I had long wanted to do Longs Peak in winter, but it didn’t seem likely due to the requirement to give up a downhill ski weekend, which was the source of all joy. Fortunately, good climbing partners are good for all sorts of things.
The Weekend Before
Driving back from one of the best ski days of all time, Brian says, “Are you interested in doing Longs Peak over President’s Day weekend?”
Stunned into silence, my mind grasped for a handle on the situation. What could he be thinking about? Why would we even consider giving up the complete joy of downhill skiing to seek pain & misery for the sake of mere accomplishment?
But I had never done Longs Peak or any high peak in winter, and my passion to bag many different types of Longs Peak ascents won out in a high vs. low brain wrestling contest using a rapid take-down maneuver. I don’t think I managed to squeeze out a “huh?” until I announced that “I’m in” a few moments later.
The thought that Vail was closed on President’s Day weekend for Colorado Pass holders was a serious handicap for the ski contingent.
The Night Before
Brian called to confirm our meet up schedule and reported that the Boulderfield had winds of 80 mph. I was unnerved to say the least. I had made a bargain with my Maker 10 months earlier that I would take better care of my nose after getting frostbite on an wickedly windy Mt. Silverheels. That was a serious bargain that had worked out very well so far; it didn’t seem right to push it. But, I reasoned, if I brought a facemask and extra wind protection, that would qualify as “taking better care” of my nose. I threw my facemask and an extra balaclava into the pack and put the issue behind me.
The First Day
We left Boulder at 7:30am on Saturday, February 19, 2000. The Longs Peak Ranger Station Parking lot was empty, of course. But it still felt weird, like in Vanilla Sky when Tom Cruise finds himself in an empty Times Square. That said, it is still better to park right up front and avoid the extra 1/4 mile of hiking to reach the trail head.
The trail was completely obscured and invisible in many spots; it made for very slow going. About 1/2 way to tree line, we lost the trail all together and had to break trail the rest of the way. Still, we had all day to make it to our planned camp in the Boulderfield, so we just endured the struggle.
Once at the Boulderfield, my poor condition began to demand a price. A price paid in pain. I hadn’t been over 11,600′ (Vail Mountain) in 6 months, had spent a good part of the last month in Atlanta (elevation 750′), and hadn’t carried a full pack since my trip to the Tetons 2 years earlier. It was all I could do to keep moving.
For motivation, the mountain offered blasting, freezing winds. My Gorilla Mask was the only thing between my nose and my reckoning with the Maker. And, I had no idea how we could keep the tent from being destroyed in the hurricane winds, but that was a problem for later. It was going to be an interesting trip.
I arrived at camp enough time after Brian to find him chest deep in a hole he was shoveling, in the only patch of snow in the boulderfield that looked deep enough for such an pit. He informed me that we needed to build an igloo for shelter from the wind. And, he just happened to have his snow saw handy. I didn’t even know there was such a thing. I think I’ll start saying that if you’re not an ex-Boy Scout, it’s good to bring one with you.
And, it was a good idea except that neither one of us knew how to build an igloo. We started with Brian cutting and me placing the blocks. But my back was spent from the hike in, so after a short time, my back started cramping. It turns out that compacted snow is heavy, especially when cut into massive blocks.
To give my back a break, I went to dig the entrance tunnel while Brian cut and placed blocks. By the time I was done with my fabulous tunnel, the igloo looked like it needed some scaffolding to keep from falling in on itself. We understood the theory of arches (and domes) but didn’t know any safe way to keep the blocks from falling down while we placed the remaining blocks, including the capstone or keystone or whatever you call the last block that transfers the weight of the dome down to the ground. We resolved that someone was going to have to get into the pit beneath the blocks and hold them up.
Brian offered to go into the “pit of crushing death” to act as the scaffolding, but I couldn’t place the blocks with my back issues. So, standing beneath and holding up 500 pounds of snow blocks was my pleasure while Brian layed on block after block until he placed the final block on top. And in a gift from the heavens, the wind disappeared during the time the igloo was in its most unstable condition.
Somehow it worked. It took 4 hours to build, but it was magnificent. And huge. Apparently, making the igloo too big is a common beginner mistake. The inside was big enough to hold 4-5 people.
We found the igloo had many cracks between the uneven blocks. To avoid a nasty draft during the night, we packed loose snow into the cracks. And to get some idea on whether the structure was sturdy at all, we pounded on the sides with the shovel. Every time we hit it the sides moved inward but held; we both thought the pounding made it stronger.
As I ate my dinner, I expressed some concern to Brian that if the igloo did collapse while we slept, however unlikely that was, we might not get out. We decided that we could at least avoid being knocked senseless or crushed by moving out from directly underneath the blocks. To accomplish this, we dug alcoves into the sides of the igloo pit (which was dug into the raw, compacted snow) to create a roof of compacted natural snow as protection.
We exited the igloo to watch the sun set and then ran for for shelter. The temperature was dropping very fast, and the wind was picking back up. But, that sunset was a sight I’ll never forget.
Then it was time for sleep, which came surprisingly easy despite lingering worries about the stability of the igloo.
The Second Day
We awoke around 7am to find ourselves alive and the interior of the igloo covered in a light layer of snow. Apparently, the wind had been bad enough during the night to blast out our snow plaster and begin to eat away at the blocks themselves.
After a light breakfast, we emerged to find a clear day with light winds. A serious good luck move. But it was cold.
Of course those initial winter morning moments are agony, as the body temperature struggles to catch up. But the hike to Chasm View was a nice warm up. I warmed up enough to think it wasn’t all that cold, so I put on fleece instead of down. But that foolishness lasted only a short while and cost me some frozen fingers most of the way up.
We used the rope only on the initial pitch where the rock was exposed and we could use rock protection . Above that, the snow was perfectly firm and had excellent depth over the rock in most of the steep sections. Still, those few spots with crampons and ice tools scratching for purchase on hard rock with my ass hanging over a 1000 foot drop down the North Face with no protection made a lasting impression. If that sentence was too long, let me summarize: it was scary in spots.
We lounged on the summit for only 15 minutes. The sky was still clear and the views were magnificent, but we had many miles to go before we sleep, as it were.
The downclimb was utterly unnerving. In my mental preparations for the trip, I had visions of glissading; but there was no way: too steep. And just like in rock climbing, downclimbing is much harder than up-climbing because you lead with your feet while your eyes are on the other end. Plus we made the mistake of following our ascent path, which meant the snow coverage was now poor since we knocked much of it off on the way up. Somehow, I managed to avoid a long dive back to the igloo.
On the way down, we bumped into a couple fellows coming up who told us their tent blew down during the night winds. Hurray for Brian, his snow saw, and his igloo!
We arrived at the igloo around 2pm and started packing and refueling. Sunset would be around 5:40pm, so we needed to hurry to avoid the headlamps; but, it just wasn’t in the cards. At 3pm we started down toward the Ranger Station.
Despite a high misery factor, the hike out went quickly. The more tired I am the more effective my hiking trance. Brian tried out his new skis with new-fangled bindings that fit his plastic climbing boots. I asked him if the setup was tight enough to control his skis; he said we find out. His poor binding combined with a massive pack caused him to crash enough times that I was able to stay with him just by hiking fast.
We got to the car in the twilight around 6pm.
It was another great one! And my nose survived!