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Climbing Longs Peak (Again and Again)


by Kelly Bates

December 29, 2001

My first half-hearted attempt to climb Long's was with my college friend and current roommate, Pete, back in 1996. We didn't really have an appreciation for what we were going to attempt, how long the normal route was, or how potentially dfficult and dangerous Longs could be. We went for a spring attempt, sometime before I started most of my winter and winter-condition exploits (before our memorable trips to Belford in -40 weather, Bierstadt in the dead of winter, and Torreys from the ski area at A-Basin, for example).

We drove up to Estes from Colorado Springs on a Saturday morning, and intended to hike up a ways, set up camp, and then summit and retreat the following day. We carried a tent and ice axes, but our equipment (packs, clothing, boots, partcularly mine) were still substandard junk, for all intents and purposes. Only Pete's single-wall tent was high-speed, of all our equipment. Parking at the east side ranger station, we hiked up several miles into the mid-afternoon. The snow was still deep off of the packed trail. By the time we'd reached the trail junction for Chasm View and the Diamond approaches, we were getting whipped by cold winds and decided to go down to the base of the Diamond (with no intentions whatsoever of summiting from that direction).

We set up his tent below the upper lake and below the entrances to the main climbing routes (Lamb's Slide and the rock routes) on a flat boulder overlooking the lower lake, filtered some water, cooked, and retired into the tent as the weather got increasingly cold and windy. As we looked at the map inside of the tent, we discovered we'd only done slightly more than a third of the distance we'd need to for the Keyhole route, and probably the easier part - the packed trail below treeline, mostly. We called it and packed it out the next day, and counted the climb off as a nice hike/camp and a learning experience.

My next attempt, with Coby a year-plus later, attempted the Keyhole route as well. It was later in the spring, almost summer, and the snow was mostly melted out below treeline and even up towards the boulder field. We were trying for a one-day hard-and-fast climb, and we drove to the trailhead and started hiking by 7:30. We'd driven from Breckenridge this time after skiing on Saturday, and wanted to be hiking by 6, but the windy roads added more than an hour to the trip. With more experience at this point, both of us carried better packs, ice axes, mountaineering boots, crampons - all of the basic mountaineering equipment for possible winter conditions. Pete and I had taken Coby out for his first mountaineering experience the previous fall on Bross (including the requisite $1000 shopping spree at REI on the way), precipitating the infamous 'gee, there goes my mitten' episode, but Coby seemed perfectly happy on snow, ice, rock, or anything we could hope to encounter.

We hiked quickly up the trail, past the junction with the Diamond trail, and as we got to the start of the boulder field we encountered snow. This wasn't the packed, snow-baked hard crust snow I had expected, but instead a huge field of spindrift filling in the boulder field entirely. Except for here and there, you couldn't even see the boulders; we wondered, briefly, if it was just a large talus and scree field (even though it was mostly flat). That idea quickly died as we started into four foot of loose snow randomly strewn with rocks up to five feet in diameter. The only way across was to hop across the tops of exposed boulders, hoping we wouldn't slip off and fall in or twist an ankle; we both fell numerous times, but somehow avoided injury. Our decision to leave our snowshoes at the car was vindicated; the snow wouldn't have supported any wieght at all, and not having them tied to our packs gave us much-needed balance. After perhaps an hour of slow, zig-zagging progress across the field, we finally came to firmer snow just under the keyhole, by the old stone shelter. The shelter was filled with blown snow almost to the roof (no door, and the entryway faced windward). We continued on to the keyhole saddle proper, and took 10 to cool off. The sun was blazing and the wind was calm, and our 10-minute rest became closer to 25 as we looked at the map and route ahead, and put on crampons for the traverse across the SW face.

We started across the traverse, following cairns and paint spots as the trail meandered up and down the rocks, and noticed for the first time that we were the only people here. No other people, no other footprints, no real trail. It's not likely that we were the first to make it that far even that early in the season, and the only explanation that seemed to make sense was that avalanches had removed the traces of others. The traverse is sufficiently steep to spontaneously slide, and several gullies cutting the path looked likely; in addition, the snow was wet and heavy in the afternoon sun, balling up our crampons every few steps, and sliding away below us as we walked. Coby had me stop maybe 300 yards (and a half hour) beyond the keyhole, and said he didn't feel comfortable with the snow and exposure. I didn't feel too badly about either, but acquiesced and agreed. It wouldn't have been smart at all to continue solo, and an avalanche might have buried us both a couple of thousand feet below, burying our bodies until summer, if we continued. We walked back down, spending another hour negotiating the boulder field, arrived back at the parking lot around 4, and had a good dinner in Estes before heading home.

My next attempt was a year later, and there was less snow than the previous time. Coby and I wanted this mountain, and I figured 'third time's the charm.' Our idea this time was to hike into Glacier Gully from inside the park, and head directly up the main gully leading to the summit via the normal Keyhole route (meeting that route around 13,500'). That Friday the weather was clear and warmish, and it was a full moon; perfect conditions to get us in as far as possible, set up an approach camp, and climb in the morning. We left after work on Friday and started hiking just after dark with the moon coming over the horizon. After maybe a mile of trail hiking, everyone else had apparently turned back from this trail to their cars, so we strapped on our snowshoes and continued climbing. Where the trail turned west around a ridge it was melted out, and our snowshoes were in danger of being shredded by the rocks; we buddy-teamed strapping them back onto each others' packs, and each barely avoided putting out our eyes on the others' strapped ice axes in the dark, then continued. Our carbide-tipped poles made fantastic sparks on the rocks in the moonlit world as we came back to snow, and where we felt we needed to leave the trail to turn south.

We needn't have worried about leaving the trail at all; back in the trees, without any other marks or steps showing us where it went, we lost the trail almost immediately. We put on headlamps and snowshoesand headed south across a swamp, filled alternately with marsh and snowfields, until we came to a creek where we assumed we were below a confluence we wanted. We followed the stream (maybe 10 feet wide, and wild in the snowmelt) up for around a mile, and found our confluence; the southern branch we wanted to follow was flanked on its east (our intended side, closer to Longs) by a buttress footed directly in the water, and by tangled deadfall on the other. Not wanting to play around in the deadfall at night, we searched for a way across below the confluence. About 50 yards downstream there was a snowbridge leading to a higher bank, and we quietly and quickly debated using it. The worst that could happen would be a complete collapse with one of us getting soaked at night miles from the car, so I took point across it. I gently and slowly stepped across on my snowshoes, balancing with my poles and trying to spread out my bodyweight so as not to drop the escape route. Coby followed, with similar caution. Success in our first obstacle.

We were very close to the confluence and buttress on this side; even closer than it had looked from across earlier in headlamp illumination. Just above the stream junction on the tributary we wanted to follow, the rock did indeed move straight into the stream, and the stream turned into a waterfall next to it. Fortunately, the stream was also covered by an indeterminate thickness of snow; not a bridge, but a complete cap, leading straight up the stream to the top of the waterfall. Breaking through this would possibly drop someone into the stream and then catch the body. A quick drowning death without having to wait for hypothermia to kill. Much better. We carefully climbed up this obstacle as well, and stepped across the wide hole at the top where the stream was rushing in. Second obstacle, no problem.

The remainder of the drainage flattened out, and we stayed within fifty yards of the stream past long lakes (where we had to walk on the ice-beaches because of dense underbrush on the actual banks), and another hour of movement ut us near where we thought we wanted to be. We set up the tent (my 3-season this time, for weight savings) on the snow next to the stream, most likely on a marsh covered by a couple of feet of snow, and went to bed. It was 3am and we'd been hiking for 6 hours.

We slept until the sun warmed the valley and woke us around 8:30 the next morning, and set off south again. We imagined the large buttress above and to our left as we hiked was a subpeak, and kept moving until we reached Black Lake at the head of the gully. We picked a likely large colouir to move up as the guide from this side wasn't very specific, and climbed for about an hour and a half straight up as a strong west wind came up behind us. When we reached the saddle at the top of the col, we huddled down on the leeward side to inspect the map and get our bearings. I looked north across a large steep basin, and saw that a ridge of steep pinnacles separated us from a wall with a ledge leading across it, about a mile away. Damn. And it matched the map, too. We'd just climbed the wrong mountain, Pagoda Peak. At least we were near the top of it. It was too windy for us to want to climb the last 500 feet of ridge, so we took some pictures of the amazing exposure, tightened down our wind gear, and headed back down to the floor of Glacier Gully. Getting out in the daylight was much easier, and we decided moonlight mountaineering in unfamiliar terrain wasn't such a hot idea.

Zero for three for me, zero for two for Coby. That fall, late, we went for broke. Our new plan: Lay siege to the mountain and not come down until we summitted. We were going to attempt the North Face Cable Route this time, a direct variation off of the Keyhole route trail. We made sure we had all of our work sewn up in case we didn't come back Monday or Tuesday, and headed up to the mountain yet again, Friday afternoon. Our packs were huge and heavy (about 70 pounds with plenty of food and serious gear this time), and we planned on skinning up, me in AT gear and Coby in telemark gear (which forced him to carry his mountain boots as well). We didn't get started until about 9pm, and went about 3 miles up the packed (once agan, plenty of snow) trail before deciding to set up the tent just off the trail (technically not allowed, but then we didn't figure to see anyone else, either).

We slept in the next morning untl the sun came up and we were ready to move, about 8; we weren't in a hurry, as our plan was to pack to the upper boulder field and chasm view for the day and then attempt summiting the followng day. As we were eating and packing gear, someone wandered past on the trail and mentioned loudly that camping wasn't allowed. Oh well, them's the breaks. So sorry to have ruined his wilderness experience by also existing. We packed the tent and got back on the skiis. We had a pleasant skinning experience up, mostly on packed snow, and stayed out of trouble higher by skirting the east side of the boulder field. A flat snowy ledge near chasm view gave us a great view of the boulder field, keyhole, and upper diamond. We set up camp and were done with everything by about 3:30.

We decided then to put on our crampons and reconnoiter the route we'd hopefully ascend in the morning. We the climbing gear, and in fact practiced roped snow climbing as a 2-man team to the base of the cable route, along steep traverses. As we got closer, the 2-pitch crux looked harder and harder (to me, anyway); Coby went up closer to scout it out, roped and belayed from below. And then he just kept climbing, a full rope length. He was at the upper anchors in one pitch and telling me to give it a try. I'd not done any alpine rock or mixed climbing at all, and didn't have any technique at all. I got on rope and climbed (hacked) my way up until I too was at the anchor. We then looked at each other, our watches, and decided, heck, it's 5. It's maybe another half hour to the top. Let's just go get it now. And so we did, as the clouds gathered around us. Finally, we got to the top for a few great summit pictures. As we turned to descend the clouds were getting more solid above us and a light wind had blown in; when we got to the upper anchors and set up the rappel, it was snowing and blowing past us into the chasm; and when we were back down on the Chasm View rim, it was snowing hard, blowing harder, and threatening to turn into a whiteout storm. We quickly moved back to the tent, whch had about an inch of snow built up on it. We ditched our gear, crawled inside, cooked dinner, and went to sleep, thoroughly happy and tired.

We woke the next morning to a quiet world. From inside the tent the light was very dim, and we couldn't hear any wind at all. Strange, because our watches said it was after 7 already. We unzipped the fly and couldn't see out except for the top six inches. Oh, that's why. It had snowed more than 3 feet on us in the night, and we were still in the clouds. It had stopped snowing and the winds were calm, though. We dug out the tent and looked for gear in the new snowpiles for about an hour.

Cold and wet by this time (leaving our gear outside had been a mistake), we packed up as tightly as we could (leaving me with my normal gypsy-wagon look), put on our skiis, and slowly worked our way down the mountain. I've never been so humbled on skiis as I was that day. AT gear, plastic double boots, 75 pounds of unbalanced gear on my back, three feet of unconsolidated snow hiding boulders, and no visibility beyond 20 yards made the trip out just bearable. But it would have been so much worse if we'd only been on snowshoes or hiking. Coby had a ball (did I mention that he's a much better skier than I can ever hope to be)? He beat me out on the switchback lower trail to the jeep by a good twenty minutes.

I'd love to go try this mountain again, but I think I'll try it in the summer the next couple of times.

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