Saturday, March 18, 2017

Streaking on Longs Peak...in winter!



While we were climbing up Mt. Massive a few weeks ago Derek asked me when winter ends. He was thinking that he should keep this streak of climbing Longs Peak in winter going. How long was his streak at that point? One winter in a row! I told this to my buddy Mark, thinking he'd chuckle too, but he responded, "For most things that would be funny, but for Longs Peak in winter...that's definitely a streak."

He makes a good point. Climbing Longs Peak in winter is no easy chore. At least for most people, myself and Derek included. Maybe not much of a stretch for Homie, Anton, Joe (as we'll see), Danny Gilbert, etc. but those aren't normal people. I've done it a number of times, but it's never been easy for me.

So, we made plans to climb the last weekend of winter, which was today. Derek wanted to do the Loft to Clark's Arrow, as he'd never been on that side of Longs before. He'd been up the Loft before, though, in winter, when we climbed Meeker as part of our training for Denali. We decided not to make a loop out of it (via a descent of the North Face) and settled on an out-and-back. That way we wouldn't have to carry harnesses or a rope. We did carry an ice axe, crampons, and a helmet. We wore double mountaineering boots with Microspikes over them and used poles.
What a nice day!
We got a pretty casual start, arising at 5 a.m. and leaving the house at 5:35 a.m. and starting up the trail just a few minutes before 7 a.m. We ambled along to just below treeline and took a short break to drink and apply sunscreen. Once above the trees the wind hit us pretty good, but we were still just in our long-sleeve shirts. For me to be dressed that lightly, in high winds, it had to be warm -- and it was. But not too warm. The snow was quite firm. In fact, we decided to switch from Microspikes to crampons for more security and less slipping.

The climbing up to the Loft Bypass was nearly perfect snow for crampons. The only drawback was that it was very windy and we were in the shade for the first half. My hands got very cold, mostly because I refused to stop until we hit the sunshine. By then my hands were quite painful. Derek took care of me here, getting out my heaters and digging out my big mitts while I kept my hands balled up. The mitts and heaters had the problem solved in 10-15 minutes and that was never an issue again. We pulled on our shells here as well because we'd get hit it some pretty big gusts. Of course shortly afterwards the wind seemed to ease up and the sun had us pretty warm.
Derek climbing up the Loft couloir
The Bypass had steps up very steep snow, but it was solid going. We noticed some strange tracks in the snow here but thought nothing more about it. We continued up to the Loft, pulling off our crampons here, as it was just bare rock. We left out poles here as well and then descended the other side and did the traverse past Clark's Arrow to Keplinger's Couloir. Shortly after heading up the couloir we met two guys, Pawel Mikrut and his buddy Damien, coming down. They are Polish ex-pats now living in Denver. They had started  up at 2 a.m. and had just completed their first winter ascent of Longs. Cool. We asked them if we needed crampons to complete the ascent and they assured us we did. I was hoping to leave them behind.

Derek on the steep snow section of the Bypass. Notice the tracks right of Derek and also behind and left of him. They go to the edge of the cliff...
I was amazed how little snow was up there and we were able to stay nearly entirely on rock up the couloir, across the traverse to the Homestretch and up that to the summit. We didn't put our crampons back on the rest of the day. We made the summit just two minutes short of five hours. It was not entirely coincidental that we broke five hours. I might have mentioned it to Derek...

We spent thirty minutes on the summit, an extreme rarity for me in winter. There was little wind up there and it was sunny and beautiful. We ate and drank and relaxed. When we started down we were careful on the slabs and took our time. As we approached the top of Keplinger's I spotted a guy coming up, moving unusually fast. I noticed his pack was tiny and he had long hair. The way he moved, I knew he was something special and I immediately thought it must be Anton. I knew there was a 95% chance I knew this person though. Or if I didn't, I wanted to know them. Then I saw the curly hair and called out, "Hey, Joe!" It was unsupported, self-powered-14er-record-holder and all-around world-class endurance athlete Joe Grant, who is also an incredibly friendly guy. We chatted for at least ten minutes. Joe was in the Scarpa Neutron running shoes, which appeared to be nearly identical to the LaSportiva Crossovers, both have built-in gaiters and Gore Tex covers. He was in running tights and his signature BUFF. Looking at the differences in our clothing you'd think we were climbing different mountains or at least different routes. Nope. Though Joe was planning on descending the Keyhole Route to make a loop out of it.
Derek on the Homestretch and nearing the top of Longs Peak
We continued on our separate ways and Derek and I reversed our path back to the Loft and then very carefully down the steep snow section. We used our ice axes here to protect us and went slowly and carefully. Derek had an intense altitude headache and we took some time to eat, drink, and down some Advil. He was in pain but continued on, climbing safely and securely in no-fall territory.

Once back in the Loft couloir we were able to walk down facing out, digging in our heels, ice axes at the ready for a self arrest. It was too hard and too steep to glissade until we were more than halfway down, but then we got in some marginal glissading on hard snow.

Nearly to Chasm Cut-off we took a break to eat, drink, and strip off our Microspikes, stow our axes, and pack up our shells. The rest of the descent went smoothly with our conversation completely masking the tedious, tiring nature of the descent.
On the summit!
When we got to the parking lot we found Pawel and Damien, our Polish friends still there. They told us that they had started as a team of three and the third guy, also named Pawel but I'll call him Pole3 to avoid confusion) had turned around at the Loft and started down alone. This was around 8 a.m. He hadn't been seen since. The three had stashed snowshoes on the way up and when Pawel and Damien retrieved their shoes, they noticed the Pole3's pair was still there. They picked them up, thinking that their Pole3 just forgot them. Back in the parking lot, they found that Pole3's car was still there. As I write this at 10 p.m. he is still lost. The rangers will start a search and rescue Sunday morning if his car is still in the parking lot. I was hoping they'd go up tonight. It is still winter, but the weather report is pretty mild tonight, though with building winds.
Descending back to the top of Keplinger's Couloir. We did not climb the snowfield behind him.
Derek and I should have seen him descending. We would have got to Chasm Cut-off before Pole3 got there. What could have happened? What about those tracks on the steep section of the Loft Bypass? I hate to think he went over that cliff. Wouldn't we have seen a body below? Maybe not. He was supposedly a bad route finder. He was the fittest of the three, a marathon runner, and had been 100 meters ahead of the other two for the entire climb up to the Loft, yet the other two had to correct three route-finding errors of his. Could he have missed the traverse from the Meeker-Longs cirque back out to Chasm Cut-off? And descended that gully down to Peacock Pond and got lost down there? Unlikely, I think, with the trail so clearly in view. It's definitely a mystery. I have Paul's phone number and we are in touch. I'll find out what happened to Pole3 tomorrow, I hope. I'm crossing my fingers for him until then.

Derek has now climbed Longs Peak six times by six different routes in five different months, with his only doubling up in March - both winter ascents. And he's just 19 years old. I told him about my first time up Longs on our hike out. It was after my freshman year in college and I was 19 years old and did the Keyhole Route. He did the Keyhole when he was ten years old. He's got quite a jump on my young self. His ascents have been:

September: Keyhole, 10 years old
March: North Face, 18 years old
May: Notch Couloir, 18 years old
July: Kiener's Route, 18 years old
August: Keyhole Ridge, 18 years old
March: Loft/Clark's Arrow, 19 years old

Our goal this year is to climb the Diamond and we'll try that in July or August.

UPDATE: As of 5 p.m. on Saturday Pawel (Pole3) still hasn't been found. Supposedly they were going to use a helicopter but it's been very windy today.

UPDATE: I don't know anything more than what is in this DC article, but I suspect our guess was right. The climber fell and died. Tragic.

6 comments:

Gayla Wright said...

Another great adventure on Longs. Loved your write up. Kerp me in the loop about the list hiker.

Dylan Cousins said...

Any chance you took pictures of the hooligans on the Diamond?

Bill Wright said...

I did not. Didn't even notice them, which is strange because I was thinking it was a great day to be climbing it.

Genki Kanojo said...

I am so happy and so heartbroken to find your blog. You are the closest thing I have found to his last moments. Thank you for posting. He was a wonderful man.

Bill Wright said...

Genki, so sorry for your loss. I never even saw him, but somehow seemed so invested in his outcome and it struck me pretty hard.

Jhon Denly said...

Mountain hiking is really enjoying riding for all. I love hiking, and spare time I am going hiking in high hills or massive mountain.