Wednesday, August 12, 2009
Learning to Crawl: Speed Ascent of Longs Peak
Ever since I started trail running a few years (or more) ago, a fast ascent of the Keyhole Route on Longs Peak has been a goal of mine. With 4800 feet of elevation gain and some fairly steep and technical terrain near the summit, this 15 mile trail stands out as a prime challenge for any dedicated high-altitude runner. This summer I have been training in one way or another for this ascent and yesterday morning actually went for it. I started from Boulder at about 4:45 and left the trailhead at the ranger station at 6:07. This is much later than recommended for ascents of Longs but has the advantage of relatively clear sailing on the trail up to the Keyhole since everyone else has long since headed up.
In contrast to my Keyhole run of a few weeks earlier, I deliberately kept the pace slower at the start, even though it is easy terrain, in order to conserve energy for up higher and especially the descent. The bottom section up to Chasm Junction at 11,500' took just about an hour running at a comfortable pace of roughly 3 miles an hour so I was on target at this point. The beautiful sweep of trail over to Granite Pass went quickly as did the section up to the Boulderfield, arriving here at a little after 8 am. Big kudos to the NPS trailworkers straightening out the boulder-choked gullies that make up much of the trail in this section. At the Boulderfield I took a quick snack break and then power-hiked from there on up. The section after the Keyhole, known as the Ledges, was pretty easy but also the point at which I first felt the altitude for real, where a threshold had been crossed for sure, and I had to slow down. There are places on this traverse where a fall, however unlikely, would be fatal, and the usually dark windy atmosphere lends a gloomy feeling to the place as well. Best to put that aside and move forward.
Slowing down and using my hands a lot made for much quicker progress up the Trough, a seemingly endless chilly boulder-filled gully where I had to keep a close eye on the next hiker's feet to avoid any falling rock. The spider technique seemed to work quite well as I easily outpaced the other hikers and scrambled up the final polished corner to join the Narrows section. This is a remarkably exposed ledge system that must be crossed carefully but was over very quickly. The famous Homestretch was next, roughly 300 feet up low angle parallel cracks where slower climbers can definitely hinder progress both up and down. I pulled over the top and was at the 14, 255' summit at 9:20 am.
It was very beautiful up at the top where, as usual, there were at least 50 people milling around admiring the view and recovering from the last part of the climb. I took a few photos, ate and drank some more, and then headed back down at 9:40 moving as quickly as I could. The Homestretch in particularly felt very slippery in my running shoes (see recommendations below) and I really wished for sticky rubber on them. The Trough went very quickly as there were very few people coming up at that point, an advantage of being out of sync with the usual Longs Peak crowd. Again, I think the liberal use of my hands sped things up considerably. Heading back across the Ledges was easy except where I got off route and wasted a few minutes, figuring out that I had gone too high and found the bulls-eye trail markers again. It was here that I saw a couple of good examples of Longs hikers who needed a little more preparation and were probably not going to make it. The weather however was exceptionally clear and stable so I doubt anyone was going to get into trouble.
I felt pretty good coming down to the Boulderfield which I reached at 10:45 and was able to actually run from here, getting back to Chasm Junction at 11:30. Just below here I finished up my water and took my last snack break. Although I was really tired at this point I made it back to the trailhead at 12:10. Just over six hours but weeding out various inefficiencies could make a 5 to 5.5 hour ascent totally feasible.
Ten recommendations for a speed ascent of Longs:
1. Make sure you are in great shape with at least two lengthy 10 mile+ runs that go above 12000 feet. I did the run to the Keyhole and a run up Flat Top and was really glad I had those under my belt as well as some lower elevation excursions in the Flatirons. Make sure that at least some of your training is on rugged rocky terrain where you will be forced to slow to a crawl or go anaerobic. Learning this balance was hard for me.
2. Bring loads of water. I had 55 ounces of water and used all of it without any problem. Hydrate thoroughly before hand.
3. Keep eating and drinking continuously. Running out of gas up high on this route would be no fun and potentially dangerous if the weather turned. Bring a pack with a hydration system and easy access to food stores. I don't own one yet and estimate around 15 to 20 minutes were lost stopping for water and food.
4. Hone your route-finding skills in talus and on low-angle technical terrain so you can quickly make decisions that will save time, and possibly your ankles and knees, in the endless boulders, slabs and gullies above the Boulderfield. Be prepared to use your hands a lot, both going up and down
5. Bring trail shoes that have sticky rubber. I didn't and estimate a potential 25% speed gain on the slow technical sections near the summit if you don't constantly feel like you are slipping off the polished footholds.
6. Have the route dialed in your head so you know what to expect and can focus on movement, not route finding.
7. Pack light. A light wool-type hat and a hat with a visor along with a windproof jacket should be enough. Gloves might not be a bad idea. Just don't get stranded up high.
8. You can't anticipate responses to altitude. I knew I was fit going into it and really felt the altitude hard just after 13000'. If you get dizzy or nauseous, slow down and it will likely pass.Keep your movements consistent and careful with no sudden jumps or strides and focus on steady progress. If you have prepared well at altitude, you will still easily outpace the other hikers on the trail.
9. Remember the descent. If you want to make time, you do not want to be hobbling down the trail at a snail's pace because your knees are killing you and your quads are shot from too much work earlier.
10. Have fun! Be polite to the other hikers on the trail and you will find the vast majority will make way for you immediately. The Keyhole Route, however popular and crowded it is, is a great route up a great mountain, no matter how you do it.