This article first appeared in the Broomfield Enterprise.
From just about any spot in Broomfield, you can cast an admiring glance up at Long’s Peak, that grand mountain watching over us from the north. In case you don’t know, it’s the really big beauty with a flat top. One of Colorado’s fabled fourteeners (a peak that rises over 14,000 feet), Long’s Peak is so massive it generates its own weather. Wind gusts have been clocked at the summit at a hair-plucking 200 mph.
Long’s Peak was named after Stephen H. Long, who journeyed here in the summer of 1820 and made the first recorded notes about the region. He wrote that the area was “worthless.” I’m happy to point out that one early Colorado historian, Alice Polk Hill, dismissed Long’s credentials as an explorer, complaining he ended his expedition when they ran out of biscuits even though it was mid-summer and game was plentiful. Hill compared him unfavorably to Zebulon Pike and “his freezing, starving men, pushing bravely forward amid the blasts of winter” 14 years earlier.
Biscuits or no, Long’s namesake peak is the dominant natural feature in our area. There are non-technical routes to the top, and thousands of hikers attempt the climb every year. About a third of those make it. The mountain has claimed its share of lives – about 50 people have died trying to reach the summit or get back down. One of the most famous was a well-known mountaineer named Agnes Vaille. In 1925, Vaille and her climbing partner, Walter Kiener, attempted the first winter ascent of the east face. They made the summit – a feat that took 24 hours in a blizzard. During the descent, Vaille fell about 100 feet. She was not seriously injured, but couldn’t walk out on her own. Kiener went for help but by the time her rescuers arrived, Vaille had died of exposure. Today, climbers who make it to the rock formation up on the peak known as the “keyhole” will find a stone gazebo and plaque installed in her honor.
Fifty-two years earlier, in 1873, another famous woman made it to the summit and back down with her life intact (pompously referred to by some as “conquering” a mountain). This was the remarkable English traveller and writer, Isabella Bird, who wrote about her experiences in “A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains.” Not even a little bit of a mountaineer, Bird made the climb with the assistance of a romantic figure known as “Rocky Mountain Jim” Nugent, who “dragged [her] up, like a bale of goods, by sheer force of muscle.”
In her book, Isabella Bird described Long’s Peak with these words: “It is one of the noblest of mountains, but in one’s imagination it grows to be much more than a mountain. It becomes invested with a personality. In its caverns and abysses one comes to fancy that it generates and chains the strong winds, to let them loose in its fury. The thunder becomes its voice, and the lightnings do it homage.”