My son Sean and I arrived in Estes Park on Sunday August 31, 1998 following a 2-day drive from Asheville, North Carolina and north Georgia with the intention of climbing Longs Peak. Our plan was to do elevation acclimatization hikes Monday and Tuesday, rest Wednesday, and then hike Longs Peak on Thursday. We camped at Mary's Lake Campground which is on the Longs Peak side of Estes Park, 9 miles from the parking lot.
On Monday we hiked up Twin Sisters, elev. 11600 ft. Rain threatened the entire descent, and as we reached our car, it began to rain and hail very hard, and hailed enough on Longs Peak that the Keyhole route was closed on Tuesday.
The weather was still bad Tuesday morning, but by afternoon was somewhat better, so we hiked Estes Cone, elev 11000 ft. Parking for this hike is in the Longs Peak parking lot. Wednesday we rested as planned, and went to bed by 8PM to get up at 2AM.
I don't know why it took so long to dress, eat, and drive to the trailhead at 9400 ft, but it was 3:20AM when we got underway. It was around 50F and breezy. There were already around 20 lines of names in the logbook, but we saw only a couple of people until we reached the Boulderfield campground. The rocky trail ascends continuously up to the Keyhole (13100 ft) and then drops about 400 ft before starting up again at the base of the Trough. With this drop, the total elevation gain is close to a mile.
At 5:45 we turned off our headlamps. The sun came up between the peaks of Twin Sisters, as I had read should happen if you start early.
We got to the Boulderfield campground at 7:30. A dozen or so people had camped there and were preparing to get underway. There are a couple of toilets there. We had intentionally not carried enough water for the entire trip, our plan being to refill our bottles by treating the runoff from the snow at the Boulderfield. Because of concerns about the drainage from the toilets, and due to the excitement of the moment, we were beyond the toilets and were well on the way to the Keyhole when we realized we had failed to replenish our water. It was at this point we made a mistake we will avoid on any future trip. We decided to continue, and refill on the trip down. This was not our only mistake. We had made hearty sandwiches for our lunch, and somehow left them in a cooler.
The trail ends at the campground at about 12600 ft. From there to the Keyhole, you step or hop from rock to rock. We reached the Keyhole at 8:30.
The next stretch after the Keyhole is called the Ledges. Looking left from the Keyhole, the direction the route follows, you'll see something like this. There are yellow and red bullseyes every 50 feet or so. You look for the next bullseye, then figure out a way to get there. As mentioned above, this part of the route descends a few hundred feet, maybe 400 to the base of the Trough. I never felt in danger between the Keyhole and the Summit. Thousands of people have climbed Longs Peak, and I figured I could, too. But you do climb it, using your hands often. Be sure to take gloves to protect your hands.
The next section of the Keyhole route is called the Trough. You can see it in this picture taken from near the Keyhole, and in this photo made at the bottom of the Trough. The Trough is long and difficult. There is lots of small rocks (scree) that make traction difficult. At the top of the Trough, the route transitions to a different side of the mountain, where you come to the Narrows.
The Narrows is a rugged part of the route that brings you to the Homestretch. It is very steep, but with better footing than the Trough. We reached the Summit (14255 ft) at 10:45. The top is relatively flat, about three acres. We stayed on top until 11:30, and reached the Keyhole at 1:30PM and the Boulderfield campground at 2:20PM, where we finally obtained drinking water by catching runoff, and treating it with iodine tablets. We were both very thirsty by that time.
We continued our trek back, enjoying the awesome scenery, reaching the car at 5:25PM. My quads were unbelievably sore, and Sean's shoulders were sore. It was a heck of a trip, and we both thoroughly enjoyed it.