Saturday, August 29, 2015

Longs Peak Project - Month Eight: Backing Off

2 a.m. is an uncomfortable time to awake, but it was what I deemed necessary to get on the Diamond ahead of the hordes. I was off by about an hour and it made all the difference in the world. Instead of a pleasant ascent of a classic route in a spectacular position, I ran into fear, near death, and a hasty retreat.

Charlie and I met at 2:30 a.m. in north Boulder, as usual. We also met Buzz, who was doing a cool Continental Divide Traverse, starting with Longs and then gaining the divide via Pagoda and Chiefshead and then heading south. Charlie and I started up the trail at 3:32 p.m. and passed a few Diamond parties on the trail. Then we passed one at Chasm Lake. Two more at the cave bivy. Then we got to the top of the talus below the snowfield below the North Chimney just before another party. Above us was a complete shit show.
Leaving the car at 3:30 a.m.
I don't know what caused so many parties to be in the actual gully instead of on the slabs to the left, but I suspect it was because at least some of them didn't bring any traction and couldn't climb the rock-hard snowfield directly. They then had to traverse in from the right, along the moat/bergschrund and they just headed up the awful, loose gully. Others might have just followed the party above. Maybe none of them had been up to Broadway before. Maybe they had and just didn't care how dangerous they were to any parties below them.

There are scores of climbers, maybe hundreds, with more experience on the Diamond than I. I've been up the North Chimney probably fifteen times, in five different months. I know Roger Briggs has been up it more than a hundred times, so I'm far from an authority. Last year, Mark and I passed seven parties while we climbed it. I had climbed up it just eight days before, as well. Never have I seen anything like what was going on above me. These climbers were bombing rocks down with incredible regularity. Friends on the Red Wall, arriving later than us, said they constantly heard, "Rock!" ring out from the east face.

Rock fall is a danger in alpine climbing, no question. But it is possible to climb the North Chimney without knocking a single rock down, while roped up. It takes care, though, and caring. It seemed that no one above gave a damn about possibly killing the climbers below. When a couple of rocks just missed Charlie and I, I yelled up something, I forget what. The response from above was a cavalier, somewhat cheerful, "Welcome to the Alpine!" Whoever said this is an asshole of almost inconceivable dimensions. I yelled back, "NO! It doesn't have to be like that!" First of all, who did this guy think he was talking to? I'm no Roger Briggs or Conrad Anker, but this wasn't my first alpine climb. And to be so cheerful about nearly killing people is pathological.

As soon as we got to the snowfield, we pulled on our helmets, having already heard rocks whiz by. While pulling on my harness, a rock the size halfway between a golf ball and a baseball somehow bashed into my head, right next to my eye. I went down in a heap, with a cry of pain. It took awhile to understand that it wasn't life threatening. Charlie checked me out and I gradually recovered and took two Advil. We continued to gear up and Charlie started up the snow in his Microspikes with a rock to chop some steps. Then we heard, "Rock! Big one!" I panicked, trying to run, but not knowing what direction to run, as I couldn't see it. I should have looked up, but I was afraid of taking it in the face. The other climbers there did look up and said, "It's on the right!" I was running that way and changed direction back towards them, running into them. A rock the size of a microwave oven careened by within ten feet of me. I was more than rattled. I was terrified. I took a big breath of the air and screamed as loud as I could, "FUCK!!!!!!!!!!" I wanted to thrash every last climber up there. I probably couldn't thrash any of them, but I was enraged. I was nearly killed and it seemed like they didn't give a shit up there, judging from the frequency that they were raining rocks. Not being able to see these rocks coming definitely contributed to my fear. It was just too dim for me to see very well.

Charlie, in the middle of the snowfield, says, "Bill, do you want to just go climb something else?" Despite the crazy situation, I hadn't thought of giving up the climb just yet, which is insane, because I should have recognized the situation for what it was: life threatening. This climb, one that I had done eight days before, wasn't worth dying for. This was no Shark's Fin on Meru Central and I was no Renan Ozturk. I was thinking more about not wasting the early wake-up, the long hike in the dark, but Charlie brought me to my senses. "Yes, good idea, Charlie. Let's get the F out of here." After coiling the rope, I retreated down the talus to the shelter of a bivy behind a large boulder. It felt good to get out of the death zone. Soon we were re-packed and heading back the way we had come.

I knew one of the climbers above, Wade. I don't know how he knew it was me that got hit, but he yelled down, "You okay, Bill?" How did he recognize me from that distance in that dim light? He had arrived thirty minutes before us and he and his partner had soloed by two teams. Someone mentioned there were ten climbers in the North Chimney, so I guess other teams followed them up.

Charlie and I retreated down to the bottom of the Camel Cutoff, a talus-filled weakness in the wall connecting Longs Peak to Mount Lady Washington and ascended that up onto the north slopes of Longs Peak. We couldn't climb the Cables Route since we had already climbed it in March. Luckily I knew another route near by: Mary's Ledges. This is a seldom-climbed, four-pitch 5.6/7 that is a few hundred feet to the right of the Cables route. It goes up an impressive buttress. Homie and I climbed this route back in March of 2002.

At the start of Mary's Ledges.
We hiked a ways over and then stashed some of our gear and one pack - stuff we didn't need for an easier route. We'd be descending the Cables Route, so we'd pick it up on the way down. Then we made our way to the base of the route and geared up.

Heading up Mary's Ledges
We decided for me to lead, as I'd done the route before, and to simul-climb the four-pitch route as a single pitch. This forced me to made judicious use of slings to keep the rope drag to a manageable level. This was a challenge with two hundred feet of rope out, but the route is also run-out so decided not to shorten the length of the rope. 

As I ascended the route I clipped a couple of ancient, rusted pins and we also found two rappel anchors. That was curious. It must have been from climbers who couldn't find the normal Cables descent. We cleaned them up.

This was the most people I'd ever seen on Longs Peak - the most on the summit, the most in the Trough, the most on the Home Stretch and the most cars in the parking lot lined down the road. It was so crazy I couldn't look.
Once we hit the upper Keyhole Ridge we could look down into the Trough and it was quite a sight. It looked like a line of ants headed to a picnic. Just like on the Diamond and would be on the summit, I saw more people in the Trough than ever before. All with good reason, though, as the weather was stellar and Longs Peak is a great place to be in that weather, even when crowded...though not nearly as good as when you are all alone.
Eight months down, four to go.
We didn't linger on the summit that long, maybe fifteen minutes, before the crowds drove us down. We rappelled once at the Cables Route because, why not? I had the rope on my back and my harness on. We paused at Chasm View to look at the situation on the Diamond. No one was very high up wall. My buddy Wade was on Ariana and still on the second 5.9 approach pitch. A D1 team might have been highest - on the third pitch. Two or three parties were on the Casual Route, but the highest party was just halfway up the third pitch. We had some consolation in our decision to abandon the Diamond in that we'd have probably been stuck behind two or three really slow parties.

We cruised back to the car via Jim's Grove and the usual shortcuts, arriving after 8h17m. Eight hours and change is our most frequent time on Longs Peak. Eight months down. Four to go. Next up is going to be the Keyhole Ridge from Glacier Gorge. I'm having ankle issues as I write this and it will need to improve some or that's going to be a long, painful walk.


SteelMonkey said...

Incredible someone would be that casual and oblivious to the potential for hurting someone below, but unfortunately, there seem to be a lot of goobers who think you can just charge out there without any knowledge of style or technique that goes with climbing. Glad you weren't hurt seriously! I was thinking a shot at the Casual Route next year might be fun...maybe not.

Beardom said...

I didn't know it was you who got hit at first Bill. I was yelling down after I heard the scream, later to find it was you. You were the only person I knew down there, so I yelled down to see if everyone was ok.

Everyone was in the loose gulley because the first party went that way. They got scared after the bergschrund and roped up right there. This is when Ryan and I were able to solo past them. We were past the 5.5 slab moves when the hurricane of rocks started sailing down.

We were the first party of the Ariana/PV line. At the top I think I counted 6/7 parties below us. There were about 8/9 parties on the casual route, 1 on D7, 1 on D1 - essentially the most parties I've ever seen up there

Glad you were all right. I watched the parties waiting for PV send off HUGE slides, one went off of Broadway and onto the snow field below. Maybe it'll be the raps for me from now on.

Nancy said...

Bill, don't know you, but glad you are ok. Wade....glad you and Ryan are good guys and checked in.

Jan Wierzba said...

Dear Bill, it's not a post, it's chapter of the book! You should be professional writer or columnist at least :). Where do you want to go for now? Regards!