month 12 of the Longs Peak Project
The culmination of my year-long project came to a tiring end today. My quest to climb Longs Peak by different route in every month of the year succeeded with my ascent of Keplinger's Couloir. It is apt to end with this route, as it was the route that started me on this path. Back in 2001, inspired by Bill Briggs' own Longs Peak Project, I decided to climb Longs in every month of the year and started filling in the months with this route. I succeeded in climbing Longs in every month of any year in April of 2002. And now, in 2008, I've climbed Longs Peak in every month of 2008, all by a different route.
I've said it before, but on no ascent was it more true than today: great partners are the key to success. One of the keys to this ascent was Danny Giovale of Kahtoola. He overnighted me a new pair of the awesome Flight Boots, which arrived on Friday, the day before the ascent. Without these the ascent wouldn't have been possible since the only snowshoes I have are the Flight Decks. For non-technical peaks in cold, winter conditions nothing beats the Flight Boots. I'm basically in a running shoe (worn inside of the Flight Boots) so I have the lightweight and comfort of that shoe, but have the warmth and snow grip of a heavy climbing boot. Plus, I can instantly clip into a pair of Flight Deck snowshoes when necessary. This is an awesome product.
But gear can only get you so far. The partners you really need are the ones that come along, break trail for you, entertain you, and watch out for you. I was hoping this would be my last climb of the project and since it was non-technical (no ropes) I asked any and all my friends to join me. Six or so were interested, but due to other commitments and sanity returning to others, the only two to join me were Mark Oveson (partner in May) and Chris Plesko. I had met Chris only once - at a party at my house. He is relatively new to climbing, but a national caliber endurance mountain biker. On this climb I came to know him a lot better and he's a tremendous partner.
The weather report called for a high of 25 degrees on Longs Peak (relatively warm), but with winds of 30-40 mph and gusts to 70 mph (not so good). We met in north Boulder at 3:45 a.m. and, after driving by the trailhead once, parked at the Sand Beach Lake Trailhead in the Wild Basin area of Rocky Mountain National Park. As soon as we opened the car door we could hear the wind screaming above us. I figured our chances of success were nil, but we'd go for a hike regardless. I had forgot my headlamp, but Chris and Mark had theirs and I just hiked between them for first 90 minutes, which was entirely in the dark.
There was perhaps six inches of fresh snow on the trail but we had Chris as a workhorse. He broke trail for five miles to Sand Beach Lake. It took over two hours, but now we were faced with the crux of the day: bushwhacking through the 1.5 miles of trail-less deadfall and giant boulders. I knew this would be tough, as I'd done it before, but when Homie and I did it in October, we got through relatively easily in running shoes. Now all three of us had to strap on the snowshoes and the going was brutal. For the third time that morning, I resigned myself to not making the summit. The travel was too difficult and it was taking too long. I wasn't overly disappointed, though. I was having a good time and would just have to try again.
We swapped leads in woods and after two and a half very difficult hours, we emerged on the talus flanks of Mt. Meeker. We ditched the snowshoes here and proceeded. I was surprised to see superman Chris lagging behind a bit. He'd later say that he always goes through a tough period on climbers. When he caught up, we proceeded together for a ways and then gradually spread out as our speeds over the difficult talus/snow terrain varied. I arrived at the bottom of Keplinger's Couloir first and started up the steep snow and rock gully.
After Mark entered the gully, I yelled over our elapsed time (6h07m) and elevation (12,200 feet). It was then about 11:30 a.m. Mark said back, "It's probably an hour and fifteen minutes to the summit. Maybe 90 minutes." I responded, "It will take me two hours to climb the remaining two thousand feet." I have lots of experience on this mountain (duh) and I knew that I moved slowly in the last two thousand feet and really suffered above 13,000 feet. Climbing in winter conditions is much tougher than when the mountain is dry. The gully was very tiring as the climbing switched from postholing to knee depth to scrambling on rocks to hard snow to really deep soft snow.
Chris entered the gully awhile later and I could see both of them as I looked down. I did the math with our time. I'd be lucky to make the summit at 1:30 p.m. after more than eight hours of climbing. At that point I'd have 3.5 hours of daylight remaining and no headlamp. I knew the others were doing the same calculations. If I waited for them to catch me, we'd be even later to the summit. What to do? Three times earlier that day, I was accepting of turning around, but not now. Not after 6.5 hours of hard work. I mentally committed myself to the summit and would worry about getting out afterwards.
The further I moved up the couloir the further behind my companions fell. I had hoped that the steps I was kicking would help them catch up. I knew that I had much more motivation to make the summit then they did. Of course they wanted to make the top, but it wasnÕt the end of a year-long quest for them. I knew at that point that I'd be the only one making the summit. I struggled onwards getting more and more fatigued with each step.
The last time I ate or drank was four hours into the adventure. I knew I needed to stop so that I could eat and drink, but I didn't want to take the time. I was acutely aware that my teammates would now be waiting on me. They couldn't just sit and wait for too long, as they'd get cold. What would they do then? Certainly, they'd be concerned about me. What if I got hurt and didn't come back down? If they started to head back, if only to stay warm, would they remember that I had no headlamp? I knew I was causing them stress and hence only stopped when I physically had to catch my breath. Unfortunately, this was often and became increasingly more often the higher I went.
At the top of the couloir, just below the Notch, I broke left on the very familiar snow slabs leading over to the home stretch. Once again the snow was very hard for a section and I had to carefully and forcefully kick my boots into the slope so that I wouldn't fall. I tried not to check my altimeter too often. I wanted to climb at least a hundred feet before I would allow myself another look. The final, familiar slabs were a bit tricky in my Flight Deck boots, as the slabs had just enough snow to make things slippery, but not enough to kick a step. I stayed mostly off the snow, when I could.
I topped out and staggered over to the summit register to sign in. I was first December ascent. It had taken me 8 hours and 15 minutes to make the top and it had taken me 2 hours and 8 minutes to cover the last 2050 vertical feet. It was now 2:00 p.m. The last person to sign in was Jim Detterline on November 18th, I think. Jim's probably climbed Longs Peak more than anyone. I've never met him, but seen his name here countless times. After signing in, I immediately started down. I still didn't eat or drink. I wanted to catch Mark and Chris as soon as possible. The slab descent went reasonably fast, as I took some chances, more out of fatigue but also the need for speed. Back in the couloir, after descending the upper mostly rocky section, I was delighted to be able to glissade most of it. I reversed the same 2050 vertical feet in 40 minutes, catching my partners at the bottom of the couloir.
Both Mark and Chris were delighted that I had succeeded and immediately congratulated me on the completion of my quest. They had great attitudes despite turning around after more than seven hours of effort. Both were just enjoying a great day in the mountains. The summit was going to just be a bonus for them. Companions like these are gold.
They allowed me to take a short break to finally eat and drink after five hours without it. We reversed our route back to the snowshoes and took another short break to eat and drink more. We descended back to our snowshoe track and donned our shoes. With the track completely broken and some urgency with the time, we moved quickly on the descent. We were back at Sand Beach Lake at 4:50 p.m., before dark. With Mark's wife's cookies to fuel us and Mark's great stories to entertain us, the remaining five miles and two thousand feet of descending, mostly in the dark, was almost pleasant. Almost.
We got back to Mark's truck after 13.5 hours on the move. The usual ecstasy of removing the boots ensued (though not nearly so great for me since my boots were so comfy). It was done. My Longs Peak Project was finally finished.
And so it goes...