Longs Peak - 14,259 feet
Longs Peak - 14,259 feet
|The One That Keeps You Up At Night: Ascending the Notch|
Climbers: Zambo & Josh Schmidt
Route: Notch Couloir ascent; Keyhole descent
Distance: Approx. 13 miles
Vert: 5,000 feet
Round Trip Time: 15:20
It was 12:30 at night. I was awake for the second time. As is usually the case, overly ambitious goals of an early bedtime had been trumped by the realities of packing, making final details, arranging to take a day off of work, double checking everything...by the time I finally was in bed, it was less than four hours before I would need to begin moving for the epic ahead. Now, just a few hours into that sleep, the thoughts which were so easily subdued by the busyness of preparation crept into the subconscious of an uneasy slumber.
Lamb's Slide. Broadway. The Notch.
To this point, these words had been nothing more than an idea; a vague notion of risk and challenge somewhere high up on the East Face of Longs Peak. Often pondered and dutifully studied, yet rarely considered as a reality to be dealt with. Now, a mere hour before my alarm was set to rudely interrupt the stillness, I was fighting the depths of my mind as it raced with the frightening possibilities of these places. Perhaps others can venture into spaces such as these without a care in the world. Indeed, the easiest route up the Diamond was dubbed "Casual" by a man who found it to be so. Yet, as with all things in life, familiarity, ease of mind, and comfort are usually borne only out of experience. For me, it would be my first time on the East Face, and I was grappling with the mental challenge of the unknown to come.
As heavy eyes finally gave way to tiredness, my mind settled on the things which would be indispensable in the hours ahead: courage, focus, and the will to climb boldly. The experience was one to remember for a lifetime.
In the Footsteps of Legends: Longs Peak Trailhead to Lamb's Slide
One thing which would be consistent all day was the need for speed and efficiency. This began at the Boulder King Soopers Parking lot at 2:15 as Josh and I met up and prepared our gear. Axes, crampons, climbing rack, pickets....the gear list for the day would be somewhat different than the past few weeks. In recent years, spring in Colorado has become more and more about skiing as opposed to snow or mixed climbing. I have taken part just as much as anyone, with three consecutive 13er ski outings in the past three weeks. But still, it was pretty nice to not have to strap ski boots on or rip apart cold skins first thing in the morning. Besides, loading up axes and crampons has a particular way of making you feel like a badass that most skiing just can't quite match.
Anyways, with the gear loaded and set, we drove out of Boulder, carefully dodging drunken college kids stumbling home at 2:30 on a Wednesday morning. No judgement from me because, hey, we are all on that side of things at some point, but I still could not help but chuckle at the contrast of our differing objectives for the day. Reaching the TH a while later, we racked up and began moving at 3:40.
I have always loved the hike up to Chasm Lake. How could you not? There is something about being close to Longs that evokes the memories, legacy, and stories of legendary climbers, both past and present. While the trail inevitably feels like a death march in the afternoon when the the legs are tired and the focus drained, in the pre-dawn hours, my thoughts always wander to names like Mills, Hayden, Lamb, Kamps, or, in recent weeks, Frappier. As majestic and intimidating as the Longs cirque can be, its prowess is perhaps only matched by its human legacy of effort, struggle, strain, and accomplishment in these lofty places. In our fast-paced, internet-driven, ever-changing, 21st century world, there is something uniquely refreshing about setting foot onto a land which had been unmistakably marked by the pioneering spirit of mankind.
I also cannot help but reflect on the nearly 100 people who have lost their lives in this cirque. Yes, as beautiful as Longs may be, the reality is that it is also a graveyard; its rocky slopes covered in the memories of those who were either unprepared, careless, or simply a victim of an untimely fate. You really cannot be much of a climber without facing this reality and I have always thought it healthy to remember that we all climb under God's grace. As I was stewing on all this, I was manifestly grateful for a partner like Josh. I feel like I say it in every TR I ever write, but there really is no substitute for a good partner. On this day he would be leading and I was thankful for it. Our conversation flowed effortlessly as we talked about mountaineering, climbing aspirations, life, and the complexities to come. If trust is the most important thing in a solid partner, meaningful conversation is easily one of the best ways to achieve it. Our talk put us both at ease as we finally reached Chasm Junction not quite an hour and a half after starting out.
BELOW: The day's objective finally comes into view. We made some new friends at Chasm Junction too. Brennan (KansasBoarder) and crew were on their way to attempt Dreamweaver for the day. Hope you guys had a great day out there! (Josh)
BELOW: Crossing the snowfield just before Chasm Lake as the lower stretches of Dreamweaver look on. (Josh)
BELOW: Josh making his way up the excellent boot path en-route to Chasm Lake. (Zambo)
BELOW: Roach describes the view of the East Face from here as "world renowned". He is certainly right about that. (Zambo)
Chasm Lake is a good spot to sit and ponder your fate. The looming intimidation of Longs is unavoidable from here. If I may personify the peak, it is almost as if he is just sitting there, confidently challenging you to dare set foot on this part of the mountain. Like Smaug the dragon (in the book - that movie was awful) when he stretches out to show Bilbo his "magnificence," Longs is arrogant, haughty, and utterly confident in his own strength. Sitting absolute in the midst of his realm, his ledges are steep and his towers high. Innumerable cliffs and gullies create a maze of confusion and potential dread. The snow that skirts his upper reaches serves only to give definition to the jagged pinnacles and vast chasms which cross the face. Yes, this mountain is all too eager to show you exactly what lies in store should you choose to venture into the great beyond.
Yet just like all dragons, this one has a weakness. As we peered out to the heights above, the route was plainly visible. Chasm Lake offered a partial freeze and excellent snow crossing on its south face. The bottom of Lamb's Slide showed it to be in good condition. Beyond this sat Broadway, covered in snow and frightening possibilities. And finally, perched over a thousand feet above, lay the Notch itself, full of snow and offering rare near-perfect conditions in which it could be climbed. Filled with a clear picture of what lie ahead, we picked our way around Chasm Lake, all the while focusing in on the details of the climb.
BELOW: The Dragons awaits. (Josh)
BELOW: Josh on the near side of Chasm Lake, with the length of Broadway and the Notch fully visible. (Zambo)
BELOW: Traversing around the water. Much to our benefit, the snow was still plentiful enough to make it around the south side of the lake, saving at least 15 minutes and a not inconsequential amount of mind-numbing boulder hopping. (Josh)
BELOW: Goals for the day. (Zambo)
The base of Lamb's Slide is where the fun starts. To this point it had been all RMNP quality trails, some easy snow, and a few boulders to navigate. That was all about to change. We took this chance to have the first real rest of the day as we evaluated the conditions and snow. Lamb's Slide looked great. We saw few signs of recent avy activity and the snow had achieved a light freeze the night before to lock it into place, despite the forecasted high temps from NOAA (I swear, sometimes I think that entire place is staffed with a crew of trained gaper-apes). We also saw signs of recent passage. A few varying boot tracks were punctuated with a very distinct and clear glissade path cutting right down the middle of the couloir. We both quipped that despite the good snow, this was not a place we would want to have to glissade down alone without an axe. It would certainly not be the last time we would make an observation like that on this day. Maybe we just are not Canadian enough.....
BELOW: Beginning the ascent up Lamb's Slide. We found the snow to be firm from a good night's freeze, yet soft enough to get good purchase with the crampons. Intermittent boot tracks also eased the burn on the calves considerably. I am pretty sure these were laid by Monster5 and crew, who went out a few days prior. If that's the case, we owe you guys a six (or twelve) pack and a huge thanks for cutting steps. They made a big difference the whole way. Hopefully we get to read a report from you soon.(Josh)
BELOW: The couloir maxes out at 40-42 degrees, depending on what line you choose. All in all, I would say it was a very encouraging start. While I can certainly see how/why this would get far trickier and dangerous in late summer when it turns to ice, for us, the angle felt like a non-issue given the excellent snow conditions. (Josh)
BELOW: Josh nearing the exit ramp for Broadway. (Zambo)
BELOW: Footsteps leading out of the couloir and into the next section of the climb. Quickly leaving Lamb's slide, the exposure changes almost instantly. While the couloir is certainly no joke, the reassurance of not having hundreds of feet of vertical air beneath you is certainly nice. However, moving over to the first ramp on Broadway, everything changes in an instant. Traversing back over the heights you just gained, the mind can't help but remember the heights of the cliffs beneath you as you make your way to the first belay. (Josh)
BELOW: Just don't look down. A good mantra for the day. (Josh)
The Fear & The Thrill: Traversing Broadway in the Snow
We found an excellent perch of snow roughly 200 feet beyond Lamb's Slide to break out the rack and rope. As I approached Josh busily building our first anchor, he gave the reassuring quote, "Ok, from here the exposure increases dramatically....and very, very quickly." Time for the big boy pants. As one of my friends once quipped, "Well, the thing about Broadway is, it's not really broad and it's not really a way." That is no joke. From this moment on, the route becomes truly thrilling.
I have been on plenty of exposed and difficult climbs before. I have been up multiple 14ers via class 5, roped routes, done 3/4 great traverses, climbed the Flatirons, rock climbed sport routes all over, peered over some very high places....but something about that perch was unmistakably different. In a word, that place is wild. With at least 1,000 feet of air beneath us, and the same amount above, the thin slivers of 45-60 degree snow would be the only way across. We were in the heart of the dragon now. From this moment on, realistically the only way off the mountain would be forward (recent truly unbelievable stories being the exception).
At this moment I was also proud to tap into the necessarily mentality for the hours to come. As I said, from here on out the difficulties, heights, and steeps were relentless. Every step and plunge of the axe mattered. The challenging and changing climbing called for utter focus and clarity of mind. Like I said earlier, perhaps to some a place like this is more within their comfort zone. But for me, I was keenly aware of my relative discomfort with it all. As such, it required a certain degree of boldness to simply execute on what was absolutely possible to accomplish, just frightening to do so. In some way, this is precisely what made it so appealing. The mentality required was to simply be comfortable with being uncomfortable. To push out all thoughts of fear, risk, or your surroundings and simply wholly devote the mind to the task at hand. Not that the fear goes away, rather it serves as a catalyst for an almost enlightened attention to detail which is required.
And of course, I wasn't even leading! I can only imagine the boldness and attitude required to go first. Thankfully for me, my leader was excellent. Josh's skills were only matched by his calm as he expertly picked his way across the varying obstacles. The man is a beast! Someday I will be ready for that, but for now, I was all too happy to be a dutiful follower.
BELOW: Showtime (Zambo)
BELOW: The first move into Broadway proper is, perhaps, the crux of the whole route. A short, 10-12 down climb over a skyscraper's worth of air gets your attention in a hurry. Again, we were thankful for the boot steps already kicked in, which made the focused descent much more manageable. Josh looking back on my down climb to the ridge below (Josh)
BELOW: Axe and foot work do the trick. (Josh)
BELOW: Josh sets the first anchor reached by our 60m rope. (Zambo)
BELOW: Beyond the down climb, the difficulties eased considerably as the snow had softened in the early sun. Simul-climbing options abounded on the entire route. It was an ongoing strategy discussion throughout the day to decide when we wanted to simul-climb, and when a belay would be more appropriate. On the initial snowfield, I simply climbed around and led the remainder of the pitch up to the infamous boulder move while Josh belayed from behind. (Zambo)
Next up is the boulder traverse that has struck fear into the minds of so many. A tricky 6 foot down climb led directly to a bulging boulder which blocks any sort of direct passage. For almost all of the rest of the traverse it is possible to keep the relief to your right a few healthy feet away from you. No so, here. While we did spy a possible upper snow route to avoid the bulge, that snow looked steep and committing. Furthermore, as we evaluated the bulge from the second belay we were actually somewhat encouraged. Pictures of this thing make it look like satan's gift to humanity. In reality, even with snow, I did not think it appeared to be nearly as bad as it seemed. A trickly downclimb led directly to a good staging area, with a nice horn to protect the move. The melting snow left good footing and we definitely could have belly crawled under it had we needed. Watching Josh pull the move with ease I thought to myself, "F*ck it - I can do that." All that was left was to do it.
BELOW: We set up another belay directly after the bulge to protect the move. (Zambo)
BELOW: Short down climb to drop in. (Josh)
BELOW: "Best to just completely focus on hands and feet and go for it," I thought. "If you stop to think about it, it's only gonna get that much worse.". (Josh)
BELOW: A hefty shot of adrenaline and a few moves later, and the cruxes of the day were behind us. If you ever read this Sam Frappier, know that I do not envy your night out in this place. The terror of reversing this section without any equipment is mind boggling to me. (Josh)
BELOW: All that work and we hadn't even entered the Notch Couloir yet! However, past the first two major obstacles on Broadway (the initial down climb and the bulge) the difficulty eased considerably. We were able to simul-climb for the remainder of the traverse on mixed snow and rock leading to the mouth of the Notch. (Zambo)
BELOW: Final moves on Broadway, with the relentless exposure in full effect. (Josh's)
Into The Notch and Onward to the Summit
After nearly two hours messing around with Broadway, I was happy to see Josh disappear around the corner - we had finally reached the Notch itself. Simul-climbing after him, I soon got to see up into the Notch myself, and what a view it was. The couloir climbs for just under 1,000 feet, cutting directly into the East Face. The pitch varies depending on the section, going anywhere from 45-55+ degrees. Approximately mid-way up the couloir, it takes a sharp right turn through a constriction, only to widen again near the top between the ridge of Longs and the summit of Southeast Longs. The climbing was delightful. The snow conditions varied considerably depending on the aspect and angle. The sun and shade play many tricks in the notch; snow near the south wall could be bullet-proof while just a few feet away it was getting baked in the rapidly warming sun. However, once again we had the advantage of boot tracks which made for quick and efficient steps. Additionally, Josh was delighted at all the excellent pro opportunities to be found off the south side of the couloir. Between a full set of cams, several stoppers, and two pickets, there was virtually never a time when we felt that we were over-climbing the protection. For the length of the couloir, we were able to simul-climb until Josh ran out of gear, at which point we would set a belay and re-rack. All the while, the day was virtually perfect. Bluebird skies, cool temps, and not even a wisp of wind made for a spectacular snow climb in this equally spectacular setting. With the extreme exposure of Broadway behind, we were able to relax just a bit and really get into the fun booting.
BELOW: Looking up at the first belay near the base of the Notch. (Zambo)
BELOW: Back down for the same perch. The relief beyond the cliff at the base of the Notch isn't regularly visible, but you sure can feel it. (Josh)
BELOW: Farther up and further in. (Zambo)
BELOW: Looking down from the second belay, just before the constriction. (Josh)
BELOW: Josh reaching the constriction and dog-leg right. The only poor snow we found was in this section. A mixture of some sugar with a very short section of ice. I can only imagine this will ice up further as the season goes on. (Zambo)
BELOW: Reverse angle, looking back down. (Josh)
BELOW: Beyond the turn lay more snow, mixed with ever-protruding rocks. Between the mixed climbing, the steeps, and the rapidly warming upper snowfields which had not had the benefit of the shade all day like the rest of the Notch, we were happy to finally be nearing the top of the climb. (Josh)
BELOW: Wanting to avoid the rapidly warming snow further out on the face, we opted for the rocks to climber's left near the top. (Zambo)
BELOW: Topping out. (Josh)
BELOW: Looking back down the ascent route. (Zambo)
We made the top just after noon. The narrow ledges in between Longs and Southeast Longs were the first real flat spaces we had been on in some time. Finally with a decent platform upon which to stand, we were able to peer back down the depths of the Notch, as well as over towards Keplinger's to the West. All the while, sheer cliffs of the Palisades soared overhead. This remote col is yet another special place on the vast East Face. However, there was more to be done. From here some parties will opt to rappel into Keplinger's and make a traversing finish to the Homestretch to find the summit. After the unrelenting steeps of the Notch, looking over into the more mellow angle of Keplinger's did indeed look appealing. But we knew we were close. Hot, parched, and mentally stretched, we rallied one last time for the remaining scramble to the final summit ridge. This involved some class 3 moves to the base of an obvious chimney just past the top of the couloir. The beta on the chimney varies - we read everything from 5.0-5.6 in various guides. Our own opinion is that several sections definitely went up to 5.5. I can see the difficulty being quite different given the conditions, but we were on mostly dry rock for the 100-150 foot roped climb and felt we got our money's worth. Maybe it was the boots. Maybe it was the altitude. Or maybe it was just the mental challenge of being on dangerous terrain for so many hours. Whatever the case, it took us the better part of an hour to climb past these sections, stow our gear, and roll over the final few hundred feet of class 3 terrain to the true summit.
BELOW: The cameras stayed mostly stowed for the final rock pitches. Here is some of the class 3/4 moves to the base of the chimney. (Josh)
BELOW: Finally topping out on the summit ridge. Compared to where we had come, never have I felt such relief to be on an exposed, class 3 ridgeline. (Josh)
BELOW: As they always do, eventually the dragon ran out. We had summited right after 1:30 - tired, but overwhelmed by the blessings and experiences of the day. The summit was essentially an afterthought compared to usual. We were just happy to be back on solid ground and to have made it through the route. As it had all day, the weather remained uncharacteristically For Longs, at least) gorgeous - a blessing that both Josh and I felt must have been just for us.
The Keyhole Home
Oh right, we still have to go down. We debated the route choice for a few minutes. Certainly the Cables Route is much faster, but we were hesitant at the conditions. The snow on that aspect was heating fast. Additionally, the prospect of trumping down several hundred feet only to not be able to find the rap anchors was not very enticing to us. We probably would have been fine, but a good report from another party who had ascended the Keyhole made the choice easy. Departing the summit by 2:15, we were in for yet a few more thrills on the Keyhole out. This route is no joke either, and given the current conditions, it is still a full snow climb. However, the gentler angles and eased exposure certainly made it all the more appealing and enjoyable. I actually thought that descending this route made for an excellent tour-de-Longs. In the end, we were both glad we did, despite the potentially wasted time.
BELOW: Leveraging the deep boot prints to our advantage down the Homestretch. The angle was far more forgiving than this photo makes it seem. Nevertheless, I certainly still recommend an axe and crampons for the foreseeable future. (Josh)
BELOW: Same thing goes on the Narrows, as Josh demonstrates. (Zambo)
BELOW: The Trough made for quick plunge steps down. We were thankful to not be exposed to a gaping horde of rock-wielding summer cattle trains in here. (Josh)
BELOW: Dragons don't go down without a fight. Every time I thought we had "made it," more obstacles were in the way. We still had to cross numerous snow fields on the way from the bottom of the Trough back to the Keyhole. I always forgot how maddeningly long this stretch is. At least Josh made for a good picture. (Zambo)
BELOW: Make your own call on the North Face option. We were fine to have gone down the Keyhole, but Cables is probably doable assuming the rap anchors are uncovered. (Josh)
The march from the Boulderfield back to the cars was every bit as death-sloggy as you might imagine. But to be perfectly honest, I really did not care. After spending so much time over precipitous drop offs, slippery snow, and rocking boulders, I would have happily walked for 10 miles on a good trail if that's what I needed to do. As we descended, overwhelmingly, I think our attitude was one of relief and thanks.
It was a relief to finally dial back the mental focus. Strange and stressful as it may sound, one of the joys of this route was just how focused and involved it was. From start to finish, there was never a dull or easy moment. As I reflected on my mindset going into the day, I could not help but feel accomplished and proud. We needed to be fast and we were. We needed good conditions and they were perfect. We needed boldness and resolve and there was never a moment of doubt. The rich experience of being in places like this and working so strenuously for so long is matched only by relief which comes after doing it. The feeling of cranking it up and then finally being able to let it all go is about as sweet as it gets.
Beyond this, we also felt overwhelming thankfulness. First and foremost, I was thankful to Josh for a stellar lead. This route has been on his bucket list for far longer than mine. Much as I may have mused over it for a period of months, he has done so for years. It was pretty awesome to be able to follow him and watch him deploy a full bevy of skills, experience, and smarts on a very involved outing. He did it masterfully and it really made all the difference. Thanks for the lead dood!
But mostly I was just thankful for all the little things. I have never thought anyone "conquers" a mountain, and we certainly did not on this day. As David Attenborough once remarked, "Human beings climb at their peril. Some might think that by climbing a great mountain they have somehow conquered it, but we can be only visitors here." For me, this statement rings truer than ever after a successful ascent up the Notch Couloir. I am thankful for the excellent day, the perfect conditions, the lack of issues, and the blessing to be able to enjoy the freedom of the hills. If you ask me, that is what this sport is all about.
Thanks for sticking with it if you did. Happy climbing!
Splits & Rack Info
For anyone interested, I figured I would add some rack and timing beta. Timing wise, we felt that we were about as efficient as you could be with only one primary leader. With two leaders this certainly could have been sped up, but not by a ton. Additionally, I can see varying conditions affecting the time on this route a lot. We had great snow for most of it, but bad weather or crap snow would really hurt I think. Also, your tolerance for risk (ie: unroped or simul-climbing) will obviously change the pace quite a bit. The vast majority of our 'down time' were at the belays and anchors. Apart from these pauses, we took very few breaks on the way up and tried to climb fast.
FIXED BELAYS (with intermittent simul-climbing in between)
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