Reach For The Sky

Residents hike to the top of a Colorado 'fourteener'

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Heavy wind jacket. Check. Stocking hat. Check. Two pairs of gloves. Check.

Fleece vest. Check. Water resistant pants. Check.

In the middle of a hot summer, it felt like we were preparing for winter. That's because we were.

On Sunday, three Craig locals, a Golden expeditioner and I climbed Long's Peak, one of Colorado's 54 "fourteeners," located in Rocky Mountain National Park.

The journey to the top of the 14,255-foot peak was a test of skill and will, but mostly a fight against Colorado's mountain elements.

The group of adventure seekers started up the trailhead at 3:30 a.m.

The route up was the Key Hole route, a path named for an unusual rock formation that begins the ascent to the top of the peak. An early departure was necessary to avoid possible dangerous storms that frequent the peak in the afternoons.

The blackness of the very early morning kept the trail hidden. Head lamps and flashlights acted as our seeing eye dogs in what would otherwise be a blind beginning. The lights paved a way up the trail, but only gave a small view of what was ahead. This is how we would hike throughout the entire ascent: even in the light, we were in the dark, with only a small circle of knowledge of what was ahead.

By sunrise, we had climbed above timberline, a point where oxygen is so scarce that trees aren't able to grow.

That was about 11,000 feet, 3,000 more to go.

From our current elevation, the rising sun was a thing of beauty. With colors of purple and pink cascading off distant mountains, the glowing sun appeared in front of us at a nearby mountain.

Above timberline, the trail began to get rough and steeper. Rocks clouded our way as the altitude squeezed our lungs.

But the challenge became more than facing the difficulties of the trail. Winter weather added an element of danger.

At about a mile above timberline, 4 miles from the Peak, we began to experience chilly winds.

The winds, combined with already accumulated sweat, produced feelings nearing hypothermia.

It was a feeling of being hot, but at the same time extremely cold. These kind of contrasts cloaked us throughout the ascent: we were in scenic heaven, but physical hell.

One member of the team, whose inside shirt was soaked, was feeling especially cold from the high winds. Without extra clothes, her body freezing and feeling that it would only get worse, she turned back.

The group, now down to four, continued the ascent, determined to conquer Long's despite the inclement weather.

After climbing the rocky trail for another mile, the Key Hole was in view. But to get to it required a climb over a patch of large Boulders. The Boulder Field was not too difficult, but required constant breaks to catch our breath.

The team reached the keyhole at around 7:30 a.m.

Reaching the spot was an accomplishment in itself. Many hikers that day turned away from it feeling satisfied. But for us, the mission was unfinished.

The Key Hole was just the gateway to the real ascent up Long's Peak. It was the threshold where the trail ended, and the mountain began. This is where we stopped hiking and began mountaineering, scaling the steep landscape that is Long's.

There was only one thing that made us cautious about going through the Key Hole: wind.

Giant gusts threatened safe travel. The intensity of the wind was obvious in the clouds as they raced past us from the other side of the Key Hole. One step on the other side of the mountain curvature and it felt like you were taking the winds head on.

Questions filled our minds before we stepped through. Did we have the right gear? Were we experienced enough?

At the summit crossroad, our small group had to make a decision. But we decided to forget about the winds and the dangers of what may lie ahead and continue on.

We would never regret the decision.

The new ascent was excruciating. Small bulls-eyes painted on rocks marked the trail. We went from bull-eye to bulls-eye. As our flashlight had led us earlier, the painted dots now were our only guide.

At the current elevation, the clouds hung low. These white moisture pockets hid the top.

That was the most frustrating part, there was never an end-goal, only an endless climb.

Finally, we reached the top, but found out that there was a traverse and another climb left.

We followed alongside the peak in a stretch that was called the "narrows" for its tight path and steep drop off.

Falling became a slight fear. Not making it, never entered our mind.

After completing the "narrows" we entered the "home stretch," the final ascent.

Our lungs really burned at this point. Altitude sickness had begun to develop, but we pressed on, knowing the end was finally in sight.

By 11:00 a.m., we had captured the peak.

The top presented an amazing view. But at this point, the scenic overlook was just an afterthought. Laying out on the rocks, our bodies exhausted, was better than any view.

Of course, we had to hike down, which was equally treacherous and tiring. In all, we hiked 16 miles, almost 12 hours.

Thousands of people had climbed Long's Peak before us. Anybody can climb the mountain with enough determination. But no matter how many people had reached the peak before us, it was still our accomplishment.

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