Last week, on New Year’s Day, I thought I might lose my toes. Halfway up Long’s Peak, in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, I huddled in a snow cave and coaxed my stove to a ragged boil. I hadn’t felt my feet in hours.
I was trying to solo the East Face of Long’s, a 600m aspect dominated by the Diamond. To the left of that famous bigwall, a complex of ledges and couloirs offers a surprisingly moderate passage up the massive cliff. Trudging up Lamb’s Slide, the first couloir, a combination of thigh deep snow and sub-zero temps choked off any warmth in my feet, leaving them useless lumps in my boots. Now, sheltered in my cave to escape the blowing spindrift, the decision to bail was an easy one.
Back at home, a glass of whiskey dulled the pain and the memories. My frostbite worries seemed melodramatic, and a new plan began to take shape. Next time I would start earlier, and go bigger.
While the East Face of Long’s dominates it’s cirque, it’s not alone. It’s neighbor, Mt Meeker, presents a broad Northeast face, cut with vertical slashes and serpentine buttresses. The twin mountains form a natural arena for the sport of mountaineering, and I’ve long dreamt of climbing routes on both peaks in a day. My first attempt came in summer, two years ago, with my friend Graham. Having driven all night to arrive at my house at 4am, Graham ran on pure adrenaline through routes on the Diamond and Red Wall. When it came time to hike over to Meeker and complete our linkup, though, the high had worn off; we headed home.
Since then, I’ve had many big days in “The Park”, but never gone back to complete the Meeker-Long’s link. Now, having tucked tail and bailed from my New Year’s solo, I cast about for a big plan to redeem myself. The answer was obvious.
Saturday January 5th
My feet are warm, but now my lungs feel ready to disintegrate. My breath is rapid and shallow in the frigid thin air. Halfway up the Dreamweaver Couloir on Mt Meeker, a quarter of the way into my day, and I’m sure that this will be better than my last attempt.
The lower portion of Dreamweaver was that same unconsolidated snow that I’d found on Lamb’s Slide, but instead of thrashing and wallowing, I cheated out right onto a rock buttress and found moderate glove and boot climbing.
I traverse back into the couloir just in time to scratch up a series of chockstones, each presenting a tricky drytool crux. Spindrift avalanches come whistling down around me, and I pull my hood brim low.
Higher, firm snow allows for rapid progress, or at least as rapid as my wheezing lungs would allow.
The summit of Meeker is a treat, my first time atop a mountain that I see almost daily. The wind has swept clean the granite ridge, and for a moment in the bright sunshine I convince myself it’s summer.
Studying photos, and Google Earth, I’d figured out that I didn’t need to descend very far to reach my next route. From the Loft, the broad col between Meeker and Long’s, I sneak over to the head of Lamb’s Slide. Descending this, I then hook up with Broadway, a ledge across the whole East Face of Long’s, and simply traverse over to the base of the Notch Couloir. Within an hour I’m climbing again.
Again I encounter that awful powdery snow, but this time I have the determination to put my head down and slog. As I gain elevation, the cleft around me narrows; snow gives way to bare rock and the final challenges of the day. The initial steps are fun, with solid edges and little smears of ice.
Soon I’m staring up into a narrow chimney; doubt and fear seep into my head. I can’t fit with my pack on, but luckily I’ve brought a chunk of 6mm cord as a rappel line.
I wedge my pack below me and use the cord as a haul line, tying one end to the pack and the other to my harness. Unencumbered, I begin to squirm up the crack. My crampons grate against the bare granite, and my chest is squeezed tightly. My heart rate was already high, but now it red-lines as I gasp for oxygen. I hunt around above me for some purchase with my picks, but scraping the back of the snowy chimney just yields loose dirt and gravel. Another wild burst of effort, another centimeter of progress. Finally, after I catch up with my racing breath, I can reach up and hook a solid chockstone. I flop over into the loose snow, pull up my pack, and continue climbing.
There’s a constant battle in our minds between aspiration and inertia; big dreams and creeping doubt. Soloing, I think, intensifies and exposes that internal struggle. Without a partner to rely upon, or to blame, we’re forced to recognize our own motivations and fears.
I reached the summit of Long’s at sunset. After fighting with conditions and with myself, after bailing and trying again, I knew that it was just a fun day of climbing, hopefully one of many more to come.
1.5.13 Solo linkup of Dreamweaver on Mt. Meeker and Notch Couloir on Long‘s peak. ~800m of climbing with difficulties to AI3 and M3. Total elevation, including approach, ~18oom. 11 hours, car to car.
All photos and words copyright Scott Bennett 2013