Sunday, July 26, 2009

Longs Peak (Attempt)

25 June, 2009: Knowing full well that there might be snow left on the upper part of the route (beyond the Keyhole), Trisha and I decided to have a go at Longs Peak (14,261 ft.). This is the last 14er she needs on the Front Range.
We napped Tuesday afternoon/evening, and headed north about 11 pm (MDT). We arrived at the ranger station TH about 2:30 am, and found it surprisingly devoid of other cars.(This was due to it being a weekday, and early in the season.) Sure enough, a sign was posted to the effect that the Keyhole route was currently "technical"--by which they mean having snow and/or ice.
We set off at 2:35 am under clearing skies, with a balmy temperature of 51ยบ. We made good time to the Keyhole (13,200 ft.), arriving there around 7 am, just half an hour after sunrise. Everything looked good!
There was indeed snow beyond the Keyhole. We got out our ice axes for stability, and Trish donned her crampons. (I had decided to go without mine.) The snow made the going a bit slower, but it wasn't the real problem. The real problem we encountered was route finding, based on my own failure to pay attention enough.
On my previous climb of Longs, I had come from the other direction after climbing Mt. Meeker. I felt sure I would recognize the bottom of the Homestretch when I saw it, but I forgot that the view of it would be slightly different. As a result, fixed on dealing with the snow, we followed another party of hikers and plowed right past the point where we should have turned left and up!
As a result, we wasted quite a bit of time plowing on farther to the south, until we started climbing up what I thought was the proper couloir. I just figured that it looked different from what I remembered because it was mostly covered in snow. Boy, was I wrong!
When we finally topped out, we found a benchmark showing an elevation of 13,749, and a view so totally different from my expectations and memory that I had to conclude firmly that we were in the wrong place. We could actually see the western slopes of Mt. Meeker, together with another steep drop-off to the southwest. Uh-oh...(I think we had actually climbed the upper part of Keplinger's couloir.)
There was no choice but to head back down, re-trace our steps to the north, and try again to find the correct place to turn (now) to our right and up. After doing so, we actually had no problem recognizing the correct route, as I was now seeing it from the perspective I remembered. The problem was that 1) we had wasted a lot of time, and 2) the warmth of the day was beginning to soften the snow quite a bit.
Nevertheless, we clawed our way about 80% of the way up the Homestretch in reasonably good time, to the place where the snow gave way to bare rock. I thought we were "home free" at this point, as the lip of the summit plateau was only a tantalizing few feet above us, and the snow climbing was over.
Well, almost over. The sun-warmed rocks had totally melted the adjacent snow, allowing the nightly freezes to convert it into a band of solid ice. Crampons refused to bite on this stuff, and the angle (35 to 40 degrees) made weight-bearing traction virtually impossible. I actually managed to find a place where I could lever my body up onto the bare rocks, but it required all my length of limb and quite a bit of exposed dangling. There was no way Trisha could duplicate those moves, and we both knew it. Even from above, I couldn't find any other place where she could safely get across the band of ice.
After minor slips forced us both to use our axes to self-arrest, it became clear that this was not going to be our day for Longs. Reluctantly, we turned around, knowing that we had given it all we could, but had no choice but to abide with my continuing contract with Suzanne that we both had to come back in one piece each, come what may. We'd live to climb another day.
Back at the Keyhole, we met a couple hiking up. They had already decided that they weren't going to summit that day either, just look over the ridge and head back down. They kindly took our picture in front of the stone hut, with its plaque memorializing Agnes Vaille (the first woman to climb Longs). We took a similar picture of them, and we all headed down.
The skies threatened, but we were only subjected to a few spits of rain on the long way back to the ranger station. We arrived there 14 hours and 15 minutes after setting out, having covered about 15 miles and climbed about 5,300 feet of vertical.
Pictures are at:

Long life and many peaks!


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