I witnessed a beautiful sunrise over Twin Sisters Peaks as I began my hike up the Longs Peak Trail. I signed in at the register saying I would be back by 4 PM, which I figured would allow me plenty of time. The snow was deep in the evergreen forest, but the trail was packed and I easily walked on top of it without the aid of my snowshoes, which I carried.
As I turned one of the switchbacks, I was surprised to see two hikers coming toward me. As I greeted them, I found out they were actually rescuers who had been helping someone who had taken a nasty fall the day before. They told me there was a group of fifteen others who were aiding in getting the injured person out.
When I broke timberline, it was like stepping into a wind tunnel. What snow there was, was packed tightly in drifts
around small trees and shrubs that for some reason dare to live above timberline. As I struggled against the wind, the group of fifteen came into view
ahead of me, many of them helping carry the fall victim, who was apparently on a stretcher. I found myself suddenly chilled and I stopped to put on my down jacket and balaclava. Meanwhile the group moved on by, and I continued into the powerful winds.
Staggering, in its literal form, is the best word I can think of to describe that blowing force. I had to lean heavily into the wind and continue walking forward, or sit down: otherwise it would blow me backwards.
However, as so often happens, the scenery made me forget about my difficulties, as the trail ahead opened up to reveal the majestic Longs Peak Cirque, luring me onward. The early morning cast shadows on Longs Peak
and company, and I stood in awe, amazed to have this place all to myself for the day.
I snapped back to attention as I negotiated the ledges leading me toward Chasm Meadows, as the exposure opened up and the winds got even fiercer. The trail turned to footprints leading across a large and steep snowfield, and I made every footstep as intentional but brief as possible. Crampons were useful here.
At last I arrived safely at Chasm Meadows, eager to begin my actual ascent. I had been carrying and wearing my knit cap at various intervals, and somewhere along the way I dropped it. Fortunately, I had my balaclava to shield my face and head from the wind. I continued up another snow slope, then turned east along the fields of talus and snow.
I had been previewing the “Iron Gates,”
two large buttresses on either side of a talus-strewn gully leading steeply up the north side of Meeker’s northeast ridge. Now I was directly below them, and began picking my way upward. I was going to avoid this gully due to possible avalanche danger, but I saw no evidence that it even had any snow in it. Indeed, as I passed through the Iron Gates, I found just patches of ice and snow, which I was able to avoid. I could still hear the wind, but it did not hit me as much as I moved upward through the steepening gully. In the gully, I encountered some loose rocks and scree, but nothing too bad. Near the crest of the ridge, the gully narrowed to a point which required a fun class 3 scramble up some boulders.
At the ridge crest, the wind again hit me with full force. Now at 13,000 feet, I caught my breath and then started hiking uphill along the ridge, fighting the relentless wind the whole way. After an effortful climb past one or two false summits, I came to the final unnamed summit directly opposite the true summit of Mount Meeker. In that space between me and it lay my final obstacle: the knife edge of the summit ridge
. As I stood there, the wind gave me another harsh reminder of its presence, and I debated internally how sane I was.
Without another moment’s hesitation, I secured my trekking poles and made my ice ax available for my use. Then I snatched my gloves from my hands with my teeth, so that I could make the best use of available handholds. I knew I would need the gloves again soon, because the wind chilled the bare skin of my hands quickly.
While I had been standing there catching my breath and contemplating my next move, I had taken a good mental picture of the route ahead. Now, I advanced swiftly but carefully, stopping and pressing myself against the solid wall of rock every time I felt or heard another scream of wind coming my way. As the wind hit me, I clung to the narrow knife-edge, with the solid rock dropping straight down a thousand feet on both sides of me. Ryan Schilling in his summit log dubbed this place “exhilarating,” and I must say I wholeheartedly agree!
It was difficult to tell where the true summit stood along this fairly level ridge, but all at once I came upon a canister, and realized I had arrived
at my 13,911-foot high destination! As soon as I sat down, I realized how physically drained I was. Some trail mix and another bottle of now-icy water helped, but I knew I had to traverse the knife edge one more time. So, I rested there about half an hour, admiring and photographing the scenery, signing the summit log (the first to sign since November 4th!), and trying to stay tucked next to the summit boulder to protect myself from the wind. The views of Longs Peak, Mount Lady Washington
, Chiefs Head Peak
, the Mummy Range, and others, were fantastic!
The Descent: 1330 to 1845
Chasm Lake Through the Iron Gates
I found my way back across the knife-edge, but when I came to the third class climbing just east of the knife edge, I decided this time to stick to the left (north) side of the ridge. Instead of boulder climbing, this turned out to be a tricky area of steep snow-covered rock slabs. The snow was deep enough and of the right consistency that I was able to kick steps. Aided by my ice ax, I made it slowly across the snow and returned safely to the ridge crest.
The Iron Gates were a bit steeper than I would prefer for my descent, so I chose instead to follow the northeast ridge a bit farther downhill before turning northwest onto the slopes. This seemed a good option, but I almost went too low before turning, as I came upon the roofs of some cliffs that I realized were east of where I wanted to be. I turned then, and before long the familiar Iron Gates came into view above me.
Eventually I came to where there was more snow than talus, and I found my footprints and started following them. Also I was happy to find my knit cap, which had come to rest right along the trail. As I looked up from retrieving my hat, I noticed two people, presumably setting up camp next to a huge boulder. I went down to them to have a short chat. The couple was indeed setting up camp, and they were preparing to climb the Dream Weaver Couloir the following day. There was still some wind, and the boulder seemed to offer little protection, so they were busy trying to find a suitable place for their tent.
I knew it would soon be dark, so I had to get going. I wished them good luck and made some fun glissades to quickly arrive back at Chasm Meadow. The snow slopes beyond this seemed extra icy from the mid-day sunshine, so I advanced carefully to make it to the other side. I figured this was the last of my obstacles for the day, and I was home-free! Little did I know how much longer it would take me to get back to my jeep.
The problem started when I came to the mix of tundra and wind-swept snow. On my ascent, where to go had been fairly obvious: up. Going down, especially nearing dark, I had a little more trouble sticking to the trail. The wide snowdrifts complicated things, because the snow was so hard-packed that people’s boots left no imprints to follow. A couple times, I found myself fifty yards or so off the trail before I realized I had gone astray. At one point, I lost the trail entirely, and it took me quite a while to get back on track. At least I thought
I was back on track.
The trail had turned to hardened snow again, and I figured I had no choice but to follow what footprints I could see. As I came to timberline, the snow became even harder, and the footprints I had been following dwindled to one pair. My heart sunk as I realized I was not on the trail, among the trees, with darkness quickly setting in. The Twilight Zone, perhaps?
Well, at least the wind had abated. I sat down to evaluate the situation, mentally kicking myself the whole time. How could I have lost the Longs Peak Trail?!
I swallowed some water, strapped on my snowshoes, and got out my flashlight.
Then, I took a picture of the Twin Sisters
as the final light of day faded into oblivion.
I ended up not needing my flashlight, because the moon did a good job of illuminating the forest. Somehow it felt strangely calming not having all light focused on one round spot three feet in front of me.
As I descended, the snow remained just as deep, but turned to a powdery, soft consistency. Even though I was now glad I had brought my snowshoes along, they seemed to be of little help in the deep and difficult snow. If I had not been tired enough from the mountain climb, this would certainly give me a workout.
I knew I was still going downhill toward the large basin up which I had ascended. That meant I had to be going the right direction. Still, I had been off the trail for a long time, and the deep snow was becoming frustrating and tiring. I stopped at one point and used my flashlight to figure out where I was on my topo map. I had figured it right: I was moving in the right direction. The tricky part would be finding a place to cross the creek at the bottom.
Sure enough, it wasn’t long before I made it to the creek. The snow was so deep here I was afraid of getting too close to the steep, unseen bank and falling through into the ice cold water. It took only a few minutes to find a log down across the creek. A dead fir tree, it was covered with broken branches. These were good to hold on to, but they were difficult to get my snowshoes around, and my ice ax and strap kept catching on them, making forward progress outrageously difficult.
Finally on the other side of the creek, I took only a few steps and saw tracks ahead of me. The trail! I had crossed the creek where one of the few switchbacks came so close to the flowing water! I thanked God for this break, and then started down the trail. I had been off-trail for an hour, and walking on top of the hard-packed snow made a world of difference! I didn’t stop the rest of the way out to my jeep, arriving twelve exhausting hours from when I had started. So much for 4 PM!
© 2005, Brad Snider, Brad's Mountaineering Homepage
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