Brian invited me to join him and some friends on a late Fall Longs Peak ascent via the Keyhole. I had never done that route, so I was glad for the chance.
I met the group in the parking lot, and we started from the Ranger Station at 5am. We passed the Goblins Forest and a frozen alpine brook a couple of times as we switch backed up a hill before finally crossing the brook on some log bridges approximately 1 hour and 1.5 miles from TH. It was a cold day, but I was sweating like a boxer. I needed to lose some layers, but I didn’t want to stop the group to shift my clothing.
The trail left the heavy forest shortly after the log bridge crossing and continued up to tree line near 11,000′ (approximately 2.5 miles from the TH). We stayed on the main trail through Mills Moraine heading toward Chasm Lake trail junction (11,550′) because Jim’s Grove trail was in poor shape. We reached the Chasm Lake junction (11,550′), 3 miles from TH, and then turned toward Granite Pass. Underneath Mt. Lady Washington, just before Granite Pass, we stopped for a water break.
My wet clothes had me shivering like a vibrating bed. The group said, “wearing cotton, eh?”…nope, just wet. Now that I was cold and wet, I couldn’t stop wearing the clothes that got me wet in the first place. I was dreaming of a dry base layer; I was destined for misery, but I was going to finish off the Keyhole route.
We then hiked past Granite Pass and then on to the Boulder Field. We continue through the Keyhole, then over The Ledges until we reached the Trough (~13,300′). The Trough was full of soft snow and was very slow going for the 600′ ascent. Once we scrambled over the top of the Trough, we started the icy Narrows, a wildly exposed ledge. Transitioning between ice/snow and rock was nearly fatal for me twice as my crampons were as much a hazard as a lifesaver.
We reached the final pitch, called the Homestretch. It is a steep section of rock about 300′ tall that is often reported to be icy and treacherous. However, this time it was covered in somewhat soft, but still rather stable snow. We reached the summit quickly and took a long break. The weather was fine, but it was getting late in the day. I started wondering about how long before it got dark; I didn’t have a headlamp.
After our water and food break, we hurried down the Keyhole route and reached the Boulder Field when it occurred to me that we had about 1 hour of light remaining. I decided to hurry ahead to get as far as I could with the remaining light. I got as far as the Chasm Lake trail junction before I was hiking in the shadows. The sky remained light for a while longer, but the icy trail was in the shadows and I couldn’t see the icy spots anymore. I slowed to a crawl after two separate head-over-heals sliding tumbles on the ice. I made it to the car by 7pm and drove home thinking about being better prepared.
- Late fall meant a short day
- Cold weather plus fast pace makes for difficult body temperature management
- I was the guest and just went along with the existing plans
(1) Managed by body temperature badly
- Didn’t remove layers to avoid sweating
(2) Prepared badly
- Didn’t bring extra dry base layers
- Didn’t bring a headlamp
- Didn’t anticipate that it would be dark well before getting back to the car
(3) Made several bad decisions along the way due to flaws & biases in my thinking.
- Denial Bias: I just didn’t think about the trip very much; I trusted that the group I was with would have planned well. I also didn’t think about going ahead without the rest of the group; if I had hurt myself there was a chance I could be stranded out overnight. Besides, I could have walked more safely with them guiding the way (they had headlamps)
How I Got Lucky
- The weather stayed safe all day
- I was able to avoid hypothermia despite being wet on a cold day
- I managed to avoid getting injured in the dark while hiking alone
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