Finally, after 3 months without a serious (at least by my standards) climbing trip I had the time and a partner in crime (Brad Snider) to undertake a weekend adventure.
We set out at 6 am on Saturday morning (March 5th) from the Sandbeach Lake trailhead at the Wild Basin Trailhead of RMNP. For the first 4 miles, until right before Sandbeach Lake, we were able to cruise up the trail despite our heavy backpacks with backpacking gear. Due to the warm weather and low amount of snow during the recent weeks, there was not much snow on the first 1.5 miles, and the rest of the trail up to Sandbeach Lake was well trotten and consolidated. Thus there was no need for snowshoes and we were able to cover the first 4 miles of trail in 2.5 hours until we reach our turn-off point on a small ridge before Sandbeach Lake.
From there it was our goal to make our way to the small lake below Mount Pagoda's south face where we wanted to set up camp. Thus we started our bushwacking advanture and plowed our way for 1.7 miles through the snow until we reached a highpoint to the southeast and slightly above the lake where we set up our camp. This part of the trip was significantly more difficult than the first 4 miles and it took us slightly more than 2 hours to reach our campspot where we were relieved to drop most of our gear.
Up to this point we had kept all options open on weather to climb Longs Peak or Pagoda. However, since it was still early (we finished setting up camp by 11:30am) and the snow and weather conditions were good (perfect weather all day long), we decided to attempt a winter ascent of Longs Peak. After making good progress thus far we were hoping to reach the summit of Longs Peak by 4 o'clock and possibly hike to the Loft and SouthEast Longs Peak on the way down. However, once we started our way up inbetween Pagoda and Longs Peak to get to the base of Keplinger's Couloir, our speed slowed down significantly. 3000+ feet of elevation with heavy backpacks during the winter did not get past our legs unnoticed. But we were determined and pressed on.
We reached the base of the Couloir at about 1pm and the weather was still beautiful. At times we even thought that it was too warm, but the cloudless skies provided us with beautiful views of the surrounding mountains, inparticular Pagoda. At the base of the couloir (12000ft), Brad and I dropped our snowshoes and began the climb. For the first 600ft we stayed primarily on rocks to the left and right of the couloir, since the snow was still fairly deep and soft at places. From about 12600-13600feet the snow in the couloir was more consolidated and we kick-stepped the rest of the way up, putting on our crampons at about 13000feet. Using my slopemeter, I measured the steepest part of the couloir to be about 43 degrees. The conditions were great, the views were beautiful, and Brad and I were highly motivated for the rest of the climb. However, despite our hope for fast progress, it took us till after 4pm to reach the top of the couloir at 13600feet, right below the Palisades, where we joined up with the Clark's Arrow (Loft) route. We briefly enjoyed the view and snapped multiple pictures of the great scenery before continuing our climb.
The next 150 feet of the climb lead us up a rocky and icy section towards the notch between Longs Peak and its SouthEast summit. However, about 150 feet before reaching the notch, our route began to traverse to the left towards the Keyhole route. During the summer this part of the route consists of some rocky ledges that are rated Class 3. However, during the winter these ledges are covered by a snowfield which turned out to be the crux of our climb. We had already taken off our crampons since we expected to continue on rock ledges. Since we were only about 150 feet below the Homestretch, we decided to proceed without crampons. However, we soon began to encounter extremely icy rockfaces under the snowcover. In an attempt to bypass the snow slopes, we climbed up to the rock above the snow, however, after climbing on Class 4 rocks for a short while we started to get stuck on Class 5 rock, which was much to risky for us to climb with our heavy gloves. Thus we finally decided to put our crampons back on while hanging on to the cliff. We then downclimbed back to the snowslope and now made fast progress towards the Homestretch. Climbing this snowslope was breathtaking and the exposure was significant. I measured the slope at two of the steeper sections as 50 and 53 degrees.
Needless to say, after this adventure and given the fact that it was now 5:45pm, we were relieved when we reached the Homestretch and were able to follow the beaten path up to the summit which we reached at about 6:10, just in time for a beautiful Longs Peak sunset. Despite the cold weather and darkness, we decided to remain on the summit for a short while to sign the register, snap pictures and eat and drink. Surprisingly we saw that 6 others had already signed the register on this day, 2 of which Brad saw descending towards the North Face when we reached the summit platau.
The descent with our headlamps was also a fantastic experience. Especially downclimbing the 50+ degree slopes until we reached the top of Keplingers Couloir took all our attention. Unfortunately it was already too dark to take any pictures during the descent. Once we reached to top of the couloir we sat down in the snow for approximately 30 minutes and thought about our climb of Longs Peak. However, eventually we decided that we had to descent for 2500 additional feet before we could celebrate a successful climb. Thus we plungestepped down the couloir and finally made it back to camp slightly after 9pm after 15 hours and 6000 feet of climbing. We started our stove, had a quick dinner and fell asleep exhausted.
Originally we had planned to climb Pagoda on Sunday morning, however after the exhausting trip up Longs Peak, we had already cancelled those plans and after we woke up and heard strong winds (which continued all day long) on the top of the mountains, we were glad that we did so. When we finally made it out of the tent at 9am, we could still see a few cloulds blazing over the top of Pagoda, and we were relieved not to be on the exposed ridge towards the summit. We enjoyed our breakfast, packed up our gear and headed back towards the Sandbeach Lake trail and eventually the trailhead.
What remains: Sore legs, a great adventure to remember, and a beautiful winter sunset on Longs Peak.
"As an adolescent I aspired to lasting fame, I craved factual certainty, and I thirsted for a meaningful vision of human life - so I became a scientist. This is like becoming an archbishop so you can meet girls."