I watched a short video recently of a rock climber putting up a challenging route, but he did it with such effortless ease and grace it didn’t seem possible the route could be as hard as it is. I don’t doubt that it is truly that grade, but I realized I wanted to see a video of the time he spent projecting the route, the toil and sweat, the battle and the energy that all went into making a climb that looked so perfect. It was the struggle that was interesting, not just the polished product.
I often write and reflect on my successes, whether on mountains or climbs, but realized I rarely communicate the struggle in the times I don’t have good days or when I don’t make it up to my goal. And with Multiple Sclerosis, those days come fairly frequently, so I think I need to start appreciating that as a part of my journey.
Summer has been busy for me, and I haven’t gotten after the remaining seven 14ers on my list as actively as I would like. Springtime and early summer are usually my favorite time to get on peaks, as I love the snow, but the opportunities just didn’t quite happen this season. I did have one route I very much wanted to do, the Bell Cord on South Maroon, and even tried it a couple of times. It’s a quite long snow climb in between the iconic Maroon Bells near Aspen. The first time I turned back before even starting up the snow portion because I was experiencing just enough MS symptoms to feel unsafe on that long and dangerous of a route. The second time I felt great, but unfortunately one of my partners did not, and we were high enough on the route that I did not feel comfortable leaving her to go back alone. Each time provided me with a new learning experience, in different ways, and even if I didn’t get the route, I enjoyed the company and the time out.
Given the long drive to Aspen we had done twice in the past few weeks with no success, Dan and me decided to take a stab at something a little closer to home this time around. He’d been itching to get after an alpine route on Longs before he bounded away to South America for another month, anyway. We decided to go after the North Face/Cables Route on Longs Peak, with a very early start time, given that I am so dreadfully slow. Due to the last minute nature of the plans, I didn’t design my sleep very well, i.e. I didn’t sleep at all as we left my place at midnight and hiked all night. That was probably not a good idea. Sleep is the biggest trigger of my MS issues.
Longs Peak is a unique mountain, indeed the only true alpine peak in Colorado. It offers a multitude of routes for high altitude rock, snow, and ice. The famous sheer face called the Diamond gives it it’s iconic
look – our route goes up the side of the Diamond. The Cables route used to be the standard route, which had actual cable wires running through giant eyebolts on the steep sections. The cables are gone now, as they are enormous and unsafe lightening conductors, but the eyebolts remain. It is a much shorter route than today’s standard route, the Keyhole, but that’s because it’s quite a bit steeper and involves technical climbing. Depending on skill level, some people solo it without a rope and others bring gear to protect from falling. Most people generally bring a rope to at least descend it, sometimes even if they have climbed a different route up simply because it’s the shortest way off the top. I was interested in leading the route but wasn’t quite comfortable soloing, so we brought a rope and light rack of protection.
We started on the trail around 1:30 am and made pretty good time up to treeline, even thinking we might be ahead of schedule. I’m never ahead of schedule because I’m SLOW, and we probably shouldn’t have taken our time during the next section of the mountain. Around dawn, I hit a wall, most likely because of lack of sleep, and probably lost a good hour between that and talking to people who were camping in the boulder field. As we broke off from the standard trail and started up toward our route, I was feeling
better but knew I shouldn’t be leading. Dan was a gem to have carried the rope and all the gear and still allow me to lead the fun part, but it should have been his to do anyway!
There was still a fair amount of snow below the Cables section, which was, of course, my favorite part. However, we got a little extra treat that morning. As we were slogging up the snow, we saw a party of two down-climbing the rock quite adeptly instead of rappelling, who then went over to yell hearty cheers to some people on the Diamond. Dan and I figured they must have been climbing the Diamond (they did have harnesses on, but we saw no rope?) and realized that we hadn’t seen them on the way up, meaning they had probably lapped us. That was terribly depressing until they came down toward us, and we realized it was Tommy Caldwell. It’s okay to be lapped by one of the best climbers in the world. We exchanged brief pleasantries (he and I in obvious disagreement about the value of a snow slog versus rock climbing, haha!), and he said they had climbed the Casual Route on the Diamond. While the Cables in no way equals the skill it takes to do the Casual on the Diamond, I love that I get to climb in an area that even puts me in the region of running into climbing All Stars – Colorado is great. That made our day and was so much cooler than taking a pic with a climbing celeb in a gym.
We continued up the snow, poor Dan with only his trekking poles – we didn’t think there would still be quite that much, so he didn’t bring an ax and I only brought one of my usual two. Most of it was easy, although I did find one hard-packed snow/ice section that I needed to swing the business end of my ax into to get up and would have appreciated crampons over microspikes (Dan smartly avoided that part). We got the base of the Cables and racked up, Dan taking the lead. I was a little bummed I wasn’t going to lead, but for time’s sake I knew it was best he did. I also wasn’t thrilled about the condition the route was in. We were late enough in the day that the route wasn’t iced over with verglass, but it also wasn’t a gently crying drip, either. It was a gushing, flowing waterfall. Luckily, the dry treatment on my rope is still in good shape. Dan was comfortable soloing it, even with the water, but since we had brought the gear, he figured he might as well use it. He made quick work out of it, but in the middle of the pitch, we could see the weather toward the North turning poor. He down-climbed a bit to get back in earshot of me, and we discussed continuing. The storm was pretty far off and did not look to be heading in our direction; we felt good going on, as all other orientations (that we could see) looked good.
Dan said he had decided if I had taken a long time on the technical section he would have wanted to turn back then, but I also ran up it quickly, so we decided to keep going. Unfortunately, my phone is broken and died early in the morning so I don’t have photos of Dan climbing and of the fun stuff, but it was enjoyable for sure! We tied the rope off on the last eyebolt as an easy reference point to come back to and started scrambling up. It was mostly straightforward class 3 with a bit of class 4 until we got to a pretty sketchy snow traverse that held a drop-off over the Diamond. The clouds were starting to become more ominous, but we were so close to the top. Just after the snow section we heard a number of loud thunder claps and knew we were done. Having to go back over that snow section
just after we crossed it was not my favorite thing, as it was poor, mushy snow and it was a left leaning traverse which makes the knee that’s had three surgeries scream in pain. The area was close enough to the edge of the cliff that there wouldn’t be time for recovery, and one misstep would result in a very long and sheer fall. I’ve been on many exposed ridges and faces and plenty of “no fall” zones, but perhaps the immensity of the Diamond just made it seem worse. However, I’d do it again in a heartbeat, so that probably means there’s something wrong with my psyche.
We were so close, and all of the hard stuff was behind us. It was incredibly disappointing to turn around about 250 feet from the summit, especially as once we got back to our rope the sun came out for a bit again. We knew it might not hold, though, and that we’d made the right choice. We were still high on the mountain and had a lot of metal on us (for instance, I had a giant ax sticking out of my pack acting as an excellent lightening rod). We started our rappel down back to the relative safety of the boulder field. Other than me flinging my belay device off the cliff before our second rap, everything went smoothly (luckily we found it because I love my DMM Pivot).
It wasn’t the first, or even second, time I’ve turned around that close to a summit, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. When Dan gets back in August, I’m sure we’ll run up the route again and it will be totally dry and seem terribly boring. The important part is to appreciate the time spent out, and what was accomplished and learned even if we didn’t make it that last 250 feet. First of all, it is good to know that I can do the entirety of the route, especially in less than perfect conditions. Leaving an hour earlier (which seems insane, given how long we spent on the mountain), or allowing myself more sleep to start out with probably would have made the difference, but I will know that for next time.
Secondly, it’s very great to have a successful alpine climb when you and your partner are on the same page, in good communication when things get hairy, and know that you know and trust one another’s skills enough to do a climb like that. Especially so, in my case, as I come with a host of disabilities, and finding people who are willing to put up with my slow speed is a rarity!
Lastly, I want to appreciate my struggle. I will certainly get to the top of Longs and many other peaks, but right now I should reflect on the aspects of my days out that are contributing to making me a stronger climber and person even if I don’t achieve the goal that day. It would be easy to ruminate on my failures, on how hard it is for me keep trying and floundering. Because it is hard to do this kind of stuff with a bum leg, asthma, and MS. Yet, I think without appreciating that struggle, when I get to the top of the mountain, or to the end of the road of my 58 fourteeners list it won’t be such a huge accomplishment for me. So here’s to all the days that just really suck, the type II fun, the goals I didn’t quite reach, and rewards I didn’t quite achieve.