I stumbled into the shower and washed the sleep out of my eyes as I tried to wake myself up after a mere two hours of sleep. Tomorrow (err today now that the clock had ticked past midnight) is going to be a big day - my first venture out onto alpine ice!
Dream Weaver Couloir (rated grade III, AI3-, M2+) had seemed way out of reach until very recently. Over the past three weekends I'd had great fun on a variety of steep snow routes and my confidence was sky high. Throwing in a little ice seemed like the next step in the natural progression. Fabio (aka brenta), Michael (aka smudge), and I had been intently following conditions reports coming from CMS and mountainproject.org - Dream Weaver seemed to be coming into condition. The last firsthand report had been posted May 18th and predicted that the couloir would be optimal in another week. That was prefect for us and we planned our ascent for the Saturday of Memorial Day Weekend - May 27, 2006. To sooth my anxiety Nelson had told us that he had climbed the route when conditions were optimal and had done it with only a basic mountaineering axe and no tools. In addition, Michael (who had never climbed ice either) and I were counting on Fabio to lead any ice pitches that freaked us out.
After jumping out of the shower, finishing packing up my kit, and grabbing a quick breakfast I was on the road by 12:30am. I arrived at the Longs Peak Trailhead in time to use the restroom facilities before Fabio and Michael showed up at 2:00am. We finished gearing up and were hiking up the trailhead by 2:15am.
We set a very leisurely pace up the trail. One of the reasons we got such and early start is so we could take it easy on the approach hike to arrive fresh at the base of the climb. There was no reason to rush - if we did we would just end up shivering in the cold at the base of the route waiting for the sun to rise.
Down in the trees it was downright balmy but as we broke through timberline below the Jims Grove Junction the wind really picked up and we all began to get cold. We paused at the junction to make clothing adjustments and grab a snack. The choice of what clothing to wear was kind of a tricky decision. The air temperature was actually quite warm, it was just the breeze that was cooling us off and the physical exertion of hiking uphill generated a good bit of heat - just not quite enough to keep me comfortable. In addition to my polypro t-shirt I decided to add my thermal underwear top, my Marmot PreCip, my trusty fingerless wool gloves, and my lightweight helmet liner. I left the fleece, heavier gloves, and stocking cap in the pack.
Once we got rolling again it took me a while to warm up but by the time we reached Chasm Junction I was feeling perfect. As we traversed below Mount Lady Washington's East Ridge the wind subsided a little bit and we saw some headlamps flashing about on the slopes below The Loft. We had a difficult time figuring out what they were doing - the headlamps were far above the normal bivy locations between the patrol cabin and Chasm Lake and didn't appear to be making progress in any particular direction. We continued skirting around Mount Lady Washington's East Ridge until we hit the snowfield. At this point we got out our mountaineering axes for the traverse. A few steps across the snowfield and we realized that axes would do little good as the snow was icy and rock hard and we could drive our axes in no more than half an inch. We would have been better served by putting on our crampons. We inched across the snowfield ever so carefully and breathed a sigh of relief upon reaching the other side.
Once past the snowfield we made our way across the meadow with the patrol cabin and began the slog up the snow, talus, and boulders to the base of Dream Weaver Couloir. By this time it was light enough to see without headlamps and we chugged our way up the slope to the snow apron below the couloir proper as alpine glow bathed the surrounding rock walls. As dawn approached we could make out the climbers whose headlamps we spotted earlier well up the snowfield below The Loft. They appeared to be headed straight up to The Loft - not taking the easy class 2 ledges. Soon we lost sight of them as the Flying Buttress separated us and we never saw them again.
We found a couple of nice boulders to sit on as we geared up for the climb. I put on gaiters, crampons, harness, helmet, and traded my fingerless wool gloves for fleece ones. The wind had all but silenced but since we would be gaining a lot of elevation and would probably be in the shade most of the time I felt my PreCip and thermal top was still the right choice to keep me at the right temperature. Fabio and Michael made similar adjustments and after a snack we were ready to roll at about 6:30am. As we turned toward the couloir we saw another party below heading towards us (presumably for a go at Dream Weaver) and a lone climber headed toward The Loft.
The snow on the snow apron was pretty hard so as we began the ascent I tried to use crampon techniques other than front-pointing to save my calves for later. I experimented with the French technique and a sort of side-stepping maneuver. These seemed to work pretty well and after what seemed like a fairly long trudge we arrived at the mouth of the couloir proper. We sat on a couple of ledges and had another snack while we double checked our kit one more time before the real challenges began.
Michael and I had never climbed anything like this so I borrowed a pair of ice tools from a friend - one for me and one for Michael. With the beginning of the major challenges staring down at us we decided to swap our general mountaineering axes for the ice tools. I had dorked around with the tools at home a little and they had felt unwieldy and awkward as I swung them around in the air. However, here at the top of the snow apron I took a couple of tentative swings at the hard snow and the tool felt good, the motion natural. Comforted by the intuitive feel of the ice tool I led off into the unknown...
I made my way up into the very narrow couloir (only a meter wide in some places) and soon reached the first challenge - a five or six foot vertical rock step covered in hard snow and ice. I worked my feet up as high as I could, utilizing handholds to steady myself. When I felt I could reach some ice above the step I took a swing - the tool grabbed nicely and I hauled myself up. Hey - this is pretty fun!
I ascended a 50 foot section of easy snow before encountering a similar rock step challenge - this one a little larger than the first (perhaps 8-10 feet tall). This one was little more intimidating than the first and initially I thought it might be time to get out the rope and protect it. However, I chose to give it a go just the same. I decided that if I got too far out of my comfort zone I would retreat. I carefully made my way up one step at a time - carefully looking for good rock ledges and solid ice to plant my feet. I used one hand to steady myself on the rock and the other to search for ice tool placements. The ice was pretty thin in places so I mixed ice placements with a bit of dry tooling as I inched my way upward. After a while I was pretty well committed as descending would be just as scary as continuing... so continue I did. After a couple more moves I surmounted the obstacle - damn this was fun!
Fabio and Michael easily followed and we continued upward through similar terrain - easy snow sections separated by spicy, ice-covered rock steps. In no time the snow petered out and we scrambled up a short talus slope to a notch atop the Flying Buttress. The view through the notch was incredible as we gazed at the expansive granite walls of The Ships Prow and Meeker's soaring ridges and giant face. The top of the Flying Buttress towered above as we paused for a quick snack and admired the view.
Soon we found ourselves anxious to get back to climbing and we continued on. A short scramble up some more rock delivered us back into the snow-filled couloir. Now it was more of the same - patches of easy snow separated by icy rock steps. Soon we encountered what I thought was the scariest section of the climb - a very narrow chimney-like rock step. Michael led the way through it and made it look pretty easy.
Next it was my turn. I made my way up into the chimney as far as I could easily find good places to front point and then tried to reach over the top of the chimney to find a good ice tool placement. The chimney was so narrow that I felt jammed up and couldn't get a good swing or find purchase with the pick. I was in kind of an awkward stance and didn't feel very stable. After a couple more feeble attempts I decided to back off and have another look. I carefully downclimbed back into more comfortable terrain and studied the chimney more carefully. Instead of working my way as far up into the chimney as possible and then trying to reach over the top I decided to try a couple of stemming moves lower down. I couldn't remember, but maybe that's what Michael did to make it look so easy. I tried this strategy and it seemed to work. I stemmed up a couple of moves and this time I had a lot more room to get a good swing into the ice above the top of the chimney. It was a little counterintuitive, but the higher I got myself into the chimney before, the less I could reach with my tool. From a little farther out I could much more easily get a good placement. I made the last couple of stemming moves with my feet before hauling myself up and out of the chimney and onto saver terrain. I breathed a sigh of relief - man that was exciting!
Above this crux there was one more chimney and then the couloir opened up to a moderate snow patch that lead up to the knife ridge between the east and west summits of Mount Meeker. We slogged up the snow and then began the traverse west to the summit.
The wind was pretty fierce on the ridge and the scrambling was a bit more challenging than I anticipated. With my crampons on it was a bit dicey. After a while I paused to take them off. By the time I reached the summit register Fabio and Michael had already signed it for our party and we quickly retreated down off the ridge to find somewhere out of the wind for a rest and lunch. It was 9:30 - it had taken us just three hours to ascend Dream Weaver Couloir - not bad we thought!
While we snacked and rested we spied a lone climber approaching the summit from the direction of The Loft. When she reached us she was quite enthusiastic to see us. Apparently she had climbed directly up to The Loft from her bivy near the patrol cabin without utilizing the easy ledges detour. She knew there was no way she could downclimb what she'd come up and she was pretty freaked out that she wouldn't be able to find her way off the mountain (she didn't know about the easy ledges detour down off The Loft). She threw herself at our mercy hoping we could guide her off the mountain or that she could use our rope to rappel what she had climbed up. If it wasn't for us she was contemplating attempting the Clarks Arrow Traverse over to Longs Peak (which she knew very little about) in hopes of finding someone there to help her down!
Naturally we were happy to lend assistance and invited her to join us on the way down. We finished up our lunch and leisurely made our way down toward the loft. As we descended we chatted with our new friend. It turned out she was a summitpost.org lurker from Tennessee (janeclimber I think) on a mountaineering vacation to Rocky Mountain National Park and would be spending several more days bivied in the Meeker/Longs Cirque. She was between partners at the moment, with the friends she had been climbing with previously headed home and new ones due in that afternoon. We chatted further about various routes in the area she should try. Somehow conversation turned to Kieners Route and she said she'd read about some crazy Texan who had driven all the way from Dallas to climb it. Fabio and I looked at each other and laughed. We told her that was us on that climb with the crazy Texan (who else but attm)!
It took a little work to convince her that there actually was a class-2 route down the mountain but she was extremely thankful as Fabio guided us down the ledges (he was the only one of us who had been on them before). Just as we were about to reach her bivy cave we encountered a couple of other hikers headed up. We paused to chat for a minute and they told us they were thinking about attempting the Iron Gates and maybe the knife ridge to the summit of Meeker. Michael and I told them we'd given it a try a couple of months previously but had failed to get beyond the eastern, false summit of Meeker. We told them that passing through the Iron Gates was a bit of a grunt but once on the ridge, the going should be fairly pleasant. About this time one of the hikers looked at me a little funny and said, "Hey wait a minute - are you Mr. Leach? I think I just hit your web site the other day!" That was pretty fun - I'd never run into anybody in the mountains that knew me from summitpost.org or my own web site. I'm famous! If I keep it up maybe some day I'll be as famous as Aaron Johnson, Alan Ellis, or the crazy Texan!
We said our goodbyes at about noon and continued down to the patrol cabin where we took a rest break and admired the views. That spot beside the little stream has got to be one of the most stunning in the state. I couldn't think of a more beautiful area - not while we were surrounded by the towering granite of Mount Lady Washington, The Diamond, The Ships Prow, The Flying Buttress, and Meeker's sweeping face anyway. No words can describe it!
After our final rest break we resumed the death march back to the car. We arrived back at the trailhead at about 2:30pm making it a little more than a twelve hour day - not too shabby. After that it was the traditional after-climb meal at Ed's Cantina before the drive home and a hot shower. What a fantastic day in the hills!