| Longs Peak - North Face: A breath taking descent!
Longs Peak stands alone as the farthest north fourteener in Colorado and the only fourteen thousand
foot mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park. The sheer face of the diamond is a feature that
Coloradans recognize as standing for the spectacular mountains of the state. The North Face is
a technical route. Jamie wants to scout it for a future winter ascent. My own concern with ice on
the narrows of the standard route convinces me that his assertion that the North face is a safer ascent
now, has merit, so I agree to go up the North Face ropes. We know we will encounter ice and snow so
we have crampons and axes at the ready. We arrive at the trail head at 3 AM and begin the stairway
hike to the boulder field. We reach the brush line at the the threshold of the boulder field at 5 AM and
decide to wait for sunrise before proceeding.
We cross the approach to the boulder field as the alpenglow bathes the mountains in a spectacular
orange. We meet another climber; Jamie pauses to discuss routes issues. The ship's plow glows
spectacularly in the background.
As we press the hike unfamiliar noises come from above. "Oh! It is a herd of elk!" On the
top of the ridge a herd of elk are enjoying the morning light and warmth. They notice us.
After hiking around the ridge of Lady Washington, we arrive at the base of the North Face
snow field. It is 8 AM and time to move up the face. There are about four tents set up in the boulder
field. The Keyhole beckons us but the more difficult
North Face is our target.
A climber we meet suggests that we'll get wet while moving up the ropes. We know that the face
is wet, icy and snowy but we are not daunted. We are prepared and anxious to head up into the
challenge of the climb. We don crampons and helmets and head up the snow slope for the easy
climb to the first rope attachment. There are many glissade tracks and we both consider our level
of comfort with doing a glissade for our anticipated descent. Neither of us are comfortable with the
idea of glissade on descent for our own personal reasons.
We ascend the snow slopes quickly with crampons on. The snow runout is safe with the exception
of a big boulder half way up.
Since I am inexperienced on ropes, Jamie takes extra time to teach me the critical details. His patience and
knowledge are impressive. Jamie attaches the ropes and leads up the dihedral. We use a cam for the
second attach point but mostly attach to the screw holds.
Several ropes dangle from the rocks above. One is red and another is black. Still attached, they
were apparently abandoned by previous climbers. We both wonder aloud why they would abandon
these ropes. To discard bad ropes is understandable but to leave them on the side of Longs peak
seems an obvious violation of the ethic of leave no trace. As the much bigger and inexperienced
climber, I belay as Jamie lead climbs. Jamie makes quick work of each of the three pitches that we
lay. I follow with increasing confidence.
The ascent is straightforward since I am backed up by Jamie's coaching and excellent advice.
Jamie belays me as I ascend the 2nd pitch giving me helpful extra tension as I encounter moves that
I decide to leave my crampons attached thinking that the snow and ice up high will require them as I top
out after the ropes. They make an odd gunpowder-like smell as the teeth crash against the rock. Suddenly,
I notice something different. I gaze down at my right foot and notice my crampon has come lose. "This is
strange." I know I did a better job attaching it than I ever had. Has my extra care in fastening caused it to
come lose? "Wait! It is broken!" The adjustment shaft is detached and the crampon is broken! "Just wait
until Grivel hears about this" - I think. As I start to think about what to do next, the shaft falls down into the
Nevertheless, we quickly move up the dihedral rocks making three rope pitches with our sixty meter rope.
Arriving at the top ledge we notice that the route has a significant snow traverse.
I reluctantly start across the snow which is still well frozen in the morning cool. Then the climbing becomes
wet rocks and more difficult foot and hand holds. Jamie coaches me through the holds and the scramble
gets easier as the slope begins to roll over, then an easier rock scramble and suddenly we are up to the
summit! We are on the summit of Longs peak! A successful ascent of the North Face! We are a little later than
planned (around 12:50) but the sky is crystal clear blue and the weather is perfect.
We remained on the summit for approximately 30 minutes. The familiar chirp of an animal meets us as
we eat lunch. Of course it is a marmot on the top of Longs hoping for our crumbs. He keeps his distance,
and there is plenty of this on Longs. I still manage to capture the critter in a photograph.
The decent is easier. We can see the rocks and get a little lower to avoid the full snow
traverse. We encountered ice on the rock transitions. There is a long final snow traverse of approximately
60 meters that gives me unexpected trouble. I prepared to move from the rock scramble to the snow
and find myself in an awkward position. I notice clearly the ice and thinning snow at the start - nothing that
my axe can bit into. I hesitate and then make the move.
Suddenly I am tumbling. I was less than 40 meters from the top of the diamond and I am tumbling! "Arrest!"
Jamie yells. "Where the hell is my axe?" my brain responds and then... "Oh, I want to arrest." Sideways, then
on my front. "Where is my damn axe?" I'm sliding and tumbling in the snow while frantically trying to arrest
without an axe! I emit an involuntary scream but I finally manage to arrest with my elbow and chin. Jamie yells:
"Are you alright?". "Yes", I reply. Not that I'm sure of it but I want him to know that I've regained control. "Where
is your axe?" he yells. I suddenly notice my axe sitting in the snow faithfully beside me. I'm a little angry at it for
slipping off my wrist but really I'm very happy to see my old friend. I grab it with serious intent and slowly complete
the snow traverse essentially in pre-self arrest position. Jamie works quickly to set a Belay station and moves
out towards me. I carefully make my way towards him.
It isn't hard traversing but I'm very shy suddenly. Jamie finishes the belay station and Yells "On Belay!". I'm absolutely
relieved! I clip in as soon as possible and relax knowing that I've finally got an insurance policy. I experience
acrophobia that is unusual for me. Mostly, I thrive on being way up with open spaces looking at big
things way down below but now it is suddenly different. I've come a lot closer to that void over the
diamond than I had ever intended.
I'm truly frightened by my tumble but recovering with each passing step of our down climb.
I photograph and work to supress a new found fear of heights while Jamie sets up the repel down.
We again encountered the ropes left behind and attempted to retrieve one. After a short learning period the
repel goes very well, though at the bottom we have some trouble with tangled ropes. Jamie the rope master
climbs up to untangle things. Spiderman has nothing on my partner for this climb.
We arrived at the base of the snow field around 6 PM. To our amazement a pair of climbers were making their
way up the face as we departed.
Since we were late in our summit and descent took longer than we anticipated we are both anxious to let those
below know we are safely off the mountain. We arrived at the trail head spent but happy in the evening alpine
glow of Rocky Mountain National Park.