By Peter Bakwin
Living in Boulder, as I have for most of my life, can be strange. Nearly everyone here, young and old alike, is insanely fit. Everyone has set some outlandish running or climbing goal for themselves, something to keep the sense of adventure alive and to expand their skills and experience. I myself have set many, and even achieved some, and this has been a lot of fun and very satisfying. These days, now that I’m receiving mailings from the AARP, I don’t go in all that much for goals or “projects”, preferring just to enjoy time out in mountains and on the trails without any particular aim. But, once in a while something still resonates inside my soul, a spark of an idea will come and I feel compelled to follow. This is intensely personal – I don’t care about setting marks, only about doing things that ignite my flame of curiosity and enthusiasm. Such has been the Longs Peak Project (LPP).
The LPP was envisioned by local legend Bill Briggs. It’s a simple idea: climb Longs Peak, Colorado’s northernmost (and best!) 14er, by a different route each month for a year. It’s also a remarkable idea: How many mountains even have 12 worthwhile, unique routes? Longs has dozens, but many or most of them are on the Diamond and those are hard rock climbing – not something I’m going to do. I’m an avid scrambler, but not much of a real rock climber – I quickly lose interest when the gear comes out. Briggs never quite completed the LPP, but Bill Wright did it in 2008, and then repeated it in 2015 with Charlie Nuttelman. The local Boulder newspaper had a nice write-up on Bill & Charlie’s 2015 LPP.
Though I’m a Longs Peak enthusiast, I stumbled into the LPP sort of by accident. I had climbed Keplinger’s Coulior with Bill, Charlie and several of their friends in December, the final climb of their successful LPP. Then in early January my friend Tina Lewis wanted to attempt a rare winter Longs Peak Duathlon (cycling round-trip to the TH from Boulder). That sounded totally miserable to me, but I agreed to meet her at the TH and do the hiking part with her. When we got back to the TH at 8PM it was already so cold that I considered trying to talk her out of cycling back down the canyon, but I held my tongue and she did it! Now I had 2 tough winter months out of the way – heck, might as well just finish off the other 10 months!
I know Longs Peak (14,259′) really well, and I’ve notched about 80 ascents. I just love this mountain, which is less than a 1 hour drive (or about 3 hours by bike) from my home. It’s big, dramatic, complex, austere. Knowledge and experience on the mountain is key for the LPP – you want to know when a route is going to be in good shape, and you want to go when conditions are good. This avoids epics, which I don’t enjoy. Being mostly retired really helps. Weather can be a serious issue – especially nearly incessant wind in the winter months (our first attempt in February was defeated by wind so intense you literally could not stand up), and frequent snow (leading to difficult and often dangerous conditions) in spring. You want study the weather and be ready to go when it’s good. Despite careful planning, we got blown out of the Boulderfield (at 12,500′) in February, crushed by wind again while trying to rappel off the Beaver (a 14,000+ subsidiary summit SE of Longs) in March, had sloppy, dangerous snow conditions on Broadway (a remarkable narrow ledge that crosses the dramatic East Face) during our first attempt at the Notch Couloir in May, and got rained out of an attempt at Mary’s Ledges in September (successfully climbed the following day). Both planning and flexibility (and determination) are key!
Longs Peak is one of the most frequently climbed 14ers in the state, and certainly one of the most climbed summits in Rocky Mountain National Park. The vast majority of all ascents are made via the standard Keyhole Route, which itself isn’t easy – it’s 15 miles round trip, with 5000′ of elevation gain, and sustained Class 3 scrambling above 13,000′. Even this standard route is rarely climbed in winter. I actually didn’t ascend the Keyhole Route during my LPP, though I did all parts of it on other ascents, and descended that way a couple of times. As part of this project I did 3 routes that were new to me: Alexander’s Chimney (Aug), Mary’s Ledges (Sep) and Van Diver’s West Wall (Oct). The latter was particularly rewarding, as it turned out to be an excellent, easy scramble (5.2), and I was unable to find a single mention of it on the entire Internet! (There was just a cursory mention in Rossiter’s RMNP guidebook.) I did many “bonus” climbs – 20 successful summits in 12 months – scouting out routes and conditions, doing some big traverses, and just enjoying this remarkable alpine playground as much as I could. I even got in another “project” – a traverse of RMNP’s huge Wild Basin, a 29-mile day with 14,000′ of elevation gain linking up 15 high summits (including Longs). This one had never been done, but had been on my “to do” list for several years.
Since I started in December 2015, the final climb of the Project was November 2016. I’d carefully saved the standard North Face (“Cables”, 5.4) route for November, figuring I could get up that in most conditions. I’d failed to consider that this time of year the North Face gets NO sun at all, so the snow stays cold and doesn’t consolidate very fast. On 11/3 Kendrick Callaway and I encountered somewhat tricky conditions, with crappy sugar snow on top of the slabs, with very little ice, which made for some insecure climbing. But we managed to wriggle our way up safely. Once on the summit we were able to thaw our frozen hands and feet in delightful sunshine and no wind. What a great finish to an amazing year on Longs!
News item: Justin Simoni has upped the ante on the the LPP, and is attempting each ascent completely self-powered from Boulder, using a bike to reach the various trailheads (the LPP “officially” requires a least one climb from each of the 3 main THs). So far Justin has completed ascents in August, September and October. (Editors Note: Justin abandoned his self-powered LPP in December, as biking up to the trailhead, sleeping in light bivy gear, summiting, then riding back, all in sub-zero temps was impractical).
Here’s the list of my 20 ascents for December 2015 – November 2016. The ascents I’m counting as part of the LPP are asterisked. Links to Trip Reports are given where available.
*Dec06 Keplingers Couloir, 12h40m, Bill Wright, Charlie Nuttelman & 5 others. A long (16 miles RT, with 6000′ of gain) ascent from the south, which was first climbed in 1868 by John Wesley Powell. Moderate snow, cold & windy on the summit.
*Jan04 Loft – Keyhole, ??h, Tina Lewis. Moderate snow and some Class 3 scrambling. We got a late start and didn’t get back to the TH until well after dark.
*Feb17 NW Couloir – N Face, 8h16m, Kendrick Callaway. Snow & ice covered Class 4 scrambling with a short section of 5.2, climbed in Kahtoola Microspikes.
*Feb21 NW Couloir – N Face + MLW, 7h46m, Kendrick Callaway & Cordis Hall. Repeated the route from 4 days previous so Cordis could come along, and added Mt Lady Washington (13,281′).
*Mar03 Flying Dutchman – Clark’s Arrow – N Face, 11h10m, Kendrick Callaway. Moderate snow with a tricky 50′ “mixed” headwall.
*Apr09 Trough from Black Lake, 6h47m, Kendrick Callaway. From the Glacier Gorge TH, easy snow. Carried snowshoes but didn’t need them.
May06 North Face – Keyhole, 6h15m, solo. Moderate to steep snow. A quick outing to ensure I had something in case the rest of May went to shit weather-wise.
May21 Lambs Slide, Clark’s Arrow – N Face, 9h15m, Kendrick Callaway & Justin Simoni. Moderate snow. Was an attempt at the Notch Couloir, but the snow became too soft and unsafe.
*May28 Notch Couloir, Homestretch – N Face, 14h55m, Kendrick Callaway & Justin Simoni, Steep snow. A true & serious alpine route.
Jun16 Kieners – N Face, 5h34m, solo. Moderate snow, scrambling to 5.4. Longs’ classic mountaineer’s route which is a beautiful tour of the dramatic East Face.
*Jun20 Kieners – N Face via duathlon from Boulder, 10h29m, solo. The duathlon adds 44 miles of cycling each way, and is a long-time Boulder endurance classic.
Jun26 Skyline Traverse (Keyhole Ridge – Stepladder – Gorrell’s – Loft Couloir), 6h11m, solo (long break on summit). Sustained, exposed scrambling to 5.5. This is probably my favorite link-up on the mountain!
*Jul09 Rossiter’s “A Walk in the Park” (clockwise), 10h53m, Kendrick Callaway. A long outing with tons of fun scrambling to 5.5, circumnavigates the Glacier Gorge drainage, climbing Half Mtn, Storm Pk, Longs Pk, Pagoda Mtn, Chief’s Head, McHenry’s Pk, Powell Pk and Thatchtop Mtn.
Jul26 Skyline Traverse, 5h50m, Buzz Burrell
Jul29 Wild Basin Traverse (Longs from SE Longs via Gorrell’s & Stepladder), 16h20m, solo. Traverses the huge Wild Basin drainage, 29 miles with 14,000′ of elevation gain. This link-up had never been completed (though I came close 2 years ago).
*Aug13 Alexander’s Chimney – Stepladder – N Face, 8h42m, Buzz Burrell. An East Face route that goes at 5.5. Made (in)famous by Anton Krupicka in the film “In the High Country”
*Sep05 Mary’s Ledges + Southwest Ridge – N Face, 8h50m, Kendrick Callaway. A route on the North Face that has one long pitch of 5.6, and a bunch of easier climbing.
Sep28 Van Diver’s West Wall – N Face, 5h46m, solo. Amazing 5.2 route on the West Face that I’ve never heard of anyone else climbing!
*Oct01 Van Diver’s West Wall – N Face, 5h46m, Justin Simoni. Justin and I snuck in this repeat of the route I scouted 3 days earlier in great, warm, dry weather. That night the West Face got plastered with snow!
*Nov03 North Face up & down, 7h48m, Kendrick Callaway. Loose, sugar snow on steep slabs. My 12th time descending the North Face this year!
I think Justin is still on track with his LPP, just not all self powered from Boulder. Kendrick, Justin & Charlie Nuttelman did Keplinger’s in December, which served as Kendrick’s finisher for his own LPP. I was sad I couldn’t go that day (Kendrick & I failed at Kep’s earlier in the month due to horrific wind and deep snow). This winter is shaping up to be a tough one on the hill due to nearly historic snowpack.