3 am alarm. Was I in a coma? After catching up on a little sleep (in bed at 9pm after 16 hours of climbing Dreamweaver on maybe 4 hours of sleep) I had had no dreams. I remember hitting my sleeping bag about as well as counting backwards from 10 after an anesthesiologist has inserted a sedative into my IV drip.
The usual problems. Too much of my gear is black. The inside of the tent is dark. Sorting it out in the early morning is more painful than it needs to be.
I was unfortunately too lazy/fatigued to re-rack my gear the previous night. It was getting dark. I was chilled. I was having trouble moving away from the fire. I figured I would re-rack at a stopping point along the way in the morning before we started heading up the Martha couloir--something I would ultimately both fail to do and that would result in many disconcerting obscenities.
The Martha Couloir
Martha is another perfect crack-chimney in the Longs Peak amphitheater that splits the south face of the diminutive 13,281’ Mount Lady Washington. I had actually had my butt kicked before on Mt Lady Washington, in deep snow, high wind, and with a disconcerting layer of winter fat around my mid-section. No one should get their butt kicked by a mountain named, “Mount Lady Washington”. But I have. And I am secure enough to admit it.
Trailhead by 4:30 am. I guess that makes the previous day’s complaining about the hour long pre-trailhead ritual seem petty. For some reason, oatmeal actually for once sounded better than instant mashed potatoes with parmesan eaten off of a nut tool (because we forgot our utensils). I vowed to find a way to get more chocolate into pre-climb breakfast. An “Espresso Love” GU packet helps me out.
Scott and Tammy join us. Scott is the world’s toughest man. He will climb over 14,000’ after splitting a 6 pack and a fifth of hard alcohol, seems to have no problem bathing in snowmelt, and routinely lights up a camel unfiltered at rest stops or on summits of a climb—while still climbing stronger than the people he’s traveling with. He’s new to ice but a quick learner. One Ouray festival, Pumphouse Falls at Vail, and the right WI3/4 flow at Willow Lake near Kit Carson to his ice climbing credentials.
Alpine Ice 101
This would be Tammy’s third climb in the Rockies ever (to my knowledge). A few weeks earlier we took her up Starbright and Shooting Star couloirs on the east face of James Peak. She is a marathoner and yoga instructor. She is fit enough to kick all of our butts combined in strength and endurance. But she is still learning how to handle an ice axe. Hopefully the route will be easier than Dreamweaver and she will be completely secure in second position on a rope team.
Chasm junction by 7 am. Wow, it’s late. Luckily the night before was colder than the previous one and the snow has remained firm. A biting wind starts hitting us at the junction. Not as good a day to climb ice couloirs in shorts. But the wind will keep the snow colder which is going to be a huge benefit.
Steps. Beautiful steps. I must remember to get a slightly later start in the day than the first climbers on the route. Sure, there is potential rock fall from above. But oohhh steps can be nice compared to cutting steps or breaking trail. Maybe it is the second mouse that gets the most cheese.
First crux. Thin sheet alpine ice. A small rock fin separates two gullies of snow in the upper chimney of Martha. The one to the left tops out in a small, steep bulge of ice. The route to the right follows a sheer slab of blue ice curled under the base of a small tunnel of rock. Any obvious cracks to protect from are either too small or between loose rock. Previous climbers have their tracks both on the left and right. Ok. Maybe it’s better on the right.
A short belly-roll over a slick quartzite fin onto the ice slab. 15-20 feet up, a place to put in a cam. My gear is tangled. I curse fumbling through it with gloved hands to separate the right-sized cam from a pair of ice screws and tangled slings. My calves’ start feeling a little pumped, front pointing into the slab with my less-sharp alpine crampons while fumbling for gear. Finally I get the cam untangled and slot it into the rock. Bomber. Ok. A slip here could hurt, but probably would not kill anyone anymore.
The ice is too thin for a screw. The slab continues and the rock fin of quartzite to the left keeps teasing me with possible ledges or horns to protect from. I want to step out onto it and keep retreating. From below the rock looks like it angles up. Up close it is fairly sheer and angles down. I decide to run it out to the top of the gully hoping I have enough rope on lead and that I can pound in a picket at the top.
I am able to do both, but barely. Tammy behind me is at the base of the ice and I am 4 feet from a good picket placement. Like a bonehead, I had double clipped my pickets into the back of my pack before I started out on the route when I should have either single-clipped them or placed them behind my back for easy retrieval. More cursing. Taking off an unsecured pack on steep slab ice with three climbers roped behind me and last placement a good ways back. The calves complain more, but not as much as my mouth which my mother would be washing out with industrial strength detergent.
OK. Pack back on, picket secure, belay from the top. Everyone sketches up the ice to an acceptable resting stance. I switch the ATC out as each climber passes hoping none of the climbers that have completed the slab ice would be careless enough to slide back down it once on top. Again, probably not a fatal fear, but who wants a rescue?
More kicked-in steps. Oooohhh nice steps. There is a second ice crux up ahead. Cause for concern but it doesn’t appear as bad as what we’ve all just scratched our way up.
A good screw placement at the base of the AI2/3 flow near the top of the Martha couloirs, right next to four previous ice screw holes. Glad I had the same idea as everyone else. A solid cam placement half way up the ice in the rock wall on the left. Place a third piece near the top? The ice feels like water ice from Ouray or Vail. Axes high, hips in, heels down, no problem. I decided to run it out rather than risk fatigue near the top of the semi-vertical flow. Solid boulders at the top for a bomber three-point anchor.
Everyone gets up the AI2/3 section and out onto a sunny, wind-free ledge to the side of the final snowfield to the summit.
What a nice day! In the wind you need a coat. Moving without the wind you want to climb in a T-shirt.
Food and Rest is in sight
A short set of snow steps up to the left puts us in safe Class 2 snow and talus to the summit. We pick our way up. Near the summit the gusts start to knock us off balance. On top it’s a full blown. The barriers to the wind sweeping over the continental divide are unbroken by the notch in the Keyhole across the Boulder Field.
We don’t stay on top long. A quick traverse to the east summit of Mount Lady Washington and ensuing descent down to chasm junction through solid talus, grass and snow. Down through the moraine and forest with still good snow. Camp at 4:30.
Boots off. Shorts and clean t-shirt. Beer open. Planted. Ahhhhh.
7:00 pm. Vegetarian Nachos, Sachmo Gardenburgers and Gubna IPA’s at Oskar Blues, Lyons. They say hunger makes the best cook. After 30 hours of weekend climbing, I cannot but confess Gubna is one of the damned finest IPA I’ve ever tasted.