It has been a goal of mine for quite a while to climb Long's Peak in the Winter months. In the good weather of the high country's summer, Long's poses enough of a challenge to keep most people happily satisfied. Of course, nothing is ever enough for myself and my good friend Alan. However, we are relatively new to the winter mountaineering scene so a Long's winter ascent would serve as a great next step.
It has been a few months since February 6th as I write this, but if my memory serves me, I believe we began the climb in the cold winters darkness at around 5 am. We made great time up past Mills Lake and on to Black Lake. Luckily we picked a great day and the temps would stay in the mid 20's for the entirety of our adventure. But we could hear the wind howling up higher through the surrounding peaks. It takes a stroke of luck to get good temps on a winter alpine day, but it takes nothing short of a miracle to have low winds up high, especially around the Long's Peak massif. Knowing what was in store, we made our way above Black Lake to the base of the Trough Couloir.
Along the way we were both in awe as to how spectacular Upper Glacier Gorge truly is. I have been in this area 6 or 7 times and it is still as beautiful to me as the first time I was fortunate enough to lay eyes on it. We also saw a small herd of Bighorn Sheep as we began the ascent into The Trough. We were both curious as to how they survive in such a harsh environment.
In the winter months, the ledges and narrows, two sections of the standard route, are notorious for ice and rock fall, so we decided to take the longer, but relatively safer, Trough route through Glacier Gorge. We also figured that it would be safer to ascend the couloir just to climbers right of the actual Trough to avoid any ice fall on the narrows. The only unknown was to where the top of this couloir would spit us out on top. We were fairly certain we would be able to traverse well below the narrows and join with the Homestretch a little lower down the mountain.
So we crossed over on some very slick, steep and slabby terrain to the next couloir. This was probably the most dangerous part of the day. The granite was steep often fairly featureless and in places covered in rime ice. The going was slow, but we steadily picked our way higher and higher through the couloir. Though not as long as the Trough, this couloir is a bit steeper, especially toward the top. Alan got a burst of energy and left me in the dust which motivated me to get my butt in gear and meet him in the salvation of the sunshine at the top of the couloir.
Sure there was sunshine, but this is when the wind really picked up. Wow! At this point I was only slightly annoyed that it was so windy and was just happy to be in the sun. We fueled up and took off toward the homestretch. Our plan was working perfectly. However, we would have been fine traversing the narrows as there was no ice on the cliffs above.
We made quick work of this section and we soon on the homestretch with the summit in sight! We were a little nervous about how the homestretch would be. We have heard horror stories about how treacherous it can become and we anxious to get on it to see for ourselves. It turned out to be hard-packed snow mixed with bombproof ice. For the most part is was enjoyable, but there were some spots where it took a few hard kicks to even get the very tips of our crampons in. Alan got in a scary spot on some very slick ice that was tricky to get off of.
One step at a time, we kicked our way up the homestretch and the smiles grew on our faces as we topped out on the summit! We had done it! Our first winter ascent of Longs was under our belts and it was a feeling I'll never forget. We cracked open a couple of beers, signed the register and just relaxed for a bit before beginning our descent. The views were spectacular and we were able to see all the way to Pikes Peak.
We made it down the Homestretch without much incident. I did have a scare, however, as the snow under my right foot gave way, stabbing myself in my left knee with my crampons. Nothing big, but enough to get my full attention!
Once we turned the corner to descend via the narrows is when the wind hit us with its full force. This is the strongest wind I have ever felt. It was blowing up under my eyelids and when we would try to talk, which was pointless even though we were only one foot from one another, it would blow our cheeks out. This was a little scary to say the least, because it didn't slow down for a couple of minutes. And then there was just a few seconds of relative calmness, which was still insane, before the strong gusts would pick back up. So we didn't think twice about shooting across the narrows and we were soon into the sheltered safety of the trough ready for the death march back to the car.
Descending the length of the Trough is much longer than I thought. It took a long time. We made it back to our snowshoe stash above Black Lake at dusk and it was dark by the time we were back to Mills Lake. A very long, but incredibly rewarding day!
You can see more photos HERE.
|until next time...|
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