Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Longs Peak, the full version.

Longs Peak
20 miles
7,500 vertical
Start: Glacier Gorge TH 6:50am
Finish: Longs Peak TH 6:50pm
Jeff Valliere and Tim Long

For years I have considered a winter climb of Longs, but for whatever reasons I kept putting it off, perhaps a bit apprehensive as to whether or not I would be up for the task. Since Kevin Baker’s February climb, the thought of getting around to it this winter in the lean snow conditions seemed increasingly appealing. Several more recent trip reports found in various places on the internet indicated that the Trough was in good condition and that the much feared (feared by me when imagining typical winter conditions) Narrows and Homestretch were mostly dry.

Now all I needed was a partner. I considered going solo, but that idea was quickly shot down by Allison. I sent a few invites, hoping to coax somebody into joining me on a Thursday, the last day I had available for the winter 2008/2009 season. Dan Mottinger was interested, but could not make it and Tim Long, a good running friend of mine immediately bit, eager to climb his 2nd 14er ever and stand atop his namesake peak.

I was a bit apprehensive at first to take Tim along and warned him of what the climb entailed after we discussed his previous experience. Even after he read up on what he was getting himself into, he assured me that he was eager to give it a try and had no problem with exposure.

I picked up Tim at his house in Boulder at 5:15am and we made good time to the Glacier Gorge TH. After futzing around getting ready for a bit, we were on the trail at 6:50am, just as it was getting light. The trail was packed and I felt great. I kept my pace in check, as to not get too far ahead of Tim, but was really itching to go super fast on the approach, as I was eager to get to the mountain. We were still going a pretty good speed however, power hiking when necessary and jogging when practical.

Just beyond the N. Longs Peak Trail jct., we pass two ice climbers headed to Black Lake. We exchange pleasantries, take a few photos and continue on. We soon reach the junction for Emerald Lake and this was familiar territory for me, having come here several times in the summer over the past 12 years. Just beyond this junction, there was a split in the well packed trail and a bridge to the left, but no sign at this junction. Having read about various shortcuts and having seen random snowshoe tracks through the woods, I dismissed this and kept on heading up the more obvious trail.

After five minutes or so, I was having sneaking suspicions that turned to serious doubts, sure that we were going in the wrong direction. I told Tim that we should turn back and go investigate that previous junction a little better. Soon after turning around, about half the distance back to the junction, we bump into the ice climbers that we had previously passed and I told them that I thought we were heading the wrong way. They expressed their doubts and the maps and compasses came whipping out.

I considered bringing my GPS along on the trip, but what for?? How hard could it be? I had been to Black Lake before, RMNP has well signed trails and I typically take pride in my natural ability to find my way.

My gut feeling insisted that I was correct in my assessment that we had missed a key turn and looking at the maps bolstered my suspicions, but one of the ice climbers said “see, the compass indicates that we are heading South, not West”. This was just enough to second guess my second guess and we started heading back up the trail.

We soon arrived at The Loch and tried to convince myself that it was indeed Mills Lake, but I was still skeptical, as the view did not seem to match what I remember from my summer hike to Mills and Black Lake 10 years ago. With my mental compass spinning, I walked across the lake, feigning confidence for Tim’s sake, trying to convince him and myself that we were on the track to Black Lake. The trail was more intermittent than I expected and we ended up post holing a bit, as we opted not to bring snowshoes as I was sure there would be a packed track.

Hmmm…. This headwall seems a bit steeper than I remember and we are getting above tree line which is not right. I still can’t see Longs yet either which is a bit disconcerting. As soon as I saw the lake, I knew I had screwed up. I again busted out the map and realized for sure that we were standing on Glass Lake. I cursed myself and apologized to Tim. He was very easy going about it and I scrambled to come up with plan B. Climb Taylor, Powell or McHenrys from here? That seemed unlikely, given the terrain, my lack of familiarity with these peaks and the fact that now nobody knew where we were in case anything happened.

We decided to head back to the unmarked junction where my alarm bells went off and just hike up to Black Lake and see how that went. The whole time I was cursing myself for my stupid mistake, cursing the Park Service for not marking the junction and lamenting the fact that I just made a dumb navigational mistake that threatened our summit bid.

It should not have been that big of a deal, we probably only lost 90 minutes or so, but we both had dogs to get home to, I a wife expecting me and afternoon obligations. We arrived at Black Lake a bit after 10am and took a long break to eat and discuss our options. We both agreed that with the perfect weather, it would be a shame to turn back now. Despite the 90 minute detour and unnecessary extra credit post holing to Glass Lake, I still felt quite fresh, but I could tell that Tim was starting to feel it a bit.

In the back of my mind, I knew that we should just turn around, as bad days typically start off with one small mistake, which compounds with more consequential mistakes. As is usually the case with many people in similar circumstances, I let summit fever get the best of me and in the back of my mind, I knew that I was going to let nothing get in the way of this unique opportunity to climb Longs in winter under such perfect conditions.

Although Tim was tiring, his attitude was ever positive and optimistic and he soon indicated that he too really wanted to summit. We geared up at the base of the Trough and began the climb. I have been on much steeper snow, but with the hardness of the snow and the fact that the Trough doglegs and ends with a small cliff band, I was starting to debate whether or not I wanted to descend this way. Tim was climbing strong and seemed confident on the snow, I was quite impressed.

I asked Tim how he felt about descending the snow and he eagerly wanted to glissade it, but that option made me a bit nervous. He may have been fine, but even with the relative technical insignificance the Trough presents, I just did not feel as though it would be the best introduction to glissading. To further complicate matters, instead of wearing true crampons, I opted to wear my Kahtoola running crampons to save weight. I am also a notoriously reluctant glissader, having witnessed several accidents and the prospect of a glissade, although very appealing to some, just was not in the cards for me.

Progress on the upper stretch of the Trough became slow with the variable snow, but eventually we made it to the chockstone. Knowing the route above was dry, we stashed our technical gear here and I climbed my usual way around on climber left. Although the moves were a bit spicier with a little snow, it presented minimal difficulty and I waited at the top of the crux for Tim. As I was waiting, the wind picked up and I really needed to eat. I ducked around the corner to the start of the Narrows to escape the wind and refuel for the final stretch.

I waited for what seemed to be too long and I peeked around the corner to see what was taking Tim so long. He eventually appeared, his fleece covered with snow and he was moving very tentatively. He then informed me that he had taken a fall while attempting the crux move. From here on, the day got a bit more serious.

Concerned for Tim, I assessed his condition. He seemed nervous and rattled and informed me that he had twisted his knee and hit his calf on a rock when he fell 5 feet backwards but was otherwise OK. I told him we could turn at that point if he wanted, but he insisted that he was up to the task and wanted to continue on.

We tentatively picked our way across the Narrows. There was no significant snow to speak of, but there were some small patches that were tough to avoid and were just enough to wet the shoes and make footing a bit slick, requiring a good bit of extra care. The Homestretch was also mostly dry, but like the Narrows a few small patches of snow lingered and were just enough to wet the shoes and make things slick in spots.

We made the summit at around 1:50pm and I just wanted to get Tim down safely. I placed a quick call to Allison at work to let her know we made the summit and started to inform her of my plan to take an alternate route down, but then the call was dropped.

Even though Tim was doing great and was elated to have made the summit, I was feeling bad that I had put him through this, somewhat worried that I may have gotten him in over his head, at least a bit too much too soon. His fall and subsequent weakness of his leg had me further second guessing a descent of the Trough. Having run into a few climbers who had ascended from the Keyhole, they reported good conditions and I figured that might be a reasonable alternative, to get to easier ground more quickly and then cruise back to the TH on the apparently dry North Longs Peak Trail from Granite Pass.

We cautiously picked our way down the Homestretch, which surprisingly was easier than the ascent, using the shameful but effective butt scooting technique. Who knew a puckered behind could serve as a solid 5th point of contact? The Narrows was a snap and the crux move into the Trough was easier than anticipated. We descended to the cut off to the Keyhole and started the traverse. Before long, we came to a very steep, bulletproof snowfield we had to traverse. With full crampons, Tim easily made his way across, but with my stubby spikes, I slowly and carefully picked my way across inches at a time, as a fall here would be bad news.

The going to the Keyhole was slower than anticipated and I could tell that Tim was getting frustrated and I was now lamenting that it may have just been easier to descend the Trough after all. The Keyhole was a welcome sight and from here on I was sure it would be a quick and easy cruise to the car. Again, progress was slowed by Tim’s injured leg, but we were still doing OK and I was thankful that it was not worse. As we neared Granite Pass, I figured we could drop down the hillside and head due North and intersect the North Longs Peak Trail, saving a bit of distance.

We descended down to tree line and I was sure we would just easily traipse down the drainage, until we intersected the trail where we would be out in no time. As soon as we hit the snow in the trees, I knew we were in trouble, as it was very deep, wet, unconsolidated and we had no snowshoes. I was pissed at myself for making this mistake, on top of the last several mistakes and sure enough, just like I had talked about that morning, one mistake leads to another leads to another.

Now was the time to decide and this was my last chance to make at least one sound decision. It was 5pm and the sun was getting low. We were not lost, but with only 2.5 hours of daylight, I was not sure that it would be a good idea to try to force our way through the deep and wet snow for ~3 miles toward the car. Although very unappealing, especially to Tim who was really tiring and had a hurt leg and now aching ankle where he has screws from a previous mishap, I felt the safest option was to head 1,500+ feet back up the steep tundra slopes to Granite Pass and take the very familiar trail down to the Longs Peak TH.

It was a slog back up to the pass, especially after a long day and I kept stressing about how we would get back to my car on the opposite side of the mountain. I could not stop beating myself up for making such idiotic mistakes where I could just hear myself judging if it were somebody else. I was kicking myself for not just going down the Trough and retracing our steps, the decision seemed so recent and vivid it almost seemed within reach to alter our course. Strangely, although mentally battered, I felt fine physically and was full of energy despite not having eaten much and being low on water, but Tim was in death march mode.

I constantly tried to place a call to Allison to let her know we were OK, but I could not get good enough reception. The normally well trodden trail, split into a random network of footprints near tree line and we ended up post holing for a bit on somebody’s stupid idea of a shortcut. I knew we were on track to hit the main trail, but Tim was questioning me and why he ever joined me today, throwing in some choice words and vowing never to do winter outing again. At 6:50pm, a full 12 hours after we began, we made it to the Longs Peak TH and were relieved to be “out of the woods” so to speak.

What I had hoped would take 7-8 hours tops, took 12 hours and we were now many miles from the car and way overdue. As if on cue, a couple pulls into the lot in a rental Mustang for a quick bathroom break. I borrow their phone and their AT&T I-Phone musters up just enough power to leave a message to Allison that we are OK, but running late.

I probe a bit and find that they are visiting Estes Park from Texas and I shamelessly ask for a ride. They happily oblige and after some initial small talk, conversation stalls, the miles to the Glacier Gorge TH drag, knees stiffen in the not so roomy back seat and the sky darkens. We finally arrive at my car, creaky, hungry and parched, yet very thankful not be out in the woods for the night.

I was reluctant to even write a TR, I just wanted to stick my tail between my legs and forget about it, but a long weekend in the desert allowed me to reflect a bit and the bad feelings about the day have dulled significantly. Tim and I have discussed the lessons we learned and surprisingly, we are still friends (I was sure that he would not want anything to do with me after that wild goose chase).

It is true about what they say, one mistake leading to more mistakes. Though the initial route finding snafu only cost us 90 minutes, I think it snowballed into us (me) making hasty decisions that I may not have otherwise made had we not been pressed for time.

It was also a huge mistake to bring the wimpy crampons just to save a few ounces. When climbing Longs in winter, bring the real crampons!! What was I thinking? I’m sure Prater, Halladay, Wright would have just cruised up down in running shoes, I am just not that adept.

Although Tim is very strong, athletic, able and courageous, I would not again take a relative beginner on such a rigorous climb, especially since I myself do not feel entirely confident on such a winter climb, hence my putting off Longs for years.

This trip was certainly an eye opener for me to re-calibrate my decision making strategies. I guess if you are out there enough, you are bound to have bad days. I consider ourselves lucky that nothing worse happened despite it all and take away some valuable lessons from the experience.


  1. Though I taught the forest animals some new curse words, I was never at any time angry at you. I probably would've killed and eaten you if we stayed the night there but only out of survival.

    Seriously, I had a super time and would return there tomorrow if you wanted. Aside from not going down the Trough, you made solid decisions (and put up with my constant whining).

    I'm eager to get up another one as soon as you want.

  2. Solid report. On a lot of fronts.