Longs Peak

7 Jan 2001 - by Kevin Craig


The following is a true story. The names of my partners have been changed and their identities otherwise concealed for good (but different in each case) reasons that are none of your business. :^)

Sorry for the delay in posting this report especially since the conditions have now certainly changed with our most recent storms.

The story:

After tuning up my double rope technique in Eldo on Friday, I set off on Sunday January 7 to climb the Cables Route (North Face) of Longs Peak with my partners, the renown Scottish alpinist Dougal Baker and Russian climbing ace Mikhail Bog. If you remember, January 7 was at the tail end of our last stretch of warm high-pressure weather and we hoped to capitalize on it for a less-than-epic ascent of this route that's been on my tick list for some time.

Mikhail, being the most experienced in our group, advised us on gear for this ascent that needed to be as fast and light as possible due to the winter weather and daylight hours. We brought one first aid kit for the team, one ice tool, 2 alpine axes, alpine crampons, helmets, harnesses, a set of double (half) ropes and a rack the looked incredibly sparse to my eyes but which Mikhail assured us was more than enough (which it was). For future and others' reference, we had: 1 set of stoppers, 2 cams (approx. #0.5 and #0.75 Camalot size), 2 or 3 hexes (7,8,9?), half a dozen shoulder length slings with 'biners, and a small selection of pins (short knifeblade, long thin Bugaboo, mid-size angle and I think a #4 or 5 Lost Arrow). This plus our personal gear (prussiks, belay devices etc.) including additional layers (up to a big warm belay parka in my case) and food & water.

We set out by headlamp at around 5:15 AM from the Long's Peak Trailhead. The trail appeared to be well-packed so we left the snowshoes in our vehicles at the trailhead, which, as it turned out, was a good decision. Of note, I recently acquired one of the new Petzl Tikka headlamps that uses three white LED's as a light source and supposedly runs for 150 hours on one set of batteries. These are mostly billed as for use around camp and for reading in the tent, but I found that it casts sufficient light (on fresh batteries anyway) to be useable for night hiking on a good trail. I wouldn't rely on it as my sole source of light for a technical climb, but it allowed me to save the battery in my main headlamp (a Petzl Zoom) and weighs next to nothing (2.5 oz.)

The approach hike was fairly routine except for the almost complete lack of wind. A good omen? Due to the still air, we ended up hiking in only 2 layers (base layer + mid-weight fleece for me) until we were well above treeline. For the first couple of hours, we maintained a pace of about 2 miles and 1000 feet per hour; not too bad in the cold and dark on a snowy trail. Shortly after dawn we were traversing on the trail below Mt. Lady Washington toward Granite Pass, when Dougal, apparently feeling the effects of a recent foray to the lowlands, decided this was not to be his day and opted to pack it in. Mikhail and I were unsuccessful in cajoling him to persevere in light of our rapid progress to that point. Feeling he was holding up back, Dougal urged us to press on and he'd return another day.

Carry on we did and arrived in the Boulderfield in due course. Dougal eventually reached this point as well, prior to heading down the hill. The weather continued to be clear and calm and, once the sun hit the Boulderfield, even a bit warm. That was, until we headed up to Chasm View and the beginning of the technical section of the route. As we hiked southeast toward the corner of the Diamond, we entered the shadow of the peak and the temperature dropped significantly. Unfortunately, the wind also picked up a bit; never much more than a stiff breeze but more than enough to significantly increase heat loss from fingers and toes.

The relative lack of snow on the peak compared to my visit in late November was surprising. We picked our way up the undulating, boulder-strewn slope to the snow-covered ramps below the route. At the base of the snow, we discovered a solid set of kicked steps ascending the snow. Since, from this vantage point, the route proper appeared to be relatively dry, we opted to use the kicked steps and forego our crampons. A minor error as it turned out. Just below the traverse over to the beginning of the rock section, the steps ran out and we had to scramble over to a rocky spur to put on crampons and harnesses.

In retrospect, we should have donned both before starting up the snow. Because the rock spur was exposed to the wind, my fingers rapidly cooled until, after attaching my crampons but before buckling my harness, I was reduced to focusing mainly on re-warming them. This despite the fact I was wearing the glove/liner set that I use for ice-climbing. I figured it couldn't get much colder than *that*; I was wrong. After digging out my heavy expedition mitts and Mikhail opening some hand-warmer packets for me, I was able to feel my fingers again and finish gearing up for the route. But we had lost a good bit of time in dealing with my hands. In my defense, we later learned from another party that the temperature was about 5 degrees F in this area at that time.

After strapping on our technical gear (sans the nitro for those who have seen Vertical Limit) we traversed the final snow slopes to the base of the technical section. Mikhail set an anchor while I assessed the route. From the base, the rock appeared to be quite bare of snow so I removed my crampons, recovered the rack from Mikhail, and cast off. The climbing was quite straight-forward with several of the old eyebolts providing quick and easy pro. I eventually arrived a section, about half way up the pitch, where one traverses out of the dihedral to the left and onto a slab to finish out the pitch. Unfortunately, the one spot where I *needed* to put my foot to accomplish this was covered with ice. Lacking either an ice tool or crampons, I down-climbed a short way, set an anchor and brought Mikhail up telling him to leave his crampons on.

While belaying Mikhail, I made a somewhat alarming discovery. Not only couldn't I feel the last three toes of my left foot, but I could barely move them as well. I quickly starting wiggling them as best I could and holding that foot out of the snow. Shortly, feeling returned, in the form of sharp pain, and I was much relieved. The other interesting part of this story is that, early on in the pitch, one of the ropes snagged badly amongst the various gear we had anchored at the base of the route so I had to untie from that rope and continue the lead on only one of our double ropes.

Anyway, Mikhail led through in good style and soon established a good belay near the top of the route. I quickly followed the half-pitch, hauling on gear for security where the footing was icy. Once above the technical section, we assessed the time (between 1:00 and 1:30) and decided that it would be wiser to bail than push the final 500 feet or so to the summit. Mikhail quickly found the top anchors (they're not particularly visible from below) and we rapped off on a doubled 60m rope. This, surprisingly, required 2 raps plus a little bit which would imply either that the technical section is a bit longer than in the books or that we started/rapped lower down than is standard.

We quickly broke down our anchor, re-applied crampons to boots (in my case) and headed back down the snow slopes and boulders to the Boulderfield and the last remaining sunlight. The sun was setting behind the Keyhole as we sat in the Boulderfield re-stowing our technical gear and grabbing a quick bite to eat. We were relieved to discover that we each still had liquid water (though just barely) deep in our packs inside our water bottle parkas; we were sure that all our water had long since frozen. We each also managed to drink it a bit too fast. Ow!

Shortly after 4:00 PM we re-shouldered our packs and beat a hasty retreat toward the trailhead. Dusk found us around treeline, and we managed entire the 6'ish miles to the trailhead in just over 2 hours. I remain astounded that the record for descending this section is 40 minutes. The lower section of the trail was very slippery with solidly packed snow (and alpine ice!) and we each took a pratfall despite our best precautions.

At the trailhead, we thawed out, sorted gear and headed home to, in my case, a hot bath. All in all a fun and exciting outing and some great lessons learned (for me anyway).

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