Sunday, May 31, 2015

LPP for May: Flying Dutchman

Crazy wind as Charlie climbs out of the top of the Notch

When I told my friend Mark that I was planning to do Longs this day he said, "You need to go up there with an army of friends to break trail in all that new snow." Turns out I did. Breaking trail for me was Chuck, Charlie, and Mt. Nuttelman. With those three in front, I barely made this climb. Months like this make the Longs Peak Project so challenging. One year April was my toughest ascent. So far this year, May was our toughest. It was the windiest and coldest. On the last day of May! Crazy Colorado...

Our original plan was to link up couloirs on neighboring peaks with the Notch Couloir on Longs, but the tremendous amount of snow on the mountain caused us to scale back our plan to a safer route and even then we were prepared to abort. Better to fail on this project than to risk death in an avalanche.

We both went a bit undressed, expecting warm, sunny conditions up there with a forecast for 80+ degrees in Boulder. We also didn't even meet in Boulder until 5 a.m. and started hiking after 6 a.m. The wind hit us as soon as we broke treeline and we'd battle it the rest of the way. On any other day my thoughts would immediately turn to bailing, as the wind was so strong that it greatly reduced the chances of success. Yet today, on the last day in May, it never entered my mind. We had to summit today, barring excessive danger, and if we had to exert tremendous effort, so be it. Charlie even stated at one point, "We just have to summit before the end of the day, right? Or do we need to get back to the trailhead today as well?" We were committed to whatever it took.
High in the Flying Dutchman couloir

The wind had us staggering at Chasm Cut-off and along the traverse to the eastern cirque. I was somewhat surprised to see Chasm Lake still completely covered in snow, but neither one of us wanted to risk a crossing this late in the year. We forged a track around the north side of the lake on the usual path. As we started up the Flying Dutchman, a couloir east of Lambs Slide, we noticed two skiers descending it from above. The snow conditions here were excellent.

The Flying Dutchman usually has a nearly vertical ice crux section. The last time I did it, I needed two tools to climb this section. Today, we kicked steps up it without even putting on crampons! This was the most snow I'd ever seen on Longs, and I've climbed it over 60 times and 10+ times in winter. Charlie did all the leading here, putting in a nice track for me to follow. We had a bit of steep rock to negotiate just before getting to the Loft, but were careful and solid here.

At the Loft the wind was tremendous once again and I led us slowly up the Beaver, which is the structure that forms the south side of the Notch Couloir. Things went well here and at the top of the Beaver, we geared up with harnesses and crampons. We failed to located the rappel slings here, which were probably buried in snow. I searched as much as I felt safe doing on the edge of the 100-foot drop before Charlie saved the day by pulling a long cord our of pack. He's always prepared. We looped it around a large outcrop at the top and I rappelled into the Notch.

The wind here was even greater. I put in a piece and clipped to it. I was still thirty feet above the lowpoint of the Notch. Charlie soon joined me and I put him on belay. He cautiously downclimbed extremely steep snow to the top of the Notch and then started up the Skyline Traverse rock route. When dry this route is 5.5. In mixed conditions, like we found it, it's challenging. Charlie took his time and did a great job finding the little protection available. I followed and took the lead to finish off the steep climbing.
Rappelling into the Notch Couloir

I headed up a steep corner, mainly because I could see solid gear. I placed a bomber cam and was liebacking off an icicle when it snapped! I fell down to the bottom of the corner, but the snow below and grabbing the sling saved me from having Charlie catch me. I tried again, this time using the rock - not as good of a handhold, but considerably more solid. I led out until the terrain eased back and set up a belay. Charlie took over again and led us to the summit.

This was the only time I've ever been to the summit of Longs and seen a point higher than the summit boulder. Fifty feet away a snow mound was even higher. Normally it is a 5-foot scramble to gain the top of the summit boulder. Today, I could step over the boulder. Charlie had to dig down a full arm's length to located the summit register. I was amazed he found it so quickly.

The ascent had taken over six hours and I was pretty drained. I wanted to descend the North Face, because it was shorter, but after descending just a tiny bit, Charlie didn't like the look of things. Weeks ago, he'd heard of a climber being caught in a avalanche while approaching the base of the North Face and he was gun shy. Laziness is not a reason to risk unnecessary danger, so we headed for the Keyhole descent.
Charlie digging out the summit register
The Homestretch was steep, hard snow and we descended cautiously and then kicked steps and drove in our axes to protect the Narrows traverse. The Trough, though, had perfect snow and we easily descended until we had to start the traverse over to the Keyhole. We stopped here to eat and drink. I hadn't done either for the past five hours and was seriously bonking. I have a bad habit of doing this when conditions are so difficult. I need to keep moving to stay warm, but I also need to fuel. We were out of the wind here and I downed twenty ounces of fluid and 300 calories, while putting additional food in an accessible pocket.

The traverse to the Keyhole, normally a rock scramble was completely covered in snow. So much so, that it was difficult to know exactly where to go, but I'd been here many times before and I directed us to the proper location. Descending from the Keyhole is normally very steep, blocky talus. Today it was a snowfield. The boulder field is usually a maze of walking through blocks, even in winter. Today it was an unbroken snowfield. We had to break trail across its entire length, never once stepping onto a rock.
Charlie leading the first pitch of the Skyline Traverse
We took the Jim's Grove route on the way down and had to plunge-step through a lot of this as well. The snow here was incredibly wet. The amount of water on Longs Peak was astounding. By this time my boots were so filled with water that each step was like walking in a stream. When we finally got back to treeline we took a break to strip down and met one of the only full-time climbing rangers of RMNP. His name escapes me now, but he was descending on skis, was an ultrarunner and seemed to be a badass climber as well. I invited him to come scramble with the Minions, but I haven't heard from him yet.

We got back to the parking lot after 10 hours, 10 minutes, and 10 seconds on the move. It was our most grueling ascent yet. Hopefully things will get a bit easier in June and July and August, but to make up for the expected easier conditions, we plan to up the ambition of our route selection. We'll see, but for now the LPP is still on. Five months down, seven to go.

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