The long, dark & fun road to the Longs Peak Tri

I was 14 years old when I first snuck out of my parent’s house at 2am, angsty, full of teenage restlessness. I wasn’t sneaking out to go to parties, or a secret meet-up, or going out as a rebellious act of defiance. Down the road my eyes would adjust and my feet start to hurry, and serotonin and noradrenaline would chip away a fear of the dark, cold, solitary loneliness.

A total ignoramus about the importance hydration, proper running shoes, training and so on, I would run in the cold dark until I didn’t feel my legs could run any further, then, sometimes 10 miles out, I would have to hobble the whole way back home.

Stupid? Inarguably. But these were difficult times. I mean, this was just after the surviving the trauma that is middle school. The next morning, I would be secretly proud of myself for doing something totally crazy, and proud of nursing stiff and sore legs, reminiscing the night’s daring escapade into the dark to fight off a growing social anxiety.

Fifteen years later and definitely not much wiser, I’m still ensnared by the romantic notion of pushing myself on long missions through the night. One fateful day in Colorado, I found a healthy outlet for this romantic idea – something to help with anxiety attacks during a separation.

The Longs Peak Tri.

At 10pm on the 20th of September, fellow AMGA apprentice rock guide Neil Abe met me in the parking lot of the Boulder Sports Recycler in Boulder, Colorado, the more-or-less official starting point of the unofficial triathlon.

To give some context to the scene, we’d both rather unwisely given in to the temptation of having full days out in the mountains, in spite of our big mission: myself, I’d accepted to go bouldering at Chaos Canyon with our AMGA instructor, who was none other than Vincent Anderson, and cycling back from Estes to Boulder; Neil had been bagging even more classic routes in Eldorado Canyon during his trip for the Advanced Rock Guide AMGA course we’d both taken.

Yet, there we were: both packed and excited for a legendary adventure in the Rockies that included one of the 50 Classic Climbs, and which has a long history of risky behavior anyway. (The fastest record of the LPT included soloing 700 meters of fifth-class granite up to 5.10a. We had a rope – who needed sleep?)

While refining our style, and figuring out logistics, we had done our due diligence of practicing the route, and made a prior attempt that ended comically with both of us stubbornly huddled at the base of the Diamond in rain, telling ourselves it would dry in 10 minutes.

And since Neil hadn’t trained for the cycling, nor had the gear (and it was critical that he as the follower was the one who didn’t fall on the simul-climb) Neil would take a nap at base of the Diamond, where I would hike up to meet him, and we’d do the climbing section together. I was no Steph Davis; I was not going to solo the Casual Route.

Being the amazing partner he is, Neil also offered to lighten my bike of all the climbing gear, which was an offer that felt very foolish to turn down. Ultimately, I would be less tired, and he would bring as much gear as he wanted. Why go the “ultra-light” way with a half-rack, 30-foot rope and handful of alpine draws if one of us wasn’t biking? No, we were very happy for Neil to bring the heavy-ass totems and a full 60m rope…and so were my knees.

“I’ll go park at the Longs Peak Trailhead and sleep a few hours, then hike up to the Hilton bivvy spot. I’ll meet you there.” Neil was beaming, as usual, never one to back down from a big day. He started his engine. “Have fun on your ride, and be safe!”

As the LPT requires, I would bike 38 miles from Boulder to Longs Peak TH, so while Neil talked about driving to the trailhead, I was straddling a $60 road bike with a small Salomon running vest strapped to the handlebars, planning to follow at a snail’s pace. In probably not the best preparation, caffeine and sugar coursed through my veins and I was restless as a teenager high on Halloween candy. It would be an outright lie to call myself a strong cyclist, so as Neil’s van rolled off the parking lot towards the mountain, I began at a sloth’s pace to the traffic lights that marked the edge of town.

Over 4 hours I made the long uphill grind up a windy mountain highway to the Rocky Mountain National Park, and Longs Peak. A combination of electrolytes, sugar, caffeine and a never-ending playlist of hoppy hippy music got me to the trailhead, still riding high on life. A quick transition at the trailhead into the running shoes, and stop to filter water on the ranger trail, and off I went up the direct path to the Diamond.

Of course, hyped on sugar and caffeine, I had the brilliant and terrible idea to take an even shorter shortcut than I’d ever taken before in my dozens of trips up the ranger path: a direct line through the trees and up steep, soft, untrodden dirt, diverting from a stream that most use as reference to avoid getting lost, but that I would have to cross twice. Shortly, the exertion of my improvised steep detour caused me to sweat. That wasn’t good – it that meant I was pushing too hard, losing water and risking mental fatigue.

I panicked. Was I lost? Did I make a mental error and go totally the wrong direction?

Then I saw shoe prints, which made no sense. A few days later, I would read that Maury Birdwell had sprinted up to the Diamond the day before us and soloed the Casual Route, the same multi-pitch route we were taking for the LPT. As good runners take straight lines over hard terrain, I’m still sure they were his.

The footprints encouraged me to think I’d outsmarted the trail, but I made a sharp turn back north towards the stream, found the main path, and charged on to Chasm Lake.

Eight hours into the LPT, and I had made it from Boulder by bike to the trailhead and up to Chasm Lake where a brief hallucination convinced me to ditch the caffeine blocks for more substantial food. Neil was filtering water and surprised to see me – at 5am I was an hour early to the Hilton bivvy meeting spot and feeling great! We divvied the gear and split for the North Gully as dawn lit the large talus blocks, conscious that we were not the first ones on the route.

The joy! After years of training and looking for a partner, here we were, Neil and I, enjoying the glorious flow of climbing a long-term project.

In an elation barely tempered by fatigue, or the wall’s infamous freezing updraft, we simul the North Gully in a single pitch and come up to the Broadway Ledge, where a slow team is hovering on the first pitch.

After a very convenient miscommunication of the leader’s warbled radio response to our proposition of passing the team, I wound up apologizing repeatedly to the disgruntled white-haired leader, who gave me a haranguing that I deserved, but which did nothing to dampen a secret elation that we’d passed the slow party. The universe was on our side, and we were giddy; so giddy that I caught myself running out the enduro-corner a little too far above a yellow Totem, and chose to stop behind a giant flake that protected us from the wind.

After two simul blocks (from the ledge to the cold corner, then up the enduro pitch to the giant flake), we only had to wait for one party on the crux pitch, then we were up the Keiner’s fourth class to the top of Longs Peak.

Mission accomplished. Atop Longs, the timer read 17 hours and 43 minutes. It was in less-than-pure style, and I’m excited to make future attempts with different methods, stronger legs, and better time. The possibility of a speed record might take years, but the idea is there, planted more firmly than any other project. Anyway, we were slow over all: our time was over three times the record of Roger Briggs (Boulder to summit); twice as long as Krupicka and Griebel’s roundtrip record.

I still wanted to return to Boulder within 24 hours. I had sprinted down Long’s before in sub-3 hours, and the cycling would be mostly downhill and take about 2 hours. Maybe there was still a chance.

We started moving down. Neil wasn’t slow, compared to 99% of hikers who summit Longs Peak, but he wasn’t about to sprint down this new, exposed talus as I had planned to. He also hadn’t travelled the Camel Descent, which would take him quickly back to the Hilton bivvy where he had stashed gear, but was tricky to navigate for someone’s first time.

Neil insisted I go without him, and he was more than capable to get down on his own. When we arrived at the Camel’s last cairns, I took off for the parking lot.

But then at the last switchback, and probably for the best, luck ran out: it began to rain. At hour 22, I was also out of food. And I was feeling the first inkling of what very quickly evolved into terrible lower back pain, which I worried would end up a long-term injury.

Well, I thought, the rain would have made cycling in the dark – on a potholed mountain road no less – very slow, and downright risky.

I was enticed to abandon the bike ride home. At a large tree that marked the last and largest shortcut, I curled up into a fetal position, sheltered under my rain jacket in the cold, and waited for Neil to save my ass and drive me home.

Post script: eternal thanks to trail fairy Oli for leaving a bottle of liquid food on my bike at the TH while we were up on the mountain. The gesture literally warmed my heart.