Sunday, September 12, 2010

Defeated by Long's. But we'll be back!

Here's me and Jen on our big climb. It's no accident this picture is in black and white! Our noses are total disasters--red, raw, drippy--we had to give them an extra good blowing before shooting close-ups =).

Why? Because it was snowing. The windchill was 0 degrees Farenheit. And the wind was gusting to at least sixty miles an hour! Not the best conditions for climbing to 14,259 feet.

The Mountain

Long's Peak is the tallest mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park. Here's an (old) picture of Chasm Lake, just below the East Face of Long's, aka The Diamond. It's nearly 2,000 feet tall and some crazy yahoos actually free solo it!

Not Jen and me. Instead, we went through a "hikers" route called The Keyhole. It's the easiest approach, but it's no cakewalk: sixteen miles round-trip and just under 5,000 feet elevation gain. Only about 30 percent of hikers who set out along this trail actually summit.

Originally, five of us were supposed to climb, but Kel, Phil and Valerie all threw in the towel when they saw the weather report. The NWS was predicting wind gusts up to 60 mph!

But Jen and I decided to go for it. Even if it was windy on the ground, we were going a whole mile up in the air. Anything could be happening up there, we reasoned. It could be perfectly calm.

All Quiet on the Eastern slope ...

Friday at midnight, we met up at Jen's house and pounded some coffee, then drove to the Long's Peak Trailhead. We put on our headlamps and almost immediately mine died =(. No matter. There was still enough light from Jen's lamp for me to stumble along behind.

At 00:53, we stopped to sign the register. We were the first hikers of the day.

An hour later, when we emerged above the treeline, we stopped to look for signs of the Four-Mile Canyon wildfire. It was a gorgeous night--new moon, puddles of Milky Way and stars upon stars. Through the shimmery air, the summit looked close enough to touch. We could hear the wind howling somewhere in the distance, but the air around us was calm.

Maybe a mile past Chasm Lake, the first big gust sent us scrambling. We could hear it bearing down, roaring. Whoosh! The impact was like a wave breaking on my head--a wash of turbulence that spun me clear around. We listened in disbelief as it roared away down into the valley. And all was still again.

A bad sign, to be sure. But being optimists (hypoxic ones), we pressed on. We still a long way to go to the Keyhole where the real danger would begin...

Terror on the Home Stretch

To date, 57 people have perished on the slopes of Long's. Some were climbers who knew the risks. But a good number were hikers who ran into bad weather on the exposed upper reaches. A week before I first climbed the mountain in 1999, a Japanese hiker had been overcome by fog, wandered off the Narrows, and fallen a thousand feet to his death.

The route's straightforward, requiring nothing more technical than vigorous walking, until you reach the Boulder Field at 12,800 feet. There the trail ends abruptly and you switch to scrambling up a talus slope.

See the weird little notch above my head and a little to the right? That's the notorious Keyhole. Once you pass through this little Gate of Doom at 13,200 feet, it's a mile-and-a-half or mincing along exposed ledges and semi-technical scrambling to reach the summit.

I've done it twice, and it's tough--even under perfect conditions. But the real wild card is always the weather. Storms tend to roll in after noon, so you need to summit before 8 am to have a prayer of making it back to the tree line before bad weather hits. Wait much longer and you'll end up lost in a cloud like the Japanese hiker. Or you'll find yourself where I once did--caught in an electrical storm, running for my life down the trail with my zippers sparking and my hair standing on end!

The Huddle

By the time we got to the Boulder Field at 5 am, things were really sucking.

Every few minutes, the wind would blast us with hurricane force. We'd hear it coming and brace ourselves. And if you could believe my nose, which was hemorrhaging snot, it was freaking COLD-- near 0, we later learned. The stream along the trail was frozen solid and slippery, and a rime of ice was forming in our water bottles. We'd put on every scrap of clothing available (I'd even put my spare socks on my hands) and tied our bandanas around our faces to prevent frostbite.

As we made our final approach to the Keyhole, the sky began to lighten. The wind was better here, swirling, but not packing so much punch. But behind the ridge, we could here it shrieking. Sounded like someone was flapping a tarp the size of Wal-Mart back there.

If you look closely just below the Keyhole, you can see the Agnes Vai Shelter, named for a hiker who perished here in a storm in 1925 (shocking, right?). To reach it, we had to cross in front of the Keyhole itself. As I did, the coldest wind I've ever felt slammed into me like a runaway semi! I bent close to the ground and slithered my way into the hut.

Jen, whose heart pumps diesel (I'm pretty certain), was already waiting. She pulled out a bag and said, "Want some cold chicken?"

HELL YEAH I WANTED SOME COLD CHICKEN! As we ate, we watched the sun come up over the Boulder Field. Sorry, no pictures--I was so cold and dizzy by that point, Christ himself could have appeared to us and I wouldn't have bothered to get a photo. I was more worried about my fingers--they weren't working so well. By the time I got to the last bite of chicken, it was ice cold, on the verge of developing freezer burn.

As we ate, a tiny mouse crawled out of the wall. I have no idea how any living creature could survive in such a place. He was about the size of a quarter, so maybe the conditions had stunted his growth. Though you aren't supposed to feed the animals in the National Park, we left him some crumbs.

After about 30 minutes, three young lads joined us in the hut. They paused for a snack, then announced they were "going for it." After they fought their way through the Keyhole and disappeared, all was silent for a moment. Then a scream cut the air (WOOOOOO-HEEEE!!!!!!), the nervous-exhilerated kind you might make while clinging to a bucking bronco. More shouting followed, and within minutes, the frozen lads limped back into the hut. Seems the wind had pinned them against the side of the mountain, and they'd lost interest in going further!

More and more hikers began to arrive. Some were so frozen on arrival their joints were practically creaking. They mostly sat around in shock--no one seemed eager to press on. Finally, Jen and I resolved to fight our way up to the Keyhole and see for ourselves.

The fifteen foot climb to the lip was like fighting my way up a class V rapid. Finally, I reached the hole and forced myself to my feet. For just a millisecond, I caught the breathtaking sight of the Never-Summer Range and snowcapped peaks on the far side of the ridge. Then the wind slammed into me like a raging wall of water. It ripped off my hood and snatched my hat off my head. I thought for a second it was going to rip my clothes to shreds! Even if I'd wanted to step into the hurricane's maw and onto the nearest ledge, I don't think my 130-pound self could have done it!

The mountain had defeated us. I didn't want to turn around, but I also didn't want to be pitched off the ledge like a human kite, and end my days with a jackknife into Chasm Lake 2000 feet below. We turned and headed down.

The Dream Killers

As descended, we met scores of starry-eyed hikers coming up. "Did you make it?" they asked.

"Nope," we said.

"How was it?"

I told them they'd love it--if they liked the idea of being stripped naked by a hurricane. Then I felt bad. "You're still half-an-hour away," I said. "Maybe when you get up there things will be better."

Just then, snow began to fall.

And so we fought our way down through the icy wind. We managed a side trip to Chasm Lake, but the wind was so fierce, we only stayed a few minutes. Back at the trailhead, we checked the register.

No one else had made the summit that day.

The Afterglow

Altogether, we hiked close to 14 miles and gained over 4000 feet elevation. Naturally, this entitled us to all the Rock Inn beers and sandwiches we could eat! We went to bed at eight that night and slept like the dead for 10 hours while the wind whipped through the pines outside.

It was a bummer, but a funny bummer. One thing's for sure: we'll be back next year. Vengeance will be ours!

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