Sunday, August 9, 2009

Longs Peak - 14,255

Self portrait, summit of Longs, June 7, 1980

As mentioned in my trip report on Blanca my first attempt on Longs Peak was a climb that had every reason to succeed, yet did not. This made returning to it three years later something of a completion of that previous effort with my three Blanca partners. Even more, climbing Longs this time around was a self reward for my past year of construction work earning money for college, as well as one last hurrah before I left for graduate school in early August.

Considering how naturally the two trips blend in my mind, bear with me as I sort them out below by leaping forward and backward in time from January 1977 to June 1980.

The summer of 1980 was my 'salad days,' according to the hitchhiker I picked up just north of Del Norte, citing a phrase from Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra that would have insulted me had I only known the meaning, namely a time of youthful exuberance and inexperience. I may have been young, just turned 24 by my reckoning, but in climbing years, which are rather like dog years, by 1980 I was an old old man with two creaky knees, a pair of burnt hands, a missing front tooth and a year-old foot surgery to show for my time on the crags. Yet I was at least exuberant enough back then to spill my guts over my impending adventure to this portly stranger with a tiny knapsack smelling mildly of road sweat.

I left him in Denver before heading up to Fort Collins, having a social call to make before tackling Longs. After two days spent cheering up my sister's boyfriend, who had recently broken his leg playing soccer, the time came to pick up a permit at the ranger station in RMNP before parking at the trailhead that afternoon and starting the approach to Chasm Lake.

On my first trip into Chasm Lake with Karl and Ed and Cliff there had been precious little to see of this approach, let alone the peak itself, all of it shrouded with snow falling thick and hard. Then once in the lake basin the snow had given way to frigid winds. On the lake I can remember all of us falling to our knees and sinking our axe tips just to keep from being blown skipping across the frozen surface like stones. By contrast in early June of 1980 the boulderfield could be seen over its entire length, the weather was mild and Chasm Lake had only spotty late spring icebergs when I traversed around to the north side where I meant to camp, passing on the way the legendary Chasm Lake cabin where through a mishap we had spent two nights in 1977. It was supposed to be locked & was, but a mere push on the door by Ed made the door gape wide. A closer examination revealed that the flimsy padlock had indeed slipped through the massive hasp. There was no debate, we hustled inside to where rows of berths along the wall were insulated by pads of four-inch foam rubber - a cozy nest while the wind raged outside.

It was probably wrong of us to break into this cabin. And it was probably wrong of me again to camp where I did in 1980, at the so-called cave on the north side of Chasm Lake. But my complaint to the ranger issuing the camping permit that he had me too far from the climb had fallen on deaf ears. That evening I bivouacked on a flat rock at the entrance to the so-called cave, alone in the entire basin as I cooked my evening meal & watched the sun dip below Lamb's Slide.

The story behind Lamb's Slide goes that in 1871, fire-breathing United Brethren minister Elkanah Lamb climbed the Keyhole Route on Longs Peak for about the umpteenth time, & then did something reckless, dropping over toward Chasm Lake Basin to accomplish the first recorded descent of the East Face. As the feature named after him suggests all did not go smoothly, even if he did live to tell the tale, though I hoped for better luck.

Next morning the sun was just a glow on the eastern horizon as I set off up Lamb's Slide which was found to be a pleasant neve that took my tools to the hilt, whereas in January of 1977 it had been a sheet of glare ice. Here is a photo from when Ed and Cliff just arrived at the base of this feature, mere specks at the bottom left of the imposing East Face.

The water streaks on the wall behind are due to melt-off from the Notch Couloir

Beyond Lamb's Slide lay Broadway along with the particular snow ramp I remembered from when Cliff belayed Ed up it, as shown in the photo below. I remembered as well having all the time in the world to take this shot as my partner Karl seemed to be taking an awfully long time. When he arrived at last he showed me the reason for his pace. It seems his crampons were a size too large such that his toes overlapping his front points kept them from biting. We were still debating the implications of this problem for our summit plans when a rope flew down from above & suddenly Cliff & Ed were rappeling towards us.

At our stance Cliff was looking sickly & his shoulder drooped from what Ed said was a rock kicked off by the Texan climbers above us. It was the last straw. Those damn Texans had crashed into the shelter cabin late last evening, had beaten us out the door this morning & now were kicking rocks down on us. Though I was willing enough to proceed on with Ed leaving Karl with the defective crampons to escort Cliff back down, this proposal met with unanimous rejection. I wasn't ready to solo the thing so we had bailed, electing to fail as a team rather than succeed as a pair.

This failure was much on my mind when I reached the base of the Notch Couloir alone three years later, but so was the memory of how far we had gotten. I knew how the void below deepened with every step along Broadway, such that by the Notch Couloir it is a thousand-foot drop down to Mills Glacier, and so had coached myself in advance not to loiter here but to keep moving. With head down and placing one foot in front of the other, swinging axe in one hand and alpine hammer in the other, I went five hundred feet before finally stopping to kick a platform for my feet and stand taking in my surroundings.

It was an airy position no doubt that soon had me winding through the mixed rock & mush snow of Kieners to the summit block where a short chimney gave way to the summit ridge.

So the story goes. Well, except maybe for getting off-route on the way down. As Reverend Lamb undoubtedly discovered it can be tricky descending a different way than you came up. If you don't believe me just see my next climb, Crestone Needle with Jay Evans 22 year later. But I was at least as lucky as the good reverend. After virtually circumnavigating the bald summit of Longs I eventually located the proper descent through the Keyhole & scrambled from The Camel directly down to my camp below Mt Lady Washington. Here I found an unpleasant surprise. Marmots had excavated the cairn of rocks & chewed through the tarp I'd used to cover my camp gear. I can understand their devouring my pepperoni but did they have chew off the tongues of my hiking boots? The fat bastards were still eating when I came upon them, shouting & throwing rocks to scare them away. One of them had the nerve to bare his teeth at me as he shambled away, more hungry than frightened I guess after seven months of hibernation. In my floppy boots I tromped down & drove south, dropping my boots off for repair at the Cobbler in Colorado Springs, leaving for deposit an amusing story if nothing else.

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