Snow can be a lonely expanse, but in a time of need, snow possesses the guiding potential to expose a motivating path. For me, the daunting snowfields on the backside of Longs Peak tempted my will to succeed.
About once every full moon I am compelled to challenge myself. This insatiable drive for adventure is fueled by my quest to hopefully experience new levels of strength that I didn’t previously know I had. The inspiration, instinctively embedded in my mind, is to pick a goal that will force me to focus both mentally and physically at an intensity level which tests my stamina, but through inexhaustible perseverance, permits me to bathe in the realization that my eyes are not yet bigger than my heart.
I own a beginners mountaineering resume that consists of zero technical gear knowledge like ropes, ice axes, and crampons. Instead, what I have learned in my climbing career has revolved around the subtleties of free climbing and a desire to really understand rock in all its variety. In my opinion, this confidence in what the natural landscape of a mountain has to offer, combined with a sincere analytical mind when it comes to preparation, makes for a pretty competent mountaineer. That’s why I enjoy continually trying harder and hairier summits garnering the new practice necessary during the journey.
In April of 2005, I sought to summit Longs Peak, one of Colorado’s famous 14,000-foot peaks. The classic diamond face and rounded summit stand like a monument behind the hills at the foot of Rocky Mountain National Park. This view had constantly taunted me when I would drive north from my home in Boulder toward the mountains. The distant behemoth always glistening in my eye as my next goal to attain… As summer was approaching, it was exciting that the snow, which blanketed the summit currently, would soon melt away into a path for me to strike at my mission.
The itch in my side got the best of my common sense, and I decided to put in an attempt on the mountain much earlier in the season than I had even been at that altitude. On a Saturday of late April, when the weather and my legs both felt ready, I would put in my first attempt. I was able to learn much about the chosen route, the Keyhole, in the numerous guides about the mountain. However, the one item repeated over and over in the beginning of each route description was the warning that during early season the intensity level of the climbing was much greater due to ice and snow.
In order to prepare for this new challenge, I borrowed a set of ice crampons for my boots and an ice axe. All my knowledge of these tools was purely illustration based, and I could only guess what it was like to really be on the side of a mountain using the gear. Traversing the steep side of a snow field with the sharp points of the crampons digging into the packed snow, I assume the claw-like feature on my feet would feel secure enough that the ice axe will be more of a balance tool than my last resort to stop a downward slide if my talons give way in a raw patch of snow. Instead of learning about the use of these tools first hand, in preparation, I would read and reread the maps and topography guides in order to have a greater understanding of what to expect, and to be able to react at any point on the mountain.
In addition to this exclusively textbook preparation, I decided it would be best to attempt this route with partner. While I prefer to attempt my most difficult accomplishments alone, I find unlimited amounts of motivation in the psych of friends within the climbing community. And, since the adventure of the mountains can often require friendly help when things get rough, I decided to invite my friend Harry along. While most intelligent climbers would prefer a partner of equal or superior experience in the mountains, I decided to invite a true freshman, because I was confident this expedition was going to end in an assured summit. Instead, I chose Harry because of his sugar energy, which is an endless confidence-stirring factor on the most dismal demeanor.
The Friday night before setting off, Harry and I packed all our supplies into day packs that would be light but sustaining, and we met up at a friend’s house party to get psyched for the following day. At the party, we couldn’t contain our anticipation and decided, instead of opting for sleep before an early depart, to instead leave the party at 2 am for the trail head that marked the beginning of our journey to Longs Peak.
If the chill of wind in the parking lot and the icy trail leading away from our car was any sort of warning, we weren’t paying attention. All of our thought was on the summit, as we set out with the blind confidence our narrow headlamp beams provided. This early in the morning the air was very cold, but because of the speed we were hiking, and because of the trouble we were having just to keep our footing on the rounded slippery trail, I was hiking with my shirt off to vent the heat.
This first section of the trail was a maze of snow and trees that was only discernible because of the packed line of snow which we hoped would not lead us in the wrong direction. This hike in the dark was silent, only the wind whistling through the trees and swiftly entering our lungs was audible. Like the limits of our vision on this bewildering trail, all scents seemed to be frozen in existence, as each breath would instead burn the inside of our nose because of the icy air.
As the plant life began to shrink and become sparse, we topped the tree line onto what appeared to be a frozen tundra of snow and rock creating an impossibly large distance of hills. This barren landscape was motivating however, because we were finally able to turn our headlamps off. The sunrise was beginning at our backs, and the soft light was emerging to reflect purple on the snow at our feet. The sun, at this point, was an ally we much desired, but, as are all things when you want them to come, it took an eternity for the purple, then red, then orange, to turn to yellow and truly usher in the morning.
At this point, the sun was strong enough to begin burning away the thin clouds that had been covering the stars at the onset of our hike, and I was able to discern that we were high on a hillside that looked just like a photo I had seen in a guidebook. This was going to be easy, because we had the weather on our side, we were making good time, and I knew where we were. We could even see the diamond face of Longs Peak far in the distance, the taunting monument face I was here to conquer.
So with this confidence, a stop for breakfast was in order. But, what we soon came to realize, was that stopping is not the best idea if you want to stay warm. After dropping my pack and getting an energy bar and water out, I realized I had to get a jacket, a hat, and gloves out too. This was a hopeless feat, because at this hour, where the sun provides no warmth along with its confidence, your hands freeze before you can get this gear on.
“Let’s just keep moving,” I said.
“Yeah, this is insane,” Harry shouted back, as the wind had picked up and sound wasn’t traveling as well outside of the trees.
With all the shivering assurance I could muster, I informed Harry, “I know exactly where we are, a few more miles up and over that hill is the boulder field,” the final resting spot before we venture onto the backside of the mountain on the final push for the summit.
Of course, as we got moving again, the sun did begin to provide heat to the area, and I began stripping back to my original hiking apparel. After a few energy bars digested during the next few miles, I was feeling very strong and ready for anything. Harry, however, was falling behind. He was usually within sight, eating a Snickers bar or some other kind of candy he had brought, but sometimes he walked so slow that the boulders and switchbacks would shield his progress from mine. I didn’t think much of this because the trail was easily discernible at this time, so I continued on to stop finally at the boulder fields and wait for him. At this point, my confidence level was almost as high as the infinite blue sky above me. I was making great time, didn’t feel tired, and the sun was giving my goal a bath in golden light. This period waiting for Harry was the first time I knew I was going to summit that day.
I was sitting on a pile of freezing boulders when Harry finally caught up.
“You psyched?” I said.
“I’m tired,” he said.
“Rest up, it gets fun from here.”
“I don’t know about this man, I’m hurtin’.” He said and then paused, “I can’t deal with the altitude.”
“Are you drinking water?” I asked.
“I am running low.”
“Damn, I guess I have some extra if you want?”
“Sure.” He quickly responded.
At this point, I know I am climbing this mountain, but as I am talking to Harry, I begin to think he should stay here instead of push what could be a dangerous effort in his current state. Where it is obvious he does not have altitude sickness, exhaustion is not far from setting in, and I wonder if I should tell him that maybe today is not the day.
“I think I should stay here.” Harry interjects into my thoughts.
“Are you sure?”
“You should keep going and just meet me back here on the way down,” said Harry. “If I start to feel better, I might just head over to that hill for a better view of the summit.”
My thoughts were mixed when I heard this conclusion. Being sure that his choice of snickers as energy at 12,000 feet must not have served him well, I cannot blame his smart decision to stay put. I can only hope that for myself, preparing with a big meal the night before and bringing more practical rations would prolong my tank of more reliable energy. At any rate, Harry made up his mind to bring his journey to an end, but I still had a mission to complete, and my eyes were fixed on the top.
“Ok, you can just keep that water; I should have plenty.” And with that, I left Harry to rest his lungs at the boulder field, and I set off for the famous Keyhole in the rock, which opens the door to the final route toward the summit.
As soon as I reached the top of this surprisingly persistent hill above the boulder field and stood below the impressive rock gateway, I realized this journey was just beginning. The backside of the mountain is severe, snowy, and overall scary. My partner has given up. I am now in the intimidating route finding section of the climb, and if I don’t learn how to use the gear I am carrying in my pack now, I will not be able to navigate the steep snow slopes beyond the keyhole. The task of crossing this side of the mountain has brought me back to my senses, and I realize I am likely to still fail at this summit attempt through any number of pitfalls.
Just as my intense desire is waning in the bitter wind blowing through the valley over 2,000 feet below the backside of the mountain, motivation arrives in an unsuspected fashion. I was skirting around some rock at the backside of the gateway, more to see how bad the conditions were going to be, when I saw a set footprints in the snow. The snow here was composed like a trap door. Covered by a thin brittle sheet still frozen since the sun had not reached it, there was a filling of softer more powdery snow underneath. The feet that left this track had obviously made their impression earlier this morning by pushing each step through the sheet carefully so as not to fall too far into the soft snow’s snare. Then I remembered that there was another car in the parking lot when we parked 5 hours before. It appears this climber has chosen my same route, and is likely just a short distance in front of me.
With this new found faith that traversing the backside of the mountain was possible at least for someone, I confidently laced my crampons onto my boots and pulled out my ice axe. Moving across snow gullies separated by rock outcrops, the technical aspect proved rather tricky even with foot placements already marked in the route. Stepping too hard into these tracks would sometimes make the hard packed layer on top break and position me susceptible to the powdery slide beneath. This wasn’t very comforting as far as avalanche danger and my ice axe self-arresting skills were concerned. When a climber begins to slide down a mountain covered in snow, the ice axe can be turned into the mountain and hopefully planted deeply enough to stop the fall downward. Of course I knew of this technique, despite having never tried it, but was I confident I could make it work on my first attempt should the unthinkable happen? However threatening this snow was to my eyes, with my gung-ho ignorance renewed from the confidence of a front runner, I walked on as if the talons on my crampons were now springs bounding me toward my goal.
In places, the footprints would become hard to discern, and the snow would dissipate around rock outcrops. Here I would have to be creative in navigating these portions, trying my best to take the most obvious route across the rock face. In most instances I was happy to find myself jumping right back onto the path and carefully stepping into the next snowfield. This process continued until I reached the far gully that again directed my journey up. At this location, I saw my motivator for the first time. It appears I had made up some time on his progress, and the confidence I had garnered from his lead brought me right up to his heels.
As I booked it up this steep gully to thank my new favorite person, I was belittled by the maze of ice and rock looming above me. But this portion of the climb, which was the most difficult so far, went by like I was a seasoned mountaineer. I kicked steps in the snow and dug my axe into this formidable terrain like it was a practice wall in my backyard. I wanted desperately to catch up to the only other living thing on the mountain. I knew, somehow, since he had helped me so much so far, he must be a nice fellow and willing to climb with me the rest of the way. When he realized I was quickly gaining on his position, this climber, who had been a ghost to me for the majority of my journey, stopped and waited as I approached his position almost completely out of breath.
“Phew,” I gasped, trying to keep my poise.
“You are making great time.” He informed me; as if it was not obvious I was exhausted.
“Thanks to your footsteps.” I was barely able to speak through panting breaths.
“I didn’t know there was anyone else on the mountain till you showed up at the bottom there.”
“Well, I am glad you waited…I’m Lee.”
“Hi, I’m Steve.”
At last, I was once again sure I would make it to the summit on this day, and after our short introductions, I was relieved to now be able to continue on with a climber who had previous summit experience on the mountain. I told him that for most of the time I was relying on his steps as the correct trail and took comfort that someone else thought that today’s summit was achievable. He assured me we were getting close, but the scariest and most technical portion of the climb was to come.
As we rounded back onto the side of the monument that I had been looking at from Boulder valley for all of those longing years, I realized his account was a bit of an understatement. On this portion of the traverse, where the snow only allows us a 40-foot vertical portion to navigate over a 400-foot sheer cliff of rock, we were forced to gather all our nerves and essentially tip toe across the thin path of snow toward the final steep push for the summit. Steve’s competent and capable confidence helped lead my racing heart steadily across. Alone, I would have likely decided to turn around after a time of debating, but together we were able to, bit by bit, complete this section. Here, swift feet represented our excitement for the summit and our fear of the fatal slide below our path. With each step, we were careful not to move the snow down to the edge of the cliff, but with each others presence during the traverse, the snowfield and summit became perceivable.
Every summit is an individual pursuit, which doubles in pleasure when the experience can be shared. It was just a short snow crawl up, after this section of trust in both nature and man, that the two of us stood above ourselves on the shared snow-capped summit, exhausted and euphoric.
In my opinion, it was the snow’s conclusion whether or not I could make it to the top on that day, the challenges it presented defined my experience on the mountain, and instead of putting faith in my ability and strength, I instead had to trust that the snow would not reject me from the mountainside. It was the snow’s revealing nature and Steve’s leading confidence that allowed me each subsequent step closer to my goal. The embedded snow-steps gave me that trust in the experience and confirmed that this climb was, for me, ultimately attainable.