| Martha in early season conditions
Martha has been at the top of my "to-do" list for going on three years now. Previously, I lacked the confidence to take on the route without a more experienced partner. Then last year, as I was feeling stronger and more confident in alpine climbing, I missed the small window of the route being in ideal conditions. This year, I said screw it, I just want to climb the damn thing so all I really need to wait for is a semi-decent weather day.
John and I got to the Longs Peak TH and were geared up and hiking by just before 6 am. Despite the previous weeks arctic temperatures, the single digit temps at the trail head felt exceedingly cold. Trail conditions were less than ideal. A mix of loose powder and punchy wind slab (in the trees none the less) made for some frustrating hiking. We hiked by the light of our head lamps, taking advantage of the myriad climbers trails that shortened the excessive switchbacks of the trail. We broke tree line just as the sun was coming up. No matter how many times I see it, Longs Peak coated in alpenglow just never gets old.
Breaking above treeline
Never ever gets old this view
Despite a windy forecast, the hike above treeline to Chasm Junction wasn't horrible and the day was turning out to be a blue-bird. We reached Chasm Junction around 7:45 and descended towards Peacock Pool. The snow slope above the pool was wind-hammered pencil-hard slab making it difficult to kick side-steps during the traverse. About halfway across we found a softer snow area and each pulled out an ice tool to protect the rest of the traverse. Upon reaching the meadow below Chasm Lake the wind picked up and swirled from every direction, I put on every layer I had and still shivered as we gained the lake.
As soon as Martha came into view we saw another party already on the route. They were soloing the first pitch and the second member seemed to be having some difficulty of getting past the initial rock step. We traversed around the lake and climbed the snow slope to a wind scoured area just east of the couloir to gear up. Initially, we had planned to solo the first two pitches and belay the second two. The first pitch was supposed to go at 4th class rock, possibly with some ice, and then 50 meters of a 50 degree snow slope to where the couloir narrows to about shoulder width.
Once geared up, John took off and squeezed through a narrow choke between some fractured flakes and a smooth slab. I tried to follow him, but couldn't quite figure out the sequence John had used. The move he made utilized a dry-tool placement on a feature about as thick as a dime combined with smooth down-sloping featureless slabs for feet. After a couple of tries, I opted for the fractured flakes to the right. Stemming across to the slab on the left, I grunted and whined my way up this "4th class" step. This step must typically be covered in snow because this move was far more difficult than I had expected. After that, actual 4th class climbing on rock and thin snow led to a short bench where John had been patiently waiting for me.
Above the first rock step
The team above us was slowly making their way up the snow field. To keep rock fall danger to a minimum, we decided to wait for them to get past the snow field and constriction and up around the corner before heading on. As we sat waiting, the brilliant alpine sun did little to compensate for the body warmth that was lost to the ever present and gusty winds. We both sat and shivered uncontrollably. In the end, it's a good thing John is more resolute than I am; I spent most of that time eye-balling a nearby rock-horn thinking how easy it would be to bail off the route with that as a rappel anchor.
Team ahead of us moves up the second pitch snow field
oh em gee so frickin cold
Finally, the party ahead of us was far enough ahead that we felt we could safely move on. We kicked steps into the variable snow - bullet proof slab sometimes, bottomless fluff others. We reached the constriction that represents the beginning of typical third pitch. Looking ahead we didn't see anything that looked too intimidating so we continued on figuring we'd belay below any steps that looked too hard.
John negotiates a small constriction at the top of the second pitch
Nearing the chock stone crux
Because the constriction puts the second directly in the line of fire for falling ice and rock, I let John get quite a bit ahead, before continuing up. Once it looked like John had finished what I imagined was the crux of the third pitch I shouted up and asked him how it was.
"The moves right there" he said pointing to a chock stone in a narrow slot, "will make you think."
They did. This pitch is normally iced over in ideal conditions and goes at WI2. Completely dry, it took a couple of marginal dry-tool placements and slab friction with crampons to get up and around the chock stone. There seems to be some contention with regards to the M rating this route gets, but I'd venture to say the moves felt similar in difficulty to 5.8 rock climbing to me, that makes me think it was at least M2.
Just past the chock stone crux
Above the chock stone we had a view of the final pitch and iced over final step. John and I couldn't believe that this was it for the route and that it was going to be over so quickly. However, a review of the route beta from Eli's site confirmed it. Again, we waited for the team ahead of us to negotiate the ice pitch. In waiting, I began to worry that the ice was manky or hollow as both members of the team seemed to struggle with it a bit. John was nice enough to let me take the lead on this final pitch and I was quite pleased to find the ice in pretty good shape, a bit brittle for the 8 days of arctic temperatures but perfectly accepting of tool and crampon placements. I finished the crux, waited for John and we slogged our way up the rest of the couloir until we found the views of the Diamond that the southern slopes of Mt. Lady Washington are known for.
John waiting on the party ahead of us just below the final ice crux
Making the final moves up the iced over WI2+ crux
John emerges from the last of the technical difficulties
Final snow slog out of the couloir with a very frozen Chasm Lake in the background
John and Lambslide and the magnificent east face of Longs Peak
Above the couloir the wind was calm and the sun was warm. We sat down, took off the crampons and ate and drank. The day before, John and I had discussed trying to link up the Cables route after Martha to make a nice semi-grade-IV day out of it, but I was spent. Completely out of gas. John suggested just climbing the technical pitch and rapping off, but I couldn't find the strength or motivation.
After about 30 minutes, we packed up, picked our way down the boulder-strewn eastern ridge of MLW and slogged the endless trail back to the trail head.
Hooray for endless boulder hoping descents!!!
Overall, it was a really great day out. John and I have climbed together on a couple alpine routes and I feel that we make a great team. We climbed Dream Weaver together last spring and both agreed that Martha (at least in the early season conditions we experienced) was at least twice as hard as Dream Weaver. Nevertheless, we really had no intention of soloing this route, but both ended up feeling pretty comfortable with the moves. Hauling a 70 m rope and rock/ice rack just made for better exercise, I guess. At least it makes the post-climb libations all the more merry