I had planned this climb for over 2 years now. Last year it was thwarted by abysmal weather, winds so strong I couldn't stand above the tree line. I considered this a mountaineering exam for myself. I had picked around a few domestic peaks, but Longs in the winter cooks up many of the challenges that one would face on much higher peaks. Having summited twice in the last 2 summers, I had a pretty good understanding of the mountain, and the run in with the weather last winter made me very familiar with what could be thrown at me.
I came better equipped to handle the cold, but much lighter in the pack. This was to be a one day assault, and I packed very spartanly for many reasons. Given the pitch of the route and the potential of winds, a sizable pack/rack would prove as one hell of a hindrance. I took the fast and light approach.
I set out wearing 3 layers, my base, a light fleece mid layer, and my upper and lower shells. In my pack were 2 more layers, an extra set of gloves and head coverings, and 2 liters of water. Gear wise I took only my helmet, my BD strap crampons, and my 'ol CM Quasars. I gave myself a selection for my eyes, My Julbos to begin with, and some ski goggles if things got too windy.
I set out on the trail at 0315. I'd planned this trip around the full moon, the skies were clear and Luna shown like a blacklight version of the sun. A flashlight was completely unnecessary. 2 hours up the trail and I was above the trees, looking out over the shimmering sea of lights that is Loveland and Ft Collins. A commercial airliner flew overhead and left behind a vapor trail that, in the moonlight, looked like a neon rod pushing its way slowly across the sky. The wind picked up and I sought shelter behind a rock as I dug into my pack and dawned another layer. At this point I noted that it was impossible to stay warm when not moving. The sweat that had soaked into my base layer shot the freezing cold straight into my body when I took off my shell, it took a hundred yards of hiking to stop the shivering.
With my new found warmth I set out again up the trial, across the moraine and through Granite Pass, facing the brunt of what the wind had to offer. The weather was much more mild then I had planned on, to the point that it was almost disappointing. The sun was breaking the horizon as I stopped at the Boulder Field latrine for a break. Given the Boulder Fields popularity in the summer, the Park Service erected a minimalist latrine. I thought to myself; “Put the seat down and this is almost like an office”. Out of the wind, I enjoyed a breakfast bar and finished off my first 20oz water bottle. Not wanting to get too comfy, I picked up and kept going after only a few minutes.
The presence of the sun seemed to make very little difference in temperature, as this route was almost entirely in the shade of the mountain. Working my way across the Boulder Field proved difficult due to the relatively sparse snow. I hopped from rock to rock when possible, only venturing across the steepest bits of snow. I didn’t want to trust the flat lays of snow, because of the potential for sticking a foot through it and twisting an ankle on an unseen rock.
It took me nearly an hour to reach Chasm View from the latrine/office, but I still had plenty of time left in the day. I stopped again to rest up, get a good drink and look over the route that faced me. I thought it best to leave the crampons off for the first rock portion (5.6?), and stick to the snow whenever possible after that. It was still a mixed route, and the first 15 feet up and around the first eyelet took me 20 mins to negotiate. Finding a good hold amid the small cracks proved difficult. But, my axes called to me, and the light bulb above my helmet lit up. This was my first real world experience with dry tooling, and it took some getting used to. Being a QC inspector, I break metal things on a daily basis, and trusting the picks at the various angles took some getting used to.
Up over the first “step”, I realized that I would be needing my crampons, and that I had best get used to using them on rock as well. I also realized that Butt worthy real estate was in very short supply. I found my way to some steep snow and adzed out a seat, and a step for my feet. I still didn’t feel secure in my position, so I hastily put the crampons on.
The remainder of the route was nerve racking. The slope expressed on the topo map is, in reality, repeatedly broken by “steps” of steep granite that poke up from time to time. Were it summer, it would be a straight forward dry route of rock work. If it were more covered in snow, it would be a simple mix of foot/axe work. But being mixed, I found myself in a few unnerving situations. Front pointing one minute, then faced with a 4’ granite obstacle with glass ice on top, or only narrow cracks for the axes. On the north face, it never leaves your mind that if you were to lose yourself, it would be impossible to self arrest. I watched many a rock and ice hunk pass my legs on a very fast and violent trip down to the Boulder Field several hundred feet below.
I didn't stay long on the Cables Route proper, the only Eyelet I ever saw was the first. Instead, I went right/west and followed the snow straight up toward the sky. Due to the “steps” of the route, it’s wrought with a few false summits. You never know if the sky above your next pitch actually means the end, or just the beginning of another stretch. But eventually I did reach the top, around 1100 a.m. I completed the technical leg of the climb and sat on the north western most point of the summit plateau. The view of the snow covered continental divide was spectacular. The skies still clear, the wind still mild, but still cold enough that I couldn’t sit still for long. I took some pictures and made my way to the official summit rock.
Equipped with trusty Unipod, my one legged tripod, I took some pictures of myself on the summit and over various bits of scenery. I unfurled the OMI Industries summit flag and got a shot of it, in payment for being granted the time off to come out and do this. I took in some water and sat for a few minutes to enjoy the satisfaction of finally completing the climb, 2 years in the making. But, just as in sex or robbing a bank, the notion eventually sets in that; “I gotta get the hell outta here!”. So I packed up, picked up, and headed for a Keyhole Route descent; there was no way in hell that I was going to downclimb the route I'd climbed up.
The keyhole route, however, proved to be just as much of a hazard. A mix of snow and ice all the way down, there were portions in which crampons simply should not be used, and others where they were absolutely necessary. Taking them off and on cost me time, but I assured myself that I had plenty, and just focused on getting down to "terra" that was more "firma". Oddly enough, I found a lone crampon stuck in the snow along the route (Grivel, strap-type), and picked it up as a souvenir. Not sure who lost it, but I’m sure they missed it! It was with great relief that I reached the Keyhole and the Boulder Field. The normally difficult rock hop down from the odd formation to the more level Boulder Field was made much easier by the accumulation of snow. The tricky scramble was replaced by a fairly enjoyable glissade.
From the Boulder Field down was a hike, though it was made difficult by the fact that I was constantly losing the trail. Not as much of a problem to begin with, but as it got dark and I neared the tree line, it was much more of a concern. Finding my way across the tundra is one thing, trudging through 4 feet of snow in the woods in the dark another. After some poking around I relocated the highly trafficked trail and made the long trek back to my car… then straight to KFC for some anti-health food. I got a small family meal, I swore I could finish when I got it, but alas I failed.
A very satisfying 15 hour day on the mountain, and from reading the register, I seemed to have actually had all of Longs Peak to myself. How many people can say that? I recommend the route for anyone seeking more experience, or working their way up to more vertical adventures. I do, however, suggest you bring a friend and some kind of fall protection.
"After the first glass, you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally, you see things as they really are, which is the most horrible thing in the world."
--Oscar Wilde on Absinthe