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Climbing on Longs Peak – The Diamond, Estes Park CO (I’m the dark spot – 1500 ft above the valley)
I’m not crazy!
See that photo above… that’s just before all Hell broke loose while climbing on Longs Peak in Estes Park, Colorado. Now, I hate to be one for over-drama, but when I say all Hell broke loose, I’m talking fire and brimstone kinda Hell.
Some quick background first: At the point in the photo that my friend Isaac had taken the picture, we had been climbing for nearly twelve hours and were now roughly 1500 feet above the valley floor. We had started up a steep snow face well before dawn and after day break, the skies looked clear and the winds were light. It was really a beautiful day.
By mid-morning, that had all changed. The skies clouded over and with it, brought winds, plummeting temperatures and light snow.
“No biggie, right?” You say…
For most mountaineers, a few flurries normally wouldn’t increase the pucker factor. I won’t go into the definition of “pucker factor” but trust me, a high pucker factor really is not good. As it was, we were looking at a low PF, so I really wasn’t too worried, but I did keep a watchful eye on the deteriorating conditions.
Shortly after that photo, all Hell broke loose. The skies became angry and violent. The temperatures hovered around zero and the light snow opened up into a full blown blizzard. As the snows accumulated in the upper reaches of the mountain, huge pockets of that light fluffy white stuff would break loose and races down the cliff in the form of spindrift avalanches.
Aside from the obvious (death), spindrift avalanches really suck because all too frequently, they pour off the upper face above you and down the back of your neck. Has anyone every dropped an ice cube down your back? Well, that would be a welcome relief to a pile of snow. Fortunately, due to my superior intellect, I was able to recognize the repetitive event after only being caught in them five times. Before the sixth dowsing of snow, I pulled my hood over my head. I know, I know… pure genius.
Isaac’s and my plan for the climb was simple. We had planned to traverse the cliff a hundred feet more (from that point in the photo), then climb the upper rock face of the “Diamond” for a fifty feet or so, then climb onto a steep snow slope above. Once we reached that snow slope, it would be easy (but dangerous) climbing to the summit.
No problemo’ right? Or so we thought.
I have to admit. By the time we were making that traverse to the “Diamond”, I was tired. I hadn’t worked on my conditioning as well as I should have prior to the climb and the higher elevations were really wearing me out. To make matters worse, I didn’t bring enough food or water, so my energy reserves were pretty low.
To my relief, Isaac lead the traverse while I hung back and paid out the rope. It felt good to hang off the cliff by a bunch of tiny slings, instead of making that dangerous traverse out on the sharp end of the rope, as it’s called in climbing.
I hung under a large block that sheltered me from the spindrift avalanches above, while I watched Isaac pick his way across the cliff. Little by little, he alternated his hands and feet as he moved sideways, relying on the hand and footholds to hold him to the steep cliff.
Hanging there in the cold, the winds howled. I could feel the energy draining from my body by the minute. I shivered uncontrollably now and shook out each hand to “knock” some warmth back into them. Time seemed to move so slowly as I watched Isaac cross that traverse.
Every so often, Isaac placed a piece of climbing gear into the rocks and threaded the rope through it. If he fell, he’d only drop the length past the climbing gear instead 1500 feet below.
Halfway across the traverse, Isaac stopped. He was now at a point called the Notch Couloir. The Notch Couloir was a wide break in the cliff that ran nearly to the top of the mountain. It was far less steep and if viewing it from a distance, it could even be considered a mini-valley carved at the top of the cliff.
I watched Isaac stand like a statue, far out in front of me. He didn’t move. He didn’t look up. He didn’t look around. He just stared straight ahead.
“Come on, Sally. Grow some balls and move. I’m freakin’ freezen’ here,” I remember thinking to myself as I watched him stand idly by.
Just then, the world went white before me. An enormous spindrift avalanche careened off the cliff face above me and completely blocked my view of Isaac.
“Holy Mackeral,” I yelled out… only I didn’t say mackerel. No sir, that was a lot of snow, enough to fill up a couple of very large houses.
I felt the rope go taut and pulled hard to take up the slack. I was scared. I could feel that sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach as I envisioned Isaac being swept over the cliff by the avalanche.
A moment later, as the last of the snowy dust floated on by, I could see him. There was Isaac. Still standing where I saw him last. The rope had only gone taut due to the weight of the snow as it rushed over it. Isaac had not been swept away.
“Dude, you see that?” I yelled out to Isaac, but he never heard me.
I saw Isaac look up toward the Notch Couloir, then shuffle quickly across. Facing the mountain, he moved his right foot to his right, then moved his left foot over to match it. Over and over, Isaac repeated the sequence, shuffling across the cliff as he continued to stare up toward the top. As he moved, I paid out the rope, holding him in case he lost his footing and slipped off the edge of the cliff. I was his lifeline, but I had no idea if I could hold his weight in the event of a fall.
Watching him cross, I looked down the full length of the 1500 foot cliff. We were high. Due to the deteriorating conditions, we needed to move faster and place less gear on the route for protection during a fall. I hadn’t really thought about it before, but having time to analyze the scene, I now realized that a fall over that cliff could almost certainly rip me from my stance. I felt damned scared, but buried my fears and concentrated on my job.
Moments later, Isaac made it to the other side of the snowy slope.
Suddenly, I heard a loud “WHOOOSH”. Isaac was gone again.
I pulled hard on the rope and locked off my belaying device. Then I saw it through the falling snow. The mother of all spindrift avalanches creating a white cloud of snow that rushed down the snowy face and over the cliff.
“Oh Mackerel!” I remember saying in my mind, but again, I didn’t say “mackerel”.
I braced myself again for the tug that I figured would be Isaac. Seconds later, the rope went slack. As the snow clear out, there was Isaac, still clinging to the rocks on the other side of the snow slope and he was grinning ear to ear.
“DUUUDE, did you see that?” Isaac yelled across the cliff face to me.
The rush of beating the tempest had his adrenaline pumping. I could see he was scared, yet invigorated.
“Ok Man, you’re up next,” he yelled out to me.
A sick feeling swept over me. It was indeed my turn to run the gauntlet. I looked around me in a futile attempt to avoid the inevitable, but finally Isaac yelled back over to me again.
“Duuude, you gotta hurry. Let’s go,” he yelled out to me with deep impatience in his voice.
Quickly I dismantled the anchors holding me to the mountain and started my way across the rock and snowy cliff. Hand over hand, I reached for anything that I could grab for, each time, double checking that Isaac was taking up the slack.
The rocky face was cold and now had a light dusting of snow on it. My thin polypropylene gloves were great when the temps were in the forties, but now the temps were hovering around zero, rendering the gloves almost useless. My fingers were so cold, they were cramping as I reached for my next handhold. I was now become increasingly worried I wasn’t going to be able to hold on much longer.
My survival instincts kicked in and I dug deep. Throwing caution to the wind, I decided to make risky moves across the cliff face, hoping my hands wouldn’t fail before reaching the snowy slope of the Notch Couloir.
I moved quickly and deliberately, but with awkward lunges that continually held me off balance. My heart was pumping and I could feel the anxiety building as I closed the distance on the snowy slope to my right. A minute later, as my hands were giving out, I made my final step onto the snow slope where I fell forward and rested.
“Good job dude, now cross the Couloir,” I heard Isaac yell to me as I lay and rested.
As if in a dream state, I heard him yell to me, “and you gotta time the avalanches.”
“WHAT?” I yelled out in disbelief.
Up till that moment, I hadn’t realized the amount of snow that had been falling. At some point out on that cliff, the snow increased in intensity from a heavy to savage. The snowflakes were large and accumulating at a rate of nearly two feet an hour. With that much unstable snow above us, the spindrift avalanches were now rolling down the Notch Couloir every fifteen seconds.
Crossing the 50 feet wide Couloir would take all of that fifteen seconds, if you moved fast. If you didn’t, the result would be disastrous. That much snow could easily sweep you off and over the cliff.
“Perfect,” I remember saying to myself.
No sooner than I wisecracked, I watched a wall of snow barreling down at me as it roared through the snow slopes narrow valley above. Quickly, I dug my hands and feet into the snow and hung on. I watched for only a moment, then just before impact, I buried my head down into my shoulders and braced myself for the terrifying wave of snow.
At first, the snow flowed over me like a gentle stream of water, but that didn’t last long. A split second later, I felt the full force of the wall of snow that raged over the top of me. It taunted me, laughed at me, mocked my insignificant strength as it pushed and dragged me lower from my dug-in position. I could feel my hands and feet being ripped from their anchors and focused all my energy on them, trying to embed them further in the hard packed snow. As I began to slide, I felt the unmistakable tug of the rope on my climbers harness yanking me sideways as Isaac fought to keep that malevolent force from dragging me off the cliff.
“Nooo,” I remember screaming in my mind as my feet broke free of solid land and floated in space. I was going over the cliff edge… the cliff edge that perched 1500 feet above the world. This was really going to suck.
Suddenly, all went quiet. As quickly as the avalanche came, it went. I immediately crawled higher and leapt to my feet. I gave a cursory glance at the cliff edge just inches below me, then over at Isaac. He was smiling…
“Duuuude, you almost cratered, man!” he yelled to me. Then he added, “Let’s go, NOW!”
I knew I had only seconds before the next wave of snow came. Isaac pulled hard on the rope, snapping me out of my foggy state and I started off across the open snow slope.
The snow was deep now, almost past my knees and I dug deep into my reserves to plow through the heavy mess. Forty feet, thirty feet, twenty feet… I powered across the slope like a steaming locomotive, focusing only on my destination.
I saw Isaac look upward and I knew disaster was on its way. Harder and more determined, I plowed across the last feet steps. Twenty feet, ten feet, then…
I heard the roar of the wave from above. I looked up and saw the next wall of snow roiling as it charged down the snow slope.
Suddenly, I felt a hard jerk on my jacket, only it wasn’t from above… it was sideways. Isaac reached out, grabbed my jacket and hauled me into safety.
I looked back and watched my deep footprints vanish in a moments blink as the heavy wall of snow obliterated any signs of my existence.
“Dude man, you were almost a statistic… pretty cool, huh?” Isaac yelled to me over the roar of the avalanche.
“Yeah… cool,” I replied grimly.
Isaac had set up a bomber anchor system and for the moment, I felt fairly secure. I looked over to Isaac and he was now looking at a rock wall behind us.
“Ok man, we gotta climb up this rocky face, then step around the corner to the “Diamond”. That’s where it gets a little sketchy. We’ll do that short pitch of rock, then step off that and onto the snow slope above. Sound Ok?” I remember Isaac asking me.
I remember in my mind saying, ‘HELL NO, it’s not OK. I’m cold, tired, scared and I’m pretty sure I need a new change of under-britches.’
“Yup,” I replied dryly through gritted teeth.
What were we thinking? The freakin’ “Diamond” on Longs Peak in the middle of winter… what were we, INSANE?!!
What’s the “Diamond” you ask? Only the mother of all rock faces in Colorado. It’s nearly 2000 feet of sheer and overhanging rock, that only the best and most skilled climbers attempt to climb. Fortunately, we were only planning on doing the very last fifty feet of it. At least that was the plan.
That last section was supposed to be relatively easy climbing, but now, it was getting dark and the snows were really accumulating on the rocky surfaces we were depending on for handholds.
“Hold me, I want to check out the Diamond,” Isaac said to me.
I paid out the rope as he worked his way lower toward the cliff’s edge. Once there, he grabbed a rocky handhold and extended himself out over the 1500 foot drop off. He looked down for a moment, then to his left to survey the upper face that we were about to climb. He stared at it for what felt like an eternity.
“Well?” I shouted out over the howling winds.
Isaac pulled himself back over land and worked his way back up to me.
“No way, man… it aint happening. That whole face is covered in snow,” Isaac said. “We’d gotta find another way up. Any suggestions?”
“Yeah, crap my pants, then use my ice axes to climb up the snowy mess in front of us,” I suggested.
Isaac looked up at the wall of snow, rock and ice that stood between us and the upper snow slope twenty feet higher. If we could just get above it, the summit would only be a few hundred feet of easy snow climbing more.
Isaac turned to me and said, “Ok, after crapping your pants, go for.”
“I done crapping… You got me,” I replied dryly.
I took out my ice axes, looped the lanyards around my wrists and approached the mess in front of me. For those who don’t know what an ice axe is, it is a miniature pick axe. You swing the pick into ice and pull on the handle to climb higher. It’s that simple.
I brushed the heavy snow off the rocks and searched for a handhold. As I placed my hand on a nice blocky surface, it quickly slid off. ICE… a thin layer of ice had now glazed the rock’s surfaces. It was no use. Using my hands alone just wasn’t going to work.
Undaunted, I decided to use the pick of my ice axes to try to climb higher. I placed the front point into a tiny crack and pulled hard. It held. I pulled on the axe handle and moved higher as Isaac paid out the rope.
This was scary climbing, with a PF (pucker factor) of about an 8. Ice axes are used for thick ice where the front point of the axe sinks deep into ice, giving you a secure hold. Now, my axe’s front points were only held to the rock by shear gravity. If I moved the wrong way, they could easily just pop off the rock and I’d fall – not good.
I moved up a few feet to the outer corner where the blocky face above met the face of the Diamond. Gingerly, I placed my axes on the glazed rocks and pulled hard, trying to get them to “stick”. I then peered out around the corner. Isaac was right. That Diamond was literally covered in snow.
I looked up at the corner I was now climbing. A few feet higher, it appeared that the texture became more blocky and easier to climb. The problem was that I’d have to straddle the corner with one leg on the blocky face and the other on the face of the Diamond. I’d be hanging, literally, 1500 feet above the valley floor by only the tiny points of my axes.
“Got me?” I yelled to Isaac over the winds.
Isaac must have seen the fear in my eyes. He smiled encouragingly and yelled, “You’ll be Ok.”
My stomach turned as I looked down through the falling snow. It was almost dark and I could barely see the large blocks of snow on the valley floor, far below. My hands sweated even while they froze to the axe handles. I was scared… damned scared!
PF = 10
I reached up and scraped off some snow above me, looking for a good placement. Feeling around, I located a tiny crack and slipped the point of the axe into it. As I weighted it, I moved my right foot out onto the Diamonds face. With half my body hanging out over 1500 feet of air, I was now straddling the hairy edge of my raging fear. I didn’t want to look down… I couldn’t really. Something in my subconscious mind wouldn’t allow me to do it.
Suddenly, a wild blast of arctic wind slammed into my body, rocking me from my stance. My feet skidded momentarily, then one popped off its placement. Quickly, I found another foot hold, but then again, another gust of wind slammed into me, knocking both feet loose.
In an instant, I was now dangling from my ice axes over the 1500 foot cliff, swinging wildly in the wind. Fear roiled inside me. I lost my breath as I frantically searched with my feat for any type of purchase.
Fumbling, freaking and fatiguing, I was running out of strength and running out of time. I needed a miracle.
BAM ! Another gust broadsided me.
My left axe wobbled and popped out of its feeble placement.
“Oh my God!” I remember saying to myself. “Is this it? Is this how I’m going to die?”
I felt a tug. Then another. Isaac anticipated my fall and was now doing his best to reel in what little slack in the rope he could find. I felt my body lunge sideways toward him. He was nearly pulling me off the cliff.
As I flailed in the air, I made a desperate attempt to hook my axe on anything that would hold. Isaac tugged again and drew me in from the corner. I reached for the blocky face and I scrambled my feet to find something to stand on below.
Suddenly, my foot found something… a nob, a tiny nob. I stepped on it and immediately pushed hard forcing me closing to Isaac. For a moment it held… then it didn’t.
I sprung from the cliff once more, dangling again, wildly thrashing in the wind. I could feel the veins in my neck pulsating with savage fear.
What felt like hours were mere seconds but it was enough to drain me of all mental and physical strength. I could barely hold on any longer.
Isaac tugged hard.
I made another desperate lung with my free hand.
The axe caught an edge and stuck.
My feet found a stance.
For a moment, it was over. I found a respite.
Isaac had somehow hauled me off the face of the Diamond, pulled me around the corner and I was now standing a few feet from him on the blocky face above. Out of breath, out of strength and out of my mind, I jump backward and dropped to the snow slope next to Isaac. I collapsed in my tiny crater and rested.
“Duuude, watch out man, avalanche!” Isaac hollered out.
Moving on instinct alone, I rolled onto my stomach and dug from frozen hands into the deep snow as I planted my boots in below me. I buried my face in the snow and waited.
The thick violent wave, rolled over the top of me as Isaac stood firmly and held me with the rope. I fought hard for my position, but was no match for the forces of nature. With very little strength left, I was ripped from my position and dragged down-slope toward the edge of the cliff.
Abruptly, my slide came to a stop as the snow fought to push me further. I felt the wave of the avalanche dissipate and I looked up to investigate my predicament. There, standing with teeth clenched, stood Isaac. With his arms out stretched, he hauled back on the rope and prevented my slide off the cliff.
“You just going to lay there lollygagging all night?” Isaac shouted over the wind.
Quickly, I jumped to my feet and plowed through the deep snow, ascending the short distance between us.
“So, what do you think? Wanna give it another shot?” Isaac ask, grinning ear to ear.
“If I wasn’t so tired, I’d kill you right now.”
“So… what? … Now you’re gonna wuss-out when we’re so close to the summit?” Isaac teased.
“Yes,” I replied bluntly.
“Good call… let’s get the Hell out of here,” Isaac responded in grave tone.
At that point, I was too tired to do anything but belay him back across the snow slope.
Darkness had finally come and the snows were raging now, reducing the visibility to near whiteout conditions. Isaac ascended higher on the slope and waited for the next avalanche to pass through. Even before the rush had dissipated, he started off to the other side. I paid out the rope through frozen finger as he plowed his way through the deep snow.
Forty feet, thirty feet, Isaac moved with determination. He was nearly to the halfway mark, when I heard him scream over the wind.
Just then, Isaac was caught in an avalanche. The blizzard’s intensity had heightened, dumping even greater amounts of snow onto the upper regions above us. The resultant snow created spindrift avalanched in greater quantity and ferocity.
Isaac jumped to the ground and burrowed in as quickly as he could, but it was too late. The wave of snow rolled into him, knocking him backward and dragging him down the mountain.
“HOLD ME, HOLD ME!” I heard new scream out, now barely audible twenty feet from him.
I pulled hard and watched in desperation as he continued to slide toward the edge of the cliff.
As his slid, Isaac rolled over onto his stomach and pounded his hands and feet into the snow, desperately trying to anchor himself to the slope.
Downward he slipped: twenty feet, fifteen feet, ten feet toward the edge of the cliff. His boots seemed mere feet from going over.
As the wave slowed, so did Isaacs descent. He jumped up and tried to “swim” higher up the slope. Seconds later, he jumped back down once more and buried his limbs into the snows around him.
I pulled hard on the rope, holding him against the inevitable. Like a malevolent entity, the snow raged over the top of him again, threatening him, punishing him for his presence on the mountain.
As Isaac fought for his life, he began his downward slide toward the cliff.
Fifteen feet, ten feet, five feet.
I watched in horror as his feet broke through the crust of snow that defined the cliffs edge. Isaac’s feet were now dangling in air. Like a man swimming through mighty river rapids, Isaac flailed his arms and nudged his knees higher. Then, as quickly as the avalanche struck, it was gone.
Isaac leapt to his feet and lunged through the snows as he fought his way to the far side of the snow slope. He was safe.
“It’s a cake walk! Your turn dude!” Isaac yelled from the other side.
The Gods of nature smiled down upon me. I timed the avalanches correctly and sprang across the snow-slope like a gazelle. I remember the look of relief in Isaac’s eyes as I stepped beside him, barely making it past the next avalanche in series.
“Nice night for a walk, eh?” he asked
“Lovely,” I replied in pleasant tone.
For the next five hours, Isaac and I worked our way back across the mountain, then down the long and steep snow slope that lead to the valley floor. Fortunately for us, the blizzard slowed quite a bit and the spindrift avalanches all but disappeared. By the time we got back to our camp, it was after midnight. We had been climbing for almost 20 hours straight.
I’ve told this story before and usually receive the same reactions: Head shakes and the standard verbal remonstration, “Why would you do that? Are you freakin’ crazy?”
Well, all I have to say is that a crazy man wouldn’t have dangled from a solitary ice axe, 1500 feet above the ground, petrified beyond comprehension. Nope, a crazy man would have let go.
I’m not crazy.
PS: Years later, my friend Isaac, tangled with another avalanche while climbing alone. Sadly, he never made it out alive.