There’s snow on my handhold!
At this point in my life, I’ve spent enough time on rock to have gained great level of confidence and comfort on that medium. Dry rock, though, and temperatures amenable to climbing it with thin slippers and bare hands, is often not found on the big mountains of the world.
This past week, I joined my friend Cheyne Lempe for a “very late Fall” (Dec 11th) foray up Long’s Peak, in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park. Despite being a few days before the calendar start to the season, conditions certainly felt wintery. While I’ve climbed this peak numerous times in the July and August, this trip would be an entirely different experience.
After a pre-dawn start from the trailhead, Cheyneand I enjoyed a well packed trail up through the sub-alpine forests and into a barren world of tundra and rock. Even in the summer, this is a forbidding place, and now it was clear to me that I was stepping out of my comfort zone. There were some benefits, though, to the frigid temps: Chasm Lake was completely frozen, allowing us to shortcut the approach talus field and pleasantly slide across the icy surface.
Long’s is a very complicated peak, and though I know the Diamond well, I’ve never explored the myriad of cliffs and ledges that form the left side of the huge East Face. We chose to start up a snowy couloir, Lamb’s Slide, and then quickly left the chute for the steep rock, Alexander’s Chimney. Following a major chimney/gully system of the left side of the Lower East Face, Alexander’s climbs ~250m of easy rock and ice. I say easy, because in dry conditions the rock would offer little challenge for the well-equipped climber, checking in at just 5.5, a grade I would often feel comfortable soloing. Now, though, in boots and gloves, the rock was definitely more engaging, offering a few moments of fear and excitement.
After gaining Broadway, the long ledge system that cuts across the entire face, we traversed right, hoping to find passage to the summit. We had considered Kiener’s, which is an easy rock route in summer conditions, but the snow and ice of the Notch Couloir looked more appealing, and we obligingly began trudging up it. Steep snow quickly gave way to bullet-hard ice and eventually bare rock. We simuled a few long pitches up the chute, and reached the eponymous Notch, on the ridgeline of the peak, while the sun was still blazing the western sky. A few moments of exploration and indecision followed: steep walls hemmed in both sides of the notch. We scouted to the West, hoping to find a continuous ledge system that provide easy passage to the summit slopes. No Luck.
Regrouping, we climbed out of the notch to the North and East, eventually finding a low-angled corner system that I happily climbed sans crampons and tools. I was back on terrain I could handle! That pitch gained the ridgeline, and one more long pitch brought us to un-roping terrain just shy of the summit.
The summit brought elation, and an increased sense of purpose. We had accomplished all of our climbing goals for the day, but now had to accomplish the much more visceral goal of descending back to the warmth and food of civilization. Despite having been down the North Face descent several times, I still managed to get a bit lost. Nothing a quickly slung block and 30m rappel couldn’t fix, though, and we were soon on the rappel path.
Headlamps came out as we made the last rap, and then we began the long zombie slog back down the snowy talus fields to the car. Again, I got us lost on seemingly familiar terrain (sorry Cheyne!). Every time we lost the path, the sadistic snow would punish us with a heinous layer of crust that supported 90% of bodyweight, then giving out and dropping us into the soft snow beneath. This got old.
What never gets old: regaining the car after a long day!
Big thanks to Deuter USA, whose Guide 35L pack was a perfect platform for this climb. I removed the waistbelt and tightened up the shoulder straps so that it rode high, which allowed me to wear it all day, even while leading. Watch for an upcoming “Techniques” page about packs, and how to make yours work on a big climb.
Also, thanks to CAMP USA. I used the X-All Mountain tools, a well balanced and streamlined set that clung to ice and rock with equal aplomb. I also wore the C-Comp ‘pons, which are just about as light as I can imagine for such capable tools.