Steepening the Learning Curve on LongsI blame it on Bonatti. If it hadn’t been for his book Mountains of My Life I probably would have taken my time – found a mentor, gained some experience, learned the basics needed to stay alive. But ambition can be a bitch and after reading of the Italian’s exploits during his first alpine season I was convinced climbing mountains was a simple business. My first objective: Kiener’s on Longs. At 5.4 it seemed reasonable. After all, I had just recently led a 5.5 in Boulder Canyon, the third time ever I had been up on rock – real or otherwise. This was in addition to climbing that classic Colorado horror show Mt. Evans via the second class trail from the summit parking lot. With this much experience under my belt Kiener’s wouldn’t be much of a step up.
Me and my brother bought or borrowed the additional gear we would need and arrived at the trailhead at 4:30am on a brisk Wednesday morning in late May. The fact that we might warm up on the hike in did not impress itself upon us and we left the car dressed for Vinson. Fifteen minutes and several liters of sweat later we figured it might not hurt to leave a few layers in the car. The false start did little to dampen our enthusiasm and we were soon headed back up the trail, packs bulging. With a 10.5mm rope, a full rack, a stove and fuel, extra clothing and crampons, the only thing we had in common with Mark Twight was our cheery attitude and generally positive outlook on life. When a friend of mine asked before the climb if I liked a fast and light style I said I usually preferred omelets over breakfast shakes.
The hike in was uneventful taking us about three hours to reach the boulderfield. The east face was plastered with snow though and suddenly Kiener’s didn’t seem like such a good possibility. No problem. There was always the Cable’s Route or the Keyhole. Now we just had to find our way there. Bringing a topo or route description hadn’t been factored in during the planning stages and now the map on the trail brochure with its one squiggly line going from the parking lot to the summit didn’t quite seem enough. We decided to take a more straightforward approach: “just go up.” Two hours later and half way up Mt. Lady Washington we figured we had gone a little off track. After trudging up a forty-five degree couloir for what seemed like eternity, we finally caught sight of Chasm View and the snow covered Cable’s Route. Only a mile of steep talus kept us from the start of our route. The expedition loads we were carrying unfortunately had a way of sapping our strength and we decided it would be easier to bound across the boulders like mountain goats than descend the two hundred feet to the easy trail below. Two hours later, we reached the bottom of the route thoroughly spent.
We took stock of our situation and headed up the snow, ice axes in hand. Crampons seemed like a bother at the time so we held off; it’d be easy enough to put them on when we needed to. Soon straightforward kick stepping turned into hard neve and a forty-five degree slope morphed into a sixty. Five hundred feet off the ground we found ourselves soloing with no crampons and only a classic poilet in manche position between us and the jagged rocks a long plummet below. As I felt the air beneath my feet, I thought how it may have been smart to have practiced a little self-arrest before attempting the route. Crampons seemed like a good idea and we found a few rocks to sit on while strapping them on. Unfortunately we hadn’t thought of adjusting them beforehand to fit our boots and they had a nasty way of popping off while we were frontpointing. A third of the way up the north face we decided that continuing up with no workable crampons was a recipe for a Mick Fowler-stlye epic and neither of us was feeling particularly British that morning. Our mantra of “just go up” had changed to “just get the hell down.”
Down climbing sixty degree neve without crampons turned out to be much harder than going up and we decided some rappels were in order. I had never set up a rappel before but figured it couldn’t be that hard. We made our way over to some rocks and slung a solid looking fellow with some of the webbing I had brought along. We rapped down to a nice ledge and tried to pull the rope: nothing. We pulled harder: nothing. We started jumping up and down on the rope: still nothing. I’d have to climb back up to unsnag the rope. Stuck rope retrieval was a topic I had skipped in FOTH and so I did the only thing I could think of: solo up to it in big leather mountaineering boots. Thankfully the rock was only fourth class with a few fifth class moves mixed in. After doing my best Tomo Cesen impersonation, I finally made it up to where the rope had gotten stuck – between the rock and sling. At the time of the rigging, it hadn’t dawned on me that if I slung the rock as tight as a 19th century girdle that there was the possibility of the taped end of the rope not being able to pull through. Rather than re-rig the rappel, I threw down the rope and started down-soloing. Having had my life flash before my eyes several times during the down climb, I came to the realization that it may have been best to have tried a bit easier of a climb before jumping on Long’s. I somehow made it back to the ledge in one piece. One more rappel and we’d be on ground we could (safely) down climb. I slung a chockstone the size of a VCR and took a few steps to get below the rappel anchor. I was about to put all my weight on the rope when the chockstone suddenly started pulling. My brother quickly stepped on the slippery bugger and I flattened myself against the rock. “We’d better find a better anchor” was all he had to say. Having exhausted eight of my nine lives already, we found a totally bomber anchor to sling and made our way down to easier ground.
Back on semi-level ground, we contemplated attempting the Keyhole with the few remaining hours of daylight we had left but thankfully thought better of it. On the way out all I could think of was how un-Bonatti-like I had been. I’d never be able to climb Cassin Ridge by next summer now. My dreams of being an alpine prodigy had been crushed. But we weren’t finished yet; the hike out held one more surprise for us. With the trail covered in snow we took a wrong turn and found ourselves wallowing in waste-deep drifts. I wondered if Zeus was punishing me for my hubris, but then my wax wings hadn’t taken us very close to sun. The snow had seen plenty of sun though and postholing took on a whole new meaning as we struggled to find our way back to the trail, sometimes being swallowed up to our armpits, our clothes soaked through. Two hours later we still hadn’t found the trail. Forcing my way through another drift I tripped on a buried branch and went tumbling forward, snowballing down a forty degree slope only to come to a rest on the bank of a stream. About ready to forswear mountaineering forever I looked across to the other side of the stream only to be greeted by the trail in all of its snow-cleared glory. We had somehow made it out alive. Back at the car the sun set low against the pines, our exhausted bodies doing all they could to shoulder our packs into the trunk, our legs feeling as if they had been tenderized by a butcher. We collapsed into the seats and gave each other a look: maybe Petit Grepon the next day wasn’t such a good idea after all.