A Nighttime Ascent of Longs Peak

    Longs peak @ night, Credit-wunderground.com

Longs peak @ night, Credit-wunderground.com

Stars shone with absolute brilliance as I drove across Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park to meet my fellow rangers who would climb Longs Peak. We signed the register at 10 o’clock p.m. to begin a spectacular nighttime ascent of the peak that Arapaho Indians called Nestoaieux (two guides). Our plan–to arrive at the boulder field by midnight, the cables (no longer in existence) above 13,000 feet by 3 a.m., and the summit itself just before sunrise. We would experience the pulsing threads of northern lights right up there in the living sky itself. And we would witness a total eclipse of the moon.

Plodding along the trail, we wound our way through lodgepole pines toward the summit eight miles distant. At first our breathing seemed heavy, and the quiet night air accentuated our human sounds. As our longs gradually accustomed themselves to the task, however, we commenced a four-way conversation that had the uncanny effect of disrupting natural silence. Our voices sounded quite out of place in that very still alpine air. Soon we ceased talking and kept our thoughts to ourselves. Only when we stopped to rest did we realize how frigid the July (1960) evening air was.

In such chilly air, the very sound of an ice-cold brook tumbling over dark rocks made me shiver. Four miles deeper into the forest, we paused by an iridescent stream to fill our canteens and put on some warmer layers of clothing. Stars peppered the black dome above us. It felt good to be part of a community of climbers, rather than lonely on a solitary climb. We proceeded onward with a golden moon rising through creaking branches of spruce and fir. John Muir once described such creaking as a kind of forest violin. Five hundred more vertical feet and tree line!

The trail leveled out a bit, allowing us to proceed at an easier pace until we reached the boulder field at 12,600 feet. Scientists having recently discovered  that the boulder field rests atop a slowly slithering glacier of black ice. This is where the walk ends and the climb begins. The moon illuminated numerous scrubby evergreens growing here and there under the icy masses on Mount Meeker (13,911 feet) and Longs Peak (hence the Arapaho name of two guides). Gnarled, twisted limber pines, crinkly monument plants, and dwarf willows looked extraterrestrial.

At the upper end of the boulder field, we caught sight of the fairy-blinking array of Denver’s city lights some 7,000 feet below. We stood amid the true alpine tundra zone, with its delicate mosses and flowers barely visible in the black shadows of the mountains. Slithering over loose rocks like crustaceans at the bottom of an immense lagoon, we inched our way up Longs Peak flanked by horizontal strips of white and gleaming snow.

As we rested on a huge boulder, we nervously chatted about an upcoming event–the total eclipse of the moon, our only sufficient source of light. The eclipse would occur around 3 a.m., and we knew it would take longer than two hours to complete our ascent. We hoped to get past the tricky hundred yards or so of cable (see digital image) that aid climbers over a very sheer part of th3e north face. On went our gloves, as we plodded toward Chasm View, some 13,200 feet high. At this elevation, breathing can be a bit of a problem; our minds became drowsy and our feet did not seem to function properly. It seemed as if sheer desire rather than physical power pushed us on toward Chasm View.

We all had slight headaches when we sat down on an overhanging ledge at Chasm View. We stared in wonderment at the awesome heights of the famed Diamond Face rising above the black waters of Chasm Lake 2,000 feet below. Surely such a place manifests what John Muir meant by the spiritual magnetism of mountains. Despite weariness of body, the spirit seems to ramble out into the cosmos of granite, stars and moon.

We remained in a trance until one of us suggested we climb on toward the summit. Just as we were about to arrive at the point where the cable begins, the moon slowly disappeared. Now, only the stars glimmered above a dark frame of rock. Suddenly I shouted “Look to the North!” Way up toward the Wyoming line, pulsing low in the sky, threads of northern lights began to shimmer; it seemed strange that we had to look down at them through crags and notches of dark cliff. Were we on the moon itself? Is that why it disappeared?

we missed the cable. In spite of our searching for what seemed an eternity in pitch blackness (save for the dim glimmer of fading northern lights and our inadequate flashlights), we failed to find our iron guide. Worming our way up a narrow chimney in the cliff, we struggled to reach a ledge for rest. Lo and behold the cable! The four of us unfortunately had taken the most difficult route to the cable’s beginning, shining so dimly in the granite overhead. Each of us grabbed the cable, took steps, and pulled upward, sluggishly, repeating the process many times, like brutes in slow motion. Reaching the top of the cable, we crossed some slippery, crusted ice at a snail’s pace that tired us to our limits. The moon slowly reappeared. Oh for the warmth of a sleeping bag to curl up in and doze off for maybe a half century.

Attaining an altitude of about 14,000 feet, we had to rest just one more time before reaching the summit itself. A rosy finch flicked past our heads to draw us out of a trance. My friend Robert Barbee shouted “Two hundred feet to go!” Up we stood, forcing our weary bones to move until we rambled out onto the small peneplain summit of Longs Peak. Too bad Major Stephen Long (for whom the peak is named) could not have experienced what we had back in 1820 when he first saw the peak from afar.

Food and drink did not appeal to us at all. We each picked a flat boulder to rest on and doze off. But in only fifteen minutes our teeth began to chatter. By this time a faint reddish hue became visible in the frosty air. The dull-green, lake-studded prairie gradually assumed a more realistic appearance. As the sun bobbed up over the rim of the earth, we all squinted like blind bats at midday. The whole Front Range glowed in a golden light, while narrow valleys far below remained dim and gray. The distant Never Summer Range glowed in a rising sun–then something began to happen! The Brocken Specter (to which John Muir refers in his The Mountains of California) happened! The vast, block-shaped shadow of Longs Peak spread and stretched westward, and, as our planet rotated at 1000 miles per hour, the shadow traveled westward for some sixty miles at great speed. We stood in absolute silence. Only one more time in my life would I witness such a phenomenon–on top of Mount Fuji, Japan some twenty years later.

The descent to the boulder field proved rewarding. Each foot of granite varied as would Pennsylvania Dutch farm country from the air–a patchwork of vegetational designs. Orange, yellow, black and green crusty lichens with dense patches of Irish-green moss and brownish-black liverwortt encrusted the cliff sides all the way down. The charm of this color scheme overpowered the tired pain of our legs and feet and gave us something to muse on all the way down to the comfort of the valleys below.

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