When I did a Longs Peak Triathlon last summer, I remember thinking it was only logical to apply the same tactics in the calendar winter season. Maybe unsurprisingly, there simply didn’t seem to be many attempts at such a thing, let alone actual completions of the task. To be sure, even in the age of the Internet, we don’t always know what exciting things people have been up to, but the only completions I could find were by Justin Simoni (a constant inspiration when it comes to bikes and mountains) and Tina Lewis, both in the 18-19hr range. Maybe I’m weak for wanting to wait for at least decent conditions—call me crazy, but this seems to be an important part of the tradition of mountaineering—but I couldn’t figure out how it should take quite that long. And riding dark roads at night doesn’t hold a huge amount of appeal for me. So I waited for good conditions.
I was stymied earlier in the year by hernia surgery recovery and the subsequent re-attaining of fitness. Then—despite many optimal weather days—I seemed to always have an excuse, circumstance, or trumping priority preventing me from giving it a shot. This past Thursday (March 10), with only a week and a half of calendar winter remaining, I finally decided to go for it, in spite of a few inches of fresh snow on the mountain and a pair of tired, sore legs from a previous couple weeks of heavy training. Ah well, things are never perfect.
But the weather was pretty close. The forecast was for highs in the 60s down in Boulder and uncharacteristically minimal wind high up on the peak itself. Longs Peak is typically one of the windiest spots in the country in the winter, with 80-100mph gusts not necessarily being the norm, but certainly not rare either. After 17 winter ascents of the peak, I’ve been literally blown off my feet up there plenty of times, but I’ve also experienced eery tranquility in the middle of January. In the name of comfort and convenience, I was trying to plan my attempt for the latter.
Due to the forecast, and the unsupported nature of my outing necessitating that I carry everything from start to finish (the only style I was interested in), I was packing light. Though I hate riding a bike uphill with anything on my back (getting out of the saddle to pedal becomes cumbersome and annoying), loading everything into my Ultimate Direction Signature Mountain Vest 3.0 made the most sense, as all I would have to do to transition at the trailhead was change from my bike shoes into the La Sportiva Crossover GTX running shoes I had bungeed to my handlebars.
Owing to the forecasted warm temps, I was able to dress pretty lightly, even with my pre-dawn start (it was right at freezing at 6am in Boulder): booties over my road bike shoes, some prototype Stance merino socks, Buff calf sleeves, capri tights (wearing these two separate pieces instead of a full-length tight would allow me to regulate temperature more easily all day), LaSpo Stratosphere Hoody, Reeb bike gloves (full finger), Buff around my neck, prototype Buff cap with collapsible brim, bike helmet. Granted, I don’t mind temporarily numb appendages quite as much as some people seem to.
Packed in my UD vest was a LaSpo Cosmos Down Jacket, a LaSpo Oxygen Windbreaker, Kahtoola KTS Steel Crampons, Kahtoola Microspikes, some extra warm LaSpo alpine climbing gloves, a Petzl Glacier Literide axe (50cm), two Clif Bars (I ate both), and two gels (I ate one), one half-liter UD Body Bottle Plus flask of water (locking valve is the only way to go), my phone, and a small baggie of bike stuff (CO2 canister, small multi-tool, debit card, cash). On the bike were two 20oz bottles of water, the aforementioned shoes, tire tube, and tube patch kit. So, pretty light, but the pack still felt a little heavier than I would’ve liked for pedaling up the ~5000′ of vertical gain it would take just to get to the trailhead.
Conspicuously absent was a rope and harness for my planned route of ascent and descent, the Cables on the north face. Even with my usual 6mm x 35m rap cord and 95g harness, I wanted to avoid both the bulk/weight of these pieces and the extra time it takes to set-up a rappel—putting on and removing a harness, flaking and re-packing a rope, etc. I was confident climbing up this section, and figured if it didn’t feel downclimb-able I’d just descend the Keyhole or Loft (hence the Microspikes). Knowing that there was some fresh snow, I briefly considering bringing an ultralight pair of collapsible trekking poles, which help immensely on steep-ish, slippery footing, but I figured the ‘spikes would sufficiently cover this and the poles weren’t worth the weight and bulk.
Definitely part of the fun of taking on a little mini-adventure like this is the strategizing of tactics and material goods that you’re going to use. This is a very personal algorithm based on skillset, fitness, prioritization of values, and mindset. It is one of the biggest appeals, to me, of introducing the objectives of speed and autonomy into the equation. Without the imperative of trying to go as quickly as possible, it would be easy to just keep adding extra grams and pounds of “what-ifs?” and “why nots?” to your pack, and the next thing you know, it starts making a lot more sense to just have someone meet you at the trailhead with all your gear and suddenly the fast, unsupported option becomes, if not unfeasible, at least very unappealing.
Each of us has a different line of acceptability when it comes to rationalizing this calculus. I myself have plenty of other little projects in the mountains that I’ll tackle with outside support, allowing me to emphasize speed and convenience even more. For this one, though, for me, going unsupported seemed reasonable and the most rewarding. The relatively small sacrifice of speed (mostly on the uphill) presented by carrying all of my gear was offset by what I felt was an acceptably small amount of extra effort (biking uphill with extra dead weight is tough) and a disproportionately larger increase in personal satisfaction (doing it unsupported). Nearly every mountain sport is simply a big, complex game with arbitrary rules and contrived difficulty. It’s the ultimate exhibition of humans simply assigning meaning (as opposed to it being intrinsic somehow). This was another example of that. So off I went.
I pedaled away from my apartment in downtown Boulder at 5:57am, which was basically first light. Seventeen minutes later I left the intersection of Broadway and Highway 36, which is the last stoplight as you leave town in north Boulder. The ride was good. Only a slight head-breeze and beautiful, clear conditions defined the route up to Lyons and then up the South St Vrain Canyon. I was halted for about 3-4min in a bathroom in Lyons as the morning’s coffee hit my system, but otherwise I made decent time to the intersection of the Peak to Peak Highway at the top of the canyon. I could feel the extra weight of my pack and the previous days’ big efforts in my legs—and my sluggish riding splits bore this out—but I was immensely enjoying the beautiful morning and the palpable glow in my emotions that comes from the combination of action and adventure.
Of course, then the wind hit. It seems Allenspark is always the windiest spot in these parts, and doubly inconvenient for a cyclist is the fact that the most sustained, steepest climb comes at the exact same spot. Ugh. I was creeping so slowly up this 1/2 mile or so that I almost felt embarrassed when a car would pass by. Like, geezus, what the hell is that goof doing, grinding up the hill on a bicycle with an ice axe strapped to his back? Things eventually eased off, though, and after 2h56 from north Boulder I rolled up to the Ranger Station at the Longs Peak Trailhead, albeit with a little more cement in my legs than maybe I’d hoped for.
The sun was out and my transition felt pretty quick. I chugged a little water, scarfed a Clif Bar, and changed out of my bike shoes and into my running shoes. Somehow it all still took me 8min. Leaving the trailhead it seemed I mostly picked the correct, packed-out shortcuts through the snowpack in the trees, but everything had a couple inches of slippery, fresh powder on it, making for frustrating, inefficient footing: exactly why I brought the Microspikes! Unfortunately, the day was already warm enough that the fresh snow just balled up on the spikes, making the footing even worse. Oh well, nothing to do but accept it and go a little slower. As a result, I reached treeline almost 10min slower than I’d expected, and when I got there I was, of course, greeted with a pretty strong wind and a foreboding plume of snow arcing off the north face and summit of Longs—5mph winds, my ass, mountain-forecast.com!
It wasn’t too bad, though, and things were largely uneventful up to the shoulder of Mt Lady Washington and across the Boulderfield to the base of the north face. A couple hundred feet below the Cables I stopped to put on basically everything in my small pack: both wind jacket and down jacket, crampons, warm gloves, and I got out my axe. The fresh snow made the small apron below the Cables much more wallow-y than I’d planned, and the wind was whipping enough to completely block out the sun with spindrift at times. All of this made me feel much more justified in this being a proper winter ascent.
The Cables themselves were in maybe better shape than expected; the extra bit of snow in the dihedral improved crampon purchase, and I knew immediately that I’d have no trouble downclimbing it.
I reached the summit boulder at 2h40 from the trailhead (5h44 from Boulder), and didn’t waste much time there. The wind wasn’t making things very comfortable and the summit register itself was kind of a mess, with a scrum of paper awkwardly wadded deep into the tube; I didn’t even really attempt to sign the log. After a couple of quick snaps to prove I was up there, I was headed back down, 4min after arriving.
One of the glorious things about climbing a high-altitude mountain is that almost without fail, no matter how punted and desperate I feel in the last few hundred feet of hypoxic grunting to the summit, I’m immediately refreshed once gravity is playing in my favor, instead of against. Thirteen minutes after leaving the summit I was back at the base of the Cables, the downclimb itself only taking four minutes—I was really glad I’d gambled in not bringing the rap cord and attendant gear. Before the Boulderfield I stopped again (for six minutes!) to remove crampons and strip all the extra layers as the day was gloriously warm now that I was out of the wind. On my run back down to the trailhead, though, I could feel some lethargy in my legs and general apathy in my energy, especially as I occasionally punched hip-deep in snowbanked krummholz. I was definitely curious as to how things were gonna go on the bike ride back home.
I arrived back at the trailhead after 3h58 on the mountain, and despite trying to keep things snappy, my transition was a full 10min. Soon enough, though, I was speeding downhill under full sun and even with some favorable winds it seemed. I was glad that I’d had the foresight to bring two bottles of water on the unseasonably warm day as it now seemed like it would be close as to whether I’d be able to break 9hr for the roundtrip and I wouldn’t have to waste any time refilling somewhere. Fortunately, pack weight has much less of an effect on the downhills, and I was able to PR the return ride in 1h39, completing the journey back to Boulder comfortably under 9hr at 8h51min, stoplight-to-stoplight. (Strava data: This includes the extra bit at the beginning and end from my apartment to north Boulder, and then back.)
Now I’m excited to go back this summer and hopefully trim a couple hours off this route, and hopefully even take a crack at a proper Triathlon, ascending the grand East Face…