I knew it was a different morning on Longs when I left the parking lot with a bare head and bare hands. Usually I’m pretty chilly at the trailhead, but on this day the sweat was pouring off my eyebrows and nose on the very first steep cut up through the trees, and instead of dreading the breeze at treeline I welcomed it for its cooling properties.
Whenever one has a mishap in the backcountry, the chain of decisions and events that led up to it always seem so obvious in hindsight. But I suppose that’s just the way it works. I was battling a bit of a head cold and was feeling beat down from a previous 10 days of high-volume outings, so on this morning I resolved to just wake up whenever my body wanted, not interrupting my slumber with the typical 5am alarm that I set when I’m planning on an ascent of Longs Peak. As such, I arrived at the trailhead an hour later than usual, and on top of that it was a gloriously warm day—temps in Boulder later in the day would reach the low-70s.
I made my usual quick time to treeline—slowed a couple of minutes by breaking trail on the short-cuts—and then, instead of bearing straight west to the northern shoulder of Mt. Lady Washington, I stomped and plunged my way through the krummholz and snowdrifts to Chasm Junction and the grand Longs/Meeker cirque. At 8:10am, under the “route” column at the trailhead register I had written “marthas? cables?”, indicating my uncertainty with the morning’s plans. Even as I contoured toward Chasm Lake I was thinking that if Martha Couloir—a popular, narrow, aesthetic, moderate alpine route on MLW’s south face—proved to be more than I was comfortable on-sight soloing, then I could just escape the cirque via the less technical Camel Couloir and easily salvage the morning.
I got to the base of Martha at 9:39am, and out in the sun things were definitely already getting soft. There was evidence of a wet slide from the day before at the base, but when I stepped into the couloir I was heartened by the fact that it was mostly still in the shade due to its narrow character. The first rock/ice step went easily with a couple of solid hooks from my Corsa Nanotech; and, surprisingly, my trusty but very dull Kahtoola KTS Steel crampons were giving my feet plenty of purchase. Shortly after the step I came upon a fresh-looking rap anchor that I actually took with me in case I felt the need to retreat higher up (I had a light harness and a 6mmx35m rap cord in my small pack).
The next stretch of the couloir was very consistent and quite steep snow—maybe 60 degrees?—with a solid frozen crust that felt very secure. I cleared the second crux rock/ice step with some judicious stemming and several surprisingly good sticks with my Nanotech. Above here the couloir was alarmingly narrow and steep but still good snow. I made sure to stay in the shade on the right-hand side of the chute to stay in the more solid snow this afforded. The third/final mixed step was slightly more difficult, but I was through quickly and exited the top of the couloir at 10:08am, pleased to have dispatched of the day’s unknown difficulties in a quick, efficient manner and to have climbed a new line. That unique feeling of satisfaction is a big motivation in climbing new routes on the mountain.
The traverse over to the MLW/Longs saddle was tedious but offered me a new stunning perspective on the Diamond and soon I was at the now very familiar Cables dihedral, which I climbed quickly and then made the customary slog to the summit via the north face’s upper slopes. There was a surprising amount of blowing snow up there, but it was uncharacteristically warm—normally I’m bundled in a windbreaker and puffy jacket for this portion of the climb but today I was still just in a thermal long-sleeve.
I spent very little time on the summit, quickly plunged back down through the 3rd Class terrain (depending on snow, this 500′ of vert takes 15-20min on the way up and only 6min on the way down) to the top of the Cables downclimb, carefully reversed the 200′ of technical corner, and hopped the last 5′ or so down onto the steep snow slope below the Cables, something I’d done ten times previously this year. At this point I was thinking about:
A) how pleasant it was to be on the mountain in such balmy temps (after climbing it so many times this winter in more serious conditions), and
B) dispatching of the snow slope quickly so that I could take off my crampons, don Microspikes, and run over the boulders and tundra back down to the car.
Well, within about five steps, that snow slope went a whole lot more quickly than I would’ve liked. I was kicking steps down it backwards when I heard a swiiiish, like a particularly big torrent of spindrift coming down the mountain, which caused me to lift my head up and see the whole slope fracture maybe 10′ above me. I had just enough time to think “oh shit” before I was slaloming downhill on my backside and instantly accelerated to what felt like freefall. Immediately below the Cables are a couple slab steps that I usually carefully downclimb, but now I was plummeting down these and just trying not to hit one of the giant boulders that I also knew to be in the fall zone.
Soon enough the avalanche came to a stop approximately 200′ down the north face, and I was only waist-deep in snow. For whatever reason—not that I have tons of prior experience or anything—my mind seems to become very rational and calculating in these kinds of situations, so I almost immediately did a body check…what hurts? Left hip, right knee, left foot, left forearm. No bones sticking out. But man that right knee hurts, same one I hyperextended/broke two years ago, I can move it though, seems like it’ll be ok. My left gaiter and the running tights underneath were both shredded—I assume by catching a crampon point—but surprisingly there was nary a scratch on my calf. HOLY SHIT! WHAT THE FUCK JUST HAPPENED?!?!
It was still the same sunny, warm day, but now I was covered/soaked in snow, so I threw on an extra layer and tried to get my shit together. Really? An avalanche on Longs’ North Face? Really? I knew things could’ve been way worse, and that’s probably what rattled me the most. After a few more minutes of basically just shaking my head and rubbing my knee, I took a couple pics—mostly because I still couldn’t really believe I’d just been in an avalanche—removed my now bent and battered crampons, put on my Microspikes, and started back down to the trailhead.
It probably took 20 minutes for my knee/peroneals to stop feeling weak and unstable, but by time I’d made it out of the boulders and onto the more predictable terrain of the tundra and eventually the trail I was running relatively comfortably and it felt just like any other day descending the mountain, only warmer. Every time I saw a casual snowshoer on the trail I wanted to exclaim, I was just in an avalanche! But, of course, didn’t. Instead, I ran down to the parking lot, signed out at the kiosk register (noting the avalanche in the comments column), let my socks and shoes dry for a few minutes in the sun, and drove back to Boulder.
What is to be learned here? Humility and respect—the mountains don’t give a shit. They’re not malevolent, but not benevolent either. There is both safety and danger in familiarity. Martha’s couloir received most of my mental focus for the morning because it was new, but once I’d exited it and was on a route that I’ve climbed a dozen times before in similar conditions, I didn’t pause to assess the entire situation—the later hour, the abnormally warmer temps, the fact that the slope below the Cables was likely loaded with slough from the steep slabs above it.
Any time you head into the mountains, it’s a fascinating but not entirely predictable, controlled environment. It’s a capricious arena, as is life in general. Of course, that wildness is part of why we go, but it’s best to remember that you must absolutely always be on your ‘A’ game—ready to make informed, educated decisions—whether it feels like you need it or not.