After collecting my bag and walking to the car, I take a minutes rest. Thinking to myself, damn the air is thin here! Coming from Iowa at less than 800 feet Denver feels pretty high. Its 9 pm and my brother, Scott, has just picked me up from the airport. We head back to Scotts’ place and organize our gear. The following morning we plan on climbing Pervertical Sanctuary on the Diamond of Longs Peak (IV 5.11a, depending on the topo you look at the difficulty is 10d, but 11a makes me feel better so we’re going to go with that.) And being a couple of dumb-dumbs (as we are), we decide that we’d better stop at the bar on our way back to his place. We thought to ourselves, “we’re waking up at 3 am, we’ll just have a couple beers”… but lets be honest, when was the last time we went to the bar and just had a couple beers? Stumbling home at midnight I collapse on the couch and try to sleep. Unfortunately, Scott’s roommates and friends start to filter home about 1:00 am and stay up till about 2:30. I sleep right through my alarm at 3:00, and happened to wake up at 4:00. Realizing that my alarm was still going off I shot off the couch and ran to wake Scott. Without even the slightest attempt to acclimatize and after less than an hour of sleep, we are on our way… we’ll see how this goes! As my old man once told me, “Peter, when you’re dumb you gotta be tough.”
The clocks read 6:00 am when we left the trailhead so we knew we were off to quite the late start, and were hustling to try to make up the time. One of the challenges with the Diamond is the elevation of 14,200 feet, and the tendency to kick up afternoon thunderstorms. We knew that with the late start we would have a hard time getting off the mountain by 2:00, but we decided to give it a go anyways. After-all, if a storm kicks up, we can always bail, right? (famous last words).
The altitude also causes another problem: ten hours ago I was at home in Iowa at 800 feet. The effect the altitude is having on my body is apparent. My heart is racing so hard that I can feel the veins in my neck pulsating. My head is throbbing and my lungs are aching for more oxygen. Eventually I get in my rhythm and apart from the pain, the approach hike is beautiful. Ascending out of the fog and into the sunshine, we see the blanket of clouds covering the valley below us.
We skirt around the lake, use sharp rocks to pick our way up the snow field, and scramble up the 5.easy approach gully. (Which is a loose exposed death trap – note to self, rope up next time)
I haven’t climbed hardly at all in the last two months, and was therefore surprised that I found the climbing manageable and fun. It’s a spectacular, intimidating setting. The cold updrafts carry the echoes of other climbers in the cirque yelling their “off belays” and “climb on’s.” It is steep and exposed, with solid rock and adequate gear. The backdrop is extremely alpine, with barren rocks, a small deep blue lake and a glacier being the only things below. All in all we didn’t do too bad.
Reaching the summit a little before 2:00, we actually caught up with a party that started three hours before us.
On the way down, however, the epic began. We stumble down the keyhole route feeling completely worked – mentally and physically. I am embarrassed to admit that we decided to cut off a switchback to shave a little time off our descent….dumb move number seven for the day, and don't worry, we got what we deserved. Karma got the best of us as two hours and 4000 vertical later we realize that we hooked up with the wrong trail. We are now in the middle of RMNP the completely opposite direction from the road, and it’s starting to get late.
What are our options? Backtrack five miles up the mountain and 4000 vertical feet to hook up with the correct trail, or burrow in under a bush and deal with this bullshit tomorrow. (I can honestly say that sleeping in a bush was a legitimate discussed possibility at the time.)
If it weren’t for the fact that I was completely wrecked, it would have been the most amazing hike of my life. As tired as I was, it was impossible to not notice the sun setting as we climbed above the tree line, and the outline of the mountains on the horizon, a stark contrast to the burning orange sky. The moon, bright red and oversized, crept its way over the horizon. But the treadmill I was on just wouldn’t stop moving. The burning in my legs and the pain in my feet soon consumed all of my attention. “Just keep moving.” I thought.
19 hours after leaving the car we stumble back to the lot. Too exhausted to talk or drive back to Denver, we sleep for three hours in the truck before making the drive home. After 26 miles of hiking, 9,000 vertical feet of elevation gain, we finally found salvation in the form of a rusted out red pickup truck with Iowa plates.