Longs Peak Centennial Climb
By: Steve Mitchell
Note: Former Estes Park resident and avid mountain climber Dale Deffenbaugh died at the age of 82 on April 14, 2009 in Eugene, Oregon. He was my uncle, married to my aunt Ruth Deffenbaugh, who was director at the Estes Park Public Library from 1970-1980. Below is a story I compiled from Dale’s notes, documents and newspaper stories describing the Longs Peak Centennial Climb he participated in on August 23, 1968.
The patter of sleet on his tent awakened Dale Deffenbaugh at 2 a.m. Two hours later when he prepared to eat breakfast, the ground at Wild Basin’s Sandbeach Lake was white from the falling sleet. The wind howled and temperatures had dipped below freezing.
On the early morning of August 23, 1968, Deffenbaugh and 13 other Park rangers, climbers, guides and family members prepared to climb Longs Peak to celebrate Major John W. Powell and his party’s ascent 100 years earlier.
But would this hardy group be able to make the climb in this deteriorating weather?
In January 1968 an article in the Trail and Timberline’s 50th anniversary issue featured the original climb of Longs Peak on August 23, 1868. Powell, a one armed veteran of the Civil War, led a party of seven to the summit, claiming to be the first “white men” to climb the 14,259 foot peak.
“That article initiated a burning desire to participate in a Centennial Climb of Longs Peak which would follow the original route of ascent,” Deffenbaugh said.
In February 1968, Deffenbaugh approached the Rocky Mountain News and the Colorado Mountain Club to sponsor the centennial event, but neither offered support. When he learned in the Estes Park Trail that a group was planning to follow the original Byers-Powell route on the anniversary date, he was elated.
“I contacted the rangers and Ranger Bob Haines graciously gave me permission to join the group,” Deffenbaugh said.
The day before the climb, Deffenbaugh visited with two grandchildren of L.W. Keplinger, one of the seven members of Powell’s original party.
“They were kind enough to pose for a picture with me,” he said.
Shortly thereafter, Deffenbaugh left the Copeland Lake area with a bedroll on his back and headed for Sandbeach Lake, the launching point for the team’s attempt on Longs Peak. The next morning Deffenbaugh emerged from his tent with a breakfast of hardboiled eggs and joined the rangers for a cup of coffee over a fire.
The radio crackled and Ranger Walter Fricke, who had spent the night on the summit of Longs Peak, reported the current conditions.
“I well remember hearing the transmission as Fricke reported from 40 to 70 mile per hour winds and a temperature of 15 degrees,” Deffenbaugh said. “The peak was in dense clouds and water was freezing in canteens in five minutes. He added that climbers should have down gear and that it was no place for old ladies.”
At this remark, Deffenbaugh good-naturedly nudged Ginger Jones, who was standing next to him.
“Hear that…it’s no place for old ladies!”
“I’m no old lady,” Jones snapped. “Let’s get going. It’s cold here.”
Soon after Chief Ranger James Randall led the party of 14 climbers from Sandbeach, heading almost due north and crossing Hunters Creek. They had more than 4,000 vertical feet to climb to reach the summit.
“By 8 a.m. our group was traversing the southwest side in the slide rock, and despite the freezing wind we were making good time,” Deffenbaugh said.
Randall said the original Byers-Powell route via Keplinger’s Trough is less popular because there are no established trails and the climbing is over loose, rocky terrain.
As Fricke predicted, the water in their canteens froze, but by 11 a.m. the temperatures had warmed to the 30s and the group began to believe that they might reach the summit, though they had trouble following the original route.
Suddenly, the clouds broke and they could see the summit. At 1:36 p.m. all 14 climbers arrived together at the top of Longs Peak.
“Ranger Randall broke open the bottle of wine he had carried along and gave a toast to the original party,” Deffenbaugh said. “He poured a little of the wine on top of a cairn in their honor. We were a very happy group of people.”
They later learned that rangers at the Twin Sisters Lookout had spotted the team on their telescope and were joining the celebration long distance.
After a short stay on top, the group returned through the Keyhole and ate the “last of their goodies” at the Agnes Vaille Hut, all the time looking forward to the steak fry to follow at Deer Haven.
Among the honored guests at the steak barbeque were Jack Moomaw, a pioneer park ranger, Harold Dunning, former Longs Peak guide and author, Enda Mills Kiley, granddaughter of Enos Mills, and Paul Nesbit, author of Longs Peak: Its Story and a Climbing Guide. Nesbit presented each of the climbers with a certificate acknowledging the Centennial Climb.