climb Longs Peak make it to the top. I'm in that 30%!

I had to sign back in at the ranger station before I collapsed in my car at the end of my hike. There is a spot on the registry for climbers to note brief comments after their journey. Someone accidentally used my space to record their sentiment, so I didn't have a place to write what I was feeling.

They had written, "This place rocks!"

I wish there had been room to add, "Yeah, and I climbed them, every one!"

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