2017 – Colorado, Long’s Peak

Coming off of the trying Grand Canyon expedition from the previous year, our 2017 trip to Long’s Peak was very much about redemption for us. My Dad faced heavy criticism from both extended and immediate family in the aftermath of the Grand Canyon. Additionally, my brother, sister, and I were left shaken and trepidatious about taking on another adventure. The yearly tradition of adventure trips was in jeopardy just as it was getting started! Despite these challenges, my Dad was not to be deterred. He decided that this year we would make a return to Colorado where we had seen such great success in 2013. This time instead of going over 12,500 foot mountain passes, we would ascend to the top of Long’s Peak which tops out at 14,259 feet!

This time around there were a few things that set us up for success from the very beginning. When planning our route my Dad reached out to a Rocky Mountain National Park ranger and he basically planned our entire route for us. People regularly ascend to the summit of Long’s Peak and return all the way to the trail head in one single day. The trek is over 13 miles long and includes more than 5,000 feet of elevation gain. This would be a terrible idea for us coming straight from the lowlands of Illinois and being completely unadjusted to the altitude. With that in mind, the Ranger set a route where for the first 2 days we would have some easy hikes with minimal elevation on the lower parts of the mountain. This would give us some time to adjust to the altitude without over exerting ourselves. On Day 3 we would hike to the Boulderfield campsite which is right at the base of the actual Mountain climb. Then Day 4 is when we would leave our backpacks at camp, summit Long’s Peak, return to camp, pack up, and hike back down to the lower parts of the mountain to our last campsite. Finally, on Day 5 we had a short 2 mile hike back to our car. This plan meant that we wouldn’t be hiking an incredibly great distance and the trek would be broken up into nice doable chunks.

The first 2 days were a breeze. We started early around 6am and arrived to our campsites at around 11am or noon on both days. We had a lot of time to hangout and lounge around camp. On Day 1 my Dad slept for what felt like 18 hours because he was tired from the road trip just to get to Colorado and on day 2 we made a game out of jumping over the stream that ran by our camp and throwing boulders into it to splash the water. This trip was the first time we prepared our own dehydrated meals ahead of time and we experienced mixed results. It takes practice and patience to properly rehydrate food. I recall crunchy spaghetti and corn kernels that had the consistency of milk duds. I also believe this was the first year we stopped cooking ourselves breakfast every morning. My Dad loved cooking bacon and eggs in the backcountry, but this led to late start times for us and that had been a huge problem the previous year. After the Grand Canyon, we always eat something quick and easy in the morning and start hiking right away.

Day 3 is when the hiking started to feel more serious. We ascended all day long and after a few hours we found ourselves emerging above the tree line. Hiking above the tree line is one of my favorite parts of backpacking in mountain country. I always get this sense of freedom as the clutter around me clears up and I can suddenly see the whole world. Annelise was so inspired, that she started singing “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” by Marvin Gaye. It turned out some hikers were just around the corner from us and as we approached them they sang the song right back to us. It was hilarious! Eventually we reached a part of the trail that was paved with stones from the mountain. Rangers must have found the perfect nearby rocks and arranged them just right to form a staircase that went on for an almost unfathomable distance. It’s hard to comprehend the effort that must have gone into putting those rocks perfectly in place. It was like our own yellow brick road to glory! After hours of hiking we reached the Boulderfield. It’s a field of large rocks that have fallen off the mountain through the millenniums and formed a giant pile at the bottom of the mountain face. Incredibly, there were numerous spaces in the Boulderfield where people had cleared out rocks so there was flat ground to put down a tent. The rocks were arranged in a small circular wall around each clear space to provide protection from the wind that constantly whipped up all around the mountain. This was one of the most unique campsites I’ve ever stayed at. We hung out, chatted with other hikers, and began to prepare for our ascent of Long’s Peak the next day.

The climb from Boulderfield to the summit of Long’s Peak is referred to as the Keyhole Route. This is because there is a break in the mountain ridge that has the appearance of a keyhole. We hiked up the Boulderfield, passed through the keyhole, and immediately found ourselves looking over a cliffside with the most spectacular view of the valley below and mountain ranges beyond. The first part of this route is referred to as the ledges. The path winded away from the keyhole and along the edge of the steeply sloping mountainside. It went up and down for awhile until we found ourselves at the bottom of the trough. The trough is a steep ravine that is covered in loose rock. We had to be careful not to send rocks careening down into the people below. On our way up the trough we met an older man we had spoken to the day prior. His name was Jaume and he was from Catalonia Spain. He regaled us with stories about Catalan and advocated for it’s right to independence from greater Spain! He had such a vibrant personality. At the top of the trough we crossed the ridge once again to the other side. The route basically corkscrews around the summit. This was the beginning of the section referred to as the narrows. The narrows are relatively level and easy to hike, but just a few feet over is a straight drop that goes on for thousands of feet. If you fall here, it is certain death. My brother took one look and said, “We have to turn around.” After a group discussion we decided to keep going because the weather was perfect and we were within our time cutoff. We all agreed to turn back if it really got fishy. After the narrows is the homestretch. Hayden again wanted to turn around, but we kept going. The homestretch is a long steep section of smooth rock. You have to use every nook, cranny, and crack for grip as you scramble up it. We took our time and made it to the top. When I took the last step and turned around, it felt like I had climbed to the top of the world. Even the clouds seemed to be miles below us. It was a triumphant moment for the Frank’s! You could see the whole world from up there and we took about 30 minutes to take some pictures and drink in the views. This is still the highest peak I’ve ever climbed.

The hike back down was uneventful. We took an hour break at the Boulderfield before breaking camp and heading out. This turned out to be a bad idea because we got caught in a thunder hail storm later on. Crazy unpredictable weather predictably occurs every afternoon in the mountains. That’s why there are cutoff times for when you need to turn back on the keyhole route. Above the tree line you are completely exposed and it was pretty nerve wracking to hike while lightening struck down all around us. It was pretty rainy and gross for the rest of the hike, but we made it to our final campsite and hiked out the next morning.

This is the last time my sister Annelise ever went on a backpacking trip with us. Looking at all the pictures of her with us on these trips really made me miss her even though I still see her all the time. Annelise is tough as nails! When the hike really starts to hurt she’ll often get pissed off and you don’t want to cross her, but then she always seems to rally at some point and have an incredible moment of strength where she ends up picking up the spirits of the whole group. We still talk about Flower Power and think about Annelise every time we find ourselves hiking through a beautiful glade full of flowers. She has a passion for the mountains and often becomes so inspired by the views that she bursts out into song. She used to dream about hiking the Appalachian Trail. I still love going on these trips, but there is no denying that it’s not the same without her.