High in Colorado

High in Colorado
Photo: Mandy Lea Photo

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Longs Peak Project (December) -- Keplingers Couloir

Disclaimer: I wrote some parts of this shortly after each summit attempt and other parts about eight months later. So, I go into a lot of detail when talking about some aspects and very little detail when talking about others. Sorry…

December 19th—Keplingers Couloir with Peter Bakwin (Bailout)

Car-to-car time: 12 hours 27 minutes

The weather had been absolute crap up to this point in December. With the forecast for today looking slightly less shitty I decided to take a sick day (cough, cough) and attempt to finish the project with Peter. It’s now August 2017 as I write this. So, the details are fuzzy at best. I remember the postholing being deep from the very beginning and the winds being fierce above treeline. Peter and I would walk for a bit, turn around, and our tracks would already be blown over. Around a thousand vertical feet from the summit we decided to bail. We could have made the summit, but we would have descended in the dark. I struggled throughout the day for some odd reason and honestly didn’t think I could ever make it back to the trailhead. When we reached the cars I was left completely wrecked physically and mentally. There have only been a few times in my short lifetime of mountain pursuits where I didn’t know for certain that I’d make it back to the car under my own power. This was one of them. Every step took every ounce of energy I could muster and it continued this way from the moment we turned around all the way back to the parking lot.
Peter dropping me like I was standing still...

Gearing up for the slop up Keplingers

The winds were pretty fierce. Not sure this photo really conveys that.

Bailing out in hopes of getting back to the "trail" before dark.

December 29th—Up/down Keplingers Couloir with Justin Simoni and Charlie Nuttelman

Car-to-car time: 12 hours 58 minutes

After bailing on this route with Peter I had accepted that my LPP was over. That attempt left me mentally and physically defeated. The last time I was that wrecked after a day out in the mountains was when I traversed all of the Elks Range 14ers in a single 44-hour sleepless push. I had zero motivation to get back out there and try Keplingers again. 

Fortunately, I have some amazing people in my life. Even though I had just met Mandy I think she could sense how important this project had been to me throughout the year. She provided endless words of encouragement and was the primary source of motivation for me deciding to give Keplingers another attempt. Once Mandy convinced me to give it another go I reached out to Satan’s Minions to see if anyone wanted to join. After the first attempt I dreaded the thought of going at this alone. I kept thinking back to how devastated that day left me and didn’t want to potentially experience that all alone. 

Unfortunately, with the holidays I was left with only one day that worked—the 29th. This meant that Peter couldn’t join for my last month of the LPP. Peter and I had teamed up to tackle seven of twelve months together for our LPP’s. We also climbed all of Gerry Roach’s Top 10 Flatirons Classics in a day on a whim; an idea I expressed to him during one of our “routine” North Face descents. Several years ago Peter took me scrambling for my first time ever on The Regency and Royal Arch. Eventually, he took me up the 1st and 3rd Flatirons one morning for my first ever ascents of those slabs. Needless to say, through the last five years Peter has become one of my most trusted adventure partners. So, it was a bit hard to go into this second attempt without having him along. 

I was lucky enough to get interest from Justin Simoni and Charlie Nuttelman. Justin is always pursuing some badass project(s) and Charlie completed the LPP last year with Bill Wright. Justin also joined Peter and I for our May ascent of Notch Couloir. So, I was happy to have these two great guys along for the day. The level of stoke these guys bring with them is contagious. 

After some emailing back-and-forth we finally decided to just go ascend and descend Keplingers. My heart was set on ascending Keplingers and descending the North Face where Mandy would be waiting to drive us back to the Wild Basin TH. I just kept thinking about how much effort it took me to slog back out of Wild Basin with Peter and didn’t want that experience again. The North Face was familiar and routine, dare I say. Charlie was against this idea. He had been caught up in an avalanche descending the North Face, which is about the best reason I could think of for wanting to avoid that route. The thought of ascending with Charlie and Justin then descending TNF solo had entered my mind as well. Eventually, I decided that saving 1-2 hours on my descent time by exposing myself to potential avalanche dangers just wasn’t worth it. Regardless of which route I descended I was going to have a pretty lady waiting for me at the TH. So, I might as well descend the route that has less potential to kill me and make sure I actually get to see her at the end of the day, right?

We decided to meet at the Wild Basin TH a little before 5am with the goal of hitting the trail as close to 5am as possible. On the 29th, Mandy and I woke up at 2:30am in Fort Collins and began slowly moving around after less than two hours of sleep. I began the process of “suiting up” in all of my layers, scarfed down somewhere between 500-1,000 calories, downed some coffee, and loaded my gear into the Jeep. Shortly after 3:30am we were on the road. I’m not sure what it is, but I love alpine starts. Maybe it’s because I rarely sleep more than 3-4 hours a night already? So, what the hell else should I be doing at 2:30 in the morning?
Early morning start.

Awesome sunrise as we neared treeline.
I still had my doubts going into the day; stemming mostly from my most recent aborted attempt with Peter. Mandy was quick to rid my mind of any negative thoughts. By the time we reached the Wild Basin TH my stoke levels were pretty high and seeing Charlie and Justin drive up made me even more excited. It’s an amazing feeling to have friends willing to wake up ridiculously early to enable you to finish some stupid project you decided to do way back in January. 

As we took off from the parking lot there was still some doubt in my mind whether or not we would summit. To be honest, I like not knowing if I’ll reach the top when I set out on the trail. There should be some uncertainty (even on easy routes like this). Again, the uncertainty likely stemmed from my failed attempt with Peter. I kept going back to that, but it’s hard not to considering how shattered it left me. Shortly after hitting the trail my mind was at peace and all of the uncertainty was gone. I was going to finish this goddamn project. There was no other outcome I’d accept on this day. 

Everything above was written way back in January. Everything below was written in August 2017. 

I don’t recall anything standing out on the ascent/descent. I remember the weather being rather nice and the effort feeling mellow all day long. The three of us took turns breaking trail, but the postholing wasn’t nearly as bad as when Peter and I attempted the route. The biggest thing I remember about the day out was looking at my watch as we neared the trailhead and getting excited at the thought of seeing Mandy waiting for me. I also remember thinking that we could sneak in under 13 hours if we hurried just a bit.
Charlie busting ass
Charlie and Justin making their way up

Not too much longer until the summit. (Photo: Charlie Nuttelman)
We've reached the top! (Photo: Charlie Nuttelman)

Traversing from the Homestretch to Keplingers (Photo: Charlie Nuttelman)

When the three of us reached the parking lot there was one pretty redhead who I barely knew at the time waiting on us with the kitchen of her teardrop camper wide open and lit up. She gave me a big hug and kiss then told us that she had hot soup, coffee, doughnuts, and champagne for us to devour—she’s definitely a keeper! 

Of all of the ascents I did during the LPP this one had the most memorable finish. Typically, Peter and I would take off our shoes in the parking lot, hop in the car, and ride back to Boulder in the most anticlimactic of fashions. It was great to have a short while to reflect on the day with Mandy, Charlie, and Justin while we warmed ourselves with hot food and drink. 

Mandy and I eventually got in the car and she proceeded to drive from the Wild Basin TH to Glenwood Springs. We had planned several days in the area that included a snowmobile ride to the Maroon Bells where she would photography sunrise on New Year’s Eve. We knew each other less than two weeks at this time and she already went beyond all expectations to help me achieve my dreams. What a woman…

For the most part, this is an attainable project for anyone with a moderate amount of mountaineering experience. It’s possible to do this entire project and never use a rope for any ascent (a rope is appreciated for North Face descents in winter). The difficulties arise mostly from the weather. If one is working a normal job for 40’ish hours/week it becomes a crapshoot for getting good weather days to line up with your days off. I guess that’s what sick days are for?

Words can’t really express the amount of appreciation I have for everyone who helped me along the way during this year-long project. You all know who you are…

Yay Champagne and hot soup! (Photo: Mandy Lea)