Longs Peak - Kieners Route
To say I was anxious about my first alpine route would have been a huge understatement - I was downright terrified. However, I needed to cut my teeth on something so why not the classic route on Longs Peak, if not all of Colorado.
For the climb I was going to team up with SummitPost members Fabio and Barry. Nelson was also supposed to join us but the accident on Mount Toll put him out of commission. Barry drove up from Dallas on Friday and arrived at my house at about 8:00pm after a 14-hour drive and 2 hours of sleep the night before. Before catching a little sleep we had some dinner and sorted out our gear. Unfortunately we didn't have a good alpine rope so we were forced to use the 60 meter by 11 millimeter rope that I have for cragging. In addition we took a variety of slings and a selection of about 10 medium-sized cams from a combination of Barry's and my gear to make up our rack. After getting everything ready for a super-alpine start we retired for a little shuteye at 9:00pm.
My alarm went off at midnight and I took a quick shower to wake myself up before gathering up my food and water. As Barry and I made our last preparations my little sister (who is staying with us for the summer) came home after a night of hanging out with her friends. This made me pause for a second to second guess this hobby of mine... but only for a second.
With our stuff piled in the car Barry and I set off. We arrived at the Longs Peak Trailhead a little after 1:30am to find Fabio waiting for us. We threw on our packs, signed the registry, and were hiking by 1:50am.
I carried the rope initially and we planned to pass it around every 45 minutes. Hiking through the forest in the dark always goes by really fast for me and we made seemingly rapid progress up the trail. My 45 minutes was up just before we reached timberline. We took a quick rest/snack break and Fabio assumed the rope carrying duties.
As we made our way past timberline we could see the faint outline of Meeker, Longs, and Lady Washington against the starry sky. The Milkyway streamed from west to east right over the top of Longs Peak and was quite spectacular. It seems I rarely take the opportunity to admire the heavens but on this night it was hard not to. After we passed Chasm Junction we encountered some fairly steep, hard snow crossing the trail and it was time to get out the iceaxes. We crossed several snowfields before passing Columbine Falls and the patrol cabin. After a quick scramble we arrived at Chasm Lake at 4:10am.
We had another snack/rest break and Barry assumed the rope carrying duties - it was becoming evident that lugging my heavy rope was going to be a severe chore. While we sat and rested on the shore of Chasm Lake we observed some headlamps flashing about on Mills Glacier - there were several climbers ahead of us.
After the break we set off to circle Chasm Lake on our way to Lambslide. This part took us a lot longer than I thought it would because there wasn't much of a trail that went through the uneven boulders, talus, and scree. As we neared Mills Glacier the sun began to rise and so did the climbers who had bivied in the area. There was one party of two ahead of us ascending Lambslide (presumably for a go at Kieners) and at least two other parties headed for the Lower East Face. We arrived at the base of Mills Glacier at 5:15am and had another snack and geared up for the ascent of Lambslide. After watching the sun rise around the corner of Mount Lady Washington we set off. After a short bit up Lambslide we found the steps kicked by the team ahead of us. They made the going relatively easy. At about this time I realized it was my turn to lug the rope so Barry handed it over. Progress was slow and steady up Lambslide but the conditions were ideal - really nice firm snow but just soft enough to allow shallow steps to be kicked in it and provide bomber iceaxe belays.
At 7:15am we arrived at the exit of Lambslide onto Broadway and we took another break. We snacked, chatted, and enjoyed the views. Fabio took his turn with the rope and we set off across Broadway. The first part of Broadway had a bit of snow on it so we kept our crampons on and iceaxes handy. Actually, there were a couple of steep, really-exposed downclimbs and traverses to be negotiated before we hit the snow-free ledges of Broadway. Although terrifically exposed I felt very comfortable on these with solid steps kicked and bomber iceaxe belays. It wasn't until we got off the snow that the exposure started to take its toll on my nerves.
Once we had rounded a couple corners the snow gave way to a grassy ledge. Barry and I watched as Fabio negotiated the crux of Broadway - a big block that must be traversed where the ledge narrows to almost nothing with a dizzying void below (some guidebooks call this move 5.0-5.2). After watching Fabio do it with crampons, Barry and I both decided it was time to take ours off. With crampons and axe stowed I set off to give it a go. When I got to the block it looked to me like the easiest and least scary way to get past it was to crawl under it. I got on my belly and wriggled past - not the most stylish move but it worked for me.
Past the crux we worked our way across Broadway. The exposure was terrific and gradually started to wear on my nerves. In some places the ledge was no more than three feet wide and covered in gravel, moss, and a bit of grass. This did not inspire a lot of confidence in the traction of my boots and there was not always something to hold onto. It took supreme concentration to make myself move forward and I was much slower than Barry and Fabio as they gradually outdistanced me. We crossed several patches of snow that ended at Broadway and scrambled over several jumbles of boulders that lay strewn across our path.
As we continued to make progress traversing Broadway we all became concerned that we hadn't found the route yet. I had been so concentrated on moving myself after Barry and Fabio that I hadn't really been looking and apparently neither had they. Finally we got to a point that we knew had to be too far and decided to retrace our steps. On the way back we found a gully full of refrigerator-sized boulders that was mostly devoid of snow. We wondered, could that be Notch Couloir. No - it couldn't be because we'd seen recent photos with Notch Couloir totally full of snow. We spied a dihedral that looked like it might be the start of Kieners and tried to ascend up to that. However, after a series of 4th class and low 5th class moves we determined that the dihedral looked far too difficult to be Kieners. So we climbed back down off that and continued to retrace our steps back across Broadway. I had remembered crossing several big patches of snow on Broadway. Though I had neglected to look up to determine if any of them had been Notch Couloir I was pretty sure that one of those must have been it. We made our way back and sure enough found one of the patches of snow to be the beginning of Notch Couloir, we even spied the belay bolts we'd read about.
We started climbing directly from Broadway just around the corner to climber's right of Notch Couloir. Barry led off and zoomed up the first couple moves making them look easy. However, Fabio had a little bit more difficulty. We were starting out in a bit of dihedral with some good handholds just over our heads. However there was very little in the way of footholds and Fabio was having trouble edging and smearing in his mountaineering boots. After a couple of tries he let me have a go. I too had trouble gaining any kind of foothold but finally decided to brute-force it by grabbing some nice handholds and just hauling myself up. After pulling myself up a ways I was able to find purchase with my feet and then mantle over the top of the dihedral. From this perch I encouraged Fabio and he was able to pull the moves too. We advanced an easy twenty feet or so up to Barry and concluded that we probably should have been roped up for what we figured was the 5.5 direct start. Having just done the airy 5.5 portion we decide to rope up for the next pitch. Barry led for probably about 40 meters placing my #1 and #2 Camelots along the way.
While I belayed Barry, Fabio realized that his mountaineering boots had been untied - no wonder he had trouble getting any kind of footing! When Barry reached a nice belay ledge I tied into the rope and followed Barry, cleaning as I went. After I reached the first piece of pro Fabio yelled that then end of the rope had reached him. He tied in and we simul-climbed up to Barry who belayed.
Being roped up for the second pitch seemed a bit silly as it was pretty easy and the climbing above looked just as easy - mostly class 4, with a move or two of class 5 thrown in, and minimal exposure. We packed up the rope and Barry volunteered to carry it for a ways. We spent the next hour or so climbing straight up.
When I envisioned Kieners Route I thought I was going to encounter pitch after pitch of steep, face climbing. All the scrambling we actually encountered was lot tamer than I expected and I felt much more at ease than I thought I would. Really, the only scary part of the climb was the navigation of Broadway. Once we started climbing Kieners and I got my hands and feet on solid rock I felt much more comfortable.
There wasn't any obvious line and we just climbed whatever looked easiest and fastest. However, as we made upward progress Fabio and I became concerned that we were off route. We assumed that we'd be tracing the left edge of the Diamond but it didn't feel like that at all. Instead it felt like we were dead center in a face. So as we drew near a large tower that seemed to separate two gullies Fabio and I decided to begin veering right. We'd read about the Staircase and an exposed mantle move that would transition us from the East Face onto the North Face. The way we were heading didn't look like we would encounter any of these things. Barry was less concerned and just wanted to keep going straight up.
Fabio and I began to head over to the far right aiming for the gully to the right of the large tower. Barry continued straight up. When we got into the gully we realized that it wouldn't go - it looked much more difficult than we were interested in trying. By this time we were on the right side of the tower and Barry was on the left and out of sight and earshot. This was a little disconcerting to Fabio and me, but Barry was a big boy and knew what he was doing. We continued to traverse over to right crossing some really unstable rock at the top of a snowfield and soon we came to a fresh footprint and a blocky face that looked like the Staircase. Relief - we were back on route! We just hoped Barry was fairing as well. A couple of tricky class 5 moves got us up the Staircase and emptied us out onto the North Face. I had expected to be a little freaked out by the exposed mantle move that I'd heard about, but either we avoided it somehow or it wasn't near as bad as I had feared. Regardless, this section of the North Face was nothing but a class 2 scramble and a couple of hundred feet later we were on the summit.
To our surprise when we reached the summit there was Barry standing near the finish of the Homestretch. I shouted over to him and he joined us near the large boulder that marks the summit. It turned out that Barry had reached the summit just about the same time we had. His route had taken him straight up and the going was pretty much the same as it had been - mostly class 4 with a class 5 move or two - until the last little bit where it got a little hairy. Barry described a bit of sustained 5.6-5.7 undercling-type stuff complicated by snow. He had topped out just a hundred feet or so from the terminus of the Homestretch on the Southeast Ridge.
The other amazing thing was that we had the summit of Longs Peak all to ourselves! I couldn't believe it - here we were on one of the state's most popular fourteeners on the 4th of July weekend and we were the only people on the summit. Granted it was 1:15pm and the Keyhole Route was still rated technical, but still! We snapped the obligatory summit shot, had some snacks, and watched the marmots scamper around. After a while we were ready to set off but first we had to give Barry a tour around the summit. Since Barry had never even laid eyes on RMNP the entire panorama was new to him. Fabio did a great job of playing tour guide and pointed out all the sites as we circumnavigated the broad, flat expanse of the Longs Peak summit.
While we sat on the very west edge of the summit and looked out over Glacier Gorge some storm cells began to develop to the north and west. We decided it was probably about time to begin the descent so we got our stuff together and headed down the North Face.
I think we erred by beginning our descent too far to the west but soon after leaving the summit we ran into some steep snow. After some tricky downclimbing on rock we strapped on our crampons and retrieved our iceaxes. Some of the snow was in good condition but a lot of it was really soft, while other sections of it were very hard and icy. This made progress slow but we could see footprints traversing a snowfield below us so at least we knew we were heading in the right direction. As we neared the footprints the weather continued to deteriorate - we could hear thunder and it began to snow.
Just as things were looking a little grim a couple sets of climbers began to catch up with us. The first set raced by us just as we hit the tracks traversing the snowfield. We queried them to find out if they knew the way to the eyebolts and they said they did and to follow them. We traversed after them heading in the general direction of the Keyhole until we could see them setting up the rappel. By the time we stowed our crampons and axes and joined them at the rappel station the first of them had already rapped down to the snowfield below. The second one wasn't familiar with rappelling and asked us for some help threading the ropes through his rappel device. I obliged by quickly setting it up for him and send him on is way. We were all in a super hurry as thunder was crashing all around and standing next to the giant iron eyebolt probably wasn't the best place to be.
The climbers who had gotten to the anchor first encouraged us to use their rope so we could get down as soon as possible as long as the last one of us pulled it for them. After the second guy got down I rapped down quickly. The face that we were rappelling was flowing with water from all the melting snow above and with the wind whipping it was blowing off the face like sheets of rain. When I got to the bottom of the face I quickly untied and yelled up that it was ready for the next one.
While I had been rappelling the other climbing team had caught us. These were a couple of the guys we had seen beginning their climb of the East Face/Diamond. They talked Fabio and Barry into letting them go first and simul-rapped down the face like lightening. They hit the snowfield and tore off toward Camel Gully. After that Barry rapped down and I snapped a couple of photos before I stowed my camera, got out my iceaxe, and glissaded down to the bottom of the snowfield where the guys whose rope we were using waited. By the time I got down the snowfields the two guys who had simul-rapped the face were out of sight - they were really flying.
While I waited for Barry and Fabio I chatted with the two guys and found out they were both park rangers. I asked them if this was their day off or was it their job. They said it was a tough job but somebody had to do it! It sounded like the guy who had trouble setting up the rappel was a visiting ranger from Canyon Lands or Zion and the other guy was the head climbing ranger in RMNP.
Soon Fabio and Barry joined us and returned the rope to the rangers. We thanked 'em for letting us use there rope and they took off for Camel Gully so they could descend back to the patrol cabin. We headed down to the Boulderfield for an easier descent on a nice trail.
By this time the worst of the weather seemed to have passed. It was no longer snowing and the thunder sounded liked it had moved away. The skies still looked ominous but at least there was no immediate threat. All the challenges were now behind us but the death march back to the car. We stopped near the campsites in the Boulderfield for another snack/rest break. I had been carrying the rope since Fabio and I had split from Barry on the East Face and they offered to carry the rope for a while. I declined because I was feeling surprisingly good and felt like a still had quite a bit of gas in the tank for the remainder of the descent.
Soon after we set off down the trail the wind began to kick up and by the time we reached the switchbacks above Granite Pass it was blowing fiercely. This caused us intervals of getting blasted in the face by wind and then nearly getting pushed over from behind by it as we made our way down the switchbacks. By the time we made it to Granite Pass I knew I had overestimated the amount of gas in my tank and I was ready to hand over the rope for somebody else to carry - I was thoroughly beat. I gutted it out for a bit more until we had made it to the Jims Grove shortcut and begged Fabio to take it off me. He happily obliged and we continued on.
The relief of not carrying the rope was short-lived and soon I felt dead tired again. At least down on this side of Granite Pass the wind had died down. We stopped a couple more times on the way down to break up the monotony of the death march and Fabio handed Barry the rope for the last haul down to the car. We finally arrived back at the trailhead at 7:20pm. 17.5 hours car-to-car was an all-time personal record for all of us.
I had planned ahead and had a cooler full of beer and sodas waiting for us in the car. However, I knew that if I had a beer I would probably fall asleep right then and there. Fabio and I had a couple sodas and Barry took a beer. I knew this would be the straw that broke the camels back for Barry and he had a rough time staying awake on the car ride down to Fort Collins. But who could blame him? After coming from virtually sea level, having 5 hours of sleep in the last three days, and spending 17.5 hours out on the mountain he deserved some sleep. Barry is tough as nails.
Fabio agreed to come down to Fort Collins with us so we could all have dinner with Nelson. We swung by and picked Nelson up and went over to Cooper Smiths for some burgers and beers. We closed down the patio and after several not-so-subtle hints from our waitress we parted ways. Initially Barry had planned on driving down to Denver to spend the night with Aaron and Ellen and then climb something with them the next day, but he was way too pooped to make the drive that night. Instead we went back to my house for some much needed sleep.
The next day Barry got up and took off for another day in the mountains - planning to climb Bierstadt since he had missed Aaron and Ellen. As for me - all I wanted to do was lay around and do nothing. I was still pretty well destroyed and needed a couple more days to recover before heading back into the hills.