Posts Tagged ‘longs peak’

Long’s Southwest Ridge

April 15, 2010

For my 9th summit of Longs Peak, I wanted to do something new.  I had already done an iced-over Keyhole (late fall), a winter Cable Route, a spring Notch and Kieners, a summer Stettners and Diamond, and had even done a Keyhole Ridge and a traverse from Meeker via Gorrells and a climb out of the Notch to the Longs summit ridge.  This time we’d do the Southwest Ridge route pioneered by J. Alexander in 1924.

We got an early start (4:30am) but still had to park 1/2 mile down the road due to a full parking lot.  I have never been able to get right with the notion that the safest way to climb Longs Peak is to do it in the dark to avoid the lightning.  Shit; I like to see what I’m doing.  And I’ve not been chased off Longs by lightning yet.

We passed a hundred people on the way to the Boulderfield which we reached at 7am.  We needed to let the rock warm up a bit, so we lounged in the Boulderfield for a while and speculated on new routes we could put up.  Big talkers.

Longs Peak from Taylor with our route marked in red

Position #1

Then we continued along the Keyhole route until we reached the top of the Tough, from which we scrambled up 40 feet to reach the start of the Southwest Ridge Route climb.  We started the rock climb at 9am.

The rock was freezing.  I was freezing.  The rock was covered in lichen.  It must not get much traffic.

Brian took the first pitch.  The guide book says traverse left and up ledges until a steep gully leads back to a belay on the ridge, but I don’t remember what Brian did.

For the second pitch, the guide book says to pass an overhang, then work up to an exposed belay.  All I can remember is crawling up licheny, cold rock with numb toes and frozen fingers, and then not being able to find a belay spot until I ran out of rope.  Calling down 175′ in high altitude winds is impossible, so I put in the best belay I could.  You should imagine a very terrible belay.

Brian finished up by climbing over some ledges and moving somewhat right.

Position #2

At noon, as we sat on the summit block just above the Southwest Ridge, we both suffered a bit from the altitude and were really huffing and puffing. Brian dared me to hold my breath for a minute, but I feared at least a stroke and at most my head exploding, so I declined.

Position #3

We then wandered over to the summit proper to enjoy the views and receive our honors.

After a short disappointing wait, we descended via the Cable Route.

Position #4

We descended past Chasm View and into the Boulderfield to get more water and then becgan the long march home.

That last 1/2 mile down the road always feels like a bit of insult on top of injury from a day of pounding. At the end, we’d used 10.5 hours and hiked 15 miles to get 3 pitches of 5.4 climbing.  We must love Longs Peak, eh?

Once back at the truck, all that was left was to imagine a new way to reach the Longs Peak summit.

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A Winter Longs

April 2, 2010

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.

Just above treeline with Mt Lady Washington & Longs in background. The hurricane winds would start at the Boulderfield.

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.

Me standing behind the ugliest igloo ever made on purpose. On the other hand, the entrance tunnel was the epitome of functional elegance.

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.

Me on the summit of Longs Peak on February 20, 2000.

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 Descent

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!

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The Long Way Up Longs Peak (Stettners-Kieners)

February 3, 2010

I love Longs Peak, and one of my unofficial missions is to climb a different route/season combination nearly every time I reach for the summit.

Next on the list was to reclimb the route used by the Stettner brothers (Joe & Paul) to climb Longs Peak on September 14, 1927, including the Stettner’s Ledges (5.8) route to climb from Mills Glacier to Broadway Ledge.  As they did, we’d also use the Kiener’s Route (5.3) to skirt the difficulties of the Diamond and reach the summit. Stettner’s Ledges represented the hardest multi-pitch alpine route in Colorado (and perhaps in North America) for the subsequent 20 years.

“We were familiar with two established climbing routes on the East Wall — Kieners and Alexanders. We studied them. But we wanted to find a new route. We searched for a route by starting at Alexanders Chimney and working our way to the right with the binoculars. With the help of these field glasses, we found a line of broken plates, ledges, and cracks that we could eventually use as a route. It looked challenging enough for us.”

~ Joe Stettner’s Journal, recounting the events of September 14, 1927

On the morning of July 17, 1999, Brian and I started up the the trail towards Long Peak, passing the Longs Peak Ranger Station @ 4:15am.  It would be my 6th different route to the summit of Longs Peak, if everything worked out.  The only thing I worried about was the weather report; we’d have to get lucky to reach the summit on this day.

My Routes (prior to 7/99) to the Longs Peak Summit

  1. The Diamond, Casual Route (7/94)
  2. Notch Route (6/96)
  3. Keyhole Route (11/96)
  4. Kiener’s Route (7/98)
  5. Gorrell’s Traverse with a direct finish of The Notch (9/98)

The hike in went as so many have gone before it….long but tolerable.  And, despite a serious attempt by a slippery trail to destroy my knee, we maintained a good pace and reached the foot of the climb by 7am.  I somehow managed to forget that Mills Glacier would be hard snow and didn’t bring anything to aid my ascent of the glacier/snow field to reach the start of the Stettner’s Ledges climb.

Stettner Brothers 1927 (dashed) & Joe/Brian 1999 (solid) Summit Routes

Aiming for the bottom of the obvious left leaning flake system, I used my nut tool as a make-shift ice axe and kicked steps when I could and otherwise crawled to ascend the shockingly steep Mills Glacier.  During this ridiculous episode, I stole a moment every now and again to think how this was a really stupid way to ruin a day, a season, or worse.  My relief was palpable when I finally reached solid protection from a long slide to the bottom of  Mills Glacier.

Looking back on our approach around Chasm View Lake

Stettner’s Ledges

1st Pitch

Brian took the first pitch.  It was a 140-150′ long climb angling somewhat left over many flakes and cracks with a few pitons to guide the way.  He found a nice ledge for our belay.

2nd Pitch

I took the second pitch that started with a step around a corner and involved easy climbing over some blocks to reach a good belay at a right facing large flake (5.5).

3rd Pitch

Looking up, we could see a series of pitons jammed into an overhanging dihedral protecting a steep climb over thin holds navigating a robust layer of slime.  The water trickling down from The Notch was feeding an aquatic ecosystem that looked like it would be protected by Boulder’s Open Space & Mountain Parks organization if located a few miles further east.  I tried to help Brian’s psyche by suggesting he could aid the climb if it was as bad as it looked.  Right.

Brian on Stettner's Ledges

Not one for delaying the inevitable or waiting for government intervention, Brian took off to figure it out (in proper Paul Stettner fashion).  After a moment of sitting, I noticed that the sun was gone; I was stuck in the shadows and my body temperature was dropping quickly.

I got small to preserve my body heat while I waited for Brian to swim up to the next belay and free me from my static duties.  The conditions demanded a slow climb, but my suffering was all out of proportion to the hour it took for Brian to finish.

Climbers Rule of Variable Time Passage

“The rate at which time passes for a climber is directly proportional to the level of preoccupation for the climber and inversely proportional to the level of suffering and pain endured by the climber. “

And to make matter harder to endure, it was during this pitch that the rockfall barrage begain.  I don’t know if it was climbers (I think it was although no one yelled, “rock” ) or merely natural falling rock from freeze/thaw action (the Stettner brother wrote of rock fall here in 1927), but it was damned unnerving to have such volume of rock crashing down the rock within 10 – 20 feet of my head.

When it was my turn to climb, I was so stiff and my hands so useless I didn’t think I could climb the 3rd Flatiron.  But the body can warm up quickly when the stress is right.  I followed Brian’s path through the slimy ecosystem, taking huge sections of it with me on my clothing.  When I reached Brian, I could see he had taken a hit to his nose somehow.  It was now a “blood” adventure.

4th Pitch

I traversed left onto the Lunch Ledge after mounting a steep flake system which felt harder than the rated 5.5.  When I reached the end of the “Lunch Ledge”, it was obvious that we needed to make a team decision about how to proceed.

5th Pitch

I brought Brian up and then we took a few minutes to look for the direct line (Hornsby Direct variation).  The rock was very confusing, and we just couldn’t spot the correct path out of the many options above us.  We reasoned that we needed to hurry given the weather report and our plan to continue to the summit. We decided to find the easiest, quickest path to Broadway Ledge: The Alexander Chimney route. (Note:  we also thought that this was the original line of the Stettner brothers, but that has since been refuted; the original line took a direct path, probably the Hornsby variation).

Even still, the path wasn’t obvious.  Brian followed his nose, generally left and up over ledges and around corners.

6th Pitch

The final pitch was mine.  I couldn’t figure out what I was looking for and eventually tried to climb a dihedral that didn’t quite work.  After a downclimb I finally found something that looked like the Alexander’s Chimney finish, but ran out of rope without a belay spot in sight. I waited for Brian to take down the belay and then we simuclimbed the last 40 feet to Broadway Ledge.

It was a struggle, but we made it.  And we did it without falls, but it took us 6.5 hours compared to the Stettner brothers 5 hours.

“With great trouble, we fought our way upwards. Time-wise, it appeared that we would have to retreat.  The wall was approximately 1,600 feet high and, besides being steep, it had many overhanging sections.”

Yet, despite multiple falls held by a hemp rope (static) they bought at the Estes Park General Store (“Though not the best, it ought to fulfill the purpose”) that was merely tied around their waists, the Stettner brothers reached Broadway Ledge after 5 hours of climbing.

~ Joe Stettner’s Journal, recounting the events of September 14, 1927

Traverse to Kieners

We followed the Broadway Ledge to the Notch Couloir, and then to the far edge where we knew at least one variation of the Kiener’s Route that worked.  We were on terrain we knew, but it was late on a day with a threatening weather forecast.  But, with the weather still holding up well, we figured it was better to run up terrain we knew than to try to rappel down to Mills Glacier without a known rap route.  And descending via Lambs Slide was completely out of the questions without crampons and axes.

Kiener’s Route

“Walter Kiener, a climbing guide, pieced together this route in 1924, looking for the easiest way up the east face with an eye toward future clients. Very little new ground was covered on the ascent. It’s possible he did this over several visits, with help from Agnes Vaille and Carl Blaurock. Another guide from this era, Guy C. Caldwell, installed cairns all the way up the route and advertised his services in the Aug 7, 1925 issue of the Estes Park paper”

~ Bernard Gillett, The Climbers Guide: High Peaks, 2nd edition (2001)

Our Upper Kiener's Route

To save some time, we decided to simul-climb the low 5th class section.

We started straight up through the broken rock and over a chockstone, and then into a narrowing chimney which we took to its end, and, then, up a waterfall to a big, grassy ledge.

Past the 5th class climbing, we unroped to make fast time up the 700 feet of talus and gullies.

We knew from previous experience to aim for the edge of the face and look for the “Black Bands” of rock.  When we finished climbing over the long section of giant steps, we moved to the edge of the Diamond to turn the corner and reach the east talus slopes.

And after scrambling the final 200 feet of talus, we reached the summit at 3:45pm; my 6th Longs Peak summit was in the bag.  We had climbed the 1600′ of elevation between Broadway Ledge and the summit in 1 3/4 hours; its good to see we can pickup the speed if we have to do so.

Our weather luck had held out, but we still had to get down.

Descent

We chose the Cables Route, as always, for its direct approach to the Boulderfield.  The path is easy to follow since we’d done several time before, except this time the path was blocked by a large snow patch covering the last 100 feet above the rappel anchors.

Crap.

Fortunately, this snow had been in the sun all day.  But the terrain was steep enough that it wouldn’t take much of a slip to generate the speed needed for air travel.  We carefully kicked steps and jammed exposed fingers into the snow…anything to get a little friction.  By the time we found the first rap anchor, my fingers were frozen stiff.

Then it started to rain.

Combined with the approaching darkness, we didn’t need any additional encouragement to hurry once again. A quick pace down that death-march trail got us to the Ranger Station by 7:45pm for a 15.5 hour round trip.

The best adventures always include some amount of overcoming or dodging serious setback, such as:

  • A smashed knee
  • Missing ice gear
  • Rock fall
  • A bloody nose
  • A route finding error
  • Threatening weather

And this trip was a great one.

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Longs Peak: Kieners’…er, Notch Route

January 18, 2010

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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My First 14er: Longs Peak via The Diamond

December 30, 2009

…being too smart is no excuse for missing out on the chance of a lifetime.

~ me

It was the summer of 1994, and I was desperately looking for an adventure to fill the long July 4th weekend. I was new and late to the rock climbing obsession having started only two years earlier at the age of 30, but I had it bad. And, as far as obsessions go, this was more like an addiction.  Sure I liked it, but more to the point, I had to have it.

I was living in the Lincoln Park area on the north side of Chicago and was earning my climbing stripes in Baraboo, WI at the Devil’s Lake Bluffs and at the Mississippi Palisades State Park near Savana, IL. These climbing areas were 3 hours away from Chicago, so rock climbing was a weekend-only affair. And with wet weather haunting so many of the warm-enough days in that part of the country, I averaged only a few days a month. Constantly suffering from withdrawals, I regularly resorted to bouldering on the stone structures in Lincoln Park just to take the edge off.  My favorite was the black (dirty?) stone structure  housing the statue of Ulysses S. Grant (see more recent photo); it had a few surprisingly good routes, all about twice my height.

For the 4th of July, the obvious answer to the question of “what to do?” was to go to Colorado again. And the hardest, biggest, baddest climb I’d heard of in Colorado was The Diamond.

The Diamond is the sheer and prominent east face of Longs Peak and named for the shape of the cliff. The face has a veritcal gain of more than 900 feet all above an elevation of 13,000 feet. It is a world famous "big wall". The easiest route on the face, the Casual Route (5.10-), was first climbed in 1977.

I learned about The Diamond during my two previous visits to the Colorado Mountain School (CMC) in Estes Park, CO. My instructors/ guides (Mike Caldwell, the dad of the famous climbing Caldwell, Tommy, and Topher Donahue, the son of the CMC Founder) led me & my pals up graduation climbs in RMNP (Sharktooth [5.6], Petite Grepon [5.8]), which always had that wonderful sense of being the absolute limit of human capability.

These fantastic “near death experiences” always led to discussions of “what was the hardest” RMNP rock to climb; the answer was always The Diamond on Longs Peak.

My Midwest climbing pals, whom I’d met at the Colorado Mountain School, would scare each other regularly with threats of “signing up for The Diamond”. We had a shared sense that The Diamond was just out of our reach where failure felt deadly. Looking back, I think  “The Diamond” served as our inspiration for improving our skills, both physical and mental.  We didn’t dare do easy (for us) climbs when we might be forced, through peer pressure, to climb the Diamond at some point in our near future.

Joe, Mark & Jim at the Mississippi Palisades and on the summit of The Sharkstooth.

The Spring of 1994 had been especially rainy, particularly on weekends (it seemed). My climbing-withdrawal induced insanity lead me to think the unthinkable.  And, after a few days of hard self deception, I had myself believing that I could handle the 5.10- climbing and 14,000 feet of altitude.  To do so, I had to put two disturbing facts out of my mind:

  1. I had never climbed anything harder than 5.9, and nothing harder than 5.8 since the previous summer
  2. I had never rock climbed above 12,600′ and had not been above 600′ (plus a few floors) in many months

I suppose I didn’t really think I was ready. I just couldn’t think of anything else to do that would be hard and scary enough to feel like an adventure, even just in the attempt. Not knowing very much was part of the problem, or, perhaps, the key to the solution.

Perhaps it was unreasonable, but I was going to do it and I wanted my buddies to join me. I put the word out, but each had the plausible yet lame excuse of having July 4th plans already. Shocked and amazed into poor debate form, my feable attempts at guy-reason got me nowhere. Looking back, I suppose they were a bit smarter than me; but I’ll still argue that being too smart is no excuse for missing out on the chance of a lifetime.

Nothing was going to keep me from taking that step, even if I had to do it alone.  So, determined to proceed and with credit card in hand, I placed a call to the CMC to hire a guide to take me up. I was really going to do it.

Or not.  After all that buildup, no guides were available for the only weekend of the year I could make work. Noooooo!

What a bummer!

Maybe I should have been happy to spend a few uninterrupted days of romance with my girlfriend; maybe I should have been satisfied for the opportunity for 72 hours of personal growth.  But I wasn’t.  I couldn’t.  I was going to miss my chance.  And that is how the greatest adventure in my life would end…

…that is, unless something changed.

And a couple weeks later, the situation changed.  It was about noon on Thursday, June 29th, the 2nd to last day of work before the start of the long holiday weekend, when my cell phone buzzed.  It was Topher Donahue, one of the guides I knew at CMC, with some unexpected news; he’d come available for Saturday, July 1st if I still wanted to climb the Diamond.

YES!

Now all I had to do was get there in time.  I had to meet Topher at 1pm on Friday, June 30th, which was only 24 hours hence.  The easy thing to do was fly, but I had a company car with paid gas.  It didn’t feel like I had a choice.

From a previous trip, I knew the 1100 mile drive from Lincoln Park to Estes Park, CO would take approx. 17 hours driving straight through. And I still needed to get home and pack.  Well, don’t tell my boss, but my 1994 July 4th holiday started about 30 hours early.

The long drive from Lincoln Park to Estes Park.

As I drove home, I knew the plan would come off much better with a co-pilot. I prepared my case by getting a reservation for a tiny bed and breakfast in Boulder called The Briar Rose.  My pitch was that trip was going to be a wonderfully romantic Colorado getaway, during which time I would do only one climb.  My girlfriend bought it.

By 7pm, we were heading out I-290 west.  At first, the excitement of the adventure made the driving fun.  But, seventeen hours is a long time when waiting for each of 61,200 seconds to pass.  I really did try to sleep in the back seat for a few of those hours.  But no way; my racing mind never let me doze off for a moment.

As I tried to sleep, my mind hit on the biggest problem of all:  I was not going to get much acclimatization. During the initial 24 hour period, I would ascend from Chicago (600′) to Estes Park (7500′), and, then would continue the ascent, first to the Longs Peak Ranger Station (9500′), then to The Camel (~13000′).  Then, after another opportunity for sleep, we would climb to the Longs Peak summit (14259′) for a total of nearly 14k feet of elevation gain in 48 hours … not what the experts recommend.  I figured all I could do is try; I’d go up as far as I could and feel proud for daring much and trying hard.

The more I thought about how badly I needed sleep, the further away the chance for sleep ran.

It is terrible to not be able to fall asleep, but it is agony to have to stay awake.  I just hoped I could make it to dawn; I figured sunlight would ease the struggle.  But when the sun came up, I was in Nebraska, which is not what you’d call an interesting place to view from the highway.

“Hell, I even thought I was dead ’til I found out it was just that I was in Nebraska.”

~Little Bill Daggett, Unforgiven (1992)

But after a few more hours of suffering, I could see the mountains.  And the blood started to flow again. And then we were in the mountains.  And the adrenaline started to pump.  And then we were there, driving up Big Thompson Ave and then turning south onto Moraine Ave and then north onto Davis Street and, finally, pulling into the dirt parking lot of the Colorado Mountain School.   And it was done:  1100 miles and 5 bathroom stops in seventeen hours.

I signed in at the Colorado Mountain School and then went through my gear with Topher to make sure I had what I needed…I had enough gear to attempt Everest. After dumping most of what I brought, we set off for the Longs Peak Ranger Station.  Since Topher was planning to stay at the Boulderfield for an extra day of climbing, the plan was for my girlfriend to pick me up at the trailhead after the climb on Sunday.

And this is where things really started to fall apart.

Based on Topher’s advice, I told my girlfriend that she should ask someone “official” for directions and then pick me up at 6pm on Saturday.  What could go wrong?

The Approach

Without another thought, Topher and I took off for the trailhead and then we were quickly making our way up the trail.  I had no sleep and no acclimatization. But I was scared to death, and that made all the difference.

We used the standard trail, as best I could tell until we reached a junction to “Jim’s Grove”. Topher suggested we go that way to save some distance.  I continued following and hoped we’d also save some elevation somehow; my pack felt like 100 pounds.

Topher sitting in The Camel bivy shortly after arrival. Note the shelter provided by the overhanging rock.

We reached the Boulderfield around 5pm, just as I was running out of steam. I was thankful to be done for the day, but Topher looked up toward a peak above us (Mt. Lady Washington) and pointed to a rock formation on the ridge line called “The Camel”.  He indicated that we would sleep on the far side of that formation, in a comfortable and dry bivy spot.

Topher had been talking about the importance of doing everything quickly and efficiently on the Diamond. My plodding approach made me worry about Topher thinking I couldn’t do the climb, and leading him to bail on the effort. I tried to look strong.

Another 30 minutes and we were there; 3.5 hours from the Ranger Station.

It was as nice as Topher promised.  I chugged down a 1/2 liter of Gatorade (1/4 of my water supply), then felt ill for about 10 seconds before spraying my guts all over the rocks in front of me. At first glance, I could see my vomit was blood, and that made sense given how badly I felt.  But on second glance, I could see that it was just my red colored Gatorade.

Topher asked if I had ever had Mountain Sickness before; I went with the ignorance angle and responded with a “what is Mountain Sickness?”  Now I was really worried that Topher might bail on me, so I put on my best brave-face and busied myself soaking up (and photographing) my first up-close view of the Diamond.  It looked like nothing I had ever climbed.  Heck, it looked like nothing I’d ever seen.

My first up-close view of The Diamond, seen from "The Camel" bivy area

A bit later, Topher asked with a knowing look if I could eat some dinner.  I didn’t know that I wasn’t supposed to be hungry; all I knew was that I was starting to feel better and I was very, very hungry. There is nothing like starvation for making a meal taste delicious, even a freeze dried one.

At last light on Friday, Topher mentioned that the weather wasn’t looking good, but hoped it would clear by dawn.  I didn’t know what to think, but didn’t struggle long.  I was exhausted.  My brain pulled the plug and I was unconscious for the next 8 hours.  It was my first bivy above 12,000′, and only my second bivy anywhere without a tent.

At first light on Saturday, around 5:00am, Topher woke me with a “the weather is bad” announcement.  I open my eyes and see wet rock and fast moving, low-level clouds not too far above.  Topher suggested we call it quits and head down to climb at Lumpy Ridge.  He promised to make it an interesting day still.

I explained that I had worked pretty hard to get to the Diamond and wanted to take every chance to climb on it.  I declared I want to stay.

Topher went on to explain that The Diamond is a particularly bad place from which to bail.  He explained that climbers have to rappel down two pitches more than they climbed (if starting from Chasm View), and then they have to climb back up to the Boulderfield to collect their gear.  He asked if I was certain I wanted to pass on a sure thing. I did not waiver.

Topher then indicated that our only hope was to wait an hour and let the bad weather clear, if it would.  In my entire life to that point, I had never argued against another hour of sleep.  I rolled over and took it.

Two seconds later (it feels like), Topher woke me again.  The sky looked the same.  He announced that the weather hadn’t improved, but we could head over to the Chasm View and see if the weather had improved at all by the time we had to commit.  I agreed.

I ate a Powerbar and finished my water supply.  Then we packed the rock gear and started over to the Chasm View.  I told Topher that I needed to get some water; he said we can “get some in the Boulderfield”.  I didn’t know where that was but felt reassured that getting water would not be a problem.

The slightly downhill traverse to the Chase View went by quickly.  And, in that brief period of time, the weather started looking a bit better.  Topher futilely gave me one last opportunity to bail, and then we started down the rappels to Broadway ledge.

The climb had begun.

The Climb

We started late enough that everything was well lit, and the poor weather had chased off all the other climbers. We quickly finished the rappels down Chasm View to the Broadway Ledge and completed the traverse over to the start of the Casual Route.

Pitch 1

The climb started up some easy terrain which let me continue to believe (read: hope) that the 5.10 rating was intended to scare beginners away even though the climber is really easy.

Pitch 2 & 3 together

Climbers doing a hard route and showing the steepness of The Diamond face.

My illusions were shattered by a hard crack followed by a horrifying traverse.  The fantasy of easy climbing was utterly destroyed. I’d done one traverse before in my life (final pitch of Pear Buttress), and that one scared the fool out of me as well.  The lack of overhead protection meant I would take a long whipper if I fell. My increasing fear pushed me into some sort of zone where I don’t notice anything except the climbing.  My climbing skills became preternaturally sharp; I climbed better than I ever did in my life.  I had to.

Pitch 4

I was introduced to the joys (do not fail to note the sarcasm here) of squeeze chimneys 1000′ off the deck. The climbing moderated enough to keep me from vomiting as I made my way to the belay in a snowy inset.  By the time I reach the top of the 4th pitch, I was relaxed enough to notice some details beyond mere rock and climbing technique.  One detail I noticed was Topher’s rather thin anchor: a tricam and 2 nuts.  I was used to top-rope anchors with 6-8 solid pieces using several feet of webbing that could hold a falling Boeing 747.  While I was confidentTopher knew his stuff, my stress-level moved back up another notch.

Pitches 5 & 6

More hard climbing went by in a blur. When we reached the Yellow Wall Bivy ledge at the top of pitch 6, Topher suggested a quick break for lunch. And that’s when it dawned on me that I never refilled my water bottle.  With my desiccated mummy-mouth, there was no way to eat a Powerbar and live (remind me to tell you about an attempt to do so during a triathlon).  Fortunately, I also brought an orange, which I ate with such relish I didn’t waste a drop of fluid; and, I thought hard about eating the skin as well.

And, for whatever reason, despite every negative influence, I felt good.  I actually started to think I would really make it.

Pitch 7

More hard climbing led to another squeeze chimney near the top.  This one was a killer squeeze, as I had a pack on. I had to work my way out of the chimney and face face the remain few feet to reach the final move:  a bulge with a single finger-lock hold.  I pulled up on the finger-lock and found nothing above to haul on and no feet; I lowered myself back down.  Topher, at the anchor only 2 feet away, tells me this is the crux.

After trying in vain using a few different holds, I finally broke down and asked Topher for advice.  He said “you figure it out,” and then went on to say that he could not believe that I made it the entire climb without a fall only to fail here. But after a moment, he took pity on me and offered a nugget:  “use the knob on the right to stem”.

But I couldn’t make it work so I decide to summon my remaining strength and did a lay-back using the crack on the left.

I made it.  I actually stole a moment to be proud of myself for getting past the crux.

Pitch 8

But we weren’t done yet.  One last pitch; a traverse, crap.  Topher told me to lead as it would be safer in case I fell.  (Assuming I know how to place gear!)  I’d never led anything in my life; my first lead would be on The Diamond!  It turned out that I only had to clip a couple pins, but the sharp end of the rope felt electric.

And then I was on easy ground.  I’d made it.  I had actually climbed the Diamond.  I felt my life would never be the same (it wasn’t).

I belayed Topher to my ledge and then we scrambled a short distance up and left and then up and right a longer distance to reach and step around a corner that led to talus above the Diamond but below the summit. After a couple hundred feet of scrambling we were sitting on the summit of Longs Peak…my first Colorado 14er summit.

Post Climb

Sitting on the summit of Longs Peak, I thanked Topher for a great climb.  To my great surprise, he told me that I was his first guided client on The Diamond. It was yet another first for me, in an odd way.

Six Firsts for Joe:

  1. First bivy above 12,000 (a rare great night of sleep @ 13k)
  2. First (and second) squeeze chimney climbed
  3. First lead: the final pitch of The Casual Route on The Diamond
  4. First high altitude rock climb over 13000′ (up to 13,900′)
  5. First Colorado 14er summit
  6. First client of Topher Donahue on The Diamond (I lived; good job, Topher)

As the adrenaline started to wear off, I started to feel tired.  We sat to organize the gear, but since I had no water and only an orange to eat since dawn, a long stay wasn’t in the cards.  Topher led me down to the Cable Route area where we descended via rappel to the Chasm View area to complete a circuit begun 8 hours before.  On the way down I took a photo of some climbers that showed the steepness of the climbing.  I intended to make full use of my bragging rights.

Once we arrived at Chasm View, I insisted on some photos including posed shots before we scrambled back to The Camel to collect gear. I thanked Topher again and asked for directions to the water supply.  He pointed down to the Boulderfield and said to ‘follow my ears’ to find access to the water running beneath the big blocks of rock.  Then we parted ways.

Joe and Topher posing with The Diamond in the background. Thanks to Topher for indulging me.

The Hike Out

The lack of food and water (and altitude?) started to hit me pretty hard.  I hadn’t had any water or food aside from an orange in 9 hours, and I had only consumed 2 liters of water in the last 28 hours.  And all of this on top of gaining 14k feet in elevation in a short time, vomiting, and climbing 1000′ of hard rock. (Thankfully I was still young). After a bit of following water noises, I finally found a gap in the rocks and collected a liter of the wet stuff, which I had to put away to let the iodine pills dissolve. Using and waiting for iodine pills was another first for me; it was not the last time I’d have to suffer and wait.

Once I started hiking down the trail, I felt strangely exhilarated.  Even though I was around other people and walking on or near a well established trail, it was the first time I had ever been in the “backcountry” without other people I knew.  I felt very isolated, and I liked it. Taking in the sights, snapping photos, and watching with real interest the exploits of the local marmots, I just floated down the trail.  I felt great once more.  Everything was good.

The Casual Route and descent from Longs Peak

I followed the trail signs until I reached the trail junction for Chasm Lake. I couldn’t wait any longer for water, so I stopped and ate my last Powerbar and finished my water while admiring the spectacular views of Longs Peak. I decided it was the greatest peak in the world and that I really needed to come back someday to climb it without a guide (I did so in 1998; see The Casual Route?).

I continued down the trail and reached the Ranger Station ahead of schedule. I was going to have to wait an hour for my 6pm ride, but that was okay. Nothing could spoil my great mood, I thought.

Around 5:30pm, the weather turned ugly.  The wind picked up and rain and hail/snow started beating on me. I tried to get into the Ranger Station, but it was locked.  I put on all my clothes and huddled in the roofed map alcove to hide as well as I could. I was freezing.

And, then, my ride was late.

By 8pm, I was truly miserable.  Wet & cold with only poor shelter from the wind, I knew that my girlfriend was lost and that I was screwed. As I played out the scenarios in my head, I couldn’t see a good outcome. If she couldn’t find me in the daylight with whatever directions she had gotten, how was she going to figure it out before morning? No more light to see by and no one to ask for help; oh, I was definitely screwed.

Our route up Longs Peak (red) and my descent variation used (green)

Out of the gloom, a couple walked past me, on the way to their car.  After a polite WTF question, I explained my reasons for riding out the storm.  They offered to give me a ride to town, but I declined.  I didn’t have any place to go in Estes Park.  I needed to get to Boulder, but I couldn’t even go there without getting word to my girlfriend. And I had no way to get any word to her; I was royally screwed.

A few minutes later, as the couple drove past, they paused to make one last offer before abandoning me to the elements.  I decided I would be better served by having no where to go in Estes Park than being stuck out in the open in the middle of nowhere.  I accepted. I piled my stuff and body into the couple’s car and buckled my seatbelt, and then a pair of headlights approached.  It was my ride.

And was she pissed.  While we drove to Boulder, she explained how mad she was about having to drive all over creation, etc., etc. I said that I was sorry for her troubles, but that since I had to sit for 3 hours in wind, rain & hail I probably had the worst of it, and my vote was that we should call it even and drop it.  Uncharacteristically, she agreed.  I must have looked pretty bad.

While sitting in the car and thawing out, I wondered what my climbing buddies would think and how they’d react.  I wondered when they would decide to climb The Diamond.  But as I feared for myself, sometimes the chance to take a particular road less traveled only comes once, and an opportunity missed is an opportunity lost.

“Jump as quickly at opportunities as you do at conclusions.”

~ Benjamin Franklin

See all Trip Reports

See all Longs Peak Massif Trip Reports

The Loft Whiteout

December 17, 2009

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

The “Casual” Route?

March 31, 2009

The Diamond.

The East Face of Rocky Mountain National Park’s Longs Peak is the greatest alpine climbing wall in the Universe.   Sure, it’s just my opinion, but read on and judge for yourself.

 

The Diamond of Longs Peak

The Diamond of Longs Peak (photo taken 7/1/94)

 

When I started rock climbing some years ago, the Diamond was a place of legend:  only the climbing Greats dared challenge the gods with an attempt on the Diamond.

It requires nearly 1,000 feet of high-altitude technical rock climbing in a lightning-filled environment over wet, cold, vertical rock that cannot even begin until completing an approach of nearly 7 miles and well over 3,000′ of elevation gain.   And the easiest route up the face requires the skill and stamina to complete two pitches of 5.9-5.10a, three pitches of 5.8, and three pitches of 5.5-5.7 at nearly 14,000′ elevation.

Adding insult to this impossible dream, the easiest route is called, “The Casual Route, ” in honor of Charlie Fowler’s description of his free solo (no rope, no protection) climb of the route in 1978…he said it was “casual” in the sense of…

…not difficult, child’s play, a cinch, easily done, effortless, inconsiderable, no problem, no sweat, no trouble, nothing to it, a picnic, a piece of cake, straightforward, and undemanding.

Uh huh.  Thanks for your opinion, Mr. Fowler.  I guess that’s one for and one against, as far as voting goes.

Back in the old days, my Midwest climbing friends and I didn’t dare admit having such ambitions; we would only talk about how amazing and crazy some climbers were, and we’d keep our true feelings of envy and aspiration to ourselves. But, over the years, as I grew into a better climber and a mountaineer, I dared imagine that I, too, could climb the Diamond. Someday.

This trip report is about the effort my buddy, Brian, and I made in an effort to climb The Diamond.

Story

Having brought ourselves to thinking that we could really do it, Brian and I decided that we’d use the Spring & Summer of 1998 to prepare our skills,  fitness and confidence for a late Summer attempt.  During the 4 month preparation, we completed the following alpine snow & rock climbs to ready ourselves physically, intellectually, & emotionally:

  1. Squaretop Mountain; snowclimb (4/98)
  2. Mt Belford; snowclimb  (4/98)
  3. Mt. Princeton; snowclimb  (5/98)
  4. Mt. Harvard; snowclimb  (5/98)
  5. Mt. Tauberguache; snowclimb  (5/98)
  6. Mt. of the Holy Cross; snowclimb  (6/98)
  7. Longs Peak via Kieners; snow and rock scramble (7/98)
  8. The Saber in RMNP; 11 pitches up to 5.9 (7/98)
  9. Jackson-Johnson on Hallets Peak; 9 pitches up to 5.9 (7/98)
  10. The Love Route on Hallets Peak; 8 pitches up to 5.9 (8/98)

We had prepared very hard and felt ready to proceed.  When the weatherman predicted good weather, we set the date:  August 8, 1998.

The overall plan was:

  1. Hike in the day before to save energy for the climbing day
  2. Camp in the Boulderfield (to avoid a free solo of the 4th class plus, 320′ plus North Chimney)
  3. Descend to Broadway Ledge via the Chasm View rappels (3 150′ rappels in the pitch black darkness)
  4. Traverse the snowy ledge to the Casual Route start, skirting the opening of the North Chimney
  5. Climb the Casual Route (7 pitches plus traversing finish)
  6. If unsuccessful, escape via many rappels down the Diamond’s face, and then ascend the Camel Route to reach our campsite
  7. If successful, traverse the Table Ledge to finish the climb via Kiener’s Route
  8. Traverse to the North Face Cable Route and rappel back to Chasm View
  9. Hike back to the Boulderfield to pack up and head home

Before it was over, we’d be sleep-deprived, starved, dehydrated, exhausted, rained and hailed on, surprised, horrified, and delighted.

 

Brian next to his tent in the Longs Peak Boulderfield

Brian enjoying a moment of rest in the Longs Peak Boulderfield

 

The Hike into Camp

We started hiking in toward the Boulderfield at 9am.  We had all day to cover the distance, so we took our time.  We arrived at the Boulderfield and setup camp; and we still had hours to kill.

We wandered up to Chasm View to take in the sights, snap a few photos, and prepare ourselves to find the rappel anchors in the dark a few hours hence. All was proceeding well until we noticed the clouds building.

 

Joe posing with the Diamond looming in the background

Joe posing with the Diamond looming in the background

 

The weatherman was wrong.

One of the key problems in climbing the Diamond is the weather.  It is east facing, so any approaching weather cannot be seen until it is overhead; and with escape only possible via multiple rappels requiring one or more hours to perform, we’d have to move very fast to have any chance.  And we’d have to be lucky.

The Approach to the Climb

We arose in the dark and started for Chasm View at 4:15am.  Using headlamps, we wandered among the refrigerator-sized boulders, orienting ourselves using the faint outline of Longs against the dark sky.

Reaching the Chasm View area, our previous day efforts paid off with the quick acquisition of the Chasm View rappel anchors.  We unpacked the harnesses and the rope and made ready for a descent into a pit of darkness.

I took the first rappel.  The light from my headlamp illuminated the canyon walls, but couldn’t reach to the bottom. It was a creepy feeling to rappel into an abyss, but my lack of sleep muted any strong emotional response.

 

A view of the Chasm View rappel area from the start of the Casual Route; 3 150 foot rappels to descend to Broadway Ledge.

A view of the Chasm View rappel area from the start of the Casual Route; three 150 foot rappels to descend to Broadway Ledge.

 

My only job besides not dying was to find the next set of rappel anchors.  I only had one chance to find them as we couldn’t go back up without losing the day.

But the day started well; I found the anchor. I clipped into the bolts and then unclipped from the rope. I called out for Brian to come on down by yelling, “Off rappel!”  Brian stepped over the edge carrying our gear pack, rappelled down and clipped in next to me.  After he unclipped from the rope, I started pulling the rope down from the initial rappel anchor while he threaded it through the 2nd anchor. As we neared the end of the process, his headlamp died.

I couldn’t believe it.  After 4 months of planning, he didn’t replace the 50 cent batteries. Fortunately, it wasn’t really a big deal.  I would just have to find the next two anchors.  Although, it was possible that we’d have to wait a few minutes at the bottom of the raps for the sky to brighten enough for Brian to accomplish the traverse to the start of the climb without falling off Broadway Ledge.

I finished getting ready for the next rappel while Brian put the dead headlamp away in our gear pack.  I heard him say, “Shit!”  With some reluctance, he explained that when he unzipped the backpack, one of his rock climbing shoes fell out and disappeared into the darkness.  Now that was a big deal.  No shoe, no climb.

If the shoe fell below Broadway Ledge, all the way down to Mills Glacier, it would take us too long to recover it even if we could find it.  We’d lose the day. Brian says, “Sorry.”  I replied, “Maybe we’ll get lucky; maybe it stopped at Broadway Ledge.”  In one part of my mind, I was mad; all this effort wasted.  In another part of my mind, I was relieved that we would be going home alive.

But we had to try to find it, so we continued down into the black pit.

At the bottom of the 2nd rappel, there it was.  Brian’s shoe had stopped on a small ledge. The climb was on.

We completed the 3rd rappel and then started the traverse immediately.  The daylight had begun, and we could see without the headlamps.  And we could see that the sky was already threatening.  Top of the North Chimney was a loose, snowy, narrow, sloping trap.  We decided to do a belay while skirting the rim of the North Chimney and then found “The Ramp” about 20 feet further.  At the top of that large sloping ledge, we started the climb with the knowledge that we had to go fast.

The Climb

 

Joe on top of the D1 pillar, about to start the 5.9 crack of Pitch 2

Joe on top of the D1 pillar, about to start the 5.9 crack of Pitch 2

 

Pitch 1: Brian gave me the pack and took the first lead up a left-facing corner, and then up and left to a ledge. I followed without incident. We were delighted to see that the weather was clearing. (5.5)

Pitch 2: I took the second lead up a short easy section to the top of a pillar, and then up a tough crack to a belay stance near the start of the traverse.  My primary concern was to find the correct traverse starting point.  The correct traverse is a protectable 5.7 while the improper one is poorly protected 5.10c.  I found it right at a spot with a nice stance. Brian followed quickly behind. (5.9)

Pitch 3: Brian took the traverse.  While technically not difficult, crawling sideways is always harder than climbing up. I found it hard to find the best route over the flakes and small ledges, negotiating past wet rock, and trying to keep the gear pack from pulling me off-balance.  We belayed beneath a squeeze chimney. (5.7)

 

A view straight up of Brian leading the 5th pitch

A view straight up of Brian leading the 5th pitch

 

Pitch 4: I led the fourth pitch up a short, challenging squeeze chimney, and then up and slightly left on easier terrain to the end of “The Ramp2.”  I made sure to continue past the initial piton to give Brian enough rope for a long 5th pitch. Brian followed without incident. The weather started worsening. (5.8)

Pitch 5: Brian then led up a long dihedral and belayed at a grassy ledge.  I followed in light rain & hail.  By the time I reached the belay, the rain & hail had stopped.  We didn’t even discuss bailing. (5.9)

Pitch 6: I took a short lead to the Yellow Wall Bivy Ledge, which was a magnificent ledge for such a vertical environment.  I could see how it would be possible to sleep on the ledge quite comfortably.  Once Brian arrived, it started to hail and rain again, but this time a bit harder.  And then it stopped again.  Still no lightning, so we didn’t speak of retreating.  We took a short break to give the wind some time to dry out the technical crux of the route.

Pitch 7: The crux pitch.  If we could get up this last pitch, we would make it. But failure was still within our grasp:  if the rock got too wet or if lightning started, we’d fail and bail.  Brian took this lead and moved very quickly.  After a short time, the slack in the rope started being pulled up.  After 3 quick rope tugs, it was my turn to make it past the several hardest moves of the climb. As I started climbing, the rain & hail started again.  I continued up through the wet, narrow inset, and then started up the squeeze chimney.  I struggled to get through the chimney with the pack on; when I finally got past it, I was completely exhausted.  I took off the pack and passed it up to Brian, then I steeled myself to move past the bulge blocking my path to Table Ledge. Then it was over.

We had made it.  I needed a short break, despite the threatening weather; but we couldn’t fail now.  We had finished the Casual Route, but we still needed to escape the face and the mountain.

The Escape

 

Joe sitting on the far end of Table Ledge, preparing to belay Brian to complete our escape from the East Face of Longs Peak

Joe sitting on the far end of Table Ledge, preparing to belay Brian to complete our escape from the East Face of Longs Peak

 

We were sitting on the Table Ledge which we needed to traverse left to link up with the Kieners Route.  But the ledge had a break in it, so we had to do a descending and then ascending traverse to find our escape.  I started by traversing left past a piton, and then down and left about 25 feet to another ledge called Almost Table Ledge.  A wet downclimb is challenging in any case, but at nearly 14000 feet and after hours of climbing, it was very unnerving.  I carefully traversed left until I could climb up to the Table Ledge again and belayed off some fixed gear backed up by two cams.  Brian followed quickly, and then we continued left, walking along the ledge until we could move above the Diamond onto the north face.

As we stepped above the Diamond, we were shaken by thunder.  To minimize our exposure to the elements, we traversed directly to the Cables Route.  We were rained and hailed upon, but no close lightning strikes.

After a short hike, we rappelled down to Chasm View, where we had started the day many hours earlier.

 

The Diamond, with key locations and pitches referenced.  Note:  the photo is from a different trip.

The Diamond, with key locations and pitches referenced. Note: the photo is from a different trip.

 

The Return Home

It seemed that the entire Boulderfield camp ground was out watching our return.  I wanted to believe that it was admiration for a job well done, but there is no doubt it was pity.  We felt like and must have looked like the walking dead, as we walked back into camp.   One wonderful fellow walked

 

Joe eating the greatest meal of all time...using a nut tool as a replacement spoon

Joe eating the greatest meal of all time...using a nut tool as a replacement spoon

 

over to our bivy site with a steaming hot dinner, which we gratefully accepted since we had no food left at all.  I had only eaten 1,000 calories during the day, and Brian even less.  That Hawaiian Chicken dinner tasted better than any meal I ever had before or since, and it got us home.

Thanks, neighbor!

It had taken us 2 days to hike 15 miles and 4,000 feet of elevation gain, while climbing nearly 1,000 feet of 5th class terrain and descending 600 feet on rappel.

It was and continues to be a great feeling to  accomplish such a long held goal.

So what’s your vote?

See all Trip Reports

See all Longs Peak Massif Trip Reports

Brian’s Lucky Day: Longs via Kieners

March 27, 2009

Neither Brian or I had ever successfully 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 Route.” Ensnared by the gravity of such inspiration, the limits of our so called “free will” were all too apparent.

And while this adventure shared many attributes with many other adventures, this one would be characterized by the lucky breaks Brian used to survive the day. For that reason, I call our ascent of Longs Peak via Kieners Route on July 3rd, 1998, “Brian’s Lucky Day.”

Start

We started at 4:20am and hiked up the trail toward Chasm Lake beneath the North Face of Longs Peak. It was a beautiful clear night with millions of stars filling the black sky. We took a left at the Y-Junction (right goes to Boulderfield) and arrived at Chasm Lake at 7:30am.

A preview of our plan to summit Longs Peak via the Kiener's Route

A preview of our plan to summit Longs Peak via the Kiener's Route

(1) Chasm Lake

As we approached the lake’s dam, we were hoping the lake would still be frozen over so we could hike over instead of around it. Going around is a significant bother as there is no “shore”; it requires a scramble over talus. And worse, the southern shore (the direct line to Lamb’s Slide) is blocked by cliffs, so we’d have to take a big detour to our right, around the northern side of the lake. But no; the ice was melted through in the center. We had to go around.

As I moved across the talus, I lost sight of Brian. I assumed he found a path lower down the talus, closer to the lake. Once I was about ½ way around the lake, I was surprised for a moment to see Brian walking on the ice about 20-30 feet from shore. But my surprise didn’t last as Brian frequently likes to push it when it comes to walking on lake ice.

Then I noticed he was shiny. He looked wet!

(2) Brian’s Self Rescue

Brian noticed me looking at him, and he motioned for me to approach. I moved down to the lake to join him, and found that the ice did not reach back to shore. Brian asked me to extend a hiking pole to pull him as he jumped the gap from the ice to the shore. He made it without adding significantly to his moisture level, so I asked how he came to be dripping wet. He explained that he had fallen through the ice, but had managed to escape a watery grave by crawling back onto it. I guess the ice was thin enough that when he went through, it broke up all around him into small floes: small enough to not trap him; big enough for him to get on.

He hadn’t yelled for help or even let me know he was on the ice. I would never have found him. He was lucky to be able to save himself.

(3) Complete the trek to Lamb’s Slide

After a short break to let Brian pour water out of his boots and wring out his socks, we continued around the lake and then up to the foot of Lamb’s Slide.

(4) Climb Lamb’s Slide

We reached the bottom of Lamb Slide and stopped to put on crampons and get out the ice axes. Then, we turned left to head up towards the Loft and Mt Meeker. We climbed about 800′ of elevation and exited at the first place it looked possible onto snowy ledges. We would traverse these ledges to the right until we reached the Broadway ledge proper. Along this thin ledge, we knew we would encounter snow & ice and at least one exposed technical section.

And, Brian needed to drain his boots again so we took another short break.

(5) Traverse Broadway Ledges to Horsby Direct Dihedral

The first corner we reached was covered in snow; I think it was the dihedral used by the Hornsby Direct finish to Stettner’s Ledges route. Brian headed across to check the conditions, to see if we needed a belay. He was planting his axe and kicking steps until about half-way across, he hit rocks just under the snow. Unable to gain secure footing on the main path, and with a large bulge of rock above him partially blocking his way, he moved lower to find solid footing on some exposed rocks below

I yelled out that the rocks looked unstable, and that we should setup a belay. Brian said he thought it would be okay. Just as he stepped down and put his full weight on a large boulder, it rolled over and fell out from under him.  It careened down onto Lamb’s Slide, hundreds of feet below. In that instant, I knew he was a goner. I stared blankly and screamed “rock” as a warning to anyone below.

By pure chance, Brian dropped straight down and landed squarely on another boulder only a foot or so lower that stopped his rapid descent into the afterlife. Brian looked back at me and offered up a profound, “whoa.” He then took the last step to reach the far ledge. We paused for a moment to listen for voices, but heard nothing but our own hearts pounding in our ears.

No one had been hurt, and we wanted to keep it that way.  Brian set up a belay anchor, and then I threw his end of the rope to him so I could get a belay past the airy bulge.

(6) Complete Broadway Traverse

We continued the traverse past several loose, snowy slopes to reach the far side of the notch couloir.  The route directions in Rossiter’s “High Peaks” guide book indicated a start within the Notch, but once again (as in 1996 see my Kieners’ …er, Notch Route trip report) I could not spot a likely start.  We decided to stop beneath a broken rock face leading up toward some fins of rocks. This looked to be a way to get into the Kiener’s Route.

We stopped for a snack and to change gear. Brian took his boots off and poured out a combined pint of fluid.  I didn’t think to see if it was just water, or if he’d peed himself a short while earlier.

Sitting squarely in the center of the “East Face” of Longs Peak, I felt that I was in the best spot on the greatest Colorado mountain. The combination of spectacular views, modest danger of dying at the moment, and the thrill of expected excitement to come felt unmatched.

(7) Climb Kiener’s Route to the Summit of Longs Peak

The upper portion of the Kiener's Route

The upper portion of the Kiener's Route

Brian took the first lead up the broken rock and over a chockstone; it was low 5th class climbing. I took the second lead up a narrowing chimney (about 3 feet across) to its end, and then up a waterfall to a big, grassy ledge. This pitch was 4th to low 5th class, and was the end of the technical portion of the route.

To speed things up without completely throwing caution to the wind, we simul-climbed up the broad ledges at the margin of the face (above the Diamond) for about 500′.  Once the terrain became gully-like with good hand and footholds, we unroped.  From this point on, the climbing difficulty was never harder than 3rd class.

At the end of this section, we stood in front of a massive cliff that separated us from the summit. It was very imposing and looked impossible to overcome.  I remember that my heart sank the first time I stood on that spot and looked at the impassable obstacle until I remembered the escape used by my guide to finish a climb on The Diamond.

Brian and I headed up and right, toward the Diamond face, and looked for large blocky rocks on the right. We climbed over the blocks and around the corner on a ledge to mount the north face of Longs.

From here, it was a 10-minute, 2nd class hike to the summit.  We reached the summit at 2pm; naturally the weather was deteriorating.  In addition, the summit was covered by flies and gnats, so we got ready to leave quickly.

(8) Descend the Cables Route

Just as we rose to head toward the Cable Route raps, a cloud rolled in and obscured visibility beyond 50 feet. Fortunately, we were able to feel our way down, having made the descent a couple times before. In a short time, we completed the second rappel and were looking over the impressive “Chasm View” to admire our path.

The hike down from the Boulderfield was a long one, as always. But, in the end, we had suffered and persevered 14.5 hours to ascend approximately 4800 feet and accomplish a classic mountaineering goal. And Brian had a very lucky day.

Our "lucky day" route up and down Longs Peak. The "X's" mark the spots of Brian's found luck.

Our "lucky day" route up and down Longs Peak. The "X's" mark the spots of Brian's found luck.

Our route had 8 major sections

  1. Hike to Chasm Lake
  2. Traverse around lake and Brian’s self rescue
  3. Completion of traverse to foot of Lamb’s Slide
  4. Ascent of Lamb’s Slide to Broadway Ledges
  5. Traverse to top of Hornsby Direct dihedral and Brian’s second lucky break
  6. Completion of traverse to start of Kiener’s Route
  7. Ascent of Kiener’s Route to Longs Peak summit
  8. Descent of Cables Route to Chasm View and back to car

See all Trip Reports

Longs Peak Keyhole Route

March 14, 2009

Story

Brian invited me to join him and some friends on a late Fall Longs Peak ascent via the Keyhole.  I had never done that route, so I was glad for the chance.

I met the group in the parking lot, and we started from the Ranger Station at 5am.  We passed the Goblins Forest and a frozen alpine brook a couple of times as we switch backed up a hill before finally crossing the brook on some log bridges approximately 1 hour and 1.5 miles from TH.  It was a cold day, but I was sweating like a boxer.  I needed to lose some layers, but I didn’t want to stop the group to shift my clothing. 

The trail left the heavy forest shortly after the log bridge crossing and continued up to tree line near 11,000′ (approximately 2.5 miles from the TH).  We stayed on the main trail through Mills Moraine heading toward Chasm Lake trail junction (11,550′) because Jim’s Grove trail was in poor shape.  We reached the Chasm Lake junction (11,550′), 3 miles from TH, and then turned toward Granite Pass.  Underneath Mt. Lady Washington, just before Granite Pass, we stopped for a water break.

My wet clothes had me shivering like a vibrating bed. The group said, “wearing cotton, eh?”…nope, just wet.  Now that I was cold and wet, I couldn’t stop wearing the clothes that got me wet in the first place.  I was dreaming of a dry base layer; I was destined for misery, but I was going to finish off the Keyhole route.

We then hiked past Granite Pass and then on to the Boulder Field. We continue through the Keyhole, then over The Ledges until we reached the Trough (~13,300′).  The Trough was full of soft snow and was very slow going for the 600′ ascent.  Once we scrambled over the top of the Trough, we started the icy Narrows, a wildly exposed ledge.  Transitioning between ice/snow and rock was nearly fatal for me twice as my crampons were as much a hazard as a lifesaver.

We reached the final pitch, called the Homestretch. It is a steep section of rock about 300′ tall that is often reported to be icy and treacherous.  However, this time it was covered in somewhat soft, but still rather stable snow.  We reached the summit quickly and took a long break.  The weather was fine, but it was getting late in the day.  I started wondering about how long before it got dark; I didn’t have a headlamp.

After our water and food break, we hurried down the Keyhole route and reached the Boulder Field when it occurred to me that we had about 1 hour of light remaining.  I decided to hurry ahead to get as far as I could with the remaining light.  I got as far as the Chasm Lake trail junction before I was hiking in the shadows.  The sky remained light for a while longer, but the icy trail was in the shadows and I couldn’t see the icy spots anymore.  I slowed to a crawl after two separate head-over-heals sliding tumbles on the ice.  I made it to the car by 7pm and drove home thinking about being better prepared.

 

Complications

  • Late fall meant a short day
  • Cold weather plus fast pace makes for difficult body temperature management
  • I was the guest and just went along with the existing plans

 

Mistakes

(1) Managed by body temperature badly

  • Didn’t remove layers to avoid sweating

 

(2) Prepared badly

  1. Didn’t bring extra dry base layers
  2. Didn’t bring a headlamp
  3. Didn’t anticipate that it would be dark well before getting back to the car

 

(3) Made several bad decisions along the way due to flaws & biases in my thinking.

  • Denial Bias:  I just didn’t think about the trip very much; I trusted that the group I was with would have planned well.  I also didn’t think about going ahead without the rest of the group; if I had hurt myself there was a chance I could be stranded out overnight.  Besides, I could have walked more safely with them guiding the way (they had headlamps)

 

How I Got Lucky

  1. The weather stayed safe all day
  2. I was able to avoid hypothermia despite being wet on a cold day
  3. I managed to avoid getting injured in the dark while hiking alone 

 

Go to “Learning from Mistakes” index

Go to Index of all essays

The Great Cirque: Meeker to Longs traverse

March 10, 2009

The idea for the Mt. Meeker to Long’s Peak traverse came to me last December after climbing Mt. Meeker on a clear, cool morning.  Sitting on the Meeker summit rock, I looked over the Loft to Longs Peak and saw the potential for a beautiful traverse.  At that moment, I decided I would come back to bag the two-summit traverse.  The idea eventually grew into a quest to bag “Colorado’s greatest mountain cirque” (Roach).

Of course it is a long bit of hiking, but there is also a short technical obstacle to overcome:  Mt Meeker and Longs Peak are separated by “The Notch”.  The Notch is a gap in the rock approximately 75′ deep at the ridgeline and which continues as a deep and steep gully down each side of the mountain.

Nevertheless, where there’s a will . . .

 

The Great Circ Route

The Great Circ Route

 

Brian and I were recovering from a full summer of rock climbing and related injuries, so I was able to convince Brian to do an alpine hike.  To do the entire cirque, we chose to start the loop at the Longs Peak  cut-off to Chasm Lake, which we would take toward the Mt. Meeker East Ridge, and after summiting on Meeker and then Longs, we’d return via the Boulderfield (about a 5 mile loop).

In total, the Great Cirque trek would take approximately 12 hours including the hike from and to the parking lot and would cover approximately 15 miles and an elevation gain of approximately 5700′.

Our plan had eight steps:

  1. Hike from Longs Ranger station toward Longs to Chasm Lake cutoff
  2. Hike past Chasm Lake and up through Iron Gates (class 2) approach to Mt. Meeker East Ridge
  3. Traverse Mt. Meeker ridge (class 3) to summit
  4. Descend to Loft & hike (class 2) to high point on Loft north side
  5. Descend Gorrells Traverse route (4th Class crack system) to Notch gully and ascend to Notch high point (class 4), and then climb to Longs ridge and summit using the 5th class rock finish to the Notch Coulior route
  6. Descend Longs North face via Cables route (two single rope rappels) to Chasm View
  7. Hike to Boulder Field
  8. Hike around Lady Mount Washington to complete circuit at Chasm Lake cutoff

Alternatives to avoid carrying ropes and difficult scrambling:

  1. Take Clark’s Arrow from Loft to join Keyhole route – avoid 4th class chimney and technical pitch
  2. Take Keyhole route from Long’s summit back to Boulderfield – avoid rappels

Time table:

  • Start hiking – 4am
  • Reach bottom of Iron Gates – 7am (first light)
  • Mt. Meeker summit – 9am
  • Long’s Peak summit – Noon
  • Reach car – 4pm

Report

Brian picked me up at 3am.  I was ready to go when he arrived, for a change, and we immediately headed out of Boulder for Lyons, and then the Long’s Peak Ranger Station parking lot.  We arrived just before 4am to find a parking space right in front.  A good omen.  The cold weather a week earlier must have suspended the weekend cattle drive for Longs Peak.

We powered up the trail needing only long underwear to stay warm despite the high winds and temperatures in the 30’s.  Around 5:30, still an hour or so before dawn, we reached a popular rest stop, the fork to Chasm Lake (left) or the Boulderfield (right).  The frigid winds eliminated any thought of a rest and we hurried onward toward  Chasm Lake to find some shelter.  We found a suitable rock formation approximately 300 yards further where we could stop to put on fleece and wind jackets.  My numb fingers made me regret leaving my regular gloves at home, and I would later find another reason to regret bringing only fingerless gloves.

The trail from the Ranger Hut below the Ship’s Prow (rock formation which separates the canyons below Mt. Meeker to the left and Long’s Peak & Chasm Lake to the right) to the Iron Gates is indistinct and generally over talus.  We knew the Iron Gates gully ran up the left of the buttress which is to the left of Cathedral Buttress (the awe inspiring buttress which runs down from the Mt. Meeker summit to the canyon floor), but of course this is difficult to see in the twilight.  Fortunately, a moment of hesitation allowed the sunrise to show us the path.

The Iron Gates gully proved to be a wonderful route to the Mt. Meeker East Ridge.  At the top of the 2nd class gully, a short 3rd class scramble brought us to the ridge and the endless vistas of the Eastern and Southern horizons. More importantly, an eastern view brought us exposure to the sun on a cold windy morning.

We paused to enjoy the radiation, eat a quick snack and apply sunscreen. After a few minutes, we continued on our quest.  This leg of the cirque led us west up the ridge toward the Mt. Meeker summit.  The easiest path was the ridgeline itself, which slopes about 20 degrees to the south (left) and 90 degrees to the north (right).  With the wind gusting up to 40 mph, we took care to avoid becoming a cliff diver and wasting all our efforts.

 

Our route from Meeker

Our route from Meeker

 

In a couple places, the traverse exhibited a common 4th class difficulty: it was 5th class without good route finding instincts.  We reached the summit at 9am with increased respect for the smaller sister of the mighty Longs Peak.  The summit itself is an unlikely square block sitting about 4 feet higher than the surrounding rock.  Underneath the block is an alcove that provided shelter from the wind and a nice spot for another snack.

 

The approach to and descent into the hidden Notch (dotted portion), then the ascent to the summit

The approach to and descent into the hidden Notch (dotted portion), then the ascent to the summit

 

We continued the traverse across the ridge and then down to the Loft, following the natural line.  In order to find Gorrells Traverse route on the far side of the Loft, we angled toward the high point (North end) of the Loft that forms one side of the Notch.  The Notch separates the Loft from Long’s Peak and prevents the easy hike to Long’s summit.

Gorrells Traverse route is a 4th class crack system  that descends into the Notch gully, SW side.

Per Rossiter’s guide book, RMNP: The High Peaks:

Hike NW to the highpoint of the SE ridge above The Notch. Descend to the west and locate cairns that mark the tops of two chimneys.  Downclimb the north chimney for about 200 feet to a broken platform that is about 100 feet above the gully leading up to The Notch.  Rappel into the gully from the north end of the platform or traverse up and left toward The Notch until it is possible to scramble down into the gully.

 

Gorrells Traverse

Gorrells Traverse. Photo from a later trip.

 

As in all guide book ratings, the rating is right if your technique and route finding is up to snuff.  There is also well-used rappel anchor for the unsure. We jammed down the cracks:  blind feet and bomber hands.   I got a tear in my wind jacket for the effort.  At the bottom of the first downclimb, we traversed right and slightly uphill to reach another gully which we downclimbed.  It was quite exposed but went rather easily as well.  From the bottom of the downclimb, we turned right and scrambled up to reach the top of the Notch.

 

Our route from the Notch to Longs Peak summit

Our route from the Notch to Longs Peak summit. Photo from earlier trip.

 

From the top of the Notch, we could see down the Notch Couloir toward the Broadway Ledge.  We also speculated on the feasibility of a tyrrolian traverse across the Notch without conclusion.  Since the rock was still non-technical at that point, we continued scrambling and moved out of the Notch toward the summit ridge.  We got to within 90 feet of the ridge before we ran out of scrambling terrain.

Since we brought rock gear, we didn’t feel compelled to stay with the Notch Couloir route (rated 5.2); in fact, we specifically wanted to find something more interesting…more memorable.  Brian spotted a rappel anchor at the top of the Long’s side of the Notch, approximately 90 feet above us; we agreed to climb toward it over the moderate looking moves.

 

A view of the technical climb to reach the summit ridge

A view of the technical climb to reach the summit ridge

 

We roped up and Brian took off for the ridge, his hiking boots scraping on clean 5.5  rock.  Our “mini-rack” of climbing gear was sparse enough to fit in a coat pocket, but it turned out to be ideal for a short pitch at 14,000 ft. elevation.   Near the top, Brian decided to pull a roof directly above rather than take the obvious ramp to the left.  When I questioned his intentions (with a yell from below), he explained, “you’ll thank me.”  Later, after pulling over the top on monstrous buckets, I did.

All that was left was the short but interesting ridge scramble and then a walk to the summit marker, which we reached at 11:54am.  We rested in luxurious bivy site and congratulated ourselves for a great trek.  It was, after all, quite literally all downhill from there.

 

Our descent route to the Boulderfield

Our descent route to the Boulderfield. Photo from later trip.

 

The descent through the Cable Route was interesting as a result of snow and ice adding frictionless treachery to the loose rocks in our path.  I lost my concentration on a relatively flat section and slipped on the ice.  My fall on the rock sheared off the front half of my right thumbnail.  This shockingly painful and bloody injury would cause me considerable grief during the rappels to come.  We scrambled down to the lower rappel anchors and made it to the Boulderfield in good time.

The hike out of the Boulderfield is always a death march, but this time I felt so good about the climb that I didn’t mind it at all. We reached the car at 4pm and drove into Lyons for some Mexican food.

It was all good, I just shouldn’t have ordered fajitas. They’re too hard to roll with just one hand!

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