| Winter Finale: Longs Peak‘s North Face
This year I finally caught the winter 14er bug and have more or less been taking a hiatus from my 13er pursuits to spend the last couple of months reclimbing several of the "easier" 14ers. Its been wonderful revisiting those mountains where it all started, playing back the memories in my mind, and thinking about how far I've come since then. With the last weekend of winter upon us, naturally I was hoping for one last 14er for the season.
A few weeks ago Dwight and I began discussing a winter ascent of the North Face of Longs Peak. I don't know how or why the subject arose and we didn't really talk about it as if it was going to happen anytime soon, but when the beginning of last week rolled around it sprang to the forefront. Winter was almost over and for some reason Dwight seemed hell-bent on making an attempt. I have to admit though, I too was hankering for a challenge, especially after the slight let-down by Torreys' Kelso Ridge a few weeks back. I knew that Longs' North Face wouldn't disappoint, but I worried that it might be too much for us to bite off. We had never attempted something so technical in winter.
Dominic returned home from Germany just in time for this last weekend of winter and, being a big fan of technical climbing, was happy to discover what we had in mind. We kept a close watch on the weather forecast all week long and were more and more discouraged by the day. By Thursday evening it had deteriorated to 50% chance of snow and a -20 degree wind chill. Dwight, who had been steadfast all week (or wearing blinders as he called it), declaring that it was supposed to snow all across Colorado except near Longs Peak and that he was going for it no matter what, finally admitted it might be wise to start thinking of an alternate plan. By Friday the chance for snow had decreased again, but it still wasn't looking promising. In the end, the three of us just said to hell with the forecast and decided to go up there and see what was going on for ourselves.
We were shocked when we pulled into a completely empty parking lot at the Longs Peak Trailhead Saturday morning. There's a first time for everything I guess. By 4:45 we were hiking up the well packed trail by headlamp. Clear, starry skies gave us hope. A couple inches of fresh snow obscured the trail in the dark and that combined with the plethora of spur trails made finding the real trail difficult at times. We got tricked once or twice, but it wasn't a big deal because they all seemed to reconnect sooner or later. Snowshoes were helpful when we found ourselves on these alternate, less packed trails. At 10,600 ft we unintentionally took the shortcut to Jims Grove that avoids a huge switchback. I had never done this, but I must say it was nice and I will seek it out on future winter trips.
Once above treeline we made our way toward Granite Pass, stashing our snowshoes en route. The sky to the east was beginning to put on a show, glowing red on the horizon. The local ptarmigan population added to the ambiance with their characteristic sunrise cries and clucks, flying and swooping around in a flurry of activity. I've come to like their "ugly bird" squawks. When the sky lightened enough, we discovered a sea of clouds far below us. Despite the amount of time I spend hiking in Colorado, this was my first such experience here. For the grand finale, a bright red sun could be seen slowly emerging from below the clouds. Well, that was worth the hike already!
It's still winter is it? Where's the misery? As we neared Granite Pass a breeze picked up, in fact it eventually picked up a lot of the new snow and pelted us with it in a gusty but rather continuous manner. More than one stop was required to add articles to our defenses. The sky was still clear, but as we continued on to the boulderfield it was spindrift city.
We boulder hopped our way toward the Mt. Lady Washington – Longs Peak saddle, eager to set our eyes on the spectacular Diamond. In retrospect, this route cost us some time because it eventually required scrambling over a lot of huge boulders near the ridge, but the views were worth it. The quicker path would have been to continue up the boulderfield further before heading over to the North Face. We chose this option on the return trip.
From the base of the North Face, the route isn't completely obvious when covered with snow, and I was glad that Dominic and I had descended it just this past summer. We first kick stepped our way up a moderate snow slope, scrambling through a few sections where rocks were exposed.
The snow was soft enough that crampons weren't necessary, though part way up I realized they wouldn't have been a bad idea. Without much ado, we reached the base of the technical section, spotted the first bolt, and set about preparing for the climb.
Being pretty new to this game, the three of us weren't sure whether we should put crampons on or not. The route didn't look extremely snowy or icy, so we decided to go without for the time being. It didn't take long to realize that was a dumb decision, and after Dominic struggled to reach the first bolt in his bare boots he stopped on a comfortable ledge to put his crampons on. There was a thin, almost undetectable layer of ice or snow on the rock that made it much less grippy than it looked. Dwight belayed while I got ready to climb. It was darn cold so we tried to be as efficient as possible. Dominic did an excellent job, placing plenty of pro along the way.
Being newbies, we decided to split the climb up into two short pitches so we could stay close together and communicate well. Dominic set up a belay station at the intermediate bolt and I started up while Dwight got ready.
At least under the current conditions, the first moves seemed to be the crux of the climb. I started a wide stem up the big crack, but then got too high up it before exiting to the left as I should have. Not accustomed to climbing 5th class terrain in crampons and big gloves, I had a little trouble at first and was very happy I was attached to the rope. My hands got very cold quickly so I had to pause for a minute to warm them up. After negotiating the crux in a less than aesthetic manner, I reached the belay point, anchored myself to the bolt, and tried my best to warm my hands and feet up.
Dwight arrived soon after, having cruised up the short pitch without any problems.
The second short pitch seemed easier to me, but that may be partly because I was getting used to this new sort of climbing. I wanted to watch as Dominic led it, but the entire time the gusty wind was blowing snow straight down on us and I mostly just stood there with my head down trying to stay comfortable.
He anchored to the top bolt and belayed Dwight and me up. By the top of the pitch my fingers were painfully cold and I was glad the standing around was over. We left the rope there.
Directly above the technical section the slope is still quite steep and under this steep slope lies the sheer east face that is the Diamond. When dry, most don't even give it a second thought, but when covered in slippery snow it is clearly a no fall zone that requires one's full attention. Although we were comfortable cautiously and methodically climbing this part, I can understand wanting to be roped up here at times.
As the slope angle lessened, we continued to climb up and to our left and the terrain became drier and easier. Nothing exceeded 3rd class and it was a very enjoyable scramble and snow climb.
At 2:15pm, 9.5 hours after leaving the trailhead, we strolled onto the familiar summit plateau. We had it all to ourselves, a rare treat that I had not yet experienced. It was surprising calm and warm. We enjoyed a relaxing summit stay and spotted a party of two at the bottom of the Homestretch still on their way up.
The descent back to the bolts was fairly quick and easy.
The two rappels went like clockwork and we were back on solid ground before long.
After downclimbing the lower snowy section, we stopped to remove our crampons and put our axes away. It was time to prepare for the dreaded long hike back to the trailhead.
We spotted a tent in the boulderfield and chatted with its occupants on our way out. The two guys were very nice, first of all congratulating us, then asking whether we needed any food or water. They were planning on attempting the same route the following day. We gave them some beta, wished them luck, and continued our boulder hop toward Granite Pass. It seemed to take forever to reach our snowshoes, but once we were back on the trail below treeline it didn't take long to get back to the trailhead. We retuned at 7:45 by headlamp, making it a solid 15 hour day. What a satisfying way to end the winter season!
It seems like every time I climb Longs Peak I become more and more attached to this incredible mountain. The number and variety of interesting, unique routes is amazing. I've now been up four of them, and there are still plenty left to explore. For some reason, Longs Peak seems to have become a testing ground of sorts where I push my limits. It all started with an ascent of the standard Keyhole route about five years ago in the magic month I randomly decided to start hiking. It was my first experience with 3rd class scrambling, and at that point it was a huge accomplishment even for me to complete the 15 mile, 5000 foot climb. I can remember being so happy and proud when I stood on that crowded summit. A whole new world was emerging for me. I also recall gazing in awe at the folks who had climbed technical routes and were parading around, adorned with climbing gear. Wow, I thought, those guys are extreme! I never thought that in a million years I could do something like that. Yet, four years later I found myself climbing the technical Keyhole Ridge, my first sustained alpine climb. It was a surreal feeling waltzing on to the summit at the end, this time with folks gawking at ME in the same way I had gawked at the climbers just a few years earlier. Now, the Longs Peak saga continues with my first successful mixed technical climb in winter. This mountain will always have a special place in my heart.
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