The Flying Dutchman
A solo outing on the flanks of Long's Peak
Last Sunday, I spent a wonderful spring day alone in the Long’s peak area of Rocky Mountain NP. I hadn’t intended to be out alone but my climbing partner was still recovering from a knee injury and I was unable to find anyone who wanted to get up for an alpine start. To be fair, I had a couple offers to go rock climbing later in the day, but I was looking forward to going into the high country. The snow was likely to be in good shape after a 4-day stretch of 70-degree weather and I didn't want to miss the opportunity.
The day started with my alarm at 2:50am. It wasn’t a fun moment. I fought off the craving to go back to sleep and did the morning chores in a zombie-like trance. There wasn’t much to do; brush my teeth, put on the clothes I laid out the night before, walk the dog, grab my pack and go. The entire process took about 15 minutes, mostly for the dog. Feeling guilty, I gave him a new rawhide bone as I shut the door.
I spent the next hour or so in my truck silently riding up Big Thompson Canyon on my way to the trailhead. I was still debating what I was going to climb. The Keyhole route on Long’s was a likely choice. I’d been trying to get up that mountain alone in the “off season” for a while and it had proven a worthy challenge. In fact, I had been turned back by poor visibility only three weeks ago on another solo attempt.
I decided to go up the Keyhole route and look to see if it was plausible to descend the Loft route (the saddle between Long’s and Meeker). If this looked reasonable, I could perhaps go over and tag the summit of Mount Meeker as well. It was an ambitions plan, but not totally unreasonable.
When I got out of my truck at the trailhead it was windy. Alone, it felt ominous and I had to fight off a wave of doubt. I thought of the summit and how strong the winds were blowing up there. Then I put the thought out of my mind. It didn’t matter. If I was afraid or unwilling to deal with high wind, I had no business going up there. In any case, it was likely that the wind would die down later in the day after the sun rose. I shouldered my pack and headed over to the trailhead register. I signed out at 4:40 am and put down Long’s > Meeker as my route. Not very specific, but I had not fully decided that I was going to do the Keyhole yet. I stretched and started hiking by headlamp.
The first half-mile was rough. My lungs and legs balked at the idea of leaving the comfort of the truck to hike uphill. After hiking for a while with the wind as my only companion, I stopped and forced myself to drink. I could feel the warmth seeping from my body as I drank half of a Nalgene. I was wearing a pair of shorts and a thick fleece top over a layer of synthetic long underwear. After a couple minutes, I was back on the trail. I moved quickly thanks to the lightness of my pack. I had brought only the bare essentials: crampons and an ice axe, clothes, food, and a few other minor items. I had no rope. I had debated bringing a 7mm rappel line, but decided against it. I reasoned that I would simply not climb up anything I could not climb down and that would keep me safe.
Above treeline, the wind was more intense and I started having doubts about the Keyhole route. I was encouraged by the conditions of the snow though. The sun had formed a solid crust on top of the snow that allowed me to walk quite easily without breaking through. I thought of my attempt a few weeks earlier, when I had post holed up to my waist on sections of the trail. I was patting myself on the back for getting up there alone and taking advantage of the conditions when my internal monologue was interrupted. I saw something moving but I couldn’t see clearly because the wind was making my eyes water. Eventually I made out two forms moving across the windy tundra. I slowed my pace to allow them to catch up. John and Andy introduced themselves and said they were up from Denver. They were headed the north face of Mount Meeker to climb Dream Weaver, a 1,400 foot snow and ice couloir. I was exited for them. I had climbed Dream Weaver last year with Lisa and we had a marvelous time. We chatted for a minute or two and John offered me a mini Snickers bar. We took each other’s picture and wished each other good luck before we parted company.
The more I was forced to lean over to hike into the wind, the less I wanted to climb the Keyhole route. The winds were coming from the west and I knew the west face of Long’s was loose and not a good place to be at a time like this, especially alone and without a rope. The approach offered some spectacular views of the east face of Long’s and the North face of Meeker, which were likely to be secluded from the wind.
I decided to head into this cirque and look for something fun to climb. I knew that Lamb’s Slide was an option. (Lamb’s Slide is a north-facing snow/ice ice couloir that runs along the East face of Long's) John, the stranger I met on the approach, had told me that I could get to the Loft from the top of Lamb’s Slide. This seemed like a good choice so I started to make my way to the base of the East face of Long’s. However, as I began to enter the cirque, I noticed a snow line up a formation called the Ship’s Prow. It looked to offer good, steep snow climbing as well as a short section that I thought might be filled with water ice. The water ice section looked short, but I couldn't be sure from a mile away. As I approached the base of Long’s, I decided to walk around the North side of Chasm Lake instead of across it. The lake looked frozen but it would be a disaster if I were to plunge through the ice alone, five miles from the truck. As I contoured around the north side of Chasm Lake, this new couloir came into view from different angles. There was definitely ice up there, but it looked like there was a short rock buttress on the left that might be climbable if the ice proved too difficult. I snapped a picture of myself with Long’s behind me and decided to give the new route a try.
I reasoned that I would simply come back down the couloir if I could not get past the crux. The decision made itself. Before I knew it, I was sitting at the base of the couloir putting on my crampons and getting out my ice axe.
The climbing was not difficult but it was a little unnerving. This was only my second snow climb (after Dream Weaver) and although I knew that was I was doing was reasonable safe, I had little personal experience to draw upon. The slope started at a modest 25 degrees but quickly steepened to around 40. I was amazed at how steep the slope seemed when I looked down and how low the angle appeared when looking up. (The two pictures below were taken in the same place. Those are my crampon front points in the right picture.)
|I was becoming more concerned with my ability to self-arrest on this slope but was trying not to think about it. Fortunately, I was in such an incredible area that I only needed to look up to be distracted from my thoughts. I was treating myself to a unique view of the Diamond on Longs, which was stunning as always.|
|I wanted to stop and drink some water and eat a little food but there was no flat place in the couloir to sit down and relax. I climbed on, hoping to find a good space. The climbing was becoming more natural for me but I still wasn’t making rapid progress. I was approaching 13,000 feet and my lungs knew it. I was stopping every 10-15 steps to catch my breath. That would be the euphemistic way to explain it. A realist might say that: I was forcing myself to take as many steps as I could before feeling like I was going to pass out and then slumping over my ice axe to stare at the snow and catch my breath. While I sat there trying to catch my breath, I would try to remember why I climb mountains. After I came up with a good reason, (which ranged from, “This is such a beautiful area” to “Get up and do it you weak little *^#^&*”) I would go for another 12 steps and repeat the process. The couloir was 1,600 vertical feet tall so I had many opportunities to think up a good reason for being there.|
|I was lucky in that there was very little in the way of dangerous objects coming down. There were occasional pieces of ice and a few pebbles but nothing major. The ice reminded me of the crux section of the climb that I had seen from the hike in. I was approaching a bend in the couloir, which would allow me to see the crux, and I was getting nervous. I didn't want to have to climb back down the steep snow.|
When I finally did round the bend, I saw that the crux was indeed filled with water ice. (Think: ice cube quality ice only this was 25 feet tall and at an angle of about 55 degrees) This was actually encouraging to me as I thought I would be able to climb it.
I kicked out a stance in the snow to rest and look carefully at the crux. There were three distinct ice lines and the one on the left looked the easiest.
After my short break, I climbed up and swung my ice axe into the ice. This promptly produced a large “diner plate” of ice which sheared off and threatened to knock me off my footing as it began its ride down the couloir. I watched it until it rounded the bend a few hundred feet below me. I guessed that it was going about 40 MPH when it left my sight. This was not a good sign. The ice was brittle. Telling myself not to think about it, I swung again. Again, I got a “diner plate” of ice to sail down the couloir. I didn't watch this one. After a third attempt, I decided the ice was not climbable without a rope and/or another ice tool.
Now I was genuinely nervous. If I had to down climb the 1,200 feet to Chasm Lake, I would have to do it facing into the snow because it was too steep to face outward. I could feel my anxiety rising so I stopped everything and forced myself to relax. I closed my eyes and concentrated on my breathing. After a few moments, I was feeling confident again so I started looking at the rock to the left of the ice. It looked loose and it had snow covering a lot of it. There was no easy way to get up onto the rock save for a small ledge that I might be able to “rock” up onto with my crampons. I headed over to the weakness and got into position to try the first moves. I did not plan to actually do the moves; I just wanted to see what they were going to feel like. I stepped up half way and then stepped down. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Then, without thinking about it, I committed to the move. I then found myself standing on a loose, snow covered rock about a foot in diameter and looking at the next move, which looked similarly difficult.
I had a wave of doubt. I wasn't sure I could reverse the move I just did. Why did I step up there? What was I thinking? Oh, yea, that’s right, I didn't think, I just did it. Now I had broken my rule about climbing up something I couldn't climb down. Why didn’t I bring a *$^^* rope? I briefly debated jumping back to the snow. It was only 3 feet below me. The trouble was not the 3 feet of the jump. It was the 45-degree snow slope on which I would have to stick the landing. I reasoned that my legs would punch through the snow and it would probably not be hard to stick the landing. However, what if I missed? I though of the “diner plate” of ice tumbling downward. “That could easily be me if I were to tumble on the landing.” I looked up again. I WAS COMMITTED! It was safer to continue up than to go down. Inexplicably, I didn't feel scared. In fact, it was like I was outside myself, appraising my situation as if the consequences of a missed step would be paid by someone else. Although it looked loose and snowy, it looked climbable and I was going to try.
The next twenty minutes were taxing both physically and emotionally. I had to brush snow off of small ledges to find good hand and foot holds and I had to remove my gloves so I could grip the rock securely. After about 15 feet I encountered a rock step that was about 5 feet high. There was an obvious weakness in the step but the weakness involved a large loose flake that I could have toppled with my hands. There was one solid hold on the right but it was small. I climbed up to the step and grabbed the small hold while I looked around for a better option. I saw nothing. I was at the crux and it was threatening to kick my ass. Again I lamented my decision not to bring a rope. Only for a moment though as my fingers were starting to hurt from the cold. I grabbed the loose flake and it moved outward from the wall about a half an inch. I pulled straight down on it and it didn't move. I worked out a sequence in my mind that would allow me to get over this step, but it required pulling down of the loose flake. I fought off a wave of panic. My fingers were in real pain and I was starting to wonder if I was going to have frost nip on the tips. I had to act. Going down was not an option so the choice was clear. Using my right hand for most of my bodyweight, I stepped up onto an edge of rock that was the size of a quarter. I was still climbing in crampons, which meant that I had to stand on my front points on this small edge. Then I grabbed the top of the loose flake and used it for balance as I looked around. I grabbed what had looked like a solid hold and pulled a piece of rock the size of a football off it’s sloping ledge. It fell to the side of me and I heard it hit the rock a few times before it found the snow and was silent. I now had no holds close but I saw a horizontal crack above the loose flake. Unable to reach the crack, I pulled my axe out my pack while delicately balanced on the thin edge and reached up and hooked it into the crack. This was enough to allow me to pull up and over the lip of the step onto a small flat surface.
My fingers were screaming with pain. They felt like they were being burned and pierced by needles. I sat down and put my fingers in my armpits. The pain got a little worse before it got better and I spend a good 5 minutes sitting there in a fetal position, rocking back and forth waiting for the pain to subside. It was an intense five minutes. Tears escaped my eyes. Finally, the pain started to subside and I pulled my hands out to see if they looked injured by the cold. They looked a little bleached but otherwise fine.
I still was not out of danger though. I had a choice. I could have gone to the right and tried to get back to the snow above the ice or I could have gone up and left around a chunk of rock the size of a large truck. I went left. This turned out to be the correct choice as I soon found a snow slope over loose rock that brought me back to the main couloir. It was scary, but easy.
Once I was back in the couloir, I wanted to slow down and enjoy the rest of the climb, but I couldn't. I wasn't sure where the route ended and was afraid that a harder section may loom above and leave me stranded. I was hungry and thirsty but I hoped to be finished in 30 minutes. I passed a spot that I thought may be the top of Lamb’s slide but I did not go over to look. I continued upward, taking breaks to catch my breath every 10 steps, until I saw a way to finish the climb. I finished on a 50-degree slope right next to a small cornice. It was exciting to the end!
When I finally saw the Loft, I felt ... I don’t think there is a word for this emotion. It was a combination of relieved, proud, relaxed, hungry, thirsty, tired, cocky, lucky, small, and happy. I sat down on a big flat rock, pulled out everything in my pack, and started eating and drinking and putting on sunscreen and singing and just feeling great. Life was great. I couldn’t wait to get back to town and tell Lisa what I had done. There was only one problem. I still had to go down.
The choices were straightforward. Go down the Loft, which involves snow covered ledges over cliffs, or climb the rest of the way to Mount Meeker and then descend a longer but easier route called Iron Gates. I did have an advantage in the Loft’s descent. I had noticed that there were already tracks going up and down the Loft on the approach so I knew route finding would be easy in the critical sections. Since I was feeling confident on snow at this point in the day, I opted for the Loft. I strided out across upper snowfield of the Loft and smiled when I looked back and saw the only set of tracks was mine. Then I found the tracks I had seen from the approach and started following them down.
I was surprised by the steepness of the slope. (which the pictures don't show) I had to descend facing into the snow. Plunge the axe shaft, step down, plunge the axe shaft, step down. After a while I arrived at the ledges that complete the technical difficulty. I was deliberately slow and methodical through this section since a slip would have had very dire consequences. After the ledges, I found myself at the top of the lower Loft snowfield.
|I was rewarded for my decision with a 1000-foot glissade down the snow on my bum. It lasted almost 2 minutes. All that was left was a nice 5-mile hike on a beautiful spring day.|
I stopped to talk to a few hikers and climbers on the way out but the descent was uneventful. It was 1:30pm. Back in Fort Collins, I looked up the name of the route.
The Flying Dutchman.
It was a great route and one of my proudest moments as an aspiring alpinist. - Brad