The recent storms over two feet of snow in Estes. After a day of melting and settling, over a foot of condensed spring snow remained at the Longs Peak Ranger Station, and probably much more up higher, where the change is slower. The new snow came in warm and sticky, with almost no wind. There were reports of good bonding, and quick settling, but once again the post storm wind loading could potentially trump all that. Talking with Brennan, we were both pretty skeptical that conditions would permit safe climbing to the summit. Having never been on Longs, I was still looking forward to the outing since it would be good to at least get a little better acquainted.
When I found cel reception I took the opportunity to talk with Barrows for a bit about the Cable Route. He rode it in 1998, and has probably ridden it a couple times since. Basically, he said it takes a lot of snow, and although the coverage was probably good, it was harder to say what the snow was doing on that northerly aspect. Whether the conditions are good enough is the main thing.
"In terms of difficulty, it's no sixty, more like forty eight to fifty, but it does have that one five four pitch. Bring just a couple midsize rock pieces, slings, and your longer rope, you'll be fine. As far as the other side goes, I don't really know. I've heard of guides getting lost down there".
He eluded to a possible descent of Pyramid the next day and wished me luck. Well, after packing my big green craig rope in my pack, a unit I call 'the watermelon', the slings I had left over after Capitol, and a few tri-cams lol, I was not very happy about the load. Lots of weight for a maybe.
I checked my voicemail, returned Derek's call to meet a little after three, then drove to the Copeland Lake to get some sleep. Brennen picked me up at three, and we drove up to the ranger station to head out. Derek was there. I left the watermelon.
Any fixation I may have had on the cable route was quickly dissolved in that it only rides for the top twelve hundred feet of the mountain. Keplingers has at least twice the vertical drop, and the snow could be safer. Wild Basin is probably the biggest reason it's not a more popular snow route. I suppose rockfall off the Homestretch would be a concern in the summer. Brennan has been through Wild Basin a few times, and even spent the night out there lost. This was not his first rodeo.
We had a packed trail to treeline, passed a huge snowman, and traversed into Chasm Lake catching the trail again, and a spectacular sunrise on The Diamond.
We crossed below the Ship's Prow, and skinned up The Loft. Brennan was fighting altitude sickness. He drove straight through the night to get here. Maybe too much coffee, or a lack of sleep, but he was hardly slowing anyone down. I was concerned about the big wind pillow clinging to the slope above the ice falls, but a route exits to the left on a narrow ledge to avoid this. If it wasn't pointed out to me, I would not have guessed it was the way.
We skinned over the flats of the saddle with Meeker, and looked for the traverse below the Palisades. Things got interesting here, but I think we followed the best route. Rock Cairns marked high and low routes, we went higher initially, then dropped about a hundred fifty feet or more through some class three and maybe class four steps. Again, I probably would've had trouble trying to figure this section out on my own for the first time.
There was still a fair amount of climbing and traversing before getting into the main line on Keplingers. We climbed towards The Notch briefly, and took another left onto a broad, but exposed ledge. The snow was deep here, and I was laboring pretty hard. It wasn't just my crampons that were balling, but the whole boot. Trying to posthole waist deep with white bowling balls for feet was frustrating to say the least. Derek relieved me from the swim briefly, but was running out of gas too. The last slope was very wind loaded, and asking trouble. My level of acceptable risk was probably higher than anyone's at that point, so I couldn't blame anyone for not following. It was getting late, and I was getting a little desperate, being so close, and feeling like I should just give up. I thought of the jealous ones who wish I would, and my blood started to boil. Kick, kick, punch, punch. Brennan somehow found a way to fight through his sickness to spell me before the next wave of dizziness hit him. That was all I needed, and as we rounded the Homestretch I was floating on a cloud, grateful to have that last challenge to the summit.
Derek skiing Homestretch
From this vantage, it looks too flat for riding, but we were able to continue to the far side, and descent through the forest of Wild Basin for a while before finally splitting to skis for the inevitable bushwhack. As I mentioned earlier, this is an immense and subtle forest that has ensnared even the most experienced, and knowledgeable, yet just to make things interesting, Brennan often had either Derek or myself up front leading the way, offering only small clues when we went astray. It was kinda fun, and the anxiety made the time just fly by. For some reason his GPS was not picking up a signal, and although I never checked, I would guess my old unit would be no better. Dense forest gave way to a creek running south. I would have been tempted to follow it, but this is exactly how Brennan once spent the night lost. We continued East over to another creek running more southeast. It's not that I lose my sense of direction, it's more of a loss of the sense of distances and relationships to available landmarks, like Mt. Meeker, or the old burn areas. If I could choose one tool for navigation, it would be the compass. It does not use batteries, it does not need a clear view of the sky, and it is not dependent on barometric pressure. Of course using the map altimeter, and compass together may not even keep you out of trouble, but unless your traveling through some freakish iron beds somewhere, you can always trust your compass to at least hold a constant in all the chaos. Speaking of compasses, does anyone have one?
Well, we found the trail eventually as it paralleled the rim of a defined drop off to the south. The only clue being the way a branch at ankle level was clean cut rather than torn or snapped. We lost it a couple times after that too. Just as the ridge could not have been more defined, it dissolved again. Brannan took a switchback down to the left. Derek and I looked at each other and said what the other was thinking "It's a good thing he's here!!!" Glad he was able to see it through. I think there is a good chance I would have spent the night out cold and lost if not nor him. We were cutting it close with the daylight already. As if to confirm this, when we arrived at the Copeland Lake trailhead the entire armada of search and reascue was poised for a Spot response somewhere in the Copeland Lake area. I had a ACR unit, but it was in my pack and secure. We gave them the info we could, livid by how close that reality was.
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