Monday, April 21, 2014

Long's Peak - A Big Day of Ski Mountaineering

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For my birthday this year I planned a ski day with several of the kids that I coach on the ski team.  The plan was to climb and ski a true Colorado icon - Long's Peak.  Long's Peak is visible from just about anywhere in the Denver area, famous for its Diamond Face, pictured in thousands of tourism brochures and even featured on the back of the CO quarter.  It is the only 14er north of Interstate 70 in Colorado and the only 14er in Rocky Mountain National Park.

We drove up to Rocky Mountain National
Park the night before and parked at the East Long's Peak Trail Head.  After getting everything organized I slept for about 2.5 hours in my truck before waking up to hit the trail with Noah, Cole, Cam and Kevin.  It always adds to the spirit of adventure when you start well before sunrise.

After some bushwhacking up the creek bed we made it to the established trail and worked our way up to treeline in the dark.

Hope you enjoy the video.  It gives a good sense of what the day was like.

Long's Peak Ski Mountaineering from Joel Bettner on Vimeo.

Entering the alpine tundra.
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The cities on the eastern plane glow in the darkness.
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The first glimpses of dawn.
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Kevin showing off his beautiful mustache as the sun crests the hills.
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Me, Cam and Noah stopping for a quick water break at sunrise.
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The wind in the alpine was absolutely brutal, and it would be brutal the entire day.  Sustained winds of ~30 mph with gusts that were easily 70 mph or greater were a mental hurdle to overcome, that is for sure.  Often they would even knock me off balance, which was cumbersome and at times nerve rattling.

The lack of snow meant we couldn't do much skinning and had to boot pack our way up most of the mountain.  When we reached the Boulder Field we got our first look at our intended climb and ski route - The North Face.  Unfortunately, there was so little snow on The North Face that it was not worth climbing or skiing.  We changed our plan and opted to climb the Key Hole route and try our luck on the south side of the mountain before rapping around to The Loft and skiing to the Chasm Lake Trail.  I had been told that snow had filled the southern aspects due to the wind from the previous week, so we were optimistic that it would be better than The North Face (we would be disappointed with the amount of snow on the southern aspect when we got there).

Our new plan was to summit via the Key Hole Route then descend via The Home Stretch to Keplingers Couloir, mid-way through Keplinger's Couloir traverse to The Loft via Clark's Arrow, and ski down either The Lamb's Slide or The Loft Couloir.

A look at the North Face of Long's, just to the looker's right of the massive Diamond Face.  As you can see, there was very little snow to be had for skiing or climbing.
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Ascending to the start of the Key Hole Route.
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At the Boulder Field we lost 3 members of our crew - Cole, Cam and Kevin.  The altitude and size of the journey got the best of them and they decided it would be best to turn back.  Noah and I both felt good and decided to continue.  By happenstance we met a solo climber at the start of the Keyhole - Andy - and ascended to the summit with him.

The Keyhole Route is split into very distinct sections; The Ledges, The Trough, The Narrows and The Homestretch.  This is the standard climbing route in the summer, but with variable snow, rock and ice on it, and with ski boots and skis, it presented its fair share of challenge and exposure.

Cam experiencing the hurricane force gusts at the Key Hole just before he decided to descend.
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Noah and me just about to start The Ledges.
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Noah and Andy making their way across The Ledges.
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Stopping for a quick break at the end of The Ledges to get some food before starting up The Trough.
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Noah and Andy making their way up The Trough.
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Nearing the top of The Trough.
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Although we had crossed over some exposure on The Ledges, the final move at the top of The Trough was really our first piece of mildly technical climbing for the day.
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I was glad I had my Scarpa Maestrale RS boots.  Having hard plastic soles on terrain like this would have been miserable.
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Noah topping out on The Trough.  He looks a bit like the Lone Ranger with the nose flap on his glasses.
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The top of The Trough is when the views really started to get good.
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The next section of the climb was The Narrows.  I can imagine that this isn't much to be concerned with in the summer when there is no snow or ice, you are wearing boots/shoes, and you don't have a backpack with skis sticking up.  However, in our circumstances we had to be pretty careful.  The wind was howling, we had ski boots on, there was snow and ice, and our skis constantly clanged off the overhanging rock above us.  We made it through with no issues, but we certainly had to keep our wits about us.  We considered taking the rope out, but there was really no good way to protect a fall without trad gear.  Instead we methodically tested all of our footing and were careful with each step we took.  It wasn't difficult climbing, but if you are the type of person who lets their nerves get the best of them in exposure it would have been rough.  Fortunately both Noah and I are not like that.

The first move on The Narrows.  Most would duck under the overhang, but since we had skis on we had to go around outside it.
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Creeping along the edge, big exposure to my right.
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Noah making his way through the first move on The Narrows.
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The mixed footing forced us to take our time and really know we were not going to slip.
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Some more good exposure on The Narrows.
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Slow and steady.
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After we finished navigating The Narrows we were at The Homestretch - the final few hundred vertical feet to the summit.  Where there was snow it was thin and it was often on top of slick rock without ice.  So, it did not make sense to use crampons because they would just be clanging and slipping on the rock.  Again, we had to make sure our footing was good with each step and we methodically made our way to the summit.

Looking down The Homestretch.
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Looking up The Homestretch.
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Noah reaching the summit.
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The views from the summit were gorgeous.  Since our plan had changed and we were a little behind schedule I pulled out my phone.  Sure enough, I had cell phone service and I was able to contact my wife and ski partners who descended earlier.  I told them not to contact S&R because we were likely going to be longer than anticipated.  If I had not been able to do this, our plans for descent would have been much different.

Obligatory summit pics:
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Long's Peak - 14,259'
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Now it was time to ski down...or something like that.  To make it, technically, a ski descent from the summit we put on our skis and made our way from near the summit block to the start of The Homestretch.  Shortly after we had to break out the rope and start rappelling down towards our intended line - Keplinger's Couloir.

Skiing from the summit.
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Down climbing to one of the places we used for a rappel station.
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Noah starting the first of many rappels for the day.
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After a long descent that involved a lot of down climbing and rappelling we made it to the traverse towards Keplinger's Couloir.  We were excited to see that there was snow and to finally start skiing... or so we thought.  After a very short ski descent, Keplinger's Couloir quickly ran out of snow.  You cannot get a good look at the couloir until you are in it.  There was not nearly enough snow in it to ski, just patches here and there.  So, we had to down climb even more to get to the start of the Clark's Arrow traverse which leads to The Loft.

Spirits were high when this picture was taken because we thought we were going to get to do some significant skiing.
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There were not a lot of pictures taken on the Clark's Arrow traverse because it was fairly exposed and we wanted to move quickly.  There were several sections where we were doing legitimate low-grade class 5 climbing.  We took our backpacks off and shuttled them up to one another so we could do stemming type climbing moves (think climbing a chimney).  A fall during one of these moves could have been very bad, so we spotted each other as best as we could.  The beginning of the traverse had a significant amount of elevation loss (yet again, more down climbing).  The end of the traverse had a significant amount of elevation gain to reach The Loft.

Getting onto the Clark's Arrow traverse required a little exposed scrambling/climbing out of Keplinger's Couloir.
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Noah finishing off a little stemming move during one of the climbs.  The picture does not do this justice and you can't see the exposure that is behind the camera.
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Climbing on the Clark's Arrow traverse.
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Nearing the end of the Clark's Arrow traverse.
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When we finally made it to The Loft it was starting to get late.  The huge amounts of technical down climbing and rappelling had taken more time than we thought they would.  If the route had had more snow, it would have been skiable and hours shorter.

At this juncture, we looked at Lamb's Slide as a route to ski down.  Unfortunately, it required a rappel or another technical down climb to get into it.  We knew this would take a significant amount of time to do.  The top of The Loft Couloir, however, did not require a rappel and, from our vantage point, looked like it might be skiable all the way down.  We decided to give it a try in order to possibly save time.

Noah reaching The Loft.
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Noah descending into The Loft Couloir.
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Unfortunately for us, what we were hopeful would be skiable was another rappel over an ice fall and cliff.  We had to get the rope out and build another anchor for our last rappel of the day.

My last rappel of the day in The Loft Couloir.
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Noah making his way down at the bottom of the last rappel of the day.
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Below the last rappel the slope was quite steep.  I took my phone out to measure it.  It was 52 degrees.  That pitch was sustained until a narrow choke, after which it flattened out significantly.  The snow on the entire route was brutal, firm, and ridged from the wind scouring it.  But, it was way way way better than down climbing so Noah and I were happy.

Me skiing below the choke.
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Noah about to negotiate the choke below the last rappel.
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Noah skiing like a champ.
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Even after the long day, Noah "The Muscle Hamster" McCorkel still had the legs to handle the hard snow.
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We had about 2,000' vert of skiing in The Loft Couloir and I was thrilled at this point to be done with down climbing.
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Yay skiing!
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When we got below Chasm Lake we put our skins on and hustled back up the ridge and then down the trail, to the woods and to the trailhead.

A final look back at the gnarly terrain we had come through in the waning daylight.
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Denali Relevance:
It was a big day in the mountains.  I wish there had been more skiing, which would have cut many hours off our total trip time, but I can't really complain because it was excellent training for Denali.

Long's provided a great opportunity to practice mountaineering skills for Denali.  Although we didn't have any glacier travel we were constantly using our technical skills.  We had to keep our wits about us and make good decisions in places with high consequence, and we had to put our technical skills to work making anchors, setting up rappels, and climbing 5th class rock (very low grade) with ski boots and ski packs.

We travelled a long way and worked hard at altitude all day, too.  The bulk of the time and hard work of the day was above 13,000'.  The elevation coupled with our heavy packs certainly gave our hearts and lungs a workout.  I felt surprisingly good afterwards.  I think all the time I've been putting in at the gym is paying off.

When I got to my truck I was, however, famished.  Upon arriving home I wolfed down the birthday pizza and brownies that my wife had gotten for me and went to bed satisfied.

The Beta:

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  1. Way to go Joel! That is such a big day. It's really impressive you guys were able to do all that in a single day! I'd imagine the mileage was longer than a 14k->Summit->14k day on Denali, and you hopefully wouldn't have to do anywhere near as much down climbing (hopefully none) on Denali.

    1. Thanks Kevin! It was a pretty big mileage day, certainly longer than 14k-Summit-14k on Denali. Probably right just a little less than the same amount of vertical, too. But, even though we were over 13k for most of the day, this is still "low altitude" compared to the 14k-Summit-14K day, haha. I REALLY hope there isn't any down climbing on Denali...REALLY HOPE! But if there is I know I can deal with it now, haha.

      Want to do a ski mountaineering mission some time soon?

  2. Hey Joel glad to hear you all made it down safely and got some turns in on the Loft couloir! I made it down to the TH around 7pm. It was awesome to share the summit with you and Noah, in fact, I'm thankful for it. Hope to run into you again sometime out there. Andy