Sunday, April 21, 2002

Failure on Longs

My record on Longs Peak was enviable. I was 18 out of 19 attempts including four winter ascents, three one-day winter ascents, eight ascents of the East Face and four up the Diamond. I must be good, right? Or tough. Or both. Sure, I was lucky also, but could luck happen that often? As it turns out, luck can.

Homie and I headed up Longs for the sixth time in the last seven months. We were on a quest to climb Longs in every month of the year. April was my final month. Conditions weren’t good, though. We could tell before we even got out of the car. The road to the parking lot was icier than I’d ever seen it.

In the parking lot, not a single track marked the trail and four inches of fresh snow were on the ground. A group of four was also gearing up in the parking lot and we lingered long enough to give them the lead. We wanted them to break trail for a while.

We plodded up the trail at a slow pace in our plastic boots. We carried a rack, an 8.1mm 60-meter rope, crampons, one tool each, plenty of Gatorade and some food. The temperature was a rather balmy 20 degrees. Balmy for mid-winter conditions, that is, but actually quite cold for April. Our Camelback tubes froze within minutes of the trailhead.

After an hour of hiking we passed the four-man team, just as we reached timberline. The snow was quite deep here and I frequently went in to my knees. The wind was a very consistent 20-25 mph and gusting to 35 or so. It wasn’t strong enough to knock you around, but it should make it cold for any exposed skin.

We put on balaclavas, goggles, and I put my chemical hand warmers that are so essential for my poor circulation. Already, I was having serious doubts about the summit. The other party passed us while we put on our extra gear and they also figured the chances were minimal.

Above timberline we all lost the trail very early. This wasn’t a huge problem physically as the terrain is all pretty much the same, but it was psychological more difficult as visibility wasn’t great. We could only see a few hundred yards. That was plenty to head in the right general direction, but made it difficult to pick out the optimal line.

Homie was leading the way and dropping me almost immediately after each stop. My thighs felt like I had bags of concrete strapped to them. I was supposed to be very fit, but I was dragging way behind Homie. The conditions were miserable and the snow was by far the deepest I had ever seen it above timberline. Each time Homie would stop for a quick regroup and I approached, I hoped to hear him say, “What do you think, Bill? This is a bit ridiculous, don’t you think?” Each time he never gave a thought of turning back. Homie seems impervious to miserable conditions. He’d make a great alpinist. I’m in my big gloves with chemical heaters and he’s still in his light gloves. He’ll frequently go halfway up this mountain in winter without his gloves on.

We pass the other party once again and trudge onward, with Homie breaking trail the entire time. I can’t even keep up in his tracks. I continue to hope he’ll call for a retreat. I’d look back occasional to see what the other party was doing. I’d see them still climbing behind us and know that there is no way Homie will allow a retreat while another party is still heading up.

After two hours, I fail to see the other party any longer. They have wisely turned around, but not us. Are we tougher? Certainly Homie is. Certainly I’m not. I continued only because I was too insecure about looking like a wimp. That or I’m just plain stupid.

We finally intersect the trail and slowly, laboriously, work towards Granite Pass. Above here the wind is even greater and it is colder. My glasses and googles fog up so badly that I can’t see at all. I struggle to clear them and Homie is nowhere in sight. Visibility is down to 20-30 feet for me. It has gone from miserable to impossible for me. I can’t continue. I try to call out to Homie, but in this wind communication beyond a few feet is impossible and he’s out of sight.

I stood there like a small boy lost in the woods - waiting for my father to come rescue me. Not only couldn’t I continue, but I wasn’t sure I could get down with the current lack of visibility. I needed Homie to come rescue me. Finally Homie appeared out of the swirling snow (it had also begun to snow), looked at me and spread his arms wide as if to say, “What the hell are you doing? Aren’t we climbing this mountain?” I felt horrible. Homie was going strong, warm, and comfortable. I was barely moving, cold, blind, and miserable.

I’ve met with failure many times climbing mountains. All climbers do. I realized today that the worst pain of all is in letting down a capable partner. It was my weakness that caused Homie to fail. That’s what bothers me. I don’t mind failing so much. Sometimes it just isn’t fun because of bad conditions or maybe I’m not feeling strong or the route is too hard. This is all part of game and I can easily accept it. Letting down my friends and partners is not something I take lightly and I walked out with my head hung low.

Homie led the entire way out as well. We followed the trail on the way down and it seemed much tougher going than our path on the way up. This was due to considerable snow. We postholed to nearly our knees on every step and a few sections to mid-thigh. It was draining. The weather remained fairly nasty until we got back to treeline and I was thankful for that. You never want conditions to markedly improve immediately after making the decision to retreat.

Our highpoint was 12,200 feet. I’m now 18 for 20 on this mountain. Any cockiness I might have had is long gone. The weather on Longs Peak is nothing compared to the horrendous weather in Patagonia, but it made me think of a quote by Timmy O’Neill about climbing down there. He said, basically, that no matter how strong you are, you don’t climb anything, absolutely anything, unless Mother Nature gives you permission. Apparently, I need an engraved invitation.

Homie will try again next weekend. Thankfully for him, I’ll be out of town climbing rocks. Maybe using heat as an excuse this time. If I’m to get my April ascent, I’ll have to take Tuesday, the 30th, off from work. Finding a partner will be tough, but maybe that’s an advantage. If I fail again, I want to be alone.