Flying Dutchman Couloir
“How often is it that ya get to the Long’s Peak TH and find the parking lot empty?” I asked Chase. Personally, I can attest that that answer is actually quite a bit! I’ve been to Long’s Peak more times than any other mountain (not 14er exclusive) where my vehicle has been the only one in attendance; a lone Jeep Wrangler that looks like it was meant to stay off pavement in the evergreen scented wilds. The secret is to go mid-week. Heading to the heights on the weekends isn’t going to win you any solitude. The plan was to scale The Flying Dutchman Couloir on Monday. The crew would entail John Pendroza, Chase Lindel and myself. I hadn’t seen Chase in almost a year. He’s one hell of a rock climber. Then in lieu of Monday’s storm (it rained off/on all day here in town)
, we decided to call it. On a personal level, I can deal with cold, wet snow, heavy snow on almost any terrain, after all, why do we shall out $300 or more on clothing if we’re not willing to use said clothing for conditions it was meant for? What I’m NOT willing to deal with is moisture on rock when the temperature is at or slightly below freezing. I’ve climbed my fair share on veriglass and it’s an experience I’m not willing to voluntarily repeat if I don’t have to.
“I’m still down to climb on Tuesday if you are.” I read the text from Chase. I still wasn’t sold on the idea but texted Chase back saying c’mon over. Nostalgia is best experienced with old friends and IPA’s. Plus Keystone is a long drive from Estes Park. Stay the night. At the least, we could scope out conditions. John unfortunately was out. His job and wife are wicked cool and understanding enough to grant occasional ‘day passes’ but since Monday was bust, well; some things are best not abused.
We missed ya John
Lengthy portions of the bottom trail are melted out. Treeline and below do have some decent drifts in place but most are hard-packed. Snowshoes are not needed on the Long’s Peak Trail. There is a lot of downed timber on the trail. Park staff will probably be up there for a while clearing it all up. Amusingly, since I volunteer on the trail crew, I’ll probably be up there clearing up said Popsicle sticks later this summer!
“You hear that?” I asked Chase. I envied the planks on his back but only as far as his eventual ski descent of Lamb’s Slide. Beyond that, it looked cruel and usual. My pack was perhaps a third as light.
“What am I supposed to hear?” He asked.
“Exactly!” You could hear a cotton-ball drop on a pillow of warm air it was so quiet. Ok, I’ll concede having the mountain to yourself as a moderately appreciable experience if you time it right but seriously, how often on Long’s Peak is it so quiet, that you can actually hear the excitement build over the eventual climb like static electricity? Now that, my friend, is a truly remarkable experience.
Chase and I set fresh tracks across Lady Washington’s lower hem line. She didn’t seem to mind…filthy whore. Soon enough, we breached the wall that holds back Chasm Lake; a run-out parapet, molars worn from years of angst, a dental dam…hell, it’s all the same. Always is. The hidden recess of the lake has Ship’s Prow and said concubine to thank for its’ seclusion and secrecy.
It was beautiful. A perfectly flat plain of untracked snow disappearing upwards into equally untracked granite, everything was new…awaiting the days’ slip & score and damaging melt. As long as one is willing to put caution in the driver’s seat, seat belt optional, leading out after a storm can yield some fantastic sights.
I was decently ahead of Chase, which allowed some ‘me’ time to think about things. More and more, with each passing foray into the hills, each folly, each sleepless night rewarded with 8-12 hours of manual labour, the larger things in life that seem to matter…don’t. What’s immensely significant becomes insignificant. The problems that seem to provoke us with no answer slowly come around and show their weaknesses. “Once in a while you get shown the light. In the strangest of places if you look at it right.” All hail Garcia! He was a sage. If at the least, a cannabis and patchouli scented one.
Shit. The Devil’s in the details after all. He’s probably always been there too hiding away like a piece of lint. The absolute sheer bliss of popping open a Dale’s Pale Ale, PBR or Rolling Rock takes on an importance greater than its singleness. That (particular) microscopic detail seems as looming and large as staring up at The Diamond. It is the little things that matter. By taking care of the little things, the larger things work themselves out in deviant inefficiency.
Remember Kiefer, there can be beauty in hardship. I think Tom Waits may have had it right when that old whisky-soaked, gravel-throated poet said, “The Devil dances in empty pockets.” Well, my pockets are most certainly empty; and if that’s gonna be the case, then the Devil also waxes blue-collar (radical change of job)
. But here, in the alpine, sitting on a boulder at 11,800ft, staring up into the Dutchman Couloir feeling more at home then in front of my computer typing this, I do believe I’ve found God.
In the words of that old sage, Beavis, “I’ve seen the top of the mountain [Butthead]. And it is good.”
And indeed, it is good! My pockets may have pitchforks but my heart has wings.
The bottom of the couloir starts out at a mellow 34°. Chase and I switch-backed and straight-lined it up to where the couloir starts proper. The apron was frustratingly long. Sure, sometime the foreplay can be entertaining but hell, let’s just get to the main course already! The Flying Dutchman does indeed have a long entrance. In my opinion, the Dutchman would be a good moderate to advanced snow climb if it wasn’t for the 20-25ft mixed section about ¾ the way up, sitting there like an out-of-place exclamation point. I kept kicking steps in ever softening snow up an increasing pitch. The snow wasn’t set up yet. There wasn’t too much consolidation although the base felt decent and solid enough for light steps. A small rock step roughly half-way up proved to be beneficial. The awkwardness and beauty of swinging the axe, catching a hidden lip to pull down on broke me free of the repetition and monotony of step, step, step, step, rest, breathe.
I just wanted to get out of the couloir. The snow was becoming too soft for my comfort. But it’s these moments when conditions become not to our liking that serve us better than perfect situations. Hell, just the week prior while climbing Hopeful Couloir on Mt. Hope with Britt, the snow was so soft, I could have just as easily inserted a straw into the damn slope and had myself a tasty beverage. Sometimes, you just have to smile and say, “Screw it”. Plod away! There’s Rolling Rocks and PBR’s waiting!
Finally, some good stuff...
Descending from the fog
I dug out a small belay hole at the base of the mixed/ice section. Slope was probably 42° on top of a healthy bulge of ice. Above, the crux looked no more than M2 perhaps M2+, reasonable. Chase finally crawled into view like a broken ant. I yelled down to him, “Whatcha think?”
“How’s it look?” He stopped and shouted back.
“Looks good. Light and low calorie.”
“Go for it” He shouted back. Why not? Even if I fell, arresting would be easy on the soft snow. But of course, bollocks that. I unclipped my Viper, swung it a couple times into a small bulge, tested it and pulled myself up front-pointing rock to gain access to a small ledge for my left foot. Having one foot secure and my right foot wedged into moss and ice, I mantled to move my left foot almost waist high to my previous hand-hold with F-bombs at the ready in case my right foot decided it was being left behind and wanted to come along at an inopportune moment. I swung, dry-tooled, catching a pocket and moved into a position I didn’t particularly care for. “Hey Chase!” I yelled down between my legs. “This would make for a great butt shot!” The ice took a temporary hiatus. I was slightly spread-eagle, stemming the rock, forcing my feet outwards trying to keep the pressure constant. I’ll admit. It was a bit taxing. There was a good jug slightly above my head that I was aiming for.
“Awesome, Dude! You’re looking good!” Chase called up. I harnessed my ice tool, grabbed the jug and pulled up while scraping my points. I dug into the snow on my right and found an ok lip. My points were biting with their two front teeth in a sliver crack, precarious but stable. I unharnessed my tool and swung into the snow finding ice again…three test swings and I finally approved of the purchase before committing my feet higher. I awkwardly moved over to the snow, kept low and crab walked for a few feet before I trusted the slope then finished the last few feet to the belay station. “Hold up Chase!” I yelled down. “Let me find an anchor”. I cleared and searched for something that would serve but just couldn’t find anything I liked. The new snow made it difficult to find anything reasonable. One crack. That was all I could find, roughly one finger-width. I flaked out the rope; a short 30m, 8.0mm purple line. “Aww, shit!” I said to myself. “Chase has all the pro!” I shook my head and hit my helmet a couple times.
“Hold on Chase! Got a small problem.” I receive a muffled ok in reply. My axe is too big to wedge. I unsling my ice tool and wedge the pick into the crack. It fits pretty good. I then knotted up a small piece of webbing and stuffed it into the crack to provide additional pressure then girth hitched a doubled 4 foot spectra to the tool and clipped my harness with a locker. I scooted around to the side to bring my weight perpendicular to the force to test it…it was bomb! I wasn’t going anywhere. I finished the anchor by stuffing and packing the crack full of snow, ran my belay device and threw down the rope. Since Chase had skis on his back, neither one of us wanted the risk of a fall and the ensuing injury. It wasn’t talked about or debated, it was mutually and separately assumed. It’s great when climbing partners, separated by distance, can think alike when faced with a situation. So a belay was prudent.
Chase completed what must have been a difficult climb. Having those damn planks extend his center of gravity outwards couldn’t have been easy. At one point, his tips caught the side wall. I could hear the scraping followed by something indecipherable. I smiled. Chase climbed up through the crux, looking exhausted and finished the remaining 40 feet to the top. I repacked, drank and tightened my crampons. The Flying Dutchman was finished.
We ended up bailing on Lamb’s Slide. The snow had softened up too much. “I don’t know, man. You could set off a wet slab. What do ya think…50%-50%?” I asked Chase. We talked about the possibility of a descent going one at a time to safe zones but ultimately ruled it out. As much as Chase wanted to ski it, wisely, he just wasn’t willing to play the odds. Can’t say I don’t blame him. We ended up descending the Loft in moist, foggy conditions. It felt like a cold steam bath. We started the day under a flawless sky only to be grappled and snowed on lightly.
We were able to keep to the snow for the descent. In these conditions, veriglass is a bad word in my dictionary. I've had a good friend die in similar conditions. We contoured around the cliffs, faced in and down-climbed some soft snow to the ledge we needed below. I've never really cared for the Loft as a route. I don't like the way the snow sets up on it or slowly collects as winter progresses. In summer, it's loose. It would be a safe route if one is going to rap it but otherwise, I just don't like it. Maybe it's the cliffs just below, you know, mental games and all that. All in all, we arrived back at the car at 6:15pm. That left me roughly an hour to shower, change and shovel in some Doritos before I had to be into work by 7:30pm. It’s amazing what we constitute as work these days!
Next day, I’m sitting at Kind Coffee in Estes Park enjoying the sun. There’s an awesome read in the latest Alpinist. This got me thinking about the previous climb up The Dutchman. I have a belly full of Thai from lunch and my attention is divided between the elk lying in the grass near the bridge, the tourists gawking over the elk, the physics behind my coffee’s losing heat-battle with the air (I can’t afford latte’s at the moment, so I’m forcing the Devil to accept Foggy Mountain Blend)
and the spectacular pictures of K2 in front of me. In fact,
“K2 takes its’ name from the 1856 survey notes of British explorer
T.G. Montgomerie: “K” for Karakoram, a subrange of the Himalaya,
And “2” for the second peak he noted on the horizon”.
-–per National Geographic. April 2012
The Dutchman of course is no Karakoram but my satisfaction is none-the-less undiminished and wholly ebullient. It regardless, was a good solid climb. Neither Chase nor I cared for attaining the summit. We just wanted the route. The summit was strictly optional. Perhaps I had a good climb because it was exactly this that I focused on, the little thing. We didn’t need a summit. Perhaps, it also equates a different, more mature line of reasoning where the apogee doesn’t have to be the intention and one still comes away from the climb feeling just as satisfied having not reached the top.
Again, the summit is always optional.