Sunday, March 13, 2016

Road to Denali, part 9: Longs Peak

Topping out the crux pitch

Being that I'm a serious Longs Peak ascender (I've done the LPP twice), it was more than little bit embarrassing to Derek that he'd only climbed the peak once in his life, when he was ten years old. It was time to get another ascent and it might as well be a winter ascent and up a different route, of course. I chose the North Face because it's the shortest route and would give us just a touch of technical climbing.

Derek was very excited and motivated to get Longs in winter. We had all the gear packed up and in the car the night before and when I got up at 4:20 the next morning Derek was already dressed and eating breakfast. We were driving at 4:45 a.m. and Derek slept most of the way to the trailhead. We were booted up and moving up the trail at 6:05 a.m.

Derek led the way up to treeline and I took over to navigate shortcutting across the tundra and up to and across the regular Longs Peak Trail and onto the steep slopes of Mount Lady Washington. We stopped to drink and eat a bit and then moved on. We moved across the flatter section of the Boulder Field with the intimidating North Face staring right at us. I assured Derek that the climbing wasn't nearly as hard as it appeared. When we started to steeply climb up to the crux section, Derek started to fade a bit. We'd been going for three hours now and the altitude and angle were getting to him a bit. I decided to continue at a slow, steady pace and got well in front. We talked about this later and we'll stay closer together in the future.

I was somewhat motivated to continue because I spotted a pair of climbers ahead of us. When I caught, still a bit below the crux, I greeted the pair - a man (Matt) and woman (Allie). The man took one look at me and said, "Are you Bill Wright?" He had been at Charlie and my talk on LPP Thursday night at Neptune's. Cool. He offered us first crack at the technical pitch and I responded that which ever party is ready, should just go. I moved by them and up to just below the crux. I stomped out a platform to the right, where I knew the terrain was a bit flatter.

I flaked out the rope and put on my harness. Matt and Allie arrived and moved a bit further to the right. They pulled out their stove and started melting snow to refill their water bottles. Derek soon arrived and while he took a rest and rehydrated, I got out the rack and readied myself for the lead. The pitch looked mostly rock, so I opted to continue in just the Microspikes that I was wearing. Derek and I both carried crampons and, in retrospect, should have put them on for this pitch. It went okay, but I found the climbing tricky enough in that footgear to place three of the four cams that I carried. Derek followed nicely, though his hands got very cold.
Derek leading the upper part of the North Face
Once he joined me, I had him led up another pitch to easier ground. He didn't carry any gear and was found a stance above where he was comfortable. I followed up to him and found another eyebolt up there. I left the rope and rack here. We continued to the summit, following some tracks that we'd find out later were made by a soloist out early. Derek led all the way to the summit, with me on his tail. There were a couple of short sections with very hard snow and our Microspikes gave us very little purchase. We used our axes to secure these sections. We were both feeling the altitude here and moving slowly.

As we approached the summit, I thought back to when Derek first climbed Longs Peak. It was in 2008 - the year I first did the LPP. Derek was my partner for the Keyhole route. It was a bit icy then and the night before I had put in some screws into his tiny running shoes. Back then I told him, as we took a break in the sun at the start of the Narrows, that we might be able to break six hours. Even back then this motivated Derek and he motored up the Home Stretch. We were now sure to break six hours again.
On the summit of Longs
We topped out after 5h53m of effort. The day had been mostly overcast, but it wasn't very cold and on top we had zero wind! Of the 15 or so times I've climbed Longs in winter, this was the second time I've had still conditions on top. It was the first summit we've had this winter where we just didn't tag and go. On MLW and Meeker the wind was ripping. On Maroon Peak last weekend, it was windy and snowing with no view. Today, we lingered for twenty minutes, eating and enjoying the view.

We started down and passed Matt and Allie coming up about halfway to the technical section. We bid them a good day and moved by. Back at the rope we did a rappel from this top eyebolt down to the eyebolt at the top of the crux and then from there halfway down the crux pitch and then back down to the base of it. I picked up our poles and water bottles that we'd left here and then we did one more rappel from a piton with a sling on it. We had soloed up this terrain on the way up, but as long as we were in rappel mode, why not take it? The pin seemed solid and the sling was in good shape, but I still had Derek unclip from it. He asked why and I said, "Just in case it pulls, I don't want you coming down with me." He reluctantly unclipped and said, "But it's not going to pull, right?" I sure didn't think so or I wouldn't have weighted it. Plus, the terrain wasn't very steep here and I wouldn't be putting much stress on it. Finally, if it did pull, I think I'd have been okay and would have stopped in the snow I was descending through.
Descending back to the rappels
We stopped to pack up our technical gear at Chasm View and spotted two separate teams on the Diamond! One was still working on the first pitch of D7 and it was 1:30 p.m. If they made it, I'd bet they were still on the wall in the dark. That's possible, but that's scary and committing and cold to be climbing on the Diamond in winter, in the dark. The other party was higher and, to my shock, were on the Casual Route. The leader was halfway up the pitch after the traverse, so the third pitch. Neither party was really moving much, as I'm sure they were both aiding, but if the Casual party had done the traverse, they'd have to free climb some of that. Maybe they did an aid-climbing direct start? I'd love to hear how these parties did. Back at the parking lot a snowshoe guide asked us what we'd done and when we said the North Face, he said, "I came down that last night." He had done D7 the previous day. Cool. Some hardmen out conquering the Diamond in some friendly weather conditions. Yet a storm was moving in, and Derek and I did get snowed on a bit on the descent. Not much and we didn't get any wind, but anything like that would intimidate me if I was on the Diamond.
Two parties on the Diamond
We cruised back to the trailhead with Derek motoring along at such a pace that he gapped me pretty significantly. He waited for me at the start of the winter shortcut and I led the rest of the way out, mainly so that  wouldn't get dropped again. I set a pretty fast pace, hoping to satisfy Derek, but he was so close on my heels that he probably wanted to go even faster. We got back to the trailhead 9h34m after we left. I had predicted we'd take about ten hours for the roundtrip so was pleased how well Derek had done and how strong he performed, particularly on the way out. He gets better on every outing.

Our family are big tennis players and fans. Tennis has four major tournaments and if you win all of them in a single year that's known as the Grand Slam - a feat that has rarely been done and not in recent history. A still very difficult goal for a top player is the career Grand Slam - to win all four tournaments over their entire career. Derek is now 2/12's of the way to the career LPP, as he's climbed it twice, each in different months (September and March) and each by a different route (Keyhole and North Face).


Gayla Wright said...

Derek is getting stronger and more confident with each climb. Do agree you should stay closer. One photo of Derek you, Bill, seem far away. Guess that was for a great shot. Love to learn that Derek is taking the lead more often. By the look on his face in these photos, he seems to be loving all this. Told everyone you were becoming famous, Bill, and look recognization on Long's. Love you both, NaƱa

Mark Oveson said...

You guys are going to be totally ready for Denali!