ONE LONG(S) NIGHTMARE
LONGS PEAK, KIENERS ROUTE
JUNE 1 – JUNE 2, 2003
There’s a good reason I’m only now reporting on this climb, crawl,…nightmare. Back in June ’03, I left my driveway at 12:30 a.m. with Jared, a fellow climbing partner, for a much anticipated trip up Keiner’s route on Longs Peak. 30 hours later, around 8:30 a.m. the following morning, when the Park Ranger asked if we were the Jason & Jared party, my emotions were quite mixed. I wasn’t sure if I was going to cry like a baby or launch into an ice-axe wielding fit of rage. He had been awoken twice throughout the night on our behalf, courtesy of the Estes Park Police Dept. and my fearful wife. He was calling in the license plates of the over-night vehicles still in the lot trying to determine vehicle ownership, and ultimately, if Jared and I had even visited the mountain. We had. With us, two surprise guests, of whose names have been swept from my memory for good. While fact gathering for this report, Jared reminded me of their names; I’ll leave them out anyhow.
The route is considered one of the best "classic" mountaineering routes all along Colorado’s Front Range. I had stood atop Longs huge flat summit on several occasions. Jared too, was familiar with the peak and its’ challenges. During the week preceding our climb, Jared entertained a few different climbers to accompany us on the climb. As names popped up and dropped off the email distributions, I realized that he worked with several mountain adventure enthusiasts. At the end of the week, one name prevailed who, along with his climbing partner would join us that weekend. In passing, I recall hearing of their trip up the Grand Teton, as well as training for an up-coming expedition down in Peru. I was comforted to know that Jared had invited someone with mountain skills, as our route would not be a suitable intro for anyone. We met the other party at their house and rode in their vehicle to the trailhead, arriving at 2:00 a.m. The ride up to Rocky Mountain National Park was filled with conversation about the two competing companies we worked for. In hindsight, we should have discussed our route, potential retreat routes, and their comfort with the overall exposure of the climb.
We hit the trail promptly and, as the grueling hike in usually goes on Longs, not much was said by anyone. The first glitch of the day surfaced when I couldn’t find my headlamp. With three headlamps between us, we reached Chasm Lake around 6:00 a.m. We sat and chatted over some snack food while the orange sliver on the horizon morphed into a fiery red and purple sunrise. Rested and fueled for the climb, we headed for Mills Glacier and then Lambs Slide, our route to gain Broadway on the Longs East Face. The snow on Lambs Slide was well consolidated, as it was very difficult to break through the frozen crust that the overnight temperatures had left in their wake. Lambs Slide revealed the first indication that I should have interrogated our guests a bit more before leaving the parking lot. Commenting on their massive backpacks, I learned that they had stuffed their packs with 70+ pounds of anything and everything possibly needed on a multi-day trip in the high country. Their reasoning was that they were using this weekend as a "training" exercise for the upcoming Peru trip. And so begins the saga.
From the top of Lambs Slide, we evaluated our next leg of the climb; traversing Broadway. Reaching this point had taken longer than we anticipated, but the day was still young. For those unfamiliar with Longs Peak, Broadway is a nearly continuous ledge that bisects the 1,800ft. shear vertical face of Longs’ East Face. This face is known as the Diamond. A careless maneuver on Broadway can send one plummeting to their death in an instant. Jared began a very cautious lead onto Broadway, which was thick with snow. He conservatively placed gear as we followed in a simul-climbing fashion. This seemed to go well until the weather turned on us. Within probably 30 minutes, the sky went from sunny blue to full encompassing clouds with snow flying in all directions. This was a risk we were well aware of. Much like the role of a dice though, sometimes it can hit you; while other times, not at all. Every route description I found for this climb warned against backtracking on Broadway. All safe retreats from threatening storms were noted as being over the top and down the standard route. As highly precipitous storms were not the norm for June, we decided to get cozy for a bit and see if the clouds would recede. For probably an hour or so, we toiled over going back, against the warnings of others, or simply weathering the storm and getting over and off the mountain. Sitting still was no longer an option, as the cold began to stiffen our bodies. The consensus wasn’t unanimous, but Jared & I held firm that we should keep moving upwards. I lead a sketchy traverse across the bottom of the Notch Couloir route. The couloir still held enough snow that it sluphed off over the face of the Diamond. As Jared described in his journal, "This section was about 125’ long and had no good pro (fall protection) and more ominous consequences than we had encountered so far in the trip. I belayed Jason and watched his every move since one wrong move could send him off of the ledges and into a long pendulum swing across the ‘Diamond’ (East Face)". Sharing his sentiment, I reminded my self at every step that this is not a good place to loose ones footing. On the other side, I set a solid anchor and tensioned the rope for the next two climbers to clip in and cross. The final climber would have to make the same traverse on belay. Jared came across first. Once on my side Jared cautioned that the other two are not looking that comfortable with the climb. We had used up way too much time already and the storm was steady. This is when I recall feeling my first real sense of urgency and frustration with our effort. Still, Jared & I were comfortable with the rest of the route, and felt that in an hours time, we could be at the summit. It was probably at least 2 or 3 p.m. by this time.
The rope work of our companions was less than expedient. We had about 1000 vertical feet of 4th and easy 5th class climbing to tackle to reach the top. Little did I know, we would all be roped together the entire time! I became furious, as time seemed to be getting away from us. Our "partners in training" could not climb 4th class without ascenders and a rope. I thought for sure that the 5th class sections would be the end of our push. Despite my fears, Jared and I would spend the next several hours leading short pitches and setting anchors so the other two could jug up the ropes. As it turned out, they had not read a single thing about Longs Pk., or the route we were on. And more than anything, they had no idea how critical of a predicament we were placing ourselves in. All I could think of was my lovely wife and daughter sitting at home waiting for me to walk in through the door at any moment. I must have begun praying at this point, because God smiled upon us and the weather cleared completely. This seemed to have a calming effect on me. Still, the sluggishness of their efforts fueled my anger. It was early evening when I decided to cut the chord. I argued that rather than risking all of our lives, they should find a place to sit while I and/or Jared blazed over the top and back down to the ranger station to retrieve some help. This alone, would be a 4 or 5 hour trip in itself. Jared quickly became the liaison between the others and me. He rationed that getting to the ranger station at midnight would do these two no good, and that we should instead focus on getting them at a lower altitude as best as possible. One of the climbers, fresh off a plane from Minnesota was feeling lethargic – go figure. Apparently, altitude sickness was not a concern for him. As I learned, all of their mountain experience was via some guided package deal, supported and coordinated. Well, I’m not a guide. It took every last drop of good will in me not to abandon ship.
It would be no sooner than 9:00 p.m. before we sat on the summit. The sea level guy was weak, complaining of stomach pains, and shaking from the cold and exertion. On the summit, Jared served rounds of pep talks and encouragement while I scouted out the North Face for a rappel. Jared & I looked at the standard Keyhole route and felt it would be too risky in the dark with all of the visible snow in the trough. The North Face was not my first choice with the handicap we had been dealt. However, the North Face would be a quick loss of elevation, and vital to our sick party member. Our companions actually pleaded that we sleep for a bit to restore our energies. Either Jared or I (don’t remember) bluntly stated that "sea level guy" would likely die of hypothermia and altitude sickness in a matter of hours if left on the summit. Jared & I headed for the North Face to begin our descent. It would be another hour before we started though. Jared had to go back and coral the two into moving. Down some snow covered slopes, we finally reached rocks that allowed us to place slings and rappel. Every rappel took over an hour as the nearly limp, and his partner fumbled the frozen ropes. The wind on the north face created an awful updraft; blowing hard snow and ice crystals in our face the entire time. I finally began rappelling to rock outcrops and then curling up any way possible to shield myself from the wind while the others came down. I recall fading in and out of sleep several times during, what seemed to be, an eternity after each rappel. Back on snow again, we left the iced over ropes in place and began kicking step’s towards the boulder field below. Our feat was not over yet, as the darkness we mistook to be the boulder field, revealed its true identity. There was more snow on the north face than I had ever traveled on during previous visits. I was certain that we had traveled much more to the west and missed the Cable’s Route entirely. Before us though, protruding from the wind-battered slab of snow and rock, was the first of several old eyebolts that give the "Old Cables Route" its name. Two more rappels on iced over rock would finally put us at the top of the boulder field, and on flat ground. Unfortunately, the ropes were frozen in place a good 300 feet above us. Sea level guy was getting much worse with every step. Jared located a large rock and leveled off a sheltered surface in the snow for him to lay down and get some fluids in his system. While Pete and I (o.k. – I finally said it) hiked back up the snowfield to retrieve our ropes, Jared began to fear the worst for our Minnesota visitor. He was very cold, and no longer shivering. His words made no sense as he mumbled incomplete sentences. Pete would only make it 50 feet before turning back to join the others while I retrieved the ropes. Ropes in hand, I returned to the group to find Jared spooning with sea level guy under an emergency blanket to get his temperature back up. I truly think Jared saved a life that night.
3:00 a.m.: we were all walking on the boulder field back to Storm pass. From there, we made our way down to tree-line. Sea level guy seamed to do better, the lower we got. I don’t think I said a word to anyone after our last rappel on the Cables Route. I was silently relieved though. Another beautiful sunrise began to form. I wondered how often one gets to see 2 in a row on Longs Pk. All the pain and struggle that my body endured over the last 26 hours hit me like a freight train once my mind realized we were going to be safe. For the rest of the hike back, my thoughts were consumed by family. Shelly must be a wreck with the worst combination of emotions one can imagine. I thanked the Lord for getting us down safely; for bringing me back for Shelly and Holly to hold again. It was daylight again before we spied the parking lot through the trees. Around 8:30 we began our LAST leg of the trip; parking lot, to vehicle. Stopped short of the truck, we were interrupted by the RMNP Ranger…"Are you guys the Jason and Jared party?…Your wife’s looking for you."
30 grueling non-stop hours over Longs Pk! Never again will I place myself on a mountain with dependant climbers I do not know. To this day, a glimpse at Longs from the highway raises my heart rate and I take a nervous look at my watch, the weather on the mountain, and where we were at approximately that time.