My LongÕs Peak project continues and for the month of April I drafted another superhuman partner: Herr Griebel. Stefan is one of the most amazing endurance athletes I know, which is saying a lot because I know a lot of great endurance athletes. Stefan has the record for covering the entire Colorado Trail (550 miles or so), which he did by mountain biking and hiking it in just six days. He also climbs 5.13 and has won the Tour de Flatirons (2006). Nowadays he's a semi-professional adventure racer (though his day job is a digital IC designer). Climbing with guys like Homie and Stefan ensure success. Some would say this is cheating, akin to climbing the Nose of El Capitan with Hans Florine. Fine. IÕm a cheater then. I don't mind.
Stefan wanted to climb the Notch Couloir, a 60-degree couloir that is just left of the Diamond. Accessing this couloir is problematic, though, as it lies directly above the 1000-foot Diagonal Wall. One must climb up the 45-degree Lamb's Slide and then traverse the Broadway Ledge above the precipitous drop to the base of the couloir. Now an April ascent of Longs is frequently more difficult than a winter ascent due to deep snow and alone would be plenty of challenge for your average climber, but it wasn't going to be sufficient for Stefan. Stefan and I received some notoriety last year for skiing the 1911 Gully on the Third Flatiron and now he wanted to ski the Notch Couloir!
The Notch had been skied before, though descents are a rarity and usually done on belay and/or with some rappels. An acquaintance of mine, John Harlin III, had done the first ski descent in 1974. This was also the only continuous ski descent of the Notch/Broadway/Lamb's Slide. Harlin had led across Broadway on his skis, placing gear as he went, while his partner followed on foot, carrying his skis. I asked John about it in an email and this was his response:
We skied from the Notch itself. I did the first bit to the couloir without a rope (I think we measured it at 50 degrees), but then we belayed the rest. Had to rappel about 50 feet or so because it was just a 2-foot-wide ribbon of ice on granite. The couloir is in the upper 40s. At Broadway my partner took off his skis, but he was on pins and I was on Ramer skis and bindings, so I skied, placing gear every so often like a climb, and he followed along. Some sidestepping uphill, but also some turns downhill. Managed to go the whole way from the Notch to the bottom of Lamb's Slide without taking off my skis. With a belay it's not that tough, cause you're safe, but without a belay it would be way scary because of that 800-foot jump off Broadway.
Impressive and we had hopes of following in his ski tracks, but in order to do that it meant carrying skis and boots up the route. Climbing 5000 vertical feet is tough enough without such a heavy and awkward load on our backs. I guess this is one of the drawbacks (benefits?) of recruiting a guy like Stefan. The stakes get raised.
We met late, at 3:30 a.m., too lazy to meet an earlier. We were packed and hiking from the Long's Peak Trailhead a little after 5 a.m. Stefan was taking my running shoe ascent to new levels of insanity. On a day where our feet would be buried in deep snow almost constantly, Stefan wore running shoes with neoprene overboots. He wore these shoes clear to the summit of Long's Peak, donning Kahtoola aluminum crampons (sans frontpoints) once we gained LambÕs Slide. This has to be a first. He had full footbed heaters in his shoes, but these died by the bottom of the couloir and his feet were frozen solid by the top.
Stefan adopted this approach to save weight, but his ski package was very heavy, probably twice the weight of my ultra-light package. Being twice as strong as me, the additional tonnage didn't slow Stefan down. What slowed the both of us down was snow - lots of it. The trail to tree-line was the usual bootpacked affair and the shortcut up to JimÕs Grove was tracked, so we headed up that. Unfortunately, the tracks disappeared once we hit treeline. We had hoped that by going on Sunday, we'd be able to follow a nice track clear up Lamb's Slide, put in by climbers on Saturday. Well, if anyone had climbed LongÕs Peak the day before, all trace was obliterated at treeline due to the winds. And the postholing began.
It took us 2h15m to get to Chasm Cut-off, normally around 90 minutes in winter, but we'd get even slower. From there to Chasm Lake is seven tenths of a mile with only a few hundred feet of elevation gain. There was no sign that anyone had ever passed that way before and on the steepest part of this traverse we were plunging into mid-thigh. We made goals for ourselves that involved moving just fifty feet. At this point I knew in my heart that weÕd never make the summit of LongÕs, because with snow conditions like this it would take days once the steep climbing started. We struggled on, thinking that the end of the line would be Chasm Lake.
Four hours from the car, we stepped onto a frozen and completely snow-covered Chasm Lake and then immediately collapsed for a well deserved rest where we refueled. The snow on the lake was only ankle deep and we continued to the far side. Much to our delight, the snow conditions on the far side, leading up to and in Lamb's Slide were nearly perfect - just soft enough to kick a very secure step with little effort. Stefan took over the lead here and wouldnÕt relinquish it until the top of the Notch Couloir. Stefan is a machine, to be sure, but our thinking here was that since we were simul-climbing we'd put the guy less likely to fall on the bottom. Strangely, this was me, but only because I was in real mountain boots with serious, steel 12-point crampons. Stefan was in running shoes with aluminum, 10-point (no front points) crampons.
LambÕs Slide went easily, though not without a lot of effort, and we remained unroped. At the start of the Broadway traverse, we took another break to fuel and rest. We contemplated leaving our skis behind here, as we knew we didnÕt have the time to do a belayed ski descent of the Notch. Stefan really wanted to ski LambÕs Slide and indeed it would have been fun, but I knew reversing the Notch Couloir would be tricky and reversing the Broadway traverse would be even worse. We had been moving slow and this would make the day longer and have the added stress of descending the East Face.
We continued with our skis and unroped to the precarious "step around" move, where we finally donned harnesses and roped up. The rest of the traverse was on very steep, very exposed snow. In two sections, we had to plant our axes and lower ourselves down a six-foot wall of vertical snow to climbable ground.
We simul-climbed to the base of the Notch Couloir and when I arrived there, I was surprised to see Stefan continuing even further, out over the Diamond face. I asked, "Where the heck are you going?" He responded, "I didn't think that was it. It looked too hard. There's a lot of rock up there." Stefan is a climbing stud, but this was a bit funny, even at the time. The Notch does have a very narrow section and I'm sure it melts out at some time of the year, but not in April. It was steep snow all the way, even through a 2-foot wide pinch at the crux. Stefan led the entire thing and pulled up gear once to re-stock. I climbed along in his steps, usually with a loop of rope below my belay device, meaning I was moving faster, as you'd expect since he was doing all the work. Near the top though, I couldn't keep up with him. I steadily paid out all my remaining slack and then struggled to prevent the rope from pulling tight on my harness. I failed. He was too strong. This came as no real surprise, but I hated to be a follower, climbing in pre-kicked steps, and still slowing him down.
At the top of the Notch we slumped exhausted. Stefan's foot-bed heater had died on him and 8+ hours of having his running shoes buried in snow had finally caught up with him. His feet were numb and now he faced the fantastically painful process of re-thawing his toes. I'd have been crying like a school girl (I know this from past experience), but he just bit down hard and endured. My extremities were cold, but manageable. I was wasted, however. I drank and ate and tried to recover.
From the Notch there are two ways to the summit. The easiest and most popular, at least this time of year, is to drop down the other side and then head up on steep snowfields to join the Homestretch on the Keyhole Route. The other option is to do the 5.5 Skyline pitch. I'd done the later once before with Homie in November and thought it went nicely. It is the most aesthetic finish and I elected for that option and took off on the lead. I spent the next hour making this 5.5 pitch into the hardest lead IÕve ever done on Long's Peak, including the 11a crux of Pervertical Sanctuary. I donÕt know what the M rating would be for this pitch and it certainly wouldn't be high, but that is a more appropriate way to rate this pitch on these conditions. The skis and boots on my back made this pitch twice as hard as it would normally be and I tried numerous options at a couple of crux sections. The unprotected slab sections were out of question for me. I didn't want to fall. I struggled to place gear and I finally stemmed, chimneyed, and mantled my way up a corner to the top of the difficulties. I was completely spent and very disappointed to have wasted so much time.
I finally put Stefan on belay and he followed. I knew he wouldnÕt chastise me for taking so long, for being so slow, as that is not his style. Still, I feared the look that had to come, the look of disappointment and frustration. I've given that look before and I knew I deserved it. At one point Stefan called for tension. I knew the spot. It was where I did a very dicey traverse move across a blank slab. I was protected by a piece buried in a squeeze chimney a bit above me when I did it and I barely made it across. Stefan didn't have the sharp points I had and wisely too tension and swung across into the corner. When he arrived at the belay, I braced myself. The first words out of his mouth were, "That is the proudest lead I've ever followed...bar none!" Considering the pitch is rated 5.5 and my mental state, this came as one of the biggest shocks in my climbing career. Yet it was the perfect thing to say, regardless of truth and I knew it wasn't true, because it immediately changed my attitude. My partner was with me. He had my back. Indeed, it was desperate and probably a mistake to come this way, at least with my non-existent mixed climbing skills. Yet, I was too stubborn to turn around.
Stefan led the last long scrambling bit to the summit and I simul-climbed along behind him. By the time I stood on the summit, I was completely shot. It has taken us ten hours to climb the peak. As we rested and hydrated, a solo climber comes up the Homestretch and walks over to us. He is a former Bulgarian climbing guide, fast, fit, and super confident. He started five hours behind us and followed our tracks all the way up the Notch Couloir. He was jealous of the skis we had for the descent, but I was jealous of the track he had to follow and the lack of weight on his back. Still, soloing that traverse was bold and his time was impressive.
Stefan and I descended the North Face to the familiar rappel anchors. Our Bulgarian friend followed us and used our rope to rappel the technical pitch. He was prepared to downclimb it, but as long as the rope was available, he didn't mind the extra level of security. We asked him about the Skyline finish and he said, "I know it is only rated 5.5, but I won't solo that pitch in these conditions." He had dropped down the other side and came up the Homestretch.
After the rappel, I continued down quite a ways in my mountain boots. I'm not sure why. I didn't want to have to switch back and forth between mountain boots and skis boots and I figured the Boulder Field wouldn't be ski-able since it never is. I was wrong. Stefan skied from the bottom of the rappel. I put on the skis a couple hundred feet lower and we both skied clear to the car with only two short (1-2 minute) walking sections. That was amazing. I've never seen so much snow up there.
Skiing down the trail in the woods is a trade-off. Skiing it is much faster, much, much more physical, and much more dangerous. You must hold a very precarious snowplow position in tight terrain with few bail-out options. I crashed a couple of times and my quads screamed in pain all the way down, but we did the descent in just 2.5 hours from the summit (and most of that was getting down the North Face and switching to ski gear), so it was worth it.
Stefan was a great partner for this, as he nearly all the steep climbing and bailed me out by carrying the rope on the descent. I was pretty tired by the trailhead, as usual. One day I hope to climb this mountain and not be crushed when I get back to the carÉone day.