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Kiener’s Route: Running Colorado’s Longs Peak

Anton Krupicka reflects on what he calls " a good mountain run."

New Balance pro trail runner Anton Krupicka, a two-time Leadville 100 champion, writes one of his favorite technical mountain runs in Colorado.

A Kieners Day generally starts at 5 a.m. Because it’s January, the sun won’t rise for another two hours, but I need some time to will my body and mind into wakefulness and assemble a small daypack of equipment. As I roll onto the still mostly deserted streets of Boulder and drive up the hill into the mountains, the stars are bright and vivid in the inky dark. I pick up Joe at his mountain cabin and we continue on another 35 minutes to the East Longs Peak Trailhead, situated at 9400 feet. Our routine is now so practiced, our familiarity with the day’s coming effort is so deep, that an “alpine start” such as this is no longer strictly necessary. But, we are headed into the alpine, and hitting the trail early is habit and seems an appropriate way to confer respect to the mountain we are about to ascend.

In the trailhead parking lot there are only two other vehicles. In the summer, this lot is perpetually filled with cars spilling a half-mile down the shoulder of the entrance road. Longs Peak is the most popular 14,000’+ peak in the state and its standard route through the Keyhole can become a conga line of tourists and experienced mountaineers alike. Like any tourist attraction, in a sense, Longs is an object to be coveted, an experience to be ticked. In a park designated for its mountains, it is unassailably seductive crown jewel.

In his award-winning novel White Noise, Don DeLillo depicts a now-classic scene where two of the book’s main characters—Jack and Murray—visit the “World’s Most Photographed Barn.” There is not necessarily anything unique about the barn, rather, the billboards advertising it and the magnetism of the title itself seem to motivate the hordes that come to simply take a picture and move on. Murray philosophises:

“No one sees the barn. Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn. We’re not here to capture an image, we’re here to maintain one. Every photograph reinforces the aura. Can you feel it, Jack? Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender. We see only what the others see. We’ve agreed to be a part of a collective perception. This literally colors our vision. They are taking pictures of taking pictures. We can’t get outside the aura. We’re part of the aura.”

Almost all of Colorado’s 14,000’+ mountains fall victim to this shielding aura of tourism and list-ticking to some degree, but, being in Rocky Mountain National Park, Longs is probably more obscured by it than any other. In my mind, there are at least three tactics for getting past DeLillo’s collective perception and instead hopefully seeing the peak with less colored vision:

1. Ascend by something other than the Keyhole Route—the most popular and least technical option.

2. Climb it repeatedly—by developing a deeper knowledge of the mountain, the aura eventually dissolves.

3. Climb it in winter. The crowds are gone—not even the Ranger Station is occupied—and with the summit experiencing summer conditions only a couple months of the year, winter is probably a more authentic representation of the mountain anyway.

But Longs Peak—at 14,255’ and sitting almost directly on the Continental Divide—isn’t typically a very pleasant place to be in the winter. Sure, the top of the mountain is nearly a vertical mile away and the air temperatures can be frigid, but it’s the hurricane-intensity winds that regularly rake its summit and barren flanks that engender it as a truly forbidding place.

At the trailhead, packing layers for the day ahead is always a gamble. How cold we are now has little bearing on what the mountain will dish out several thousand feet higher. While I might be associated with taking a “minimal” approach to trail running, an outing on Kieners in winter demands a few material compromises.

For starters, a nod to the inherent dangers of the route must be considered. A unique thing about Longs Peak is that even the standard tourist track up the mountain—the Keyhole Route—is Class 3, i.e. there is required low-level scrambling with a few sections that snake above precipitous drops. Kieners steps up the difficulty—with its snow couloirs, 1000’ cliffs, technical 5th Class rock, and dizzying exposure, it is a high-quality mountaineer’s line. Doing it “car-to-car”, in-a-day in the summer in perfect conditions is considered an ambitious effort that often starts by headlamp in the middle of the night so as to avoid being on the summit during afternoon lightning storms. Completing it in this style in winter—with snow and ice covering the route—is looked upon with understandable respect, a proud accomplishment.

So, with the elements imposing their rule—lightning storms in summer, cold temps and stingy daylight in the winter—there are two different tactics to engaging the mountain safely. Either pack a bunch of gear—camping equipment for an overnight at Chasm Lake in the summer, lots of extra layers and maybe even fuel and a stove for melting snow for drinking water in the winter—or, strip your gear as light as you dare and rely upon your fitness and skill to move quickly enough to stay warm and get off the mountain in one day. This is where running becomes relevant.

In the summer, I ascend Kieners in nearly the same style as one might if going for a jog in the city park: shoes, shorts and sunglasses. An ultralight jacket tucked in my waistband along with my secret weapons—a pair of aluminum tent pegs, one for each hand so that I can feasibly hack my way across the Lambs Slide snow couloir without reenacting Reverend Elkanah Lamb’s eponymous incident—are my only nods to the route’s alpine nature. Cutting it this close to the bone not only requires fitness—by completing the round trip in two and a half hours I easily avoid the afternoon electrical storms and if weather comes in I am able to quickly retreat to lower altitudes—but a honed sense of what the mountain is doing. Each summer there is maybe a month-long window where the conditions on Kieners allow this style. There needs to be enough soft snow to cross Lambs Slide sans crampons, but not so much snow on the hair-raisingly narrow Broadway Ledge as to need crampons there. A miscalculation of conditions can leave one in a position where neither advancing up the mountain nor retreating are appealing options.

Winter conditions, however, represent a whole different set of gear parameters. Crampons are mandatory, but because we’re moving quickly Joe and I can trade heavy, stiff mountaineering boots for flexible, gaiter-wrapped running shoes and still not freeze our feet. In addition to crampons, in our packs we each carry a goose-down insulating layer, an ultralight windproof shell, a featherweight aluminum snow axe, a barely-there climbing harness and the communal climbing equipment: I have the rope—a minimal 30 meter by 7.8mm affair—and Joe is burdened with our meager rack—a half-dozen slings with carabiners and four protective camming devices. Altogether, our loads are probably 10 pounds each.

With this approach, we can still run, and, internally, that distinction is important to me. It is a hard thing to adequately relate, but moving in the mountains at a high effort level is an important part of the experience for me. At the end of the day, I want to finish with that familiar ache in my legs and hollowness in my energy reserves that only comes about from a few hours of focused physical output.

If I were to go stroll up and down the mountain at a casual, unhurried level of effort, I know that I would not have had the outing I was hoping for. For me, strolling is for beaches and pedestrian malls, while maybe wearing jeans and a t-shirt, consciously avoiding breaking a sweat. Something about the dramatic and often harsh mountain environment strikes a much more elemental and even primal chord within me that seems most appropriately and naturally expressed by moving with intention, not wasting time, seeing how efficiently I can travel over the rugged terrain. It doesn’t have to do with achieving a specific pace. Rather, I feel that I must simply be trying, that I have to care, and that the activity subsequently deserves and even requires my undivided focus. In doing so, being out on the mountain seems to carry with it a certain weight and meaning and satisfaction that doesn’t come from simply sauntering.

Back on Longs, as we approach treeline, just above 11,000’, there is the anticipation of seeing just how strong the winds will be today. How loud is it whistling through the trees? Can we feel any breeze despite the protection of the pines? There is a bit of foreboding in all this, but I always know that once I have committed to get to treeline, lightning will be the only thing to keep me from the summit, and that is never a concern in winter.

The transition over the Mills Moraine from the wind-blasted open tundra to the alpine cathedral of Chasm Lake—the only surviving relic from what was clearly once a mighty glacier—crackles with mysticism. Mt. Lady Washington—one of Longs’ four buttressing peaks—finally shields us from the relentless gale and Joe and I rejoice in relative stillness. Which, after the auditory onslaught we’d been experiencing since treeline, only enhances the otherworldly ambience of the setting. We now have an unfettered view of Longs’ grand East Face—the aspect we’ll be climbing, and one that has been immortalized in countless photographs and paintings—and its drama is palpable.

The Diamond pierces the azure sky with intimidating and inspiring authority. This unflinching indifference and ethereal calm is the setting that we’ve come to immerse ourselves in and it never disappoints. In this display, the character of the mountain is laid bare—we are tiny, fragile bugs skittering across the lake’s frozen surface and there is an overwhelming sense that if we don’t act with the appropriate humility and deference to the mountain’s bidding that we could easily be dismissed and squashed as same. To know this in one’s core is a powerful feeling, one that is not easy to trivially shake, and a big part of this scene’s allure is the fact that it has never failed to provide that sense. We are nothing and the mountain does not care about us and our contrived ambitions.

The nature writer John Hay explains this feeling this way: “We all need the illusion of control. Just like the seawalls and trophy homes. We need to preserve the myth that we’re in charge. We don’t like to face the fact that we’re as vulnerable as skunks or shorebirds. But nature teaches that uncertainty and chance are enormous factors in the lives of animals, and it just so happens that we are animals. If we admit that, it may not solve anything, but at least it has the advantage of being honest. And if we admit how truly vulnerable we are, then humility isn’t just the wise choice, it’s the obvious one.”

But we do have an ambitious agenda, and that is to get to the top of this towering wall in front of us. Looking is nice, but interacting is even more rewarding, so we get to it.

After crossing the lake we don our crampons and set about the meditative work of ascending the 1000’ of relief via Lambs Slide’s 45 degree snow. It is strenuous, hunched labor. Over and over, I bury the full 50cm of my axe into the snow above me and then take two kicking steps, right foot, then left. Running fitness is very applicable here, and after 20 minutes of ascent I am nearly to the right-hand exit onto the Broadway ledge, the rift in the face that will improbably allow us passage to the top.

A couple more minutes of uphill slogging and I reach the small bench where the ledge narrows dramatically and Broadway takes on the characteristics that make it one of the most exhilarating places I’ve been in the mountains. Most of the way it is only a foot or two wide and wildly exposed with nothing but 1000’ of yawning air between it and the Mills Glacier at the foot of the wall. This is a place where Hay’s animal vulnerability is laid out in stark relief, and it is not a place you go unless you are prepared to be completely honest.

A few minutes later, Joe arrives, and, not wanting to let the cold settle in, we quickly buckle our harnesses before he puts me on belay and I lead us out onto the committing traverse. I clip a fixed piton a few yards along the ledge and shout back to Joe that he can start following me. Extreme care is still required—a slip and fall would result in a terrifying pendulum, but it would theoretically be limited to maybe a few dozen feet instead of an otherwise unavoidable 1000’ plummet.

This traverse is the technical crux of the route, but the position on the mountain is spectacular and the reason for coming this way. We make quick work of it—I place a cam here, sling a rock horn there and before we know it we are at the base of the Notch Couloir, where we will start climbing up again via a series of cracks and chimneys in the rock. While this is technically more difficult climbing, most of the way it doesn’t feel nearly as exposed so we only stop briefly for a couple of short belays. When we reach the top of the technical rock, there’s an extended stretch of steep snow, a scramble over a couple hundred feet of talus, and after three and a half hours, we’re standing on the top. The summit is, of course, deserted. And though I have been here more than 20 times in the past year, the satisfaction never diminishes.

By doing the short rappel of the North Face instead of following the less technical but more circuitous Keyhole route, we can descend back to the car in less than 90 minutes. Hunkering down in our jackets against the violently swirling spindrift, we pack up the climbing gear and start running down. As we shuffle, bound and hop through the boulder field and skirt the shoulder of Mt. Lady Washington we’re both buzzing with a tangible euphoria. It is a feeling that is hard to describe, but I am fairly certain that it has to do with possibly briefly puncturing Longs’ “Most-Photographed-Barn” aura and in the process not only getting a fleeting glimpse of the mountain’s true nature but also of ourselves and the true nature of our relation to this majestic hunk of rock. That’s what I call a good mountain run.