Longs Peak – North Face – Winter Ascent
By Old Ickabod
For most of the summer, Hays and I had been talking about an epic winter ascent on the North Face of Longs Peak. It seems that combined, we had explored many different parts of the mountain. Both of us had spent a significant amount of time on the Keyhole Route. I had done Keplinger’s Couloir and he had done the Keiner’s Route. Of course there is no master formula for any climb, and we would soon find out that winter was a whole different can of corn.
Our first attempt was early on in winter and we picked the dates of December 23-24. The only figuring that went into it was that we would both be off work and winter would have officially begun. Who knew we would be starting our climb following six inches of fresh snow and the coldest temperatures that the area would see all season. We planned to hike up to the Boulderfield, camp for the night, ascend the North Face and return the next day. This adventure was an epic story in itself. We got a late start and the winds were howling, even below tree line. When we reached tree line, late in the morning, our thermometer had bottomed out at –20. The winds only intensified, and route finding was reduced to walking straight toward the outline of Mills Moraine. Extreme cold , blowing snow, combined with winds of about 40 mph slowed our progress dramatically and it was 4pm by the time we reached Granite Pass. It was already beginning to get dark so we struggled to set up camp below Granite Pass on a small snowfield. We hunkered down in our –20 below sleeping bags only to have Hays lose feeling in his feet and both of my legs were cramping severely at every move. We had been in the tent for about two hours and both of us had significant doubt as to whether we would be in any condition to move by morning. As a result, we bailed. Packing up our gear and finding our way back was brutal, but we made it despite sustained winds of 40mph and temperatures below –20. It was only after referencing temperature reports in Denver and Estes Park the following morning that we were able to confidently estimate the temperatures at Granite Pass to be –35 that night (without the 40mph winds). Hays didn’t regain feeling in his big toe until four weeks later.
We learned a great deal on that trip, but it only fueled our interest for more data on the mountain in the winter and the North Face route. We referenced, several books, websites, videos and I even went on a solo recon mission to the mountain only to be turned back again at Granite Pass by gusts of wind that knocked me down numerous times and on three occasions lifted me off my feet and tossed me backward (I weigh 190lb. and was carrying a 55lb. pack). The gusts were even visible on the Longs Peak webcam swirling snow hundreds of feet in the air.
A strong high-pressure system was predicted for the Front Range during the first week of March, so Hays and I decided to give it another shot before the official winter season ended. However, this time, we would attempt the climb in a single day push. We knew it would be brutal, but this would allow for our packs to weigh significantly less and we expected to be able to move faster. The key pieces of technical equipment that we would end up using were crampons, two technical ice axes each, a 60 meter rope, two small nuts, and five cams between one and two inches.
I picked up Hays in Morrison at 10:00pm on March 2 and we were on the Longs Peak Trail by 1:00am. As usual, the trail was well packed and there was no need for snowshoes. We moved quickly and made it to tree line in a little over an hour. Conditions continued to be in our favor with a temperature of 10 degrees and winds of 5 to 10mph. I was amazed at how quickly we moved past Mills Moraine and Granite Pass stopping every 90 minutes for water and gel. The “Boulderfield” was mixed with windblown snow and some post-holing, but we had gained the saddle between Mt. Lady Washington and Longs Peak by 7am. Here we decided to take a more significant break and enjoy some breakfast of jerky, cheese, gels, and bars as we examined the Diamond and our prospective route up the North Face. Unbeknownst to us at the time, the batteries from Hays’ headlamp fell out as he was putting it away. This would come into play much later.
From the saddle, the North Face looked very steep with a significant amount of snow leading up to the technical pitch and more snow covering the slabs above. Our confidence was high, and weather conditions continued to look favorable, but it was at this point that our progress began to slow dramatically.
Almost immediately after beginning to hike toward Chasm View, Hays began throwing up violently. After emptying his stomach at about 12,500 feet, he was able to hypothesize that the Cliffshot Gel didn’t agree with him. I believed him since this had happened once before on a winter attempt of Mt. Evans. Hays had always proven to be a beast on the mountain and today would be no different. We continued on.
The lower slopes of the snowfield below Chasm View were windblown and we took some more time to put on our crampons, harnesses and break out the ice axes. We left our trekking poles here expecting to pick them up on the descent. As far as I know, they’re still there waiting to become booty for some lucky hikers.
We began front pointing up the snowfield toward Chasm View, but snow conditions diminished as the slope began to grow steeper. Front pointing turned into post-holing and a three-inch crust of windblown snow began breaking to reveal waist deep sugar snow underneath. We had read about the dangers of avalanche on the North Face and conditions seemed to be growing worse. Even though we stayed as close to the sides of exposed slabs along Longs Peak, the top layer of snow continued to break into small slabs and “talk” whenever we sank up to our waist.
We climbed up along side the last exposed rock about 180 feet below Chasm View and the Old Cables Route. However, after expressing shared concerns about risking an avalanche, our inability to see any eyebolts, and trepidation about going too close to the overhanging snow of Chasm View, we decided to traverse up and right above the last exposed rocks. I chose to go over the exposed rock and Hays chose to go around. After a short time it became obvious that he had taken the better route. My climbing over the exposed rock quickly became mixed between rock and ice. As I approached the platform of ice above the rock I was at risk of falling backward and tumbling for 600 feet back down to the “Boulderfield”. Fortunately, Hays had already reached the platform and he was able to extend his ice axe down to me. With the pick of the axe acting as an artificial hold, I was able to pull myself up alongside Hays onto a small snow covered platform.
While resting on the platform, we examined what would be the technical pitch of our North Face ascent. Still 150 feet to the right of the Old Cables Route, was a 200 foot dihedral of mixed climbing. Hays, being the most experienced climber, donned the rack of pro and took to the route with his two technical ice axes in the lead. It was 9:30am.
Progress was very slow as Hays chipped away the verglass and looked for places to put the protection. To the right of the platform from which I belayed him were cliffs that dropped vertically for at least 200 feet. At times, his technical pitch led him out over these cliffs. With only two pieces of questionable protection in place, both of us could see that a fall could send him over the cliffs leaving me as the sole protection to arrest his fall. After about 50 feet, the dihedral took him a little to the left of the cliffs, but conditions were no less dangerous. A few times he was 20 to 30 feet past his last piece of gear. Shards of ice came flying down toward me as Hays cleared cracks and looked to advance our position. Progress continued to be slow going as I watched him perform a combination of ice climbing, dry tooling, crampon pointing, and at times bare handed climbing maneuvers. The route eased a bit toward the top when Hays clipped into what appeared to be a solid piton left by some previous climbers. I watched as he performed a climbing traverse back out to the right in order to secure a solid belay spot for me to begin climbing. With Hays about 10 feet to the right of the dihedral we both gasped as the rope popped like a chalk line and the old piton released from the rock. Hays was 40 feet from his last piece of protection and again, he was directly over the cliffs. Hays peered down at me and the only thing he said was “all I know is that you’re buying the beer when we get off this mountain!” We both prepared for the worst, but that gel-puking beast prevailed. Ever so cautiously he continued his ascending traverse for the last 10 feet of available rope, securing a rest stop and a reasonable anchor for belay.
After a well-deserved rest on unexposed rock, Hays began to belay me as I started my climb. Unlike Hays, I chose to use only one axe. The second axe that I had brought with me had been nicknamed “The Stanley Hammer”. It was a grab bag deal on ebay and its rubber grip and heavy weight likened it to the illegitimate offspring of its namesake. Nevertheless, after seeing Hays grind up the pitch, I thought the differences in the axes would have been a disadvantage and the free hand would help. I was reconsidering as Hays took in the slack and I began my climb with “The Stanley Hammer” on my back.
My progress was slow as well, but I did have some confidence in the protection he had placed. However, that confidence evaporated as I passed by and popped the first piece of pro out effortlessly. Now I was above the cliffs and the ease with which that cam came out settled like a wad of snot in my throat. I was kissing the rock and doing everything I could to gain a hold with my axe, but there seemed to be nothing. I asked for slack and I asked for tension, but the emptiness of the air below my crampons coupled with my lack of confidence in the pro almost restricted any move. For all I cared, I was leading.
I later learned that during the climb, the strength by which I was pressing myself to the rock had compressed the cell phone in my chest pocket. These compressions resulted in random memory calls to a teacher and Principal of my school. Each was entertained with an extended message on their voicemails that comprised of heavy breathing, yelling for slack and tension intermixed with some healthy expletives. Undoubtedly, they were present for the eventual bridge, hand jam and lunge that allowed me to gain the first 80 feet of the climb. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get one of the cams loose during my ascent and had to leave it behind.
I recalled seeing how on the upper portion of the climb, Hays began to get into a rhythm and his technique became more polished. I felt as if I began to mirror this as my dry-tooling and crampon work on rock began to feel more comfortable. However, as I removed the last cam and began the climbing traverse toward Hays, we were both very aware that a fall here would send me falling and swinging out to the right where I might pull us off the mountain. By now, some extent of desensitization to the exposure had set in. I was temporarily spent and simply let my instincts take me across the traverse. I moved with clear purpose and soon I was again next to Hays. Unfortunately, it was painfully obvious that there was no room for me where he had been belaying, so I needed to continue and lead the last 30 feet.
It wasn’t near the vertical climbing that Hays had done. But by now we had been at it for almost 12 hours and it would involve climbing over steep slabs of rock covered in only an inch or two of snow. For the next thirty feet, there was no place for protection and I began a rhythm that I would use for the rest of the climb. Systematically, I would try each technique to gain a hold, moving onto the next one or combining them whenever the previous would fail. Kick with the right, kick with the left, jam the shaft of my ice axe into the slope, swing the pick into the slope above me starting on the right and moving left across my body, lunge upward swinging with hopes of catching the top of a buried slab. If all these failed, I would backtrack and try again. This technique carried me the last thirty feet until I found some deep snow in which I was able to dig out a deep seat. Emotionally and physically exhausted, I pulled off my pack and set a lame, albeit the best belay for Hays to ascend. All that I said was “Dude, you better not fucking fall”. No chance. That gel-puking, mixed climbing beast was dialed in every step and sitting beside me before I knew it.
For the first time in two and a half hours we were off the rope and began to experience a post adrenaline crash. Briefly, both of us admitted to having thought we were going to die, but we both knew we had to keep our wits about us and that we had a long way to go. Looking below us and to the east, we could see four rocks that looked like a cairn, but still no signs of the eyebolts from the Old Cables Route. It was getting late as clouds began to form over the summit and the snow began to fall. Nevertheless, we committed to go for the summit. “We’re going to do this!”
To climb the rest of the way roped together would have slowed us significantly and we were already over twelve hours into it. So we packed the rope into my pack, the nuts and cams into his, and we continued the climb…cautiously. The last 600 feet was a mix of deep snow, rock slabs, mixed climbing, and backtracking. Kick with the right, kick with the left, jam the shaft of the axe into the slope, swing the pick into the slope above starting on the right and moving left, lunge upward swinging with hopes of catching the top of a buried slab, backtrack and try again. This was my mantra. We had both seen pictures of the upper route, but neither of us had the urge to ascend too close to the east face. Therefore, the route we took was steeper and more direct. The mantra continued as we maneuvered around and over the snow covered slabs. We took turns breaking trail and exhaustion was our constant companion. The steepness of the slope prevented us from seeing the summit, but our crampons against the snow and rock carried us to the ridgeline west of the summit. We were steps away from the ridgeline when the snow stopped and the clouds parted. Thankfully, we were able to casually walk on exposed rock to the summit while being warmed by the sun.
It was 2:30pm and we were on the summit of Longs Peak. We rested our legs, ate some food, and drank water, but the descent was definitely on our mind. We hadn’t even looked at the “Homestretch” of the “Keyhole Route”, but neither of us wanted to go back down the slabs of the North Face. So we made an extemporaneous decision that unless the “Homestretch” looked impossible, we would descend via the “Keyhole Route”. Before beginning our descent, we snapped the summit photos, called friends and family with our progress and our plan for descent. Everyone expressed congratulations on the summit, but stressed the importance of a safe descent. No shit?
We were both exhausted, but we couldn’t afford to let down our guards and dwell on it. At this point, we were both keenly aware of the two biggest physical obstacles preventing our descent, “The Homestretch, and The Narrows”. It was 3:30pm as we stood atop the “Homestretch”. The high angled slabs of rock that we’d scrambled up in the summer were completely covered in snow and ice. However, compared to what we had ascended on the North Face, this looked reasonable. After briefly considering to downclimb the bare rock to the left of “The Homestretch”, we realized that we would have to return to our snow climbing mantra. Only this time, we would be descending.
As soon as we began descending, we both realized how much better our situation was compared to the North Face. The snow on "The Homestretch" was soft and crystallized. Our crampons and ice axes sank firmly into the snow with every step, and our descent was slow but smooth. At the base of “The Homestretch” the route became much more icy and our adrenaline began pumping again. Little changed with regards to style, but every kick and swing definitely was carried with more purpose.
For a moment, in between “The Homestretch” and “The Narrows”, we were able to sit and rest. However, it only took moments for the symptoms of exhaustion to set in. Its effects had been slowly creeping up on us. But as we stopped, it engulfed us like a wave. This only increased the exigency by which we had to make decisions and rely on our experience. We didn’t feel like eating or drinking. But we did. We wanted to ditch the crampons and axes. But we didn’t. We had to keep moving and we had to move now.
The exposure of “The Narrows” is a little nerve-racking in the summer. But on this winter’s day, the exposure was coupled by a wind packed, icy slope. Worst of all, the slope almost completely covered the route joining the wall on our right with a steep drop of on our left. I wish that I could say that we talked it over, evaluated our options, and considered roping up. Nope. Honestly, we were spent and we just wanted to get to “The Trough”. As a result, the mantra that carried us up the North Face and down “The Homestretch” carried us almost subconsciously across “The Narrows”. Kick with the left, kick with the right, jam the shaft of the axe into the slope, swing the pick into the slope above starting on the left and moving right, gradually moving left, again, again, and again. We were across “The Narrows” and we never looked back.
With “The Narrows” behind us, we took another break. As much as we wanted to take off the crampons, it was obvious that we would need them for a descent of “The Trough” and traversing “The Ledges”. The symptoms of exhaustion continued to grow more obvious as we climbed around the chockstone and into the top of the trough. There didn’t appear to be any avalanche danger in “The Trough”. Hays appeared strong and deliberate with every step as he descended. On the other hand, I repeatedly found myself stepping with no consideration of where my foot might land or the momentum I was gaining. Fortunately, we reached the beginning of “The Ledges” without incident.
It was now around 7:00pm and we rested at 13,400 feet. The sun began to set, and we had been on the mountain for about 18 hours. It was looking like it would just come down to an endurance march back to the trailhead. However, that endurance would be pushed to the limit by the effects of extreme exhaustion and sleep deprivation.
It started with flashes of light just outside my line of sight. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky as we traversed the ledges, but I could swear that silent lightning was streaking through the sky just out of my sight. I figured it was a hallucination, but I asked Hays anyway. “Do you see those flashes of light in the sky?” Hays confirmed my suspicions by not answering. I thought about home, work, where we’d been, where we were going. Then in a moment of clarity, I realized that I was standing waist deep in a snow slope angling about 40 degrees. All of the literature that I read about avalanche danger on Longs Peak’s western slopes suddenly flashed through my mind. I heard Hays about ten feet behind me say, “this is really dangerous dude”. I returned the favor, confirming his suspicions by saying nothing.
We were able to safely traverse the snow slope and a second one before it was completely dark. This was about the time we realized that I had the only operable headlamp. The “Bulls Eyes” marking the route were next to impossible to find with a single headlamp and our sleep starved eyes. The sparks from my crampons against the rock were now visible and Hays and I kept getting separated. I couldn’t see him, but I alerted him whenever I made a discovery “I got a bulls eye Tony”. Tony? It was at this point that I realized that, while I knew I was with Hays, I kept thinking that I was with a friend named Tony. It was so bizarre to realize how messed up my mind was at this point. Additionally, I kept seeing animals amongst the rocks. Dogs, cats, and spiders were my constant companions. Part of me was scared, and part of me was becoming entertained.
I realized that we could not afford to get too far apart and we guided one another with our voices to meet up below “The False Keyhole”. I caught myself calling Hays Tony again and brought it to his attention. Hays immediately replied, “That’s so weird, I keep thinking that you’re Jim!” Hays went on to explain how we shared the same convoluted thought process. Additionally, he described the animals that he kept seeing “that’s a whale, there’s a dog”. With “The Keyhole” around the corner, we were laughing out loud about how messed up our minds were.
When we reached “The Keyhole”, we stopped briefly to finally put away the crampons and ice axes and get comfortable for our six-mile hike out. The stars were so vivid as we marched down the snowfield from “The Keyhole”. Briefly, we joked about climbing back up to Chasm View to retrieve our hiking poles. “No chance.” For the time being, we were energized that we had made it back to “The Boulderfield” and continued to laugh about our state of mind.
The trek back to the trailhead was bizarre! Cats, dogs, spiders, and several other animals appeared to be running in every direction. Route finding was reduced to post-holing due east out of “The Boulderfield”. Just above Granite Pass, we were almost convinced that we had descended too far and missed Granite Pass. However, this was just another misperception caused by the dark and our debilitated minds. Our legs kept working, but we had begun to stop and lay on our packs about every fifteen minutes. Below tree line was like the haunted forest. Vivid hallucinations of animals and people running through the woods were the norm. It became a given that what I was looking at wasn’t really there. The only injury of the whole trip came within sight of the trailhead when Hays slipped and mysteriously cut his hand on who knows what? It was 11:30 pm, we had been on the mountain for 22 ½ hours.
It’s been three weeks since our ascent and I have a new appreciation for Longs Peak. It’s definitely not a mountain that I conquered. Moreover, when I see it every day looming large over the Front Range, I see it as a companion with which I have shared an extraordinary experience. It is something I will never forget and I look forward to many more extraordinary experiences in the future.