It is not often you go through a cave to reach a mountain summit. But I recently did just that on Longs Peak.
I guess I have to say Longs Peak in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park is my favorite 14er given I have climbed on it over 125 times reaching the summit on 33 occasions.
I’m not an overly technical climber and use Longs as training for my higher altitude climbs so it was a to explore a new route (for me) with some good friends on July 23, 2013.
The Northwest Couloir was first documented by Enos Mills (aka Mills Lake) in 1896. He noted previous evidence of earlier human activity in the couloir. Today it is rarely climbed and often goes unnoticed by the thousands who pass underneath on the Ledges as part of the normal Keyhole route. I have been guilty of this for over a decade.
A bit more on Mr. Mills. He went on to summit more than 40 times solo and served as a guide 300 more times. He was instrumental in obtaining National Park status for what we now call Rocky Mountain National Park in 1915. The first documented summit of Longs was by John Wesley Powell and a party of seven in 1868 but it is almost certain the local Native Americans summited well before him.
The Northwest Couloir
The Northwest Couloir is a Class 4 climb but we used ropes to protect the team as we found verglas near the crux move midway through the gully. It could be climbed without protection but the margin of error is very small and would need to be dry or climbers having solid experience in my opinion.
This is a different level than the Keyhole or Loft routes. I had scouted it a few weeks before in early July and found significant ice on the route.
The route follows the normal Keyhole approach through the Boulderfield, Keyhole and onto the Ledges. The NW Couloir is the last gully on the left (East) just before the Trough. There is an earlier gully that can be mistaken for the NW but a large rock formation at the top of the gully resembling the Knight chess piece is the landmark to use.
The lower climb is straightforward but with the loose rock, it requires attention especially for those below you on the Ledges. The handholds are tenuous, more like something you would find in the Elk Range, not on Longs. Water is often running down the Couloir making the up climb sloppy at times.
A series of narrow rock benches create a somewhat easy route but in general staying to the climber’s right worked well for us.
The crux, and most fun move is navigating the cave. Technically it is not a cave but rather a gap between two huge slabs that have become lodged in a narrow chimney, aka pancake rocks. While an alternate route is to the right of the cave, it is a 5.2 – 5.4 slab rock climb. If covered in verglas, as parts were on our day, it would be challenging. The exposure to the lower Couloir is extreme. It doubtful that a cell phone would receive a signal in the Couloir but I didn’t try.
The approach to the cave is via the lower chimney leading to a false gap. From there, a move to the right is required to see a decades old ring piton half way hammered into the rock. I would love to know the history of this piece.
A decent rock ledge allows for a good foothold to reach the piton and from there a couple of aggressive moves takes you to the entrance of the cave. It was on this move where we put in a couple of nuts for protection.
Once at the entrance, we crawled in to see a 16 inch high gap with sunlight on the other end. Our team use a variety of gymnastic moves to wiggle through the gap ranging from bellyflop, to backstroke to sideways crawl but all required removing our packs.
Once through the gap, a solid rock platform allows for a safe foot plant.
To the Summit
The Couloir opens up above the cave returning to a Class 3 rock scramble. At the top it joins the Keyhole Ridge route but well above the rated 5+ sections. A long series of connected slabs take you to the summit plateau.
The views of the Trough and climbers looking like ants, dominate the view 600’ below. The views of the irregular rock blocks stacked like dominoes was astounding.
Given we had a 60m rope and harnesses, we rappelled down the North Face completing a unique and satisfying day on Longs Peak. Our little team was Stuart Smith, Noelle Smith, Jim Davidson and Alan Arnette
The following video was taken by myself and Jim Davidson. I hope you enjoy.
Memories are Everything