September 1-2, 2003: How Not to Climb Longs Peak

One of many trip reports by Alan Silverstein.
Last update: March 13, 2008

From:  Alan Silverstein <ajs@frii.com>
Date:  3 Sep 2003 13:52:00 -0600
Subject:  how not to climb Longs Peak

This is not exactly a full trip report, just a short story...

Bob Proulx and Sue Wolber had never climbed Longs Peak, 14255', and they wanted to do it. Sue obtained a permit from Rocky Mountain National Park for four people, one night, camping at the Boulderfield. We happened to be chatting by email for other reasons, she told me, and I said, "can I come too?" So I did, along with their friend, 19 year old Jennifer, who'd been up the peak twice before (!)

Now I'd summitted Longs four times, the last in 1990, so this outing was "just for fun." I'd been wanting all summer to give it another whirl. I'd been thinking about doing a very long, unusual route from Glacier Gorge Junction, but the Bear Lake road was closed all summer (and next year) except for shuttle buses on a limited schedule. So I'd kind of given up when Sue's opportunity presented itself.

We headed up the mountain on Monday rather late, 3:40 pm out of the standard Longs Peak trailhead at 9400', but with gorgeous weather. I actually enjoyed the backpacking a lot more than I thought I would. After the first hour I got into it and felt great. The sunset up high was memorable. Jen and I covered 5.9 miles and 3500' of gain in 4:35, exactly as long as it took me in 1990, which was both disappointing and a relief!

Jen and I found a campsite in the Boulderfield at 8:15 pm in fading twilight, and Bob and Sue arrived soon after. I put my new LED headlamp to good use in flashing beacon mode to lead them to where we were.

It was a gorgeous night, clear and starry, cold but not freezing. We all hit the sack by 10:30 pm or so. However, neither Bob nor I slept very well... At least, being awake, I saw a lot of stars, both fixed and shooting.

In the morning the other three were doing OK enough to start up to the Keyhole and the rest of the summit route, although in no hurry, at 8:30 am, two hours after sunrise.

But -- I woke up very ill. Stomach pains, nausea, mild headache, fatigue. Altitude sickness? I am almost immune to that. Flu? But no sinus or lung congestion. West Nile virus? Possible, but no rash or neck pains. Food poisoning? That was my first guess, though I couldn't be sure what might have caused it.

I stayed at the Boulderfield while the others left. I tried to nap a while, but didn't get any better. I figured I'd better head down while I still could! So I packed up and departed at 9:10 am.

The next five hours were hellish. The Longs Peak trail is very long, it chews people up and spits them out; you see them all the way up and down in misery. But usually these are people who are out shape, who didn't bring enough food or water, etc. I became one of the misery category, but not because of any stupidity, just terrible luck.

I hoped that my symptoms would be altitude-related, so I would recover as I went lower, although this would be very disheartening in another sense. Fortunately and unfortunately, it wasn't the elevation. It got worse as I walked down. I had to stop and sit frequently, but even during longer breaks, dropping the pack and laying down, I did not revive and recover. I had to force myself innumerable times through fatigue to get up and keep going. I walked OK, but was otherwise very slow and tired.

My stomach did flip flops and I pushed on through it all the way out. Toward the end I really had to push myself to continue. I hoped to beat some incipient rain, but didn't quite make it, but fortunately it was light.

Down at the trailhead at 2:05 pm, with a key to Bob's Explorer, I was able to relax, even sleep some, but I still felt wretched. The best I could do was nap. The last of the other three arrived about 7:40 pm, which was both very late and remarkably early, considering they were on the summit at 12:30.

The drive home was not fun. Also, Jen got sick too. We wondered if it was food poisoning from some Wendy's hamburgers Monday afternoon, but I doubt that, since I was still ill on Thursday, unless it was pathogens rather than toxins. Going to bed about 10:30 pm Tuesday night I had a 100.6 fever... I slept about 12 hours. By Wednesday it was down to fatigue and malaise; on Thursday those were better, but the stomach problems returned.

OK, not a fun story, but perhaps a bit entertaining. It could have been worse in several ways I guess. At least I was able to "self-rescue"! The Boulderfield is an awful place to wake up with flu-like symptoms.