| Longs Peak, North Face
Longs Peak, North Face
Route: North Face (“Cables Route”)
Approach: East Longs Peak TH
Length: About 13 miles RT
Vertical: About 4300 feet
Ascent Party: Matt, Micah, Jim
Longs Peak, as seen from 11,000 feet on the East Longs Peak Trail, March 2, 2011.
"Without warning, a blinding gust of spindrift comes ripping down the north face from the summit overhead.
Micah and I plunge all fours into the snow, and shout to warn Matt, high on the rock above. I see Matt shudder,
as I hang on tightly to the rope, anticipating his fall."
Seems the jet wants to hang over Colorado this last half of winter; the forecasts have been more optimistic than conditions ultimately warrant…
Micah and I both need Longs to complete the 14ers. Matt is an alpine agnostic who doesn’t care about lists. Micah comes up with an idea to finish the 14ers with the Casual Route on The Diamond (a multi-pitch 5.10 route on the vertical east face, seen in the photo above.) I feel such bravado for a finisher might be hubris. Then Micah comes up with the idea to ascend the north face of Longs in winter. We’re there.
Micah has the tightest schedule of the three of us. So when Micah says it’s time, we pretty much pile on. But the jet has different ideas about the whole plan. It looks like it might be better to go for something with lower winds and a higher probability of success. And that’s not even considering how the weatherman has underestimated alpine winds this last six weeks. No matter, my partners are ready for the big banana, the whole adventure: failure on the Holy Grail being far more noble than success on something less interesting. I raise an eyebrow. "Sure."
How were we to know that Longs Peak would be “closed” today?
Driving through the concrete jungle in the wee hours is not so bad, though 90 minutes is too long to go before seeing real dirt, which finally makes its appearance just north of Boulder. Moonrise in the east is gorgeous. The paved parking lot is bathed in the amber glow of first light, reflected in the windows of a deserted Longs Peak Ranger Station. The plan is to catch up and meet in the boulder field. The lot is vacant, save for Micah’s vehicle. I’ve never seen the place in summer, but imagine we’re being treated to a unique solitude this winter day.
The East Longs Peak Trail is well packed.
Morning conditions refuse to acquiesce to the forecast for high winds. It’s warm, calm, and gorgeous. Maybe it will be one of those deals where the brave are rewarded for going and checking it out, despite a bitter forecast?
I hustle along, hoping to catch Matt and Micah at the boulder field, where we are absolutely supposed to meet, barring anything short of a dire life-threatening emergency. The wind makes its appearance. I stop to layer up.
The Moraine getting a little “alpine.”
I ditch snowshoes, and continue onward into some heavy gusts. So, the weatherman was right about today?
Pretty soon it’s clear that the weatherman is not right. He has underestimated winds. I’m getting kicked around enough that I’m sure Matt and Micah will be coming back down through Granite Pass to meet me, calling it off. But I have to continue on, because turning around means I’m in danger, which I’m not. So I pile on more layers, and make way for the pass. No partners. Well…onward.
There’s supposed to be a latrine behind which I’m to find my partners cowering on the lee side of the wind. I see something that looks like a structure, but alas, it’s only a huge rock. Perhaps getting a pair of spectacles is stubbornly overdue. Let’s go on a little further, I’m sure there’re around here somewhere.
Our proposed route lies to the right of “The Diamond” – It appears to be more snow-covered than anticipated.
Wandering through the boulder field is an experience of expansiveness. This place is incredible. If you had a million dollars in gold and wanted to hide it, this would be the place. Or for that matter, if you just wanted to hide a latrine.
“Camp-P” at 12,500 in the boulderfield.
OK, I finally spy a modest structure, and a red jacket flagging me down. Another 200 yards and I present myself for duty at Camp-P.
“Camp-P” is not much to look at, but it serves the purpose. Two latrines, side by side, with Matt’s nylon tarp creating a makeshift shanty and some modest quarters out of the wind. The sky is still clear, but the gusts are prohibitive for the route under consideration. The wall to our west provides some wind block, but will likely not do so 1000 verts higher up. I’m surprised to find my partners still willing. We wrap up formalities and head off.
We contemplate Longs Peak, the north face, and a little more snow than anticipated.
Three men, one mind.
Micah in soulful contemplation before ascent.
March of the Alpinists.
We park at the last of the rocks to crampon up. The winds seem like they’re willing to break for a bit. Will we have passage?
Micah swings first lead on good snow.
The winds stay reasonable for the time being, and lo, the camera still works!
Micah anchors the team…
...before taking off for the granite blocks above.
Matt is next; I take up the rear.
We assemble at the base of the technical rock pitch. The first of four eyebolts is below us, under four feet of snow. It’s Matt’s lead. He has two pieces in: a #1 Camalot, and a TCU below it. When I get there, I ask if the anchor is secure. “Sure, check it out!” He yanks on the TCU. It pops. “Well, that was just a back up!” We look at each other. Then start laughing. I’m not crazy about single-piece anchors, but the camalot is bomber. Matt replaces the TCU as a backstop. The combination of the two is not going anywhere. Matt leaves the edge of snow and is now on mostly dry granite. It’s getting late, but in another 100 feet, we can coil the ropes and start on the fourth class section. Maybe. The winds might have other ideas. They’ve been pounding us the entire time, and are starting to become a little more persistent.
Matt takes the second pitch onto relatively dry rock. Soon to be home free?
Since Mill’s Moraine, I’ve felt this ascent is not in the cards, and am pleasantly surprised at the stamina of my partners. I turn to Micah and ask if he thinks it might be better to back off. He’s undecided. It’s getting late, though we still have some time to see how things go.
The winds are really hitting us hard now. Waves of spindrift are crashing down from above at 65 mph at regular intervals. Micah and I have to dig all fours into the snow to stay attached. We’re not sure how Matt’s able to hang onto the rock.
The fairly adverse alpine conditions leave us to wonder about the wisdom of a continued attempt.
It gets harder to photograph the ascent, given conditions.
I’m beginning to feel we’re pushing beyond what’s reasonable. I think my partners are feeling the same, but none of us wants to say anything. We all know what each other is thinking. We stick it out a bit longer. We’re nearly at the first exposed bolt.
Matt leading technical rock; camera fails due to adverse conditions.
Matt works his way up to the first exposed eye bolt, which we believe is the second of four bolts on the rock. If we can get this first solid bolt, we’re home free – though harsh gusts and spindrift suggest otherwise.
Without warning, a blinding gust of spindrift comes ripping down the north face from above, taking Micah and I into the snow. Micah shouts to warn Matt. I see Matt shudder, and hang on tightly to the rope, anticipating his fall. Somehow, he manages to stay attached, and gains a small ledge directly above.
Finally at the first exposed bolt, Matt’s hands are numb; he cannot belay; he anchors in. I solo up to him on his end of the rope, tying off as I go. When I reach him, he’s beginning to get feeling back in his fingers. We both know what this means. But it’s not as if this is a single event; it is one event of a series. Still, I’m ready to take the lead and finish the technical section. I want it, but know in my heart today is not the day.
Micah, below us, comes to the rescue, dropping a glove. Matt looks at me and says, “That’s it.” I nod. Ever the comic, Micah shouts, “But I just bought those!”
He sticks his hand in his pocket while Matt and I rap off the eye bolt. In a few minutes we’re all on the talus below, Micah has his gloves, crampons are in our packs, and our weary hearts are headed back to Camp-P.
Solice and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups back at Camp-P.
“Did ya have fun? Are ya still alive? Then it was a good day!”
The death-march back down to the cars is really not so bad. A guy couldn’t ask for better company. We take our time and have a couple of leisurely breaks.
Back at the cars, we muse about how busy the place must look in summer. Here we are, kicking back, enjoying it all to ourselves. The only minor irritation is, ironically, completely calm conditions. Actually, it’s pretty enjoyable. We hang out for an hour or two while the sun sets and the snow starts to fly, mentally resting up for the long drive home, planning the next attempt.
What a great introduction to the ferocity of Longs Peak in winter. We now know the approach route, the boulder field, and where the second eye bolt is on the Cables route. Now all we need is a little cooperation from the jet stream corresponding with a day off. Could be a tall order…
Many thanks to Matt and Micah for a great attempt, and a fine introduction to Longs Peak.