Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Agony and the Ecstasy- Longs Peak in Winter.

I remember climbing Storm Peak last year and running into two guys who were going for Longs.  Despite the relatively mild winter at that time, I wished them well, and remember thinking Longs was way out of my league, particularly in those conditions.  It went down in a big day over the summer, and while difficult, I felt even the somewhat obscure route I'd taken was not the hardest thing I'd done.  The seed was planted, and an unofficial goal of a winter ascent came into my mind.  
I set out from home shortly after 5am on March 19, 2014- the last day of the winter of 2013/14.  Even though it was dark I could see conditions ahead did not look good.  Clouds were obscuring the high peaks.  I arrived at the trail head right around six to find two other cars already in the lot.  Two people pulled in shortly after I did.  None of them were there when I got back.  
I set out in darkness, headlamp ablaze, at first sticking to the summer trail, and then taking the winter shortcut which basically heads directly up the hill rather than switchbacking.  Both were very well beat in and did not require traction devices of any sort.  I could hear the wind rushing through the trees like a locomotive.  I could see and feel blown snow.  Once the sun came out, I could stop and look down into the valley and see tons of snow rushing by.
I ran into someone right around tree line.  Conditions were miserable- very cold (5 degrees at the th), windy, wind blown snow.  We talked and while getting to the summit seemed improbable at this point, I said I'd at least like to make it to the Keyhole and reaccess there.  But I was thinking about turning back myself.  I could get back to the car and get to Estes in a reasonable amount of time, giving me ample opportunity to tag some of the minor peaks on the east side. 
Yet I pressed on.
I took my first break at Granite Pass.  Here is Mount Lady Washington.
Here I got a temperature reading just above zero.  The wind was rushing by at what had to be close to 35 mph, which gives a wind chill of -27.
I started thinking about pain and discomfort.  I recently rewatched a climbing movie that followed a multiple time world champion climber who said his only true talent was being a masochist
Hiding at Granite Pass.
And maybe there is something to that idea.  The ability separate the mind and the body.  To feel pain and discomfort and use it not as an excuse to stop or turn back, but to push on and through tough conditions.  Pain was on my mind alot for the first few hours.
I got to the Boulderfield, and with Storm Peak providing a block, encountered a little less wind.  However, I was a little less than half way across it before I could even see Longs.
Storm Peak.
I stopped to use the toilet here, and something strange happened.  The weather miraculously cleared up.  The wind died way down, snow ceased to be airborne, temperatures increased.  The only logical conclusion that I could draw was that this toilet controls the universe.  Use it's powers only for good.
The diamond is forever.
Clear.  The Keyhole ahead.  It did remind me somewhat of the keyhole on McHenrys, though of course this one is much larger.
Upon arrival, I stopped here for another snack.  I strapped on my crampons and got out my ice axe.  Now the true difficulties would start.  I stepped through the Keyhole, and as I read another climber had said of his time on some 8000m peaks, I felt like I left the land of the living.
Greeted by the ledges.
While some of the blazes were obscured, I was able to see enough to find the way in addition to following the boot prints of a few who had recently gone before me. 
Talk about exposure!  Looking back toward the Keyhole.
Next up was the Trough.  This gully ascends around six hundred feet to what I felt was the crux of the route before joining the Narrows. 
I am out of high altitude shape, and was definitely hurting going up this steep snow and rock field.
I found the chock stone at the top to be the crux of the route.  I have read you can go by it either to the left or right.  Right looked more reasonable to me as there were several small ledges to use as foot holds.  A little bit of stemming helped, and I was over it and onto the Narrows.  This was the first time I felt sure I would see the summit this day. 
The Narrows.  Very exposed do not fall here territory.  I felt the hardest part was near the beginning, as you squeeze past a few rocks in the way.  I imagine this area can become a somewhat sketchy bottleneck in the summer, as people of varying abilities both going up and coming down will meet here and try to go around each other.  But I didn't have anything to worry about.  The Narrows were mostly rock with some snow and ice.
The Palisades as seen from the bottom of the Homestretch.  
Pagoda and Chiefs Head from the turn to the Narrows.
The Homestretch always looks worse than it is.  This is another place where I saw a bottleneck develop in the summer.  People were very clearly not comfortable climbing this exposed slab.  I went out right then, but this time stayed in the snow to the left.  Until I heard a whump maybe fifty feet below the top.  Then I got off the snow pretty quickly. 
And there it was.  After a difficult route, it seems like there should be more of a final obstacle to hurdle.  But there isn't.  There was now a light wind blowing, though temps had warmed up significantly.  I took shelter on the leeward side of the summit and ate and drank and thought.
I thought of old friends I hadn't seen in a long time.  I was talking to one recently and though we now only see each other every few years, when we do it is like being home.  You can really tell a true friend when you don't just talk about good times past, but make new memories.   And I am very fortunate to have some new people come into my life who I hope to have in it for a long time.  You were all there with me in my mind, and though I don't say it enough, I love you and I am lucky to have you all.
After a little bit of a rest, I turned back and started down.  I was only halfway there. 
I made it past the difficulties of the Narrows and down climbed past the chock stone at the top of the Trough.
Looking down from high up in the Trough.
The last major difficulty in my mind was recrossing this steep snowfield.  A few deep breaths and I moved out onto it.  I took step after step carefully, gently, and purposefully and found myself on the other side in short time.  
Nearing the Keyhole, looking back on some steep snow.
A beautiful sight.  Despite having 5+ miles to go after this, I knew getting back to the Keyhole marked the end of the technical difficulties and I could now just motor back down to the trailhead.
The rock of the Keyhole.  I stepped through and rejoined the land of the living.
Here is a video I shot as I came back to the Keyhole:

Through the looking glass- Longs Peak in Winter. from Andy Rose on Vimeo.
A very impressive feature!
The Agnes Vaille Memorial Shelter and Mt. Lady Washington.
I turned the cruise control on and headed down.  And amazingly, the weather turned yet again, deciding I hadn't gotten my RDA of blown snow to the face.
Battle Mountain.
Peaks to the north.
Mount Meeker.
I (of course) lost the trail on the way down and faced some postholing in deep powder.  At least I was going downhill.  Eventually I found the trail and continued on downward.  I got back to the car at 6pm, giving me a solid twelve hour day.
This was a very special day in the park.  As always, plenty of time for thought and reflection, idea and reality, agony and ecstasy.  It felt great to stand on the summit of this fantastic mountain for the second time, and in winter no less.  Since the first day of spring was the next day and I didn't see anyone else after my early encounter, I feel like I can say pretty definitively that I was the last winter ascent of the year.  The thought still has me smiling.
As for difficulty, this was by far the hardest alpine mixed route I have done, requiring a skill set much advanced over that needed for a summer ascent.  I will freely admit there were times I didn't feel entirely comfortable, mainly on some of the steep snow areas.  But I suppose that is what mountaineering is about: meeting and surpassing the comfort zone, and hoping and knowing that you will come out the victor.
Longs Peak via the Keyhole in winter:
7.25 miles one way, 4859 foot gain (9400-14259).  Third class, SS.  Strenuous+.
Agnes Vaille Memorial Shelter, 13160 feet:
6.3 miles one way, 3760 foot gain.  Strenuous-.
The Keyhole, 13160 feet:
6.3 miles one way, 3760 foot gain.  Strenuous-. 

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