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Of White Whales and Mountains

I feel as though everyone has their own personal white whale. Like Captain Ahab, you might stalk that elusive perfect, something. The most spectacular beer. The perfect girl (please stop stalking her, the notes you’re leaving in her mailbox are getting creepy). The photograph that will finally get you into National Geographic. The list goes on. Whether it’s personal or professional, having goals is a worth while thing to strive for and try to achieve. It challenges us and makes us better people. Supposedly. Or it turns you into a raging obsessive perfectionist that can only focus on one thing and aspects of that obsession leak over into your every day life. Did you see my new baby? Did you see how many curls I could do with my new baby? I can’t wait until baby gets older, and I can get those bicep gains with lifting the baby more. Count how many baby curls I can do.  My white whale has been attained by countless people, and even some very small children. That fact is honestly making me completely crazy and makes me grind me teeth at night. You see, there’s this mountain.

Longs Peak is located in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado and is one of the resident 14’ers (a peak over 14,000′ in elevation). It sits taunting me with it’s wide flat top and diamond shaped face. I hate this damn mountain. Back in 2009 I went to the Rockies for the first time on a geology trip, and my mid-western lungs sucked air at 9,000′ and that was enough for me. I distinctly remember my instructor driving us to an overlook, pointing at Longs, and told us about the harrowing “hike” involved to get to the top. I shook my head, muttered something like, “fuck that.” and promptly forgot about Longs. There were much more accessible rocks to look at. Like the ones next to the road.

LONGS, 2013

Then in 2012 this jerkface mentions that he wants to climb Longs Peak and has never gotten anyone to try it with him. Wanting to impress him (this particular jerkface is incredibly sweet and handsome), I said we should go for it. I could totally climb this thing, and then maybe we would make out afterwards. 7 months later I’m following this handsome jerkface 13,100′ up on Longs with an ice ax strapped to my pack. The heights I will go to for make outs. Theoretically, 14,000′ up apparently; that’s some follow through.

The 18 mile out and back main trail that summits Longs has named sections that have become a mantra in my head. Goblins Forest. Mills Moraine. Boulder Field. Key Hole. Ledges. Trough. Home Stretch. Summit. Reverse, and repeat. 18 miles of landmarks to tick off throughout the day to mark your progress. The stunted trees of the Goblins Forest that finally give way to the endless stumbley boulders of Mills Moraine, on to the damn Boulder Field where there is no trail, just boulder hopping and praying you don’t break anything. Namely your head or legs. Because there’s really no where for a rescue helicopter to come get you. Then the Key Hole. The Key Hole is where you pass between a gap in a craggy rock fin from one side of the mountain to the other. But it’s so much more than that- it’s where you pass from the sunny happy side of the mountain, to Mordor. The Key Hole Route is classified as a “Class 5 Scramble”, which is the most technical climb you can do before needing ropes and additional climbing equipment. The Key Hole is a common turn-around point as many hikers poke their heads through the Key Hole and (rightfully) nope their way out of that situation and head home. The route is almost never completely dry, and there is usually some ice and snow still clinging around well into July.

We were climbing in early July, and to be on the safe side came equipped with crampons and ice axes, and of course my camera. There’s not really… a trail. The Key Hole route is marked by painted bulls eyes on the rocks to give you guidance on where you should go and hopefully not kill yourself. Lots of hikers and climbers have been injured, and even lost their lives on this trail. A shelter was constructed on the east side of the mountain right at the mouth of the Key Hole as a memorial to a female climber that lost her life in a snow storm while trying to descend Longs. Alternatively, plenty of people have happily scampered through this section with no issues. Even children. I hate those children.

This trail had some seriously iffy spots. Lots of points to tumble down, where you just keep rolling. Like 1,000′ worth of rolling. Really not my favorite. When I was 12 I was hiking near a stream in a ravine and memorably told my mom who I was hiking with, “I think I’m going to turn around now and go home”. Predictably, my dear sweet mother told me to suck it up and not be a baby- keep hiking a little bit longer. Two steps later I slipped, fell 7 feet into the rocky stream below and hit my head on a rock.

Nine years later I become a geologist. You tell me that’s not some Spiderman shit right there.

In the fall I dislocated my shoulder, gave myself a concussion, and needed stitches. I still have a dent in my forehead, decades later. So I have a little bit of a heights thing. I think I came by it honest. That first Longs hike in 2013, I clung to the boulders for dear life and made it through the worst part of the trail. We made it to the end of the Ledges when I slipped on a patch of ice with a 1,000′ drop below me, totally lost my shit, and had to sit down for a little while. We turned around, I put my camera away because, Fuck. This. Shit.  We had been training for months and I was devastated that I let my fear of heights get in the way of the summit- but I also didn’t want to be that idiot mid-westerner whose body gets pulled out of a rock pile.

About 45 minutes later after assisting an altitude sick hiker, we ended up getting engaged at the Key Hole.

As far as hikes go, I’ve had worse.

All lovey and punch drunk, we got off the mountain having been within 1,000′ feet of the summit, but it didn’t seem to matter that much at the time. There would be more hikes! More trips! All in good time. The jerkface fiance was still irritated that we didn’t make it to the top of Longs, me, less so. Until we got home and I was reviewing my pictures from the day. Dammit. That mountain was winning and being so smug that it beat me. The white whale had been passed on to me now too- when I said “yes” to his proposal I had no idea that I was also agreeing to this obsession for conquering the mountain.

2015- time for a rematch.

LONGS, 2015

2015 has been a weird year. Professionally things have been goofy since the downturn (The $10-$20 bucks you save at the pump now? Those are my friend’s jobs. Ouch.), and the desire to add something to the Win Column has been great. The husband and I had been planning for an epic jaunt up the John Muir Trail in California, and visions of being on top of Mt. Whitney on my 30th birthday seemed like a solid “W”.

But, plans change. My regional office closed. Some months later I would turn 30 in a rainstorm in Colorado trying to get night sky photos, and I would have a new job that thankfully wasn’t in Houston. But in June, I didn’t know any of this. Panic was high, and we needed a vacation. The husband and I decided to head up to Rocky Mountain National Park and hit up some of the trails we have missed over the years. We hadn’t been back since our engagement trip in 2013, which was unfortunately cut short when we were trail running down Timberline Falls trail and I threw my head back and did my best Julia Roberts over-smile and yelled “I feel like a gazelle!” and two seconds later rolled my ankle and tore some tendons. That’s an entire blog post.

So we were headed back. I threw our crampons, ice axes, down sweater jackets, poles, and hats into our gear box, “just in case” we decided to do some more serious hiking. This should be noted. This was all me. I had been checking the weather and reading the trail condition reports on the Keyhole for a couple weeks, “just in case”. Again, all me. No prompting by the husband.

The drive through Kansas was uneventful as per usual, the favorite gas stops and signs ticked  by (“Wakeeny, KS: It’s Affordable!”, and the weird Wheat Jesus billboard by Colby). Except, the husband hadn’t really slept the night before. Like, at all. I drove 11 or so of the 12 hours as he deliriously chugged coffee, and both of us were showing some wear by the end of the drive. A fitful night in camp now brought the husband’s sleep total to 6/36 hours, and mine around 10/36. Cool. We drove around the park, lazily got coffee, and just happened to check trail conditions on Longs with a ranger. He sized me up as I asked him how Longs was looking, and I immediately backtracked with “oh, we’ve made it to the Ledges before,” – gotta establish that trail cred. He looked relieved and got an iPad with updated trail pictures from the week before; great snow pack a week ago! Maybe we could boulder hop and follow snow trails instead of picking our way from boulder tip to tip,  but we should probably scamper up there soon if we were going to go. Some warm days were coming and conditions were going to change rapidly. Ah hell. Let’s just go climb that damn thing in the morning.

PREP WORK

Now focused and with a plan, we gathered our gear and repacked our packs, taped our feet and powdered our boots. I had the bright idea of wanting to get sunrise pictures at dawn in the Boulder Field. This pushed our start time from 2 AM to 11 PM. That’s 11 PM, tonight. 11 PM the first full day at elevation. 11 PM the night we were supposed to get some sleep. 3:30 PM rolled around and we decided to have a nap to try and get some rest.

Pots and pans clanked, children shrieked, and beers were being cracked. Our camp was full of happy awake people enjoying their vacations., not full of masochistic hikers in the middle of sleep deprived madness gearing for a climb.

Flies landed on my arms. The bright sun cooked the tent. The husband sighed loudly. The loudest, slappiest runner circled our tent roughly 900 times. The husband jaw started to clench, “Fuck it, let’s just get up and get pictures of the sunset”. So we did that.

Husband Sleep: 7 hours in 48

Kelsey Sleep: 11 hours in 48

TRAIL TIME

We got to the trail head around 9 that night, already a bit fuzzy on what day it was, and fitfully dozed in the Jeep until 11 pm when it was finally go time. We loaded or packs on our backs, full of snacks, iodine tablets to save weight on packing in and out all of our water, and our trusty first aid kit.

For once I didn’t feel like I was sucking air. I was the pace setter and worked up a nice resting hiking pace up the mountain. The landmarks ticked by again, Goblin’s Forest melted behind us in the dark, and we were making excellent time. A little too good honestly. At this rate we would be at the Boulder Field well before dawn. I tried out some tripod-less night shots which came out predictably horrible. Which is unfortunate, because that was one of the best night sky vistas I have ever seen. The Milky Way looked like it was going to come crashing down on us. The revelry in the night sky was quickly replaced by how damn windy it was. The slight breeze we had felt in the Goblin’s Forest was now a full blown icy gale on Mills Moraine.

The Milky Way rotated around us and gradually faded, leaving behind a desolate sky, and the now ever present icy wind. This was… less than awesome. The husband’s knees were acting up, seeing as he had broken both of them at the tibial plateau in the past, it wasn’t surprising. There’s just so many boulders to trip over in a moraine, you can never have a consistent pace or gait. Every step up is wobbly and unsteady, and our trekking poles that we (finally) admitted to needing came in handy. It’s like hiking in 4 wheel drive. The ice was starting to be more common, as were the stretches of snow pack. We switched our poles to the carbide tips and snow guards and continued hiking in our head lamp bubbles.

BOULDER FIELD

We made it to Boulder Field, way too early. Sunrise wasn’t until 5 ish, and it was more like 3:45. The quick ascent we made up 2,000′ left us both a bit light headed and head achey since we were still not acclimated to the elevation, and it was so cold. Seriously cold. We wrapped up in our emergency blanket and snuggled into what protection we could find next to a boulder, but the wind was seriously blowing from all directions. There wasn’t much relief.

Once the sky lightened and sunrise finally got going, I abandoned the husband to his emergency blanket and scampered around the boulders trying to make the most of the light that we sacrificed so much sleep to get.

The Boulder Field was full of patchy, crunchy snow. The snow pack we had seen in the photos from a week ago had clearly melted, refrozen, and become immensely shitty. It was frozen on top with a thick sheen of ice, and underneath was a mystery. Some steps there was solid snow, other steps you would sink up to your shin or more. We strapped our crampons on to our boots and trekked up and around the bulk of the boulders, kicking our toes in with every step. Kick kick step. Kick kick step. On and on. It was exhausting. But the wind had finally stopped, and the sun was beginning to warm us up. Passing by our engagement rock from 2013 we didn’t really even pause. The hike was already taking on a much more serious feel, as we could see crevasses created by snow and rocks that were bone breakers, just everywhere. Not to mention the spikes attached to our feet that I was having a hell of a time not nicking my shins with.

KEY HOLE ROUTE

We passed through the Key Hole, just as before. It was even more Mordor like this time. It was all ice, snow, and rock. So much more ice and snow than before. Many of the bulls eyes that mark the trail were covered with snow, but the tracks from previous climbers were visible at precarious angles.

Crampons off. Crampons on. Axes out. Axes away. Loading and unloading gear at each marginally safe resting spot was tedious and exhausting. The thing about the Key Hole route is that it is a jerk. Seriously. You hike all that way to the Boulder Field, up to the Key Hole, cross over to the west side of the mountain, then lose hundreds of feet of elevation climbing down. Then you have to hike back UP to where you were on the east side of the mountain, with more hiking UP to go. Except on the west side of the mountain there’s those 1000′ drops for you to tumble down.

Kick kick step. Stab ice ax into snow. Kick kick step. Pause. Panic a little. Fight down panic. Repeat. 

I can’t remember how I came to be the trail blazer across the ledges- but it was probably my turn and I hadn’t been pulling my weight earlier. The snow had become even worse through this section, and the path we were following from some brave hiker the week before was clearly forged in different conditions. This climber (who was at least 7 foot tall judging by his giant foot prints) had a goofy way of walking, or had two right feet. Periodically his foot print would slip down what would have been soggy wet snow, and he would, I’m assuming, use his spider long legs and just scale back to the trail in one giant step and keep going. I hated this guy. His yeti foot prints were now glossed in ice, and I needed to make safe steps in between his giant strides for us to walk in. Kick kick step. Hack with the ax. Water was oozing and trickling out from underneath the ice that was our path in an unsettling way. Chancing a glance back on our trail showed a single foot track across a slope of ice and snow that was just barely covering the semi sheer rock underneath. Uh ok. Don’t be a baby.

The ledges were easily the scariest thing I have done up until that point. So much jaw clenching and teeth gritting. I wish I had pictures of it. But I was too preoccupied with not falling off the mountain in a heap to care about stupid things like cameras and documenting the stupidity/awesome. I was busy wielding my ice ax in what I can only explain as genetic memory of my Viking heritage.

We finally made it through the ledges, with wobbly legs from fatigue. Looking up, it was the Trough, Home Stretch, and Summit. About 1000′ to go. There was no trail in the Trough, which was covered in waist deep snow, with boulders underneath. Crampons and axes out, each step was getting increasingly dangerous. The sun was shining into the Trough, warming the snow surrounding us. It was eerily quiet, with only my heartbeat roaring in my ears. Each step was a gamble. One step would be solid and we could gain ground, the next we punched through the ice crust and sank up to our knees or thighs, and sometimes stumbled on boulders with our feet. Next step, who knows. There was no way to keep your balance on the 45 degree incline, and the snow was deteriorating around us. Soon, there would be no trail to follow on the way back, and the chances of snow and ice breaking away from the mountain with us on it increased.

I made the husband call it this time. It was time to turn around, as it was, we were a bit past the “safely get back” point and had reached the “try and get back” point.

All in all, it took us 6 hours to traverse 2 miles. It was the most nerve wracking and demoralizing two miles ever.

BACK TO BOULDER FIELD

Axes out. Crampons away. The real danger now was getting through the Boulder Field safely- our path from that morning was melting rapidly and sheets of snow on the Diamond was sliding down into the bowl below. Glissading was fun until I remembered that there were boulders under me that wanted all my bones broken.

You might be thinking, “oh that’s sad! Those dumb idiots didn’t make it up again! At least they get home safe now. Look, they’re even sledding down the mountain on their asses!”. Ha. Ha. Shut up.

We made it down the steepest part of the Boulder Field, now it was time to pick our way gingerly through the minefield of boulder holes and icy pools. Our poles out, we stabbed the snow to test it to see if it would hold our weight- about 50% of the time the snow would collapse and reveal a pit between two boulders that were perfect for falling into. Nope. I wanted to go home now. This was bullshit. The pictures were totally not worth it. I was a total jerkface for dragging myself and my husband up here because I had mountain fever or some shit.

The husband was a number of paces ahead of me, locked in his own dehydrated, altitude sick hell when I put my right foot on a boulder, shifted my weight forward, and slipped.

I can see my boot. I see it on the boulder. Next I see my boot punch through the snow next to the boulder, and I’m falling down into a rock well. As I’m falling I thought “Ok. I need to not fall forward, I’m going to get pinned and break something. Scream now,”. Animal brain took over and as my right leg went into the hole and became wedged between two boulders I pushed my hands in front of me to prevent myself from bending at a joint that shouldn’t bend, and slammed my shin and knee into the rock in front of me. Something popped in my knee, I made a face, and pain sensors in my leg went bonkers.

I was wedged up to my crotch between rocks and snow, with my foot stuck under another boulder. Animal brain gave way to I’m An Idiot brain and all I could think of was “something is broken, and I’ve ruined another Rocky Mountain vacation”. The husband rushed over to me as I repeated “I think I’m OK, I think I’m OK”, and he dug me out with his ax and carefully extricated me from the rock well.

First assessment: no bones sticking out of the skin! Second assessment: no streams of blood! I need a beer. I was doing awesome and wasn’t going to have to cut my leg off with my leatherman. A nasty knot was forming on my shin, and my knee had some impact abrasions on it. But superficially, everything looked like it was going to be fine. I scrapped my emergency plan of taking the day to get out of the Boulder Field, and then waiting for rescue at Mills Moraine.

I was able to bear weight on it- in fact, it felt sort of ok for how hard it seemed like I smacked it. Adrenaline is a hell of a thing.  I got my poles out and walked like a baby deer for a few steps on the snow, using the poles as forearm crutches. I quickly found out that if I pivoted even a tiny bit on the knee joint, say, from slipping while stepping on all the damn snow that surrounded me, my knee would give way and do some weird hyperextending and suddenly the stars would come back out at midday. I had managed to not cry until I had to start sliding down the trails the husband was making for me, in my own little pain tunnel. Tears were streaming down my face, utterly miserable. If I told the husband that something was broken or torn, it would make it worse somehow. Make it real. Make this whole scenario just a little bit more dangerous. Unfortunately, the dehydrated, altitude sick husband was unaware of my ever growing fear that something was broken or torn in my knee, and pressed on making me safe snow trails thinking that it was just my bruised up shin that was giving me trouble. His lady is a Viking! Bruised shins are nothing!

Miscommunication is a bitch.

After some rest and recombobulation at the end of the Boulder Field and admitting that “something is not ok“, the husband realized that I was in fact, NOT hiking slow to conserve energy, and was in fact hiking slow because that’s as fast as I could go. Each step down was a horrible pain puzzle- which way had the most gentle step down possible? Large steps were the worst, and after miles of supporting my weight on my left leg, and wrists from my poles, everything began to hurt. The sun was getting lower now, our sunburns mingling with our windburns from this morning. Whaaaaaa.

Out of the Boulder Field. Through Mills Moraine. Finally into the Goblins Forest. The shuffling down the mountain was going so slow that the husband was swatting mosquitoes off of me. Like I was a tired pack horse. Just take me off to a clearing and shoot me now. He took my pack for the last mile, carrying both our packs of gear when I just couldn’t move anymore. I finally took a pain pill from the first aid kit and the husband forced me to take a couple bites of a power bar to combat the inevitable barfy feeling you get when you take narcotics on an empty stomach. Now I was a woozy jibbering idiot trying to stay upright and keep moving, “I just love you so much. shuffle shuffle. Really. I’m so sorry. shuffle shuffle. I think I’m going to throw up.” This continued until we made it back to the ranger station.

7 agonizing miles later, and after 19 hours on the mountain, we made it down.

Husband sleep: 7 hours out of 72

Kelsey sleep: 10 hours out of 72

Turns out I broke my knee in the Boulder Field, and I wasn’t being a baby about it. It’s the same break that the husband has in both of his knees. Twins! We have one good knee between us. I’ll need to save it for the next time we try this hike. Meanwhile, every time I step I think of it.

That damn mountain.

Kelsey’s stories and photographs are stunning and you can find more of them on her site CorvidBlueStudio.com.

2018-02-23T11:08:47-07:00

6 Comments

  1. King Cavalier II April 12, 2017 at 2:46 pm - Reply

    Bless your heart! As a former Coloradoan and backcountry goon that’s as close as I will ever come to understanding the female, newbie perspective on hiking ‘teeners. Awesome job! I am personally sorry that you got hurt. In my experience, however, the mountain doesn’t give a shit. So, neither should you. It’s all for the memories anyway. Thanks! Great read! Oh, wear more wool…just sayin’…

    • Kelsey Putman April 13, 2017 at 12:53 pm - Reply

      Haha, thanks! All base layers were merino, so got it covered! But you are so right, the mountain or trail gives zero shits about you, so gotta enjoy what you can and move on.

  2. Kitty April 14, 2017 at 8:06 am - Reply

    This was an excellent read. Hiking “teener”? Who is that?

    • Kelsey Putman Hughes April 18, 2017 at 6:07 pm - Reply

      “Teener” is short for “Fourteener”, a mountain over 14,000′.

  3. Kathleen Aid April 15, 2017 at 3:50 pm - Reply

    Yup, Kelsey! Now I remember why I’ve never wanted to climb a mountain. But loved reading how you took the challenge. Please come visit us before you try again….

  4. Josiah Cooper May 23, 2017 at 9:19 am - Reply

    Wow, Kelsey, what an adventure! I can’t tell you how this mountain has taunted me over the years by simply being there! It’s been in my sights for a number of years, but I’ve never been able to bite the bullet and hike the darn thing! It just sits there, its diamond face overlooking the front range with a cold daring that beckons anyone that thinks they posses the huevos to challenge its rugged, notorious steeps. Having neither crampons, nor ice axes, nor alpine experience, there remains only a narrow window of time every year that always finds me not in town!
    I have been fortunate enough to bag Mt. Bierstadt and Mt. Evans in a day, and it was sufficient to let me know exactly what I need to do to prepare for the real challenge that will be Long’s.

    See y’all on the summit!

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