Not much more than 30 minutes after leaving the trailhead we ran into a guy coming down. He said that he and his partner had hoped to climb Alexander's Chimney on the Lower East Face of Longs but all the post holing during the approach made him tired and cold so he turned around. He said his partner wanted to "go up to the saddle to check it out" so they had split up. We thanked him for breaking trail for us and he wished us good luck as we continued on. About ten minutes after we parted ways I continued to ponder what the guy had meant by "the saddle"? Did he mean The Loft, or the Longs - Lady Washington Saddle, or what? Michael and I wondered where this other guy was heading and what route he was taking. None of the routes out of the Chasm Lake area were going to be non-trivial.
Michael had been in the area just a few days previous during an unsuccessful attempt at the North Face of Longs and he had taken the shortcut up Alpine Brook to the Jims Grove Junction. However, when we got there we found that all the fresh snow had completely covered up the track - breaking trail through two feet of fresh snow didn't sound like it would make the shortcut worth the effort so we continued up the trail.
As we broke above timberline we looked east to enjoy the view of Twin Sisters and observe the beautiful blanket of low clouds that covered the plains far below. The rising sun was partially obscured by clouds giving the blanket of lower clouds a nice glow.
A little farther along Michael and I were both startled to hear what sounded like screaming coming from up the trail. We turned with a jolt only to see another hiker coming down. He had a handheld FM radio lashed to his pack that was belting out the tunes. As he approached he turned down the radio and we chatted a bit. He had planned to climb Longs via the Keyhole Route but the weather had turned him around. He wished us luck as we parted ways.
As we hiked away we warily studied the skies above our objective. When we had broken through timberline things did not look good as the peaks were largely obscured by clouds but the closer we got the more it appeared the clouds were lifting. Our hopes continued to soar as the clouds continued to lift and by the time we reached the Chasm Lake Trail junction the skies above Mount Meeker and Longs Peak were nearly cloudless. Our prospects were looking good!
The wind began to pick up a little as we rounded Mount Lady Washington's East Ridge and we dropped down a little bit of elevations with the trail until it crossed a large snow slope. Traversing the slope was a bit tricky as it was covered in about a foot and a half of fresh powder on top of crusty old snow. Our snowshoes slid around on top of the fresh powder and it was difficult to get the crampons to bite into the crusty snow beneath. Consequently it was a continual struggle to keep from sliding down the slope. I led the way and after about a third of the traverse I looked back at Michael only to find that he had slid about 20 feet down the slope and was floundering around trying to claw his way back up to the path that traversed the slope. I watched him switch from trekking poles to ice axe and slowly make his way back up to the path. There was little I could do to aid him so I continued on with the traverse across the snow field to a spot where I could easily rest and wait for Michael. It appeared that his snowshoes bit into the snow and crusty stuff even more poorly than mine did and he was having a rough time staying upright on the slope. When Michael made it to my resting spot we agreed that the traverse was a bit hairy - on the way back we would switch out of snowshoes and into crampons.
After that little escapade it was smooth sailing past the patrol cabin. From the patrol cabin we had a couple of options: we could take the direct route up to the base of the Iron Gates that would involve continuous second class scrambling on partially snow covered rocks or we could angle more over towards The Loft and climb what looked like more continuous snow (for a little while at least). We chose the latter and made our way up the snow until we deemed it best to angle back toward the Iron Gates. As we picked our way threw the rocks and boulders we looked for a good place to cache our snowshoes. We finally decided on a large boulder that we hoped would be easily distinguishable from above. Just in case we had difficulty finding it on the way down Michael recorded the coordinates in his GPS. As we shed our snowshoes, had a snack, and got ready for the more strenuous part of the hike we looked around to admire the views. While we looked around I spied a pair of footprints crossing Chasm Lake. However, instead of going directly across the lake toward Mills Glacier they took a hard 90 degree turn and headed toward Mount Lady Washington. I searched around for the owner of the tracks and eventually found him about a quarter of the way up Martha's Couloir. The climber appeared to be solo and was making steady progress up a big snowy patch in between narrow chimney-like sections of the couloir.
By 9:30 we had our snowshoes cached, were fueled, and ready to rock up between the Iron Gates - two giant pillars that flank a gully that leads up to Meeker Ridge. The gully was a talus and scree strewn grunt, complicated by the fact that there was a light dusting of snow on everything. As we made our way through the gates the snow started to fall heavily and I paused to trade my fleece jacket for my Gore-Tex jacket. The snow continued to fall as we made slow but steady upward progress but the wind stayed down so the going was fairly pleasant. We topped out of the gully at 11:15.
The clouds had really moved in and the snow had steadily increased as we made upward progress. This gave us pause to consider our situation. Michael and I were both feeling fairly good and were warm. Luckily the wind remained calm so the conditions weren't too challenging. It was starting to get a little late but we decided to continue as long as the weather didn't take an even bigger turn for the worse. We decided that if we weren't already on the summit we would seriously consider turning around at 13:00.
After a quick bite to eat we set off up Meeker Ridge. Although only second class scrambling, the going was made difficult by the snow. The surface of the rock was a little slick from the falling snow and there were pockets of deeper snow between the rocks. This meant that if you needed to step in the snow you didn't know how far you would sink - sometimes there would be a rock just and inch beneath the snow, other times we would sink up to our thighs.
Progress was slow but steady up Meeker Ridge and the weather remained fairly constant - thick swirling clouds, steady snow, but very little wind. I felt pretty good initially and we just plodded along, but as we gained elevation I slowly began to run out of gas. When we finally arrived at the eastern, false summit at 13:15 I was pretty cooked. Michael and I had a very short conversation and it didn't take much convincing on either one of our parts to make the decision to turn around. Although we were only about 60 vertical feet from the true summit, the most challenging climbing of the day separated us from our objective. This last section contained a lot of third class scrambling including a knife-edge that is said to be sharper and spicier than that of Capitol Peak (though not as long). Besides being tired, it being late in the day, and the challenging scrambling ahead of us the weather had deteriorated a bit over the past 15 minutes and the wind was now blowing steadily.
We snapped a quick "hero shot" of us on the false summit and began our retreat. The descent down Meeker Ridge was brutal. About an inch of fresh snow had fallen during the past hour which largely obscured our tracks and covered up a lot more of the rock. This made the footing even more treacherous as stepping on snow was often unavoidable. Consequently with virtually every step we would lose our balance and it was a whole-body effort to keep from falling over.
This effort was almost as tiring as ascending the ridge and when we reached the top of Iron Gates Gully I was thoroughly whipped. Michael and I found a relatively sheltered spot to rest and we had a much needed snack. I was on the verge of bonking but a couple of candy bars at this crucial moment was enough to keep the tanks partially full. This rest break also afforded me the opportunity to use a new piece of gear I'd bought especially for this trip: a stainless steel, 1-liter thermos which I had filled with tea. Although fairly heavy, the piping hot tea really hit the spot and was worth the extra weight.
As we rested and snacked we discussed our next challenge - finding our way back down before it got dark. Michael and I head both read Brad Snider's trip report from the previous winter where he had failed to find the trail below Jims Grove and had been forced to bushwhack down along Alpine Brook until he reencountered the trail. We did not wish to meet the same fate! Thus we decided it was in our best interest to beat as hasty a retreat as possible so that we could be back into the trees and onto the well worn trail before dark (which we guessed was somewhere between 17:30 and 18:00).
The descent down to our snowshoe cache was almost as painful as the descent down Meeker Ridge and it seemed like it took us forever. Luckily we had no trouble finding our snowshoes and as we strapped them on the sun set behind The Loft. With a great sense of urgency we made quick progress past the patrol cabin and over to the snow slope we'd had trouble with in the morning. Our tracks from the morning were largely covered by the fresh snow and the footing with snowshoes would be even more treacherous than in the morning so it was a no-brainer to switch into crampons. The traverse of the slope was trivial in crampons and on the other side we switched back into snowshoes.
As Michael and I made our way to Chasm Junction the wind began to increase steadily as it whipped around Mount Lady Washington's East Ridge and into our faces. I was really dreading making it around the ridge at Chasm Junction because I expected the wind and visibility might be really bad there. However, when we reached the junction the wind miraculously disappeared and it was relatively calm. At this point it was just starting to get dark and we were still a ways from certain safety so Michael shot a compass bearing before we hustled on.
Initially we were able to follow our tracks from the morning but those soon melted away into the snowdrifts so we just shot straight downhill. As we made progress down toward the Jims Grove trail junction we spotted a tent. "Awesome," we thought, "we'll just head down to the tent and then follow their tracks out". This worked out well and soon we were on a well-beaten path. Now, with our fate relatively settled, we relaxed a bit.
After another couple of minutes we met a father and son coming up the trail. We paused to chat a bit about what we had just done and what these two planned to do. During the conversation they asked us if we had seen the missing hiker. At first I thought no - we hadn't seen anyone all day, but then as they described the search operation that was going on it dawned on us that the fellow we saw climbing Martha's Couloir on Mount Lady Washington was probably the guy that went missing. He must have been the partner that split from the guy we met earlier in the morning too! The father and son encouraged us to make haste down to the Ranger Station so that our info could inform the rangers' search.
We parted ways with the father and son who were going to set up camp and continued our downward progress. By this time the daylight was almost gone and as we entered the trees it grew dark so we pulled out headlamps. This was the first time I'd ever worn a headlamp while it was snowing and I was treated to the interesting phenomenon of the light reflecting off the snowflakes right in front of my face. The effect was quite interesting and unexpected: it was like somebody was sprinkling glitter or magic pixie dust in front of my face as I hiked along. The last bit of the hike went swiftly, partially due to the fact that I was mesmerized by the constant sparkles directly in front of my face.
We arrived at the trailhead at 19:00 and went directly over to the Ranger Station to contribute our information. When we knocked on the door the ranger immediately recognized us. "You must be the snowshoers," he said, "come on in!" Apparently the father and son that we had run into had met up with the search party after we had parted ways and had relayed our info. The search party had then concentrated their search effort on Mount Lady Washington and found the missing climber on Mount Lady Washington's East Ridge just moments before we arrived at the ranger station. The missing climber was a bit dehydrated but otherwise okay. The ranger thanked us for our small contribution and pumped us for any details we could add. Unfortunately we didn't have a lot to offer other than we had seen the climber in the bottom third of Martha's Couloir at around 9:30. He seemed to be doing just fine, but we only observed him for about five minutes. The partner we had met early in the morning was also in the office and looked like he had a rough day awaiting news of his missing friend. He was obviously relieved that everything was going to turn out okay. The ranger took down our contact info and thanked us again.
The day had turned into a 13 hour near-epic but Michael and I had a great time out in the mountains (even though this had been Michael's second unsuccessful attempt at the Iron Gates). I was pretty beat so we quickly said our goodbyes and headed for our respective beds. I slept well that night!