Longs Peak - Notch Couloir

16 Jun 2007 - by Andy Leach

View photos and a video I shot at http://www.andyintherockies.com/trip/65/Longs_Peak_Notch_Couloir.htm

At 11:45pm Brian rolled by to pick me up. It was off to the Longs Peak Trailhead - destination: Notch Couloir.

At the trailhead we met Michael and Fabio, sorted out gear, and began hiking up the trail at 1:15am. The four of us carried two light racks (a set of nuts, a few ice screws, and a few small to medium sized cams), two 60m ropes, and each of us opted for one mountaineering axe and one ice tool. I especially struggled with the decision on whether to go with two tools or one of each. In Dream Weaver Couloir the season before I had wished I'd had two tools. In Flying Dutchman a month before I was really happy to have two tools. However, Notch Couloir was going to involve significant sections of plain snow and I wasn't sure the that my ice tools would plunge well enough, or were long enough, to provide the security I was going to want - especially for the intense exposure of Broadway. In the end everybody else opted for one of each, so I did too. This turned out to be the correct decision because there was very little vertical ice.

We set a leisurely pace up the trail - conserving our energy for the big day ahead of us. James Just, who had given us a lot of helpful beta had taken 17 hours just the weekend previous so we knew we were in for a big day.

The weather was spectacular - cloudless, warm and without a breeze - and we cruised up the trail past Chasm Junction, the patrol cabin, and on up to Chasm Lake where we took a snack and rest break. While we were hanging out a fellow caught up with us. We exchanged hellos and inquired on where each other was headed. It turned out that we were both heading for Notch Couloir - he was going to free solo it. He split before we did and quickly outdistanced us. The last we saw of him he was exiting Lambslide as we were beginning it.

We made our way around Chasm Lake, opting not to walk over the icy surface because we were unsure how solid the ice was and didn't want to risk a swim. We made our way up to Mills glacier and found some nice rocks to sit on while we geared up and admired the alpine glow on The Diamond.

After snacking, donning crampons, helmets, and harnesses, we set off up Lambslide. The dude ahead of us had kicked beautiful steps and we cruised up it. In no time we were leaving Lambslide and heading over to Broadway.

I think Broadway is arguable the crux of both Kieners and Notch Couloir - mainly because of the INTENSE exposure. You have to walk along a 2' wide ledge that literally drops 1000' straight down to one side. There is also one move that is a little tricky - both times now I've crawled underneath this protruding boulder. This time however we protected the move. After the crux move we scampered over the remainder of Broadway to the base of Notch Couloir.

At the base of Notch Couloir we finalized our strategy for the climb. Because we didn't know how difficult the cruxes would be, or what the stances would be like beneath them we decided to simul-climb the couloir. We knew James Just had pitched out the whole thing a week before. That sounded a little overkill to us, but at the same time we wanted to have the rope ready to pitch out anything that seemed especially challenging. With that decision made I roped up with Fabio and Brian and Michael made up the other team. Fabio led the way up the couloir and soon I was following.

The first half of the couloir was a simple and straightforward snow climb. Fabio protected the initial section with a snow picket and then a nut every 100' or so. Had we not been roped together in a suicide pact there would have been no reason to protect it. By the time Fabio had passed the initial curve in the dogleg he had run out of pro so he set up an anchor and brought me up.

Fabio set up his belay right below a short section of very rotten ice. My turn to lead! I retrieved my second tool from my pack and set off. I was able to get a few marginal tool placements in the ice and made my way up it as quickly as possible. After the ice I encountered some deep, soft snow. I wallowed up it - thigh deep in soft snow. I spied a couple of pitons in the rock wall to the climbers left and clipped them as I floundered up the slope. Luckily the snow firmed up soon after and the going became much easier.

I made my way through the dogleg and turned back up toward The Notch. I placed a snow picket (which I had absolutely no confidence in - but at least I didn't have to carry it anymore) and a nut along the way until I encountered another short ice section. This section of ice was pretty manky too - but not as bad as the first one. Before I tackled it I wanted to put one more piece of pro in, but I couldn't find any nearby cracks, so I put in a screw (my first screw ever placed on lead). Due to the crappy ice I'm not sure if it would have really held a fall but it provided some nice psychological pro.

This section of ice was a little bit longer than the first so it took a little bit more thinking. I ended up using my ice tool to make pick holes for my ice axe. This is a strategy I saw Brian use on Flying Dutchman and it worked well for me here. I made a pick hole with my tool, stuck my axe in it (holding it like a dagger), and used it to hold myself there while I made two more pick holes with my ice tool - one to hold myself in with my tool and the other as the next placement for my ice axe. After about three or four of these moves I was through the ice and back in snow. I could also see The Notch - it was only about 100' above me.

After topping out on the notch I brought Fabio up and we packed up the rope, broke down the anchor, and removed our crampons. Soon Michael popped out above the last crux and climbed up the last 100' to join us. While Michael brought Brian up, Fabio and I set off to find "The Staircase" - the direct finish to the summit.

James Just had been unable to find it the week before, but we didn't have much trouble. The beta we had from MountainProject.com was spot on - from The Notch traverse horizontally along the east side of the ridge until you get to the base of the gully. There was one obstacle on the way though - a 20' delicate slab traverse. This was pretty intimidating in mountaineering boots, but trivial in climbing shoes. So we switched out of our boots into climbing shoes (we brought 'em, so we might as well use 'em).

After the 20' slab traverse we were at the base of The Staircase. The Staircase was relatively snow free but was flowing with a lot of water. It looked very blocky and pretty straightforward - 4th class or 5.easy - so I set off to free solo it. I got about 80% of the way up it before I encountered a series of moves I just couldn't screw up the courage to free solo. My shoes were wet and muddy and before me lay a series of delicate slab moves on small crystals with an awkward undercling flake for hands. I wasn't sure how good the hands were going to be farther around the flake and my wet and muddy climbing shoes didn't inspire much confidence so I waited for Fabio to bring up the rope. I threw a couple of cams below the flake and pulled the moves without issue. In another 50' I was on the ridge crest with nothing but a short 3rd class scramble between us and the summit.

Knowing that I had needed to protect some moves Michael and Brian set up an anchor at the bottom of The Staircase and Michael led the whole pitch - it turned out to be a full 60m pitch.

Once we were all on the ridge crest we set off for the summit. The weather was beginning to close in so we were in a bit of a hurry. The clouds were looking very ominous and we heard distant thunder every once in a while.

Soon we were on the summit. We spent just enough time to catch our breaths and let Brian perform his new summit ritual - summit pushups. I'm still not sure what the logic is behind the number of pushups on the summit... Was it 14,255 pushups for the elevation? Or 30+ pushups for the number times Brian had summitted Longs? I think it ended up being as many as he could do - about eight (not bad with 30lb pack on, at 14,255', after a 12 hour ascent).

After the summit ritual and a round of handshakes and congratulations we beat a hasty retreat down the North Face. The snow was really soft and crappy, with periodic sheets of manky ice beneath it. It seemed like it took forever to finally find the eyebolts. En route we caught a few snow flurries and our axes buzzed a couple of times but we really lucked out with the weather. Eventually we were all rapped down and on the snow apron below The Cables Route. Then there was a couple hundred-foot hellacious posthole slog down the snow apron and onto the boulders. When we finally made it down to the boulders we took a nice long rest break - we'd made it past all the difficulties and it seemed like the weather was going to pass us without issue. All that remained was the death march back to the car.

The weather continued to hold and was actually quite pleasant during the hike down. The mosquitoes were pretty bad from the Jims Grove junction all the way down to the car but otherwise the hike out was uneventful. We arrived back at the car at 7:15pm - exactly 18 hours after departing. This trip set a new personal record for earliest departure from home (11:45 the night before), earliest time to hit the trailhead (1:15am), and long car-to-car time (18 hrs). I was whooped, but not too whooped for the traditional fish burrito and margarita at Ed's Cantina.

Great trip.

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