The Loft Whiteout

The ski season had ended for us in early April, and we were fully into the Spring snow climbing season.  On the previous weekend, we climbed Atlantic and Pacific mountains (see “Swimming the Atlantic & Pacific“), which involved a small bit of rock scrambling (and a lot of post-holing).  That experience got me thinking about how much I love climbing Longs Peak.  I thought it would be a good time to get another summit of Longs via the Loft.

I was wrong.

Frozen hair on approach to The Loft

The weather forecast was iffy with a storm front predicted to move through late in the day.  We decided that we’d hike up to the Loft from the Longs Ranger Station, and then use Clark’s Arrow, or if possible, use Gorrell’s Traverse route to get into the Notch which we’d climb to reach the summit ridge.  If the weather turned ugly too early, our “worst case” scenario plan was to merely summit Meeker.  It would be a glorious day!

This entire plan in the face of an approaching storm was a clear “optimism bias” failure.

The Optimism bias is the tendency for a good feeling towards a situation to lead to a lower risk perception and a higher benefit perception, even when this is logically not warranted for that situation.

We started hiking at 7am (a bit later than planned) from an empty Longs Peak Ranger Station parking lot.  We had the mountain to ourselves!  The trail was well packed and frozen overnight; and with our late start, we pushed the pace to make up for lost time.

Almost immediately, we noticed a strange quietness in the air.  There was no wind at all.  Even when we exited the treeline, there was no wind.  Instead, there was a heavy fog limiting visibility to 500 feet in every direction; we were stuck in a cloud.  Fortunately, we knew where to go, and we could occasionally see a patch of blue to indicate that the cloud wasn’t a part of an impending storm, but just a cloud allowed to remain in place by the lack of wind.

The confirming-evidence trap is caused by two aspects of human nature combining to trap us: (1) people tend to decide what to do before gathering facts and (2) people tend to look for and more readily believe information that agrees with their preconceived notion of what to do.

Our path around the Ship's Prow toward The Loft

By 10am, we had made our way around the Ship’s Prow and up to the cliff band below the Loft where a prominent ledge system (called “The Ramp”) slants up and left for 200 feet from the base of the cliff.

The Ramp is usually a 3rd class route providing easy, but shockingly exposed, access to Meeker and Longs. On better days, the route would follow the 200 foot ramp before ascending straight up an easy scrambling rib, but this was not one of those days.  Ice covered everything.   And, adding to the challenge of ice was a light snowfall signaling the arrival of the storm.

After a lengthy bit of scouting followed by a bit of back and forth discussion, we decided to bail on the Longs and the Meeker effort and make an adventure out of climbing straight up over the ice and icy rocks (an ice climbing route called “The Apron” I believe) using for protection the rock gear we brought along for the technical climb out of the Notch.

The standard ramp route to the Loft

Brian took the first lead up 30 feet of ice and across a patch of snow to reach a good anchor spot.  I took the final lead up mixed ice and rock to some old rappel anchors on the edge of the Loft.  It was an exhilarating bit of climbing.

Ice or mixed climbing is always a little extra scary (and afterwards remembered as “fun”) due to the challenge of frozen hands and a quantity of sharp, pointy objects carried along to impale the body in the event of a fall.  It would be the equivalent of rock climbing with a string of knives around the neck and waist.

Our route to The Loft....straight up instead of veering to the left.

What we didn’t judge carefully was the extra time-suck of route-finding and slow movement over the ice and icy rocks. In total, it took us 4 hours to get over the cliff band below the Loft. And, by that time, the storm had fully arrived. One to two inches of snowfall was predicted for the entire day, but 6 inches had fallen on us by 2pm.  And the wind had arrived with the snow, so visibility had fallen from 500 feet to 50 feet.

Brian belaying me up "The Apron"

We had delayed the inevitable for a long time, but faced with overwhelming evidence, even a couple fools could see there was no reasonable option but retreat.  At 2pm, we turned back.

After ruling out the old rap anchors and without sufficient gear to create another anchor (without leaving behind a lot of iron), we decided that a rappel was too dangerous.  That left only the Loft Route for our descent, so we stumbled over snow covered talus to look for the start.

The poor visibility conditions combined with thick snow covering the cairns to obscure the start of the ramp.  We knew approximately where it should be, but didn’t want to find out how far a fool could fall.  After a bit of blind wandering, we committed to a down-climb of loose snowdrifts covering icy rocks that went in the right direction for 20 feet, which was as far as we could see by that time.

Inching our way down, prepared to retrace our steps if we cliffed-out, we successfully made our way below the cliff band and to the steep snow field below our ice climb.

By this time, the visibility was 3-4 feet.  The snow was falling and blowing hard enough to blend into the snowy background.  I could see my feet, but not what I was standing on or anything around me more than a few feet away.   “Seeing” with my toes, I slowly worked my way down the at first very steep but gradually easier snowfield, reaching the base of the Ships Prow by 5pm (3 hours since our decision to retreat).

The snowfall eased off at this point, but it was already past sunset and would soon be dark.  It took us  2.5 hours of knee-twisting, ankle-turning, back-wrenching stumbling in the dark over snow covered loose rocks to get back to the Ranger Station.  But, finally, we made it back.

And since we got home without injury that would take more than a few days to heal up, we had no choice but to call it like it was…it was the classic definition of a “great adventure”.

Great Adventure (my personal definition)

A dangerous undertaking demanding a higher than expected level of physical, emotional, and intellectual effort that ends well.

We had hiked (and climbed) 13 miles over 12.5 hours to ascend approx. 4000 feet to The Loft.

Our route, planned and actual, via The Loft

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