I’m only in Allenspark, and the sun has already risen. I feel as if I’m very late to my own party. Allenspark is only seven miles away from the Longs Peak Trailhead – my riding destination, but as I summit the last punchy climb and await the downhill just beyond, I conclude that the downhill won’t give me the rest I’m hoping for. The winds are strong today – strong enough that I’m fighting to stay upright as I crest the hill, and belaboring with my never-ending pedaling to simply continue going forward while I start descending. These are the exact type of conditions that even the hard men that have established such challenges have tried to avoid, because it’s madness.
But I’ve been here before, the road will slowly roll below your feet. Just – just not at the speed you’d prefer. Like much in life, you have to accept what’s here and now.
For some reason, I’ve also loaded up the bike and my pack with an amazing assortment of mountaineering gear: giant mountaineering boots, micro spikes, crampons, ice axe, trekking poles, 40 meters of 10.1mm rope, climbing harness and various climbing gear and enough clothes to not be embarrassingly rescued by Search And Rescue, if I find myself out for an extended night. I drew the line at snowshoes, or I guess: skis. There’s just not enough snow to justify those.
I knew about the forecast, and that sinking feeling that your weather window is just not there. But instead of scrapping the plan, I just decided to go for it anyways, with lower anticipations: just a loaded down ride for training purposes, and a hike in Rocky Mountain National Park. “I’ll leave a little later than usual, in an attempt to miss out on some of the more violent winds” A summit of Longs Peak? Unlikely, but let’s dress up and pretend.
It takes less than a half hour after placing the bike in back of the ranger’s cottage and transitioning into a more reasonable getup of clothes that I’m wallowing in high drifts of snow. The usual Winter, “Shortcut” isn’t trenched in a way that I’m familiar with, and the path I’ve taken turns to be a dead end. I force my way forward making new tracks, but it’s impossible, without actually swimming through the snow. Now who doesn’t need snowshoes? The main trail is only a hundred feet or so – just out of sight (except for GPS), but I take the mature decision to just backtrack, and find a better trench. I’m surprised at my decision at first as I’m usually much more stubborn in my ways, but it’s a good call, and soon, I’m again making forward progress on the very packed down trail.
Longs Peak in the Winter is devastatingly beautiful. The snow and ice stick to its steep faces in heavenly dollops, providing scintillating mountaineering routes, or just the impossible to miss photo op. If it wasn’t for the Jet Stream taking permanent residence immediately in its path, I’d be here almost every week. Since I’m carless, and I have to ride a bike to get here, I usually save such trips for better weather, but today, I guess was a little different.
As I break through treeline, I’m feeling the weight of all this gear – the rope especially seems to be more dead weight to have just to say I brought it up than anything. I’m still not feeling an ascent being realistic, but I’m moving towards the start of the Loft Route. If anything, I’ll mosey around Chasm Lake and call it a day. There’s a few people with similar ideas in mind that I see just in front me (guess I’ve caught up a bit), and the trail to area seems to create a choke, as I pass other parties.
One is a group of four young women, with nothing in the way of traction. They’re at the beginning of negotiating a snow slope, the bottom – well below, goes to Peakcock Pool. On years with a greater snowpack, this slope can slide on occasion. I give my hellos, note that they’re without proper gear, tell them to be extra-special-super-careful, and go around – I don’t like to tell people what to do, but at least show my concern by a raised eyebrow. They’re all smiles, I’m not too worried.
Morbidly, it takes just a few dozen meters as I cross over the scene of an accident from the day before: a small collection of rocks is right above my path, and with it a large area of blood stained snow. There’s a large impression below me from a falling body, and steps kicked in starting from below, back to where I’m standing. I’m a little shocked, but I keep going forward. As soon as I cross the snow slope, I look back, but I don’t see these young women anymore. I should have warned them.
I refocus on the Loft Couloir, and the exit ledges. Surprisingly, it looks doable – both to ascend, and to retreat, so I decide to make an effort. The snow seems slow-going, so I stick to the slabby ledges to climber’s left, and start scrambling. It takes a little time, and is tiring in of itself. I reach the ledges though – a bit haphazardly through a more technical terrain than I bargained for this day, but without incident. I’m surprised my footwork in these exceptionally bulky and heavy boots is so accurate: every step I take is soft, and angled specifically for whatever foothold I can find. I’ve been working hard on my feet game at the climbing gym – I’m a heavy guy with hammy legs – and a weak upper body. If I can’t get my feet to do the great share of my climbing, I can’t climb anything. The hours I’ve put into it seem to be doing some good.
The exit ledges are also snow-free enough that they don’t pose any avalanche hazards, so I go up onto the top of the Loft. It’s a dramatic place. To the North, you can almost imagine being able to simply walk up to the summit of Longs, but as many find out, you’ll simply encounter an enormous cliff face seemingly scooped out by a mountain god – the Notch! Instead, the Loft route wraps around the West side of Longs peak, goes down a chute, then and gains the summit via Homestretch.
I’m well versed now at finding the right route to do the wrap-a-round, but it used to be confusing. Now it’s my favorite part; the down climbing is fun, the rock formations to view are remarkable, and the desolation you discover as you look out towards the west – and the rest of Rocky Mountain National Park will leave you wide eyed, with mouth agape.
Kep’s couloir is also relatively snow free, except for the very top of the Notch. The snow here is relatively soft, and I’m not really looking forward to traversing over it. Perhaps foolishly, I decide to take the highest line I can, skirting right over the final cliffband, and cross well above the usual route. The slabs below me are steep, and go below for a long, long, while. I’m alone on the mountain – I haven’t seen anyone for a few hours now, and I won’t again for a few hours more.
The traverse is slow, but I enjoy it. Using the pick of my ax, I find little cracks to twist into and form jams which I can use as pretty solid support, as I wander across, looking for another handhold or crack. I can even tweak my big boots into foot jams – I’m amazed. The snow though, near the rocks themselves is the softest and I plunge deep into the snow on most steps. As awkward, bulky, and heavy my cheap mountaineering boots are, the keep my feet pretty dry – I’m happy about this, as I didn’t bring any socks to change out of, and I still have that bike ride back.
I finally reach Homestretch, which is almost devoid of snow. I am tired, and it takes me quite a while to summit this final home stretch. But like every time I’ve felt like this, I summit and then: I can rest. I take some goofy photos and videos. It’s 3:30pm, and I only have two hours of sunlight left. This is very late, so I have to keep moving.
I opt not to retrace my steps down the Loft – it’s too far a route; nor do I go for the Keyhole route, which could be quick, providing the snowpack is OK – and is certainly the most technical way off this Mother. Instead, I’m happy I brought my rope – probably for the first, and only time today, as I can just rap. down the Cables route – surely the most expedient way off the summit, and onto the Boulder Field – where it doesn’t matter how long things will take, it’s just One Big Slog to the trailhead.
40 meters of rope is not enough rope to safely do the rap. down Cables. And what I have is a 40 meter rope. I’ve rapped down to my knot ends, but I’m a still a few meters below the next enormous eyebolt I can use to make another rap off of, so I have to take myself off rappel, and down climb the last bit to reach it, and do the whole process one more time.
And of course, the next rap. gets me close to the bottom, but not all the way. I roll my eyes, as this is ridiculous of me to get wrong – I’ve done this before! With this same rope! And wrote about it, even! But I’m feeling confident enough on the terrain that this isn’t making me stressed or nervous. I see a fixed piece, I grab it, I take myself off rappel, I jam a body part into the perfect crack in front of me, and down climb the last bit, holding one end of the rope with my hands, so I can pull it.
Now at the Boulder Field, I taste the last of my water, and take note of the intense headache that’s beaming with storm-like intensity. In fact, I take note of a lot of things: I haven’t eaten enough, it’s now getting dark – fast, the next water source is a few miles away, and I’m really tired schlepping all this gear. There’s nothing really to do, except get-a-move-on. My experience tells me I’ll make it just fine, and all this pain is temporary. I look forward to drinking water again. And being able to eat.
I shortcut over Mt. Lady Washington’s North Ridge, but take the main trail to Chasm Junction. My feet are too beat up to even try the Jim’s Grove trail. Turning on my light, I gaze into the far distance, back to the lights of the city shining back at me, and where I’ll eventually have to make it back tonight.
I finally reach Lightning Bridge, and the flowing creek. I take a few measures of water and drink it slowly. I try to eat, but my gag reflexes hit when I try to swallow. I guess it’s the peanut butter. I get ready for the final jog down to the trail head and make it without too much bother. But, my night is not over.
As I pile on all my clothes, I bring out my bike and try to figure out how I’m going to make it down in this kind of cold. It’s now almost 8:30pm. Most of my ride back home is downhill – which great for speed/time; not so good for temperature control. I make sure that my feet are bundled up as best as I can: two pairs of skiing woolly socks – far too bulky for my MTB shoes, and shoe covers I’ve duct taped around my shoes so they don’t come off at high speeds. I’m off.
My energy levels are surprisingly and somewhat worryingly low. Not eating enough on the bike up here and the hike is making this leg of the trip a little, shall we say: challenging. I found some easier to eat powdered drink with my bike – as well as something with caffeine. Mixing it together with water, it instantly relieves me – and I almost feel human again, but I fear I’ll just crash again in a couple of hours.
The race is on! I guess. I’m relieved to find that the blustery wind, although abated a bit, hasn’t changed direction too badly, and I’m assisted for much of my ride back in a southerly direction. I turn off onto James Canyon, and after a few false summits, finally find the road pointing downwards for miles and miles. The road turns from dirt, to pavement, to dirt again – they’re widening the road by blasting the canyon walls themselves. This is leaving the road a literal construction area, and I’m somewhat amazed how hard it is for me to get through this area, as I don’t remember how rough or long it was coming up all fresh. With such a beat-up body, everything seems overly difficult.
Finally this road too junctions and I turn off of it. I’m left with the last obstacle between me and home: Olde Stage Road. It should be an easy ascent, but of course my imagination takes over, and it seems to be hundreds of miles long, and steep as all Hell. I have again bonked, and I find myself stopped at the side of the road a few times to catch my breath. In my mind, my bike weighs 3,00 pounds and the gear I’ve brought with me seems to be merely tied to my bike with hemp rope, left to merely drag around behind me. This is the last place where the city lights are hidden, and I could imagine being anywhere in the mountains.
The hill is crested, and my night terrors dissolve – as they always do. I’m back on Lee Hill Road, on a momentous grade angling down. If I just coast from here, I can almost make it to my front door without another pedal – which I basically do. I throw the bike ever so lovingly into the corner of the garage, open the back door to the house, take my shoes off, sit down at the table, and start snoozing, while wheezing my asthmatic wheeze. A housemate walks in to make sure I don’t need any immediate medical attention, and I give him a feeble thumbs up and a crooked grin, before my eyes roll into my skull again, and I pass out, until I hear the whistling of the water I put on to boil for tea.
My second Winter Longs Peak Duathlon is over, after almost 20 hours of movement. It’s 7 hours until I have to clock back into work.