Longs Peak
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John Sterguis and I decided that hiking non-technical 14'ers in the summer months simply wasn't enough so we decided to risk freezing our asses off to attempt the Old Cable Route up Longs Peak in the middle of winter during an overnight trip! Following is his description....

Longs in Winter, 3/31-4/01- Not exactly an epic journey, but enough to occupy the efforts of a couple of weekend warriors. Jeff and I had been anticipating this excursion for over a month, and now with the Salomon Winter Adventure Race behind us, were ready for a leisurely weekend that didn't involve riding cross country skies down steep narrow trails into trees. The plan was simple: hike in from the Longs Ranger Station about seven miles to the "Boulder Field" at around 13,000 ft, camp, then take a not-too-technical 5.4 / WI 3- up the North Face "Old Cables" route to the top. I'd summitted Longs via the "Keyhole" route a few times, and had heard about the Cables route the first time I'd climbed Longs
almost 20 years before. Other than dealing with the wide potential range of conditions on a 14er in winter, we thought that a short winter scramble would be a nice break from the regular workout schedule.

Huge Ass Pack the pack from hell... here it sits in its least painful position - Yes, it is almost as tall as Jeff

We were also thrilled with the prospect of a potential ice climb and figured it was well worth the extra gear we might need. That is until the night before departure when my pack and outer shell weighed in at 86 pounds (shoulda' planned for Sherpas). I went through my climbing rack and removed everything that was not essential... but not really having a clue what to expect and wanting to stay flexible, trimmed slightly less than three pounds... I decided for the sake of three pounds I'd rather be over-prepared... so back on the rack it all went. Take the shovel or leave the shovel? Take it. What about the snowshoes? Better take 'em. I figured since I could carry loads like that when I was younger
without too much distress... as long as I could stand up - I'd be OK. The start of the hike looked as if it were going to be a perfect trip, the sun was out and the snow showers predicted for earlier in the morning should have passed. There were several folks out on
short snowshoe trips and even though the snow was deep, the trail was well packed by all the traffic... we ignored the clues to ditch the snowshoes. Attitudes began to shift after 15 minutes on trail. At one point I thought I was going to cry, and began a routine I maintained for the next 6 miles: take five steps - bend over and let the blood flow to fingers - repeat procedure. At about the time we reached the alpine zone, it was obvious that the weathermen had been off by a bit in their timing, as the clouds rolled in over the
peak from the West and the snow began to blow. 

Base Camp"base camp" in the Boulder Field, with the North Face "Old Cables" route directly above where Jeff is standing 

Not feeling my fingers through 500 feet of climb, I broke down and open a pack of those air activated "hot hands" I'd been carrying in my survival gear for years and stashed one in each glove. I couldn't believe what I'd been missing! The warmth was almost unbearable! As we got to Granite Pass, it looked like we were moving above the worst of the weather, behind us now in the East the thick clouds looked like a sea surging against the 12,000 ft contour. As last light was setting in, we picked out a nice flat spot near the base of Mt. Lady Washington at 12,800 ft. After anchoring the tent with ditty bags filled with rocks chipped from the frozen tundra, I hung a candle lantern from the ceiling and we were ready to hunker down for the night. Jeff climbed into his bag and to his delight, found that his sandwiches hadn't been compressed beyond recognition. I began the long process of melting snow for drinking water the following day and mixed way too much boiling water in some freeze-dried beef stroganoff (beef strogan-soup?). That little stove, even out in the vestibule, kept the tent pretty toasty and I let it go for a while because I wasn't anxious to carry a whole lot of fuel back down the mountain. We didn't realize how
much of a difference it made until we unzipped the door to the back vestibule to get
some gear from the packs and felt a painfully icy draft.

The wind gusts and blowing snow against the tent limited bouts of sleep to stretches of
15 minutes. Even though temperatures inside the tent never dropped below the
teens, I was glad to have brought along two bags. The next morning I stuck my head out
to see clear blue skies and was anxious to get the climb underway. I fired up the stove
to melt some more snow as Jeff took a stroll up Mt. Lady Washington to warm his frozen
boots. I couldn't seem to get myself or my gear together, but by 8:30 we were finally off.
The sunlit area was slowly making its way down the mountainside, but there was a long
plume of snow blowing off the peak that was re-depositing the fine crystals mostly up our
line of climb. Setting the altimeter as we were leaving, I noted the ambient temperature had climbed to a right balmy 4 degrees F.

Approach Jeff picks his way through the talus and spindrift along the Chasm View Ridgeline, the Diamond Face is to the left

Negotiating the Boulder Field wasn't as big a hassle as I'd expected, but as we climbed toward the Chasm View ridge, the deep sugar snow began to slow our progress. After a steep traverse through chest deep snow, we stopped to don crampons, roped up, then began a zigzag up the steepening slope. From below, I was worried that the runout from an unexpected slip might take us over the Diamond Face, but I became a bit more confident when I could look down and see that a slip would most likely take us back down to the Boulder Field (the significantly lesser of two evils). As we climbed higher, the snow covering the rock slab became thinner, and we were forced ever closer to the Diamond in search of snow deep enough to sink our axe shafts into. It was becoming obvious that we
weren't going to have the opportunity to use our ice tools or screws, the snow was too loose for pickets, and cracks were almost impossible to find to place any stoppers - we had a ton of gear we couldn't really use - but by God we looked like we were heading for K2! As the slab steepened and the rock became bare, about 30 feet above, I noticed one of the eye-bolts from the Old Cables Route. I began climbing toward it to establish a more reliable belay, but just before reaching it, Jeff accidentally uncovered another bolt where he was standing. He quickly set up a belay as I continued the frustrating process of clawing up through the snow and twisting my feet into unusual contortions, trying to wedge crampon teeth into cracks I was probably only imagining. 
As I threaded a runner and clipped into the first bolt I'd seen, Jeff announced that our progress was too slow, and we should think about turning back. In spite of
stashing a hand warmer in each boot, his summer hikers were no match for standing idle in the snow of a shady belay station. I on the other hand, really didn't want to have to argue that it was the cold and not the difficulty of the route that got us (easy to think when
you're the one moving, and have on mountaineering boots that at least have a token layer if Thinsulate in them). At 650 feet shy of Longs summit number six, I could care less about adding this trophy to a collection of "bagged 14ers," but didn't want to feel like we'd
given up too soon. I argued that we should press on, but we could adjust our turn-back time from noon to 11:00 (now 45 minutes away). Jeff agreed to continuing until the new abort time, with the proviso that we would turn back immediately if his feet got any worse. 

Cccccold!!!Jeff at 13,600... ready to sink the axe into his foot just to see if he can still feel it.

Now that we were connected to some bombproof protection I didn't feel quite as exposed when attempting to "smear" with points on a snow dusted granite slab - the pace picked up
dramatically. Scratching my way up a little more, I brushed away the snow to reveal that the small flared crack we were following was starting to take shape into something you could wedge gloved fingers or the adze end of the axe into. I placed a walnut just so I could say I didn't carry the darned things in vain. A few more feet and I found the only
"water ice" on the whole route - a crystal clear, 6 inch diameter, 3 inch thick blob on the top of a knob - for the life of me I couldn't imagine the physics that formed that thing where it was at. I was tempted to drive in a screw, or pound in an ice piton just for the
hell of it, but the blob probably would have disintegrated if I touched it. Nearing the top of the pitch the crack ended, and stretching high to hook a bulge with the axe, I pulled myself up the shaft, hand-over-hand and straddled the top bolt.

John Sterguis John at the top of the Old Cables Route setting up for the rappel down

I pulled in the five feet of remaining rope, set the belay, and Jeff took full advantage of the opportunity to get his blood flowing again. Quickly reaching the top he was finally able to enjoy the sunshine. I looked up at the 600 remaining feet of relatively easy talus and snow, then down at my watch... 10:55... damn! It was a shame to turn back with all the hard stuff below us - but I didn't want establish a precedent of blowing off a planned abort time, or worse, risking that Jeff might agree to continue and ignore the condition of his feet. Without mentioning the temptations going through my head, at 10:56 I started setting up for the rappel.

Rapping down view up the route with Jeff beginning a rappel


It's amazing how you can set and rappel two pitches in 5 minutes that took you an hour to climb. As we descended below the Chasm View ridge, the wind gradually stopped and with sun now high in the sky it felt 20 degrees warmer. We encountered a French couple on their way up. The man asked why we didn't go all the way, and when I told him it was the cold, he gave me a look somewhere between disbelief and disgust (looking down at their $500 plastic boots, I thought about knocking him down and stuffing his shirt with snow). We continued down to camp and began packing things up. Every now and then we'd look up to see how the Frenchman (now solo) was doing. He moved quickly up the trench we had left in through the snow, slowed a bit on the rock, and was nearing the summit as we stashed away the last of our junk. I asked Jeff how the heck that guy was going to get down without rappelling (his pack had appeared too small for a rope) and Jeff
replied that "up there when you joked about dropping the rope before the rappel, I thought if that happened, I might as well have just launched myself off into a cartwheel." Well, I thought best of luck to him, and we headed on down the valley.

Look fun??Jeff rappels to the bottom of the first pitch


The hike down went fast, in spite of my still too heavy pack (I'd failed in my attempts to eat everything and burn off all the fuel in my stove). Even though I got up to a jogging pace at times I couldn't keep Jeff in sight. About a mile out from the Ranger Station I passed a couple of guys squatting in the snow by the trail. One looked like he'd walked off a stage production of "Hair," and the other looked like Little Richard in purple sweats. They were looking intently at a collection of small, ordinary looking granite rocks laid out on a tiny hand-woven blanket. I said "how's it go'in" as I passed, and they silently glared at me as if I'd ruined their incantation. Not having seen Jeff for a while, I hoped they hadn't sacrificed him or something. Those concerns passed when I got to the parking lot and found Jeff alive and well and just getting his pack settled into the truck. In 5 minutes we were underway toward Estes Park. As I ate a package of crackers I found in my pocket that had been pulverized to a fine dust, I was thinking about the thick brown haze I'd seen on the horizon as I was leaving the fields of Limber Pines - muck that stretched from Denver in the south to Longmont in the north and beyond - yuck!
Well, back to the Grind on Monday, but I'm already thinking about what that route looks like without snow... I'm sure I'll soon find out.

I'd like my house....Here!