Kieners In Winter

The east face of Longs Peak presents a complex and intimidating visage.  This aspect of the peak, afterall, contains the 1700′ sheer wall known as the Diamond, the most important high-altitude big wall in the country from an alpine-climbing perspective.  However, lucky for unskilled climbing neophytes such as myself, there exists a relatively moderate line through this terrain that still offers some of the thrill and position that defines the east face: Kieners Route.
The man whose name this route bears—Swiss guide Walter Kiener—made his first ascent  of the line in January of 1925 (it is likely that this route had actually been downclimbed 54 (!) years earlier when Elkanah Lamb made a bumbling descent of the East Face before falling down the steep snowfield that now ignominiously bears his surname), an outing that turned out to be both tragic and truly epic (after a protracted climb with Kiener, famed Colorado mountaineer Agnes Vaille exhaustedly tumbled down the North Face on the descent where she subsequently died of exposure after Kiener went for help).  As such, when I first climbed the route with Buzz and Peter back in June under glorious summer conditions, I knew that I would eventually have to return in winter.  Not to mention the fact that this is probably the most classic mountaineering route in the state.

Longs is notorious for its winter winds and Joe and I experienced this first-hand back in late-November during a summit of the peak via the Loft under hurricane-like conditions.  Maybe this outing (which involved negotiating some impromptu and uncomfortable mixed 5th Class terrain in crampons) left a bad impression on me, because we didn’t make it up the peak in December–the first month I’d missed since my first-ever ascent of the mountain in June.  Sure, I was in the flatlands of Nebraska the week of Christmas, and then my hip started nagging, but if I’d really wanted to get up the hill, I would’ve gotten it done earlier in the month.

Ah well, new year, new beginnings, my hip healed, and as if on cue, this past week the weather gods bestowed spring-like conditions on the Front Range. No more excuses.

The path below treeline on Longs is well-packed this time of year, and mercifully forges a few shortcuts through the woods, eliminating time-consuming switchbacks. Joe and I both have relatively heavy packs on–well, at least much heavier than we’re used to.  In addition to extra layers, we’re hauling harnesses, a 7.8mm 60m rope, a handful of cams, crampons, and some slings and carabiners.  In the summer, the Broadway ledge that slices through the east face of Longs is alarmingly narrow and exposed in spots, but feels highly secure.  Add a bunch of snow and ice, though, and we both agree that protecting this traverse is important so as to guard against a 1000′ fall down the Lower East Face.  Furthermore, our experience on 5th Class rock in crampons is low.

Despite the extra weight, we hike strongly through the trees, and break into a casual trot on the flatter stretches, but Joe comments, “This is why I’m not wearing a pack at ITI.” (ITI—the Iditarod Trail Invitational—is a 350mi foot race in Alaska next month. Joe will pull a sled, which will allow some running to actually occur.) We’re both eager to get to treeline to see what the wind is doing.

Much to our delight, there is essentially no wind at all when we reach the tundra, and we comfortably cross a frozen Chasm Lake to the base of the Lambs Slide snowfield, the 40 degree slope that we’ll ascend for 1000′ to reach Broadway. The beauty of our natural surroundings, however, is impossible to ignore. The lake is housed in a gigantic natural amphitheater created by Mt. Meeker, the towering Diamond, and Mt. Lady Washington.

“It’s an overused term, but this place is truly stunning.”  The January snow highlights the cathedral we’re standing in and with the rising sun just grazing the east face of Longs, Joe is right. The snow on Lambs Slide is largely in great condition for kicking steps, so we put our heads down and set about the task of finally gaining some vertical.

Joe working his way up Lambs Slide.

Surprisingly, there is still a patch of exposed water ice near the entry to Broadway, but it is easily skirted and soon we are at the first crux—a near vertical cornice of snow where the ledge narrows down to only a foot or so in width.  With the massive exposure, we are happy to have brought a rope.

Joe on Broadway.

Joe carefully leads out across the ledge as I belay him, and just past the crux he clips a fixed pin. Nice. The grade of the snow slope on the ledge eases beyond here and soon Joe has stretched the rope’s 60m to the next belay stance on the corner just before the infamous crux “bulge” move.  After quickly scurrying to join him, I lead the next sequence—another very steep wall of snow with dizzying exposure—humbly crawl underneath the bulge and stop to belay Joe across before we unrope for the march up the apron of snow at the base of the Notch Couloir.  Here is where Kieners proper begins by leaving Broadway and heading up 2-3 pitches of 5.0-5.4 chimneys and cracks to the 4th Class terrain that will take us to the Diamond Step.

I’ve climbed Kieners a half dozen or so times to Joe’s single outing, so I lead us up the rock, which is much, much easier than I’d been building it up in my head these past couple of months.  There are jugs and footholds galore, and climbing in crampons presents really no issue at all.  I grunt up the two crux chimney moves (in the summer, on dry rock and with approach shoe rubber, these features hardly require a second look), which probably lend this route its 5.4 rating, but none of it ever feels desperate and before long Joe has followed and we coil the rope and stow the rack for the rest of the day.

Joe on the snow slope leading up to the Staircase and the Diamond Step.

Curiously, the steep snowfield that we solo up to the Diamond Step probably ends up being the most precarious and exposed section of the day. The position is outrageous with the Diamond below us to our right, Chasm Lake waaaay below, and the Notch, Lambs Slide, and Mt. Meeker all rearing up impressively behind us. The snow is reasonably good—pretty deep and sugary a lot of the way—but a slip here wouldn’t leave much time for a self-arrest before you’d shoot over the edge and plummet 1500′ to Mills Glacier at the foot of the Diamond.  It never feels insecure, though, and we easily pull the juggy moves up the Staircase and step onto the 3rd Class talus for the final stretch to the summit.

The Staircase. Photo: Joe Grant.

The summit plateau is idyllic.  I’d taken off my puffy jacket for the hard work wallowing up the snow slope, but once at rest on top (and finally in the sun!) it’s so calm and warm that there’s no need to put it back on.  It’s taken us a whopping 5h45min to get there, but our good fortune in picking such a perfect weather day, the engaging but comfortable climbing, and the unique position on the east face all have us nearly giddy with euphoria.  Things just rarely go this smoothly.

Joe popping out onto the talus field that leads to the summit.

There are a couple hitches on the descent.  Joe drops his axe somewhere on the North Face but doesn’t realize it until we’re at the Cables eye-bolts.  I stretch the rope as much as I can to rappel the Cables in one pitch, but still need to downclimb the final 15-20′ to reach easier terrain, fumbling my rap device in the process. (Both pieces of gear are recovered.)

Joe rappeling the North Face (Cables) slabs.

Then there’s just the monumental talus hop/run/slog back down to the trailhead. I’m bonking pretty hard, not having put in this long of a day in months, but once back at the trailhead after seven and a half hours on the mountain, we are both still buzzing with the energy that comes from having gotten away with something especially satisfying.

As we hit the parking lot, there is one other person there, a man who looks to be a grizzled veteran of the mountains. He asks us if we had made the summit.  Yes, we had.  What route did we take?  When I reply “Kieners”, his face lights up and he instantly queries us on the conditions we encountered. Mountains are radically different places in the winter, and considering that in Colorado these types of conditions exist up to nine months of the year, it might be argued that climbing a mountain in the winter allows one to experience a much more honest representation of the peak’s true character.  It feels good to connect with someone else who is clearly familiar with the mountain, and I am glad that I’d finally committed to stepping outside of my comfort zone to grow my own familiarity with Longs.

3 thoughts on “Kieners In Winter

  1. Great description of the journey and its associated emotions. I know that feeling all too well of having gotten away with something epic and awesome. It always leaves me wondering, “When next?”

  2. I’m not a climber, just stumbled on this page while researching the old back pack now on eBay made by W. Kiener. Possible it’s the same Walter Kiener????

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