Longs Peak: Kieners’…er, Notch Route

Rich (left end) and me (right end) during our Amazon river cruise in 1993.

When I first moved to Colorado in May, 1996, the only person I knew was Rich whom I met on a 1993 Ecuador mountain climbing trip that included a successful climb of Cotopaxi (19,347′) and a failed attempt on Chimborazo (20,560′) as well as a canoe exploration of a tributary of the Amazon river. I only knew him for 3 weeks, but knew him to be an excellent climber and all-around good guy.   And, he welcomed me into town in the best way I know…he invited me to join him on some adventures.

After a “try-out” trip in May, 1996 to bag Horseshoe Mountain (13,989′) and Sheridan Mountain (13,748′), Rich invited me to join him on an attempt at the Kieners route on Longs Peak.  Longs Peak was already my favorite mountain (as it was the first and only 14er I had done), and besides, I was ready to try anything if Rich was willing to let me tag along.  Rich described it as a classic mountaineering route with snow climbing and rock scrambling; I accepted with inappropriately high enthusiasm.

A view of the distant Kieners Route on Longs Peak, with Mt Meeker to the left and Mt Lady Washington to the right. Photo taken on descent.

On June 17, 1996 at 2am, Rich and I left for RMNP and the Longs Peak Ranger Station.  We started up the trail in the dark, and me without a headlamp, I made sure to stay on Rich’s heels to borrow some of his light.  I wasn’t in top mountain climbing shape, but Rich politely kept the pace at a level that I could survive.

We hiked past Chasm Lake as the sun started to come up and then up to Mills Glacier at the base of Longs Peak.  I recognized a few features from my Diamond trip a couple years earlier, but most of it looked unfamiliar.  I was able to spot the Diamond which dominates the east face and the Notch which splits the east face.  According to Rich, the Kieners Route started at the base of the Notch and ascended the south edge of the Diamond.

I was past ready for a break, but we continued up to the base of Lambs Slide before stopping only long enough to put on our crampons and have a bit of water.  The plan was to ascend the Lambs Slide couloir, heading up and south along the lower east face of Longs.

Rich heading toward the Kieners Route (the low angle rock above the steep "Diamond")

I had done several snow climbs before, so I wasn’t nervous in the days leading up to the climb. But this turned out to be an iron climb.  Lambs Slide was hard ice and I rarely got penetration from my flexible crampons. I was wishing fervently for my plastic boots and mentally going over my self-arrest training as I slowly I crept up the couloir, stepping from frozen footprints to rocks protruding from the ice wherever possible.  When the rock face to our right broke up, Rich announced we were at the start of the Broadway Ledge (~13,000′).

The scramble along the ledge was easier than I feared.  I started to think that Kieners was going to be fun after all.  Then we reached a break in the ledge blocked by a protruding boulder. Incredibly, we had to crawl around the protruding boulder with our butts hanging out over an 800′ drop back down to the bottom of Lambs Slide.  Rich saw the look on my face and asked if I’d like a belay. With a gratitude since unmatched, I accepted his offer.

Rich in the distance on the narrowing Broadway Ledge with The Diamond and Chasm View in the distance

Getting past the roadblock was easier than it looked, but I was glad to have that belay.  Once past, we continued working our way along Broadway Ledge, heading toward The Notch and The Diamond. I was disappointed that Broadway Ledge was such a frightening place, with a sloping edge and ball-bearing sized pebbles atop a smooth rock foundation with an 800′ fall rewarding the least error. I couldn’t see how people avoided slipping off with public-outrage-level regularity. But I couldn’t turn back now without re-crossing the ass-overhang.

I caught up with Rich as he stared at the rock face on the far side of the Notch.  He looked over a me and said that the start to the Kieners Route should be here, somewhere. Naturally, I was of no use except for having the sense to keep my mouth shut when I had nothing useful to say. As the official “belay slave” I hadn’t bothered to study the route and wouldn’t know where to begin to look for information anyway.

Rich decided that we’d go higher up the Notch to find a way to get onto the Kieners Route, so up we went.  The  couloir was more snow than hard ice, but it still felt insecure…and now I could fall much farther.  Up and up, we looked and hoped for a solution.  We crawled up much of the Notch before we found an exit to the right.

Looking back down the Notch Couloir

I had no idea where we were; all I could see were giant cliffs on 3-sides and a lot of air on the fourth. But faith is a powerful thing.

Rich led us across a number of gullies with ice and running melt water, one in particular felt like it would be the last thing I ever did. Stepping onto sloping ice with only the spike of my axe on a rock to save my inevitable slip did not seem to be a smart thing to do; but I had to keep moving forward as the day was getting old.

Rich said we needed to traverse back toward the east face to escape the cliffs blocking our access to the summit block. That sounded good to me as I had no notion of being off-route or what getting lost might mean; I was just following Rich.

Once past the icy gullies of death, the going was pretty easy with only a few technical rock sections; at least rock climbing was something I knew how to do.  Rich even let me lead a couple pitches.

Eventually, we reached the edge of the east face.  Rich was studying the rock when I started to remember the path I took during my guided trip up The Diamond.  For lack of a better option, we tried it and found it worked.

A few hundred feet of scrambling up talus led us to the summit of Longs Peak at around 1pm, 9 hours after we started hiking.  It was my 2nd summit of Longs Peak, and only my 2nd time above 14,000′ in Colorado; it felt even more exhilarating than my guided trip up The Diamond.  It felt like we had faced far more risk on our the snowy, icy terrain than I did going up clean rock on The Diamond.

My Longs Peak summit shot

I felt wonderfully satisfied with the day until I remembered that I had to catch a flight in the evening.  I was going to have a very long day.

Without much of a rest, we scrambled down the Keyhole route.  Rich had wanted to do the Cables Route, but we met a fellow on the summit who convinced us that the Keyhole Route would be easier in the snowy conditions.  And I was hungry for the “easier” way; my sense was that I’d used up my good luck and wanted to take no more chances.

But the Keyhole Route was no cakewalk.  Ice covered the Homestretch; the Narrows was a bad surprise (I had never done the Keyhole Route); the Trough was unpleasantly loose.  It took 2 hours to reach the Keyhole, and to think I just had to do 2 rappels to get down the Cables Route.

Rule of Rational Skepticism:

Do not believe anything or anyone on the trail without sufficient reason to do so

Once we reached that little rock shelter near the Keyhole, we stopped for the last of our water.  I also checked my voicemail to see if anyone from work was looking for me; it was a relief to find no voicemails, especially from my boss wondering why I was no where to be found.

Our route up Longs. The dashed line represents our actual route vs. the correct Kieners Route. We really did the Notch Couloir route.

Another 3 hours got us to the parking lot for a total time of 14 hours.  That left me with 3 hours to drive home (1 hour), get ready for my trip (30 min.), and get to my airport gate (1.5 hours)!  I made it…the best day of work in consulting history.

I’ll admit to being a bit tired the next day after being awake for 22 hours straight and moving for 14 hours covering 14 miles while ascending and descending 5,100′. And I didn’t even realize that we hadn’t done the Kieners Route.  It took me another 2 years, in the preparation for a repeat (see Brian’s Lucky Day), to finally figure out that we had done the Notch Couloir route. But any day on Longs Peak is better than a good day in the office

And another big thanks to Rich for a great trip.  But that was the end of my following anybody up a mountain like an innocent lamb.  I would be prepared to be a good teammate on all my future adventures.

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2 Responses to “Longs Peak: Kieners’…er, Notch Route”

  1. The Long Way Up Longs Peak (Stettners-Kieners) « PeakMind Says:

    […] PeakMind Wisdom atop the high peaks « Longs Peak: Kieners’…er, Notch Route […]

  2. Brian’s Lucky Day: Longs via Kieners « PeakMind Says:

    […] completed the classic “Kiener’s Route” on Longs Peak (I had failed on an earlier effort in June of 1996). Making this effort all the more unavoidable, this route is also called, “The Mountaineers […]

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