I've tried to write most parts of this in an older style. Not sure if it works but it sounds good. If you care, let me know how it reads. I'd appreciate the input!
Man, I’d forgotten what alpine sunrises looked like. It’s been so long since I’ve been up here, I spaced out that alpine starts actually do have their rewards. Damn, John. Stupid chemistry and physics have had such a stranglehold over me, I feel like I’ve married my textbooks!”
“Yeah, I hear ya, Kiefer.” John said. “I’m no different. Try having a family with two kids. Although, I’ve managed to hit the crags and Horsetooth lately, so that definitely helps. These 14ers and long alpine routes just take so much time and planning to do.” I raised my eyebrows in the dark in affirmation.
“John, it’s been so long since I’ve touched my axe, later today, I fully intend and expect tons of foreplay between me and my axe. You might want to divert your eyes!” I said with a huge smile chuckling to myself.
We were standing at Chasm Junction taking a brief rest enjoying the newborn colours of the sunrise. It felt like we were being exhaled upon by an artists’ palate. The sunrise over Twin Sisters, as it always is, was exquisite and intoxicating. There are moments while experiencing an alpine sunrise that are wholly unique and magical. These moments are fleeting and quick, like a confused phoenix.
Every witnessing of the birth of the world from on high should always be noted and remembered. The colours are transitionless and sometimes, as red as bleeding a rose of its’ life. Occasionally, the climb itself isn’t even the objective. Sometimes, it’s a matter of simply spending time with good and cherished friends. Witnessing a sunrise from 12,000ft can put things in perspective. As in, the summit is only an effect of the cause. Indeed; there’s magic all around us.
“Anymore, I’m slowly getting the point where I all want to do is head up into the mountains, scout out some lakes and cast a line. Basically, anything that doesn’t involve sharp or pointy things!”
“Are there actually fish in Chasm Lake?” I asked John.
“It’s been rumored there is but I’ve never heard of anyone catching anything. The lake’s deep enough so it doesn’t completely freeze. I’ve even heard that Peacock Pool might contain fish but I think that was only a rumor”. John and I talked about fishing while crossing the snowfield under Lady Washington. This whittled the time and distance away fairly quickly. I was a bit nervous as the two of us trekked across frozen Chasm Lake but again, the fish conversation put my mind strangely at ease.
It became almost surreal for a moment as I gazed up and marveled at the Diamond, up at Martha’s Couloir and over to my left at the Ship’s Prow. I realized and respected how small, two lone climbers could be in this magnificent granite kingdom. I unfortunately, was equally reminded of the effect of how such a small being can have such lasting and dramatic effects on these massive and stoic halls. If I had not known better, I would have been positively convinced that places like the Longs Peak Cirque and Half Dome were unfinished tributes by ancient and deliriously-driven master stonemasons to the Gods.
Columbine Falls, though thick and fat with resplendent ice looked simultaneously menacing and inviting. With temperatures being as warm as they were, I am not entirely sure it would have been a good idea to even top-rope their icy gates. Perhaps the reason why our crossing over the frozen depths seemed to go unnoticed, is that with all our conversation of fishing, I was reminded of my one and only time fly-fishing the Eagle River outside Minturn. The avenues and boulevards above the river that were coursing with insect life were hypnotic. It seemed like a separate and hidden world in miniature! It was not hard to focus on the eddies & pools looking for fish in all that clatter and organized confusion. Even the occasional hit by an aberrant mayfly seemed to have no residuum. The effect of being in the water was mesmerizing, calming and well, delightfully magical!
Once across the lake, the two of us figured that it would be a better idea in lieu of place and time to simply don our harnesses and pro now and keep the rope handy in case we needed its protection on the icy slopes above. Mitigation is the tenant that one must keep close to heart while engaging in such sport. Our spirits were high, shenanigans were low and the morning was progressing brilliantly. John and I made the conscious decision to leave the morning and fish to the lower climes below. Our aspirations began a few feet in front of us. And so we journeyed to the high places hoping to delve into the mysteries that lie 2,000ft above us, God be willing.
Of all the individuals in history short of John Muir to feel the call of the mountains, attracted as it were, to the heights, crags and places never seen, especially to the environs of what is Estes Park and the Tahosa Valley was that of one Rev. Elkanah J. Lamb. In subscript, the reverend made the base of Longs Peak his permanent home in the mid 1870’s near what is now the Longs Peak Inn. Perhaps no one else, save for his later counterpart, Enos A. Mills (father of RMNP) has had such a strong association with Longs Peak. Well, speaking of more contemporary figures, Jim Detterline does come immediately to mind. The Rev. Lamb while on one of his early climbs of Longs Peak made the first documented descent of the East Face. While facing winds and snow perilous, Lamb descended what is now colloquially known as Notch Couloir to Broadway in 1871. Upon this dangerous and adventurous descent, aided only by a single yet thick hemp rope, the mountain trembled ‘neath his feet and the reverend fell to a hidden yet unnamed couloir that borders the lower left side of the East Face known as the Diamond. It was this very rope that while falling, without control, saved the reverend’s life by snagging an exposed rock.
John and I like many before, began our climb of the 1,000ft couloir to gain access to Broadway and the start of Notch Couloir. The same couloir mind you, that now bears the reverend’s name…Lamb’s Slide.
Conditions of the snow upon our climb upward proved to be rather good. Surprisingly firm and holding for what one could consider to be early season. However, we had old footfalls to follow so thankfully, our ascent of the couloir proved to be of rather one massive ladder. The hardened steps were quite welcomed indeed! At the entrance to Broadway, John and I decided to take the opportunity to rest our wary legs. Knowing what to expect from here on out as I, in years past have trammeled this ledge under dryer and summer conditions, was inquisitive as to how said ledge would follow under winters’ snows.
John and I both, already in possession of advanced knowledge that rope is usually necessary along this stretch made ready in case we needed it’s life-saving qualities. The countless pictures of fellow travelers before us were fresh in our minds; roped up, stepping gingerly knowing all too well what awaited the inattentive climber if one should happen to lose concentration and fall. So John and I took to Broadway enthusiastically and very much curious.
What we discovered is that when plastered with snow, the ledge is indeed a mind-boggling and exposed traverse. Even though the dreaded gap is always thought of, our path took us much higher along the palisade. The ledge entailed traverses on 68° snow, short climbs of 42° punctuated by the odd, flat walk. Again, our savior below that had gone before us providing the steps continued across Broadway and even into the Notch Couloir itself! The Kiener’s Route as we observed it, was virgin.
We switched turns on lead whenever the moment felt good without due thought or provocation. Our climb felt good, fluid, organic and natural. We never felt the anxiety or rush to be off the snow as the rising sun can sometimes provoke in the climber. To borrow an older metaphor, the climb felt indeed, magical! With the exception of Dreamweaver and Kiener's (Mountaineers) Route, Notch Couloir proved to round out my top-3 all-time favourite climbs!
Notch CouloirKing Fisher Tower in Utah, Machapuchare in Nepal (a long-term goal), or Capitol Peak, risk and risk alone will always come to define what our individual subjective definitions of what a climb is.
John and I reached the constriction in the couloir. A somewhat arbitrary marker evidenced by a few exposed boulders and the immediate dog-leg to the right the couloir takes for no reason. But the mountains and exposed heights need no reasons for their being. They simply, are.
This constriction contained crusty snow atop water ice. John elected to perform some clever aerobatics by maneuvering awkwardly onto the boulders thereby avoiding the ice. We had both brought ice tools. But upon watching me precipitously anchor myself to the ice in order to reach around to grab my Viper, John started to laugh in acknowledgement. He had completely forgotten that he too had his ice tool within easy reach! We both shared a good chuckle over this. I climbed, soloed the ten feet or so of manky ice and soon joined John. We had the rope at the ready but still hadn’t felt the need to utilize it. In hindsight of course, it probably would have been a good idea to use it at least on Broadway but we felt comfortable continuing our solo venture.
At the Notch proper, we stopped and meandered over on the solid rock and looked as best as we could at the staircase. Neither I nor John was too keen with the snow at this point. The time was nearing twelve o’clock noon and the snow was turning into granite flavoured Slurpee. We chose to descend the other side of the notch by down-climbing. Slings were in place to repel safely however, again, we both felt good about simply turning in and climbing down. Both of us were on the fence for a while about turning our backs to the staircase (5.4) and it did indeed, eat at us for the remainder of the day.
The high traverse on the fields of slushed-snow proved to be uncomfortably hot and slippery. We went from requiring jackets in the Notch to considering shorts and no shirts in the sun of the South Face known as The Homestretch. The upper cracks were holding snow but with edging our boots into the snow, our footings proved successful and we scaled the last required meters in order to reach this mighty zenith. Our summit was rewarded with calm winds and an empty apogee! It is a wonderful and grand experience to have one of Colorado’s most popular Fourteener’s entirely to themselves. I wandered over to the register to sign in for both of us only to discover that we would end up being the 4th and 5th signatures. Jim Detterline himself had just been up here the previous day and set upon the summit a brand new register! Some days truly are magical!
We chose to descend and traverse around to the Loft via that old and rather historical route known as Clark’s Arrow. Repelling the old Cables Route was mighty attractive as an option and a speedy way down. However, the both of us wanted to scale Southeast Longs.
For an unranked sub-peak, this partly exposed summit contained extremely enjoyable solid rock. Not a single mass removed itself ‘neath our feet. In fact, I wondered whether or not we were on the right mountain!
In what seemed like absolutely no time at all, we were on the summit looking down into the Notch at our tracks from earlier! A repel station exists atop this crow’s nest that serves as a summit. There were so many slings attached to the rock and lying near, that I initially mistook it for a den of snakes! Fortunately, knowing that serpents are found not at these great heights, I was immediately relieved. Not to mention, no serpent that I have ever had the displeasure to meet has ever revealed Mammut tattoos or Omega Pacific piercings.
I have climbed a great many couloirs in my time and wanderings spent in the high places but to be honest, Notch Couloir ranks up there in my personal top-3 as being the best. The fact that my top-3 favourite climbs exist within the confines of this mighty and great massif, I believe speaks volumes and provides testament to the magnificence of Longs Peak as an alpine destination. Though, Martha’s Couloir is now out for the season as a climb, I do fully expect great things to come next year from that hidden line. Lo, truer words were never spoken by man when that utterance was heard, “The Mountains are calling. I must go”.