| Adding a Notch to the belt
The Notch Couloir is one of the most obvious features on Longs Peak and beckons to be climbed. Thanks to a record-setting snowpack we were lucky enough to find this east-facing couloir in good condition in the middle of July. Only a week removed from Dreamweaver, I was reluctant to take on another sleepless night and long approach. But then again, I’m a sucker for an aesthetic line.
Stock overview photo. Photo credit: Eli Helmuth
The forecast called for a clear morning and 40% chance of thunderstorms after noon. We knew this was a big and very committing route, so we agreed on a trailhead departure time of 1:00 am. We arrived at the Longs Peak trailhead at around 1:00 but took a bit of time sorting gear and making final preparations, finally departing at 1:30am. About a mile into our approach I checked the GPS and was pleased to find we were averaging 3.1 MPH uphill, and we pressed on hard.
Just before Chasm Junction we caught up to a solo hiker and bummed some sunblock off of him, as we foolish forgot to apply ours at the car. Shortly after we caught up to a duo attempting the trough that had left the parking lot ~20 minutes before us and were acting as our pace "rabbit" for our approach. Knowing that a moderately steep snowfield lay between us and Chasm lake, we donned gaiters and axes at Chasm Junction but otherwise wasted little time. Just after the snowfield on the approach to Chasm Lake we passed a duo also attempting the Notch Couloir. Unfortunately I can't remember their names, but they were nice guys and we climbed near them most of the day.
When we topped out after the short scramble to Chasm Lake, it occurred to me that this was my first time actually visiting Chasm Lake despite being my 4th time passing by it (6 if you count descents). The clouds had cleared to reveal a beautiful night sky and a serene but formidable east face.
The awesome east face of Longs, from Chasm Lake
The approach around the north side of Chasm Lake to Lamb's slide is as miserable as the views are beautiful. Large talus hopping and loose scree impede your progress, with one hatefully loose slope right before reaching Lamb's slide. Having completed this approach in 2 hours 40 minutes, 20 min faster than our estimated time, we treated ourselves to a nice long break while we racked up.
The cajun trailmix from Sunflower is much better than this junk from King Soopers
Despite horror stories of 50 degree alpine ice Lambs slide is often rumored to harbor, I found it rather tame. We cruised right up it, reaching the start of Broadway at sunrise.
Looking down the delightfully benign Lamb's Slide
Sunrise on Broadway
With advance knowledge that Broadway was snow free, it was time to ditch the crampons for a while and enjoy the views.
Me ditching the 'pons.
Chris excited for some exposure
The beginning of Broadway is surprisingly wide, and the edge is more of a roll-over than a sheer drop. We were comfortable cruising across the first pitch or two without considering roping up.
Broadway is broad
We quickly reached the infamous step-around move, and while not as horrifically exposed as I had built it up to be, it's still a narrow ledge with no margin for error. Chris wanted to crawl under the boulder as he had done his last time on Broadway, but I was concerned over the possibility of wet grass as evidenced by the runoff.
Broadway is not so broad anymore
Chris led the step around and set up a belay at the next "wide" section, and I dutifully cleaned. Thanks to my large wingspan I was actually able to reach completely around the "step-around" rock. Big solid jug in my left hand, perfect hand jam in my right, and with one quick step I was back on a wide ledge. Noting that the terrain eased considerably, we decided to coil the rope for the rest of Broadway.
Me getting ready to clean the pitch
Bit of exposure
A second, less severe-looking crux lies a bit after the step-around. It has solid holds and aren't required to lean out like the step-around, but it is still no-fall terrain. We were comfortable forgoing the rope, despite the deceivingly intense look in the picture.
Solid easy holds, but don't fall
We arrived at the base of the notch and took one last look down the diagonal wall, just as a reminder to not fall in the Couloir.
People ski this route? Idiots.
The Notch Beckons
The snow was a bit soft by the time we started up, partially from being in the sun too long and mostly from lack of a real freeze in weeks. We wanted to belay up at least the first pitch not because of climbing difficulty, but because of consequences of a fall. We left the snow pickets at the car because we were told we wouldn't need them. Chris disagreed with that assessment once he reached his first piece 100 feet up the Couloir in the right wall. At the end of the rope Chris set up a Belay while nested in a bergschrund and I quickly cleaned up to him.
Chris belaying me from his bergschrund
Me topping out at the first pitch
I led the next pitch and we agreed that since the terrain appeared to not get any worse and we were far enough up the Couloir to have a chance to self arrest, we would simulclimb once I reached the end of the rope. We simulclimbed for about a pitch until I got low on gear and found a convenient ledge, and I set up a belay. The second party decided to keep simulclimbing past us while chris cleaned.
Chris cleaning the 3rd pitch
Hanging out at my belay station
Chris joining me at the belay ledge
Unlike Dreamweaver, the Notch is relentlessly steep. The combination of no good stopping points for 4 pitches, towering walls, and extreme exposure gives this route a much more serious feel than Dreamweaver.
The other party simulclimbing past my belay station
The 4th pitch takes a dramatic right turn and ends at the top of a steep rock step. Chris ran the rope all the way to the end but could not set up a belay because of a traffic Jam with the other party. I hung out at my belay station for a solid 20 minutes waiting for things to clear up. During this time I shouldered my pack and my heart sank. My camera popped out of an unzipped/partially zipped pocket and I was watching it bounce down the notch, powerless to stop it. I lost sight of it when it was near the bottom of the Notch. It is possible that it embedded itself in the snow, but I can only assume it launched off Broadway and cratered into Lamb's slide and was now hopelessly trashed. We were too high up to do anything about it anyway, so I climbed up in a rotten mood.
Top of the 4th Pitch
Me about to scale the crux rock step, still pissed about my camera
We simul climbed a short 3rd class section at the top of the 4th pitch, only to discover easy snow leading to the top of the couloir. We elected to coil the rope and pass the other party by soloing the finish. The only difficulty one was short rock band requiring a high step to clear it.
Soloing the final pitch, taking my anger out on the mountain
We topped out just before 11am, well after we had intended. Traffic jams with the other party and some slow pitching put us well behind schedule. We briefly discussed summiting via the 5.4 finish, but suddenly realized large clouds building to the east of us. While in the Couloir we could only see blue sky due to the high, steep walls and thus had no sense of urgency. The sky was blue to the west of us, but the clouds were uncharacteristically backing in and getting huge fast. I recognized that they were bad news and we needed to get down immediately. We set up a rappel anchor while the other party was still debating how to summit. We expressed our opinions on the weather and cast off into the Loft route.
Top of the Couloir but the clouds are here to rain on our parade
Within 20 minutes of pulling our rope, we heard the first rumble of thunder. We were way above treeline and still had the loft exit ramps to negotiate, so we double-timed our pace. We saw our first lightning flash while climbing up the chimney at Clark's arrow and counted 5 seconds before the thunderclap. Chris wanted to take cover in the chimney, but I talked him into hastening our retreat across the loft before rain made the exit ramps dangerously slippery. We crossed the loft as fast as possible without running while lightning was flashing with increasing frequency. As I feared, it started to rain and I knew that the exit ledges would now be a dangerous obstacle.
We were very fortunate to have just descended the Loft from Dreamweaver the previous week, and thus were fresh on the proper descent route. We reminded each other that despite the electrical storm a slip and fall was still a much more dangerous threat, so we proceeded with caution. At the bottom of the exit ledges we reached the snow field and a reasonably protected ledge where we made final preparations for our glissade out.
While back at the privy below Chasm lake, we observed ground strikes 2 miles away in a valley much lower than our elevation. We elected to doubletime our pace back to treeline, essentially jogging the trail back to safety. We were completely soaked head to toe but were relieved to reach treeline, where we finally put our axes away. The rest of the descent was uneventful, but passed quickly due to the numerous landmarks I made on the way up:
Treeline - 2.2 miles to go
Upper stream crossing - 1.9 miles
Lower stream crossing - 1.6 miles
Goblin's forest - 1.25 miles
Obvious bend in the trail next to the creek - less than a mile to go!
And of course the infamous .5 mile marker, which is surprisingly accurate.
We checked in at the ranger station to let them know we made it off the mountain safely. We also let the rangers know about the other party which may have experienced an epic, but had no reason to expect they were in need of assistance.
In continuing with our second weekly trend of post-climbing beer and brats, we drove down to the campsite and fired up the grill while we relaxed and dried out before heading home.
Brew of the day: Newcastle Brown Ale
Not looking forward to driving home
In keeping with my new TR trend, I like to highlight the major decisions made during the day, good and bad, as a way to keep assessing myself and to serve as a learning experience for other.
1) We made good decisions on when to rope up, simulclimb, and solo. When we did simulclimb we always had gear in, and we made sure to take the 20 seconds to untie when we were going to solo.
2) We made the right call to bail and saved ourselves a near-certain epic by forgoing the summit
3) Keeping our heads about us and having a realistic perspective on the various objective dangers during the descent kept us as safe as possible
1) We botched our time estimate. We had it right up to the base of the Notch, but the Notch itself took way too long. Part of this was dealing with another party on the route, but we could also improve our speed at placing pro and choosing how much to simulclimb.
2) Even though we bailed, we could have done so 10-15 minutes earlier and been off the Loft ledges before the rain. I knew the clouds were bad news but still entertained the idea of summiting even for a minute
3) Our weather window wasn't ideal. It worked out but we need to be careful about which routes we attempt on days like this. We did discuss the forecast in great depth, but definitely pushed things to the limit. Not an overly bad decision this time, but not a habit we want to get into either.
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