Every climber probably has a favorite mountain. For Seven-Summitteer Gerry Roach it is, somewhat surprisingly, the tame Green Mountain above Boulder, Colorado. Green ranks very highly for me as well for the same reason: Flatirons litter its flanks. But my favorite mountain is Longs Peak. This is the northernmost 14er in Colorado and has an incredible variety of routes leading to its summit. Significantly, the trailhead is an hour from my house. I've been striving to learn this mountain since I moved back to Colorado in 1994 and my education continues.
I've now climbed the mountain 82 times via 29 different routes. The intimidating East Face is where the biggest adventure lies. Many of these routes are too hard for me to free climb and some are too scary to aid climb, but there are still a few within my abilities. One of the most spectacular features is a prominent V-shaped dihedral on the far left side of the Diamond. It's possible to tunnel through the notch of the V and this opening is called The Window. I'd long wanted to explore this wild location but it has a reputation for constantly being wet and I've heard it referenced, when at all, more often as a mixed climb. The thought of being up there in winter in crampons terrified me and knew that was beyond my skills. But if I could ever get up there when it was dry...
A recent post to supertopo.com about an old ascent of this route rekindled my desire to explore a new part of Longs Peak. I queried my friend Bill Briggs, the oracle of all things concerning Longs Peak, and he told me he'd climbed it before and highly recommended it. He told me about the competition to do the first ascent of this route back in 1951. Guidebook author Benard Gillet pointed us at the story:
Try pp. 61–63 of Godfrey and Chelton's CLIMB! for a brief description of the FA. Dave Hornsby and Harold Walton went up to do it, but bumped into Brad Van Diver and Bill Eubanks in the Longs Peak Campground, where they learned Van Diver and Eubanks had just done it. The story in CLIMB! refers to an account written by Walton in the February, 1951 issue of Trail and Timberline, and you may be able to find said issue at the CMC headquarters in Golden (the AAC library).
With my son back in Colorado, I first asked him if he was interested in joining me. Silly question. To add some interest, we elected to climb Kor's Door on the lower East Face, another route I had not done, as an approach to Broadway and the Window. We left the house at 3:50 a.m. in my new 150-mile range Nissan Leaf to make its inaugural trip Longs Peak. We were hiking a bit after 5 a.m. We carried my standard Eldo rack (doubles to #2 Camalot and one #3 Camalot) and a 60-meter rope. We also packed Microspikes and these proved useful in climbing Lambs Slide to the base of the rocks.
|The new Longs Peak privy|
Lighter, I proceeded up to Chasm Lake where Derek was waiting for me. We caught and passed two guys headed for the Casual Route. I don't think they made it. It was forever before we saw them even at the base of North Chimney. We hiked up talus to the base of Lambs Slide, where we stopped to gear up. We put on our long pants, helmets and harnesses while grabbing a bite and drinking. We then hiked over to the hard snow, put on our Microspikes, and crunched up the steepening snow to the rock apron leading up to the Diagonal Wall. We continued for a bit in our spikes because taking them off on a flat ledge and continuing to a nice ledge at the base of Kor's Door.
Here we got out the the rope and gear. We'd read on mountainproject.com that we could link the two 5.9 pitches with forty feet of simul-climbing, so I led off with that intention, after having already put a Micro Traxion onto my lead line. The first forty feet or so are 5.6 and went nicely. All along this pitch there are numerous fixed pins. I'd clip them all and supplement them with some cams and an occasional stopper. The 5.9 sections are the two mini-roofs that are passed, both by skirting them on the right side. The climbing was really solid and fun, but the rock is slick and rounded, making for some tricky, insecure footwork.
Things went smoothly for me and just when I thought Derek might be getting to more challenging climbing, I arrived a small (1-foot), but comfortable stance. I backed up a solid-looking pin with a couple of cams and put Derek on belay. Derek was a bit out of practice on tougher rock climbing and found the footwork challenging. He was solid, but certainly not racing up the pitch. When he arrived at my belay he said, "That was hard for me."
I continued in the lead, but a cool corner above that was 5.8 at its best. Then some easier climbing led straight upwards. I stopped after maybe 150 feet, on a good ledge, because I wasn't sure which way I wanted to go and figured I'd bring Derek up while I thought about it. Derek soon joined me, remarking how much fun that pitch had been.
I then climbed off to the right, up a chimney/corner and then back to the left, where I placed a #1 Camalot, apparently too tightly. Following Derek was unable to remove this. Bummer. I rambled up mostly easy rock climbing clear to Broadway and set up a belay. Derek took a long time following, because he was working on that cam, but it certainly had me wondering until he emerged and told me. He was clearly disappointed he couldn't get it out. It was over a hundred feet down and after contemplating it for a bit, I decided to continue on instead. We had already spent more time on this climb than I had hoped and the big unknown, The Window, still loomed above.
We stayed roped for the traverse of Broadway even though it is trivial. It was easier than coiling the rope and the consequences of a mistake here are massive. We traversed for about 300 feet before regrouping. We had traversed past the Notch Couloir and Kiener's Route. We had to go further left (north) to access The Window dihedral. I spied a series of ledges, ramps, corners that led up and right and hoped I could start climbing up versus continuing the traverse on Broadway.
I pieced things together and completed a rising, low-5th-class traverse to another good ledge, where I belayed. Indecision reigned once again with a corner on the left and a funky traverse to the right. First I had to surmount a tricky headwall via a couple of moves that might have been 5.8/9. Once above that I chose to hand traverse right, across a feature-less wall protected by a knifeblade piton that was only halfway in and bent.
|The piton protecting the hand traverse to the right|
I eased out to the right, up easy rounded rock around one last corner and finally into the dihedral. I was pleasantly surprised at the gentle nature of the angle. At the plentiful handholds and cracks. It looked to be cruiser and I called out as much to Derek, saying the way up was clear and easy. At the top of the dihedral was the famed Window, which we'd have to go through and where Bill Briggs said I must belay.
|Looking up at the Window from the start of the dihedral. The Window is about 150 feet above me at this point.|
The Window itself was also a complete disappointment. I had envisioned a nice ledge to sit upon, with bomber anchors. I'd relax and watch Derek climb up to me. The Window turned out to be a fin of rock 8 inches wide at best. Through it the wall plunged straight down for twenty feet to a sloping ledge. There was no way I could climb down there and belay. The rope drag wouldn't have allowed any movement of the rope at all. I had to straddle the Window, rather uncomfortably, perched on tiny footholds that taxed my legs. What's more, the belay anchors were nearly non-existent. I clipped into a sling on the dihedral side that was below my feet and wrapped around a flake that looked like it would tear off the wall. Through the Window, at shoulder height, was a fixed stopper with a carabiner on it. It was clear to me that this was used to lower down to the ledge below, as climbing down to it looked quite challenging. And by "fixed", I mean it was left there. "In situ" would be a more appropriate description because the stopper only loosely fit the crack and I could easily lift it out, though it appeared solid from a downward pull. With these two things as belay anchors, I relied mostly on my position in the Window as my only real anchor. Just then the skies opened up.
It started as graupel quickly turned to hail, then snow, then back to graupel. Everyone on the Diamond, save for our friend Max Manson, was bailing. Max had topped out on the Diamond before the weather hit. We had really no option to bail. Off what? I'd risk lightning before trying to rappel this route from this point. I did risk it, as next we heard the terrifying sounds of thunder. I put Derek on belay. He put on his shell (mine was already on) and started to climb. I watched the snow/hail slowly start covering the holds in the dihedral below me.
Conditions had drastically changed in the fifteen minutes between my climbing of this dihedral and Derek entering it. Derek calls "Up rope!" at the very end, signaling my video time is up.
Things were going to shit fast. We were in a very bad position, getting soaked, and very exposed. I knew if lightning struck our rope, it would travel through it and hit both of us, likely killing us. But there was nothing to do besides keep climbing. Derek knew this and he battled upwards in very difficult, very scary conditions. I paused for a second to shoot the video above because I never have documentation for when things go bad. I'm too busy trying to get out of the situation. I paused too long, though, and caused a loop of rope to develop below Derek. I righted the situation, but later, when I was trying to pull in rope on one side and feed it down through the Window on the other side, I got behind again. Derek barked up at me, harshly. I knew he was gripped. I was too. I struggled to maintain my position on my tiny footholds and to pull in the rope and drop it down the other side. At least he was moving quickly. At the traverse, I feared he'd fall off, as I nearly did. I braced to take his weight, but he executed the traverse much better than I did, finding a tiny edge for this left foot. I directed him straight through the Window and clipped his rope into the in-situ stopper's biner and I lowered him to the ledge below.
We were getting soaked now, despite our shells. I was getting a constant stream of water directed onto me from the top of the Window and Derek was in the corner where all the water ended up. He had to set up a gear belay down there and did so quickly, setting up a solid belay from two cams. He pulled the rope down, I clipped my end into the biner and he lowered me down to him. We were through the Window, but far from safety. Our hands were already wooden with the cold and getting pruned from the moisture. We continued to get hammered from above. Derek's gloves were soaked completely through and his shoes would be soon.
I knew the next pitch was the crux, as Bill Briggs had warned me about it, saying that it would be wet, loose, a bit runout and "Longs Peak 5.8." Well, I guess Bill knows things about Longs Peak because the pitch was most definitely wet. It was obviously soaked and anything horizontal had snow/hail covering it. I didn't know if the pitch would be climbable in these conditions, but we had to try to move on. Derek put me on belay and I inched across a slick slab to a fixed sling at the edge of our wall. Around the corner was a fixed pin and I clipped that as well. I dropped into the next inset and moved left to the obvious chimney I had to ascend. I prayed to find lots of protection possibilities because I couldn't be running things out in these conditions, as a fall was more likely than not.
Getting into the chimney was awkward and intimidating, as it had no bottom to it and I had to do a semi-dynamic stem across it to get into it. If the conditions were better, I would have paused and worked that move out a bit more. In these conditions I felt I had to will myself to keep moving because contemplating the climbing in such conditions might cause me to stall. I had to get the rope up this pitch. Once in the chimney I had to immediately surmount a big chockstone. Handholds were scant and too slick. I clipped a pin on the left wall with a long sling and put one foot into it. It was too far to the left to make things easy, but pushing on it, I was able to drag my torso onto the chockstone. I couldn't retrieve the sling and wondered how Derek would. I put in a piece and clipped two long slings to it for Derek to use as a handhold so that he could hopefully get the foot-sling back. We were way beyond any thoughts of free climbing. This was a no-holds-barred, alpine brawl now. It was bare-knuckle, no rules climbing and my hands were steadily going numb.
Above, the climbing looked protectable: even though the rock was rotten in places, enough of it was solid. I moved steadily upwards, feeling the pressure to finish this pitch before things got out of hand. As I neared the top of the chimney the precipitation stopped. While I was still in the cold, wet chimney, I could finally see sunny rocks above me. I called down to Derek that I thought I could be belaying in the sun. He wasn't moving at all, belaying, and getting colder and wetter with every minute I labored on the pitch. Hence, he was as excited about the prospects of a warm belay as I was.
Blocking our path to salvation was a nasty roof capping the chimney. I was able to place a bomber #2 Camalot before probing the right side without success. I backed down and tried the left side. I could get a jam with my right hand but I couldn't feel how secure it was since my hand had almost no feeling in it. I didn't want to trust it. I searched in vain for an edge for my left hand. Finally, I decided to kick my left leg way high. I used it to push myself back to the right, making my jam more secure. I rolled into a mantle and pressed out into the "broad, sunlit uplands" of Kiener's route. We could unrope from here. The path to the summit was clear.
Of course, Derek still had to join me and he started off as a frozen popsicle. Yet, during all this stress, he never said a single word about the conditions. He knew the situation and what had to be done and went about the business of climbing safely out of a dangerous situation. But he still had to suffer up this pitch. He stepped in the same sling that I did and retrieved it. He moved up to the overhang and, with no feeling in his hands, he took some tension to revive them, slightly, before turning the lip and joining me in the sun.
|Derek rejoicing in the sun, having survived The Window|
We packed up most of our gear, leaving our harnesses on for the rappels down the North Face. We still had more than 500 vertical feet to gain the summit of Longs Peak and this was incredibly, surprisingly grueling. Maybe it was the extended time above 13,000 feet or the stress or something else, but both of us could barely keep moving. We were deeply satisfied. So glad to have escaped the trap. So glad to have achieved our goal. So glad to be on stress-free terrain.
At the summit we stopped to eat, drink, and rest. It felt so great to sit down. I'd have lingered longer, but the weather was threatening again and after our last experience, we didn't want to deal with any more precip while playing with our ropes. We carefully descended the North Face, mainly because I was so tired that I couldn't move at a pace that wasn't careful. The rappels went smoothly and I loaded a heavy, soaked rope into my pack for the long hike back to the car. For the first time in at least a decade, maybe two, I didn't cut across the slopes of Mount Lady Washington. We stuck to the trail for ease of walking. We did take Jim's Grove trail and all the usual shortcuts. We got back to the car after nearly 14 hours on the move.
Longs Peak never disappoints.