| Loft to Keyhole - A Novice's Tale
Let me preface this report by saying that I'm an avid rock climber from Florida. You'll probably infer already that there's something a little odd going on with my choice of impractical hobbies. I moved to Denver in August and immediately began climbing every adjacent bit of rock from Clear Creek Canyon to Rifle. I threw in a couple of easier fourteeners and a fun trad multipitch along the way: La Plata, Evans, Longs via the Keyhole Route, Devils Tower via the Durrance Route. Then there were floods and road closures, and our government kindly barred us from the national parks. What disasters I had brought up here with me! Sorry if I'm bad luck, fellow Coloradans. Hopefully this is now behind us.
I had enjoyed Longs in the summer, so I came back at 3:30 AM on October 19, expecting snow, cold, and wind as I attempted an alpine start up the Keyhole Route. I got what I came for. As I emerged above the krumholtz, I encountered nearly constant wind at 40-45 mph and a temperature of around -5 F. This made me sorely regret wetting my trail runners when crossing the iced-up bridge over Alpine Brook. By the time I had navigated trackless snowdrifts and rock up to Granite Pass in the dark, under the stinging assault of sand-like snow granules, I wasn't even that happy to see the sunrise. Not that my iced-up corneas were very obliging in that regard anyhow. Even after I had changed my socks and donned an extra layer in the lee of a large boulder, my feet were still feeling as though they might freeze. Not only that, but my hands were too numb to function. Just trying to open my pack was a five minute operation. I admitted inadequacy and headed back down toward Chasm junction in the morning sun. The wind abated somewhat, and I had thawed out by the time I made it to the junction. Morale boosted, I hiked over to Chasm Lake and then checked out the Loft Couloir by postholing and boulder-hopping up past the Ship's Prow. It was definitely too late in the day to summit, but I resolved to come back after getting a bit of extra equipment. I noted also that the weather was completely unlike summer, seemingly devoid of the afternoon thunderstorm that arises like clockwork during the warmer months.
That was how I came to make a much more intelligent start at 7:30 AM on October 23, now sporting a brand new pair of gaiters, some trekking boots, and an extra wool base layer. I didn't get my feet wet in the Alpine Brook this time (thanks, gaiters!), and my postholing up around Chasm Lake and the Loft Couloir no longer resulted in a ragg wool sock stuffed with snow. I made excellent progress up until the route exited the Loft Couloir, traversing climber's left to some snowy ledges just below the Loft proper. The ledges were encrusted in thick verglas and topped off with steep, loose snow. I did some 4th class scrambling in an attempt to avoid most of the ice, but on two sections I was forced to wade through thigh-deep snow on exposed ledges. Other than what I had read about in mountaineering texts, I was quite unfamiliar with the behavior of steep snow, and clung to the adjacent rock face with all my might, under the assumption that these precarious drifts would sweep me off the edge at a moment's notice. Such was the tenacity of my grip that I'm sure I could have climbed 5.12 in those trekking boots. Anyway, an upward scramble on a final bit of rock took me to the Loft. I hoped the most significant danger was now behind me and enjoyed a nice view of the snow-capped Continental Divide.
Altitude kicked in at this point, and I worked my way slowly across the Loft, laboring for breath and wondering where to descend so as to avoid down climbing the Palisades. After a little backtracking, I finally spotted a toppled cairn on a ledge down below me and committed to the descent. It proved to be a good route, with reachy 3rd class moves from ledge to ledge. Soon I was in Keplinger's Couloir boulder hopping uphill past the beautiful rock of the Palisades. By then I was getting a headache, but thankfully only a mild one. I'll have to break my oxygen addiction one of these days - it's really an inexcusable habit.
The situation turned serious again as I began a northwesterly traverse up through steep snow and rock toward what I hoped was the Homestretch of the Keyhole Route. I tried to stick with scrambling on exposed rock, but numerous ledges were covered in slopes of steep, loose snow, and I was forced to climb them. I watched in horror as my legs sank up to the hip in these drifts, miring me on unstable slopes bordered by life-quenching exposure. It was a bit unnerving to watch as little blocks of snow dislodged by my struggles rolled off the edge and plummeted to their destruction below. Determined not to emulate them, I trudged on, planting my trekking poles firmly at each step in case the snow should give way under my feet. As often happens when I confront a nerve-wracking climbing situation, a recently-heard tune began playing in my head. This time it was ''Royals'' by Lorde, which I knew I should have shut off the instant it started playing on the radio this morning. Why does my subconscious have such terrible taste in motivational music?
My progress was slow, and I constantly worried that I might not be on the correct route, which would force me into some kind of dangerous down climb or time-consuming backtrack. I also worried that the increasingly slushy snow would give way and send me off the mountain, as it had been threatening to do for the last few hours. I tried to fend off the involuntary thoughts of home, and the regrets of being so exposed on the trackless back side of a high slope, but even my occasional stops to soak in the grandeur of the peaks below did little to comfort me. So when I caught sight of a painted bull's-eye denoting the Keyhole Route, my elation went beyond words. I was saved! I had found my way back to an established path, and there was no way the Narrows, Trough, or Ledges could be nearly as daunting as down climbing the Loft Route. I took a longing look over at the snow-covered Homestretch, which would lead me to the summit. It might have been fine to climb the dry rock to either side of the snowy trough, but even approaching the Homestretch through all the slushy snow and hidden rocks would have involved significant time and risk. With a little regret, I sagely abandoned my summit bid. The crux of mountaineering seems to be knowing when to bail. Given that I didn’t know the conditions of the Keyhole Route, I wasn’t sure how long it would take, so it seemed wise to conserve time and energy, especially since I was down to my last liter of water. I hoped to make it at least to the Keyhole before dark, and though that seemed likely, it was by no means a certainty, particularly if I had trouble spotting the buried bull’s-eyes that normally mark the route.
The Narrows consisted of steep, loose snow, much like other parts of my route. The exposure was somewhat less mind-blowing, however, and my technique for dealing with this kind of snow was improving. Unfortunately, I had to stop a few times and close my eyes to fight off episodes of severe nausea, not wanting to risk even further dehydration. I moved along as fast as my panting body would permit and then began a rather difficult descent of the Trough. The bull’s-eyes were tough to spot, and I wasn’t entirely sure that they marked the best descent route, considering present conditions. But I needed to keep them in my sight, since I wasn’t sure where to turn off en route to the Ledges, which were certain to be buried in snow and rather indiscernible to my inexperienced eyes. Many of the markings were concealed, so I meandered from one to the next, always hoping to catch sight of another one. After much slithering, crab walking, down climbing, and postholing, I managed to find my way to the Ledges.
As I had anticipated, the Ledges were mostly submerged in more steep snow. But a few sections consisted either of bare rock or shallow snow, allowing me to feel the firm hiking trail beneath my feet. I made short work of those lovely sections and continued through the deeper snow using my now-practiced method of planting trekking poles and then taking one gradual step at a time. The exposure was much less daunting here, offering the prospect of a relatively short drop into snow, followed by a long slide through snow and rocks. A fall would now mean broken limbs, not death (hopefully). The bull’s-eyes were easy to follow at this point, but I often found myself wondering if I was clambering around below or above the established path, which was almost entirely hidden from sight. I was becoming a little less afraid of plunging through steep sections of snow, and my progress became more confident, if not more expeditious.
When I finally caught sight of the Keyhole, I was massively relieved. The rest of the hike would be a pure hike, with no more scrambling or clinging to narrow snow slopes. Falling would mean bruises, not injury or death. Reminding myself not to lose focus on this last stretch, I made for the Keyhole. Right then I experienced my first major slip, losing my footing on a snow-covered rock and barely arresting myself with both hands as my feet shot out over a ledge. That was close! Regaining my footing, I worked over toward the Keyhole, where I was greeted by extreme winds and a transition to the cold, shadowy east side of Longs. I paused for a moment in the Agnes Vaille Memorial Hut to drink the last of my water, have a snack, and don all my layers except for fleece pants. This proved to be a good decision, as my halting descent through the Boulderfield would have been pretty chilly otherwise. I felt spent. I normally relish rock hopping, but right now each step jarred my joints, and I was increasingly slow and clumsy. A five-minute nap on an obliging boulder did me no good. Perhaps my pack wasn't a good enough pillow.
Somewhere around Granite Pass, a strange thing happened. All of my energy returned. I had passed some critical altitude threshold, no doubt. I began a trot downhill towards Chasm Junction. The sun was definitely setting, but I hoped that with enough speed and determination I might make it back down below tree line before sunset. The mantra ''Krumholtz! Krumholtz! Krumholtz!'' resounded in my mind like a chant for some famous football player. The trail was long, but I made it to Chasm Junction with plenty of light left. I stopped and shed a layer, as I was now growing warm from my near-run down the hill. Continuing, with the mantra still playing in my head, my progress became even more swift. Twilight was setting in as I reached the Jims Grove junction, where I stopped for a while to eat the remainder of my food and get some rest from the continuous downhill. My boots were getting a little loose and threatening me with blisters on my big toes and heels, but all in all not bad for brand new boots on their very first outing.
Feeling pretty well rested, and relishing the plentiful air, I jogged further down the trail, making it below tree line just a little while before the trail became indistinct in the dark. I switched on my headlamp and continued down the trail. Soon I was across the bridges, past the Goblins Forest, and felt that I would be down to my car in no time. But my feet were killing me. Stripping off the gaiters and microspikes I had been wearing almost all day, I straightened out my socks, re-laced the boots, and took it easy for a minute. Things were growing surprisingly warm down here at 10,000 ft, so I even took off my gloves and hat. I made it down to the parking lot by 7:40 PM, feeling fairly comfortable. Dropping my pack and poles, I switched off my headlamp and leaned back against the car, looking up at the sky. A hint of the Milky Way was visible, as well as countless stars that I rarely see. A quote by Gaston Rebuffat came to mind ''The man who climbs only in good weather, starting from huts and never bivouacking, appreciates the splendour of the mountains; but not their mystery, the dark of their night, the depth of their sky above... How much he has missed!'' Perhaps I had started from my ''hut'' in Denver, but the dark of this night and the depth of this sky had not been wasted on me. I was tired and my nerves were a bit frayed, but I would recover. And I would be back again searching for the mystery of the mountains.