30 For 30, or Kiener's In a Day and a Half
“Kiener’s route, huh?” was the collective response to my request for a partner. Was I crazy? No, this was the best time of year to climb it, the rock was dry, the weather typically held up all day without lightning storms, and the snow portion should be relatively short and easy. The route, often called the Mountaineer’s Route, begins from Chasm Lake, heads up Lamb’s slide, crosses Broadway Ledge to the edge of the Diamond, and follows the left skyline of the Diamond to the summit of Long’s Peak. It’s really not that hard if you stay on route, with the climbing never exceeding 5.4. One could say its more a test of will and being able to put together a variety of climbing skills. The trusty partner that he is, Matt DiTullio figured he was up for the challenge. It had been awhile since we’d done stupid things in the mountains together, so why not get after it again?
Two years ago, I had gotten it into my head to climb the route with a different partner in winter by linking it with Alexander’s Chimney, a WI4/M4 gully leading directly to the base of the route. What an aesthetic line! We failed. Twice. Climbing four long pitches of interesting alpine ice and finishing with some scary mixed moves to the bottom of Kiener’s proved too much. Grizzled alpinists we were not.
Our highpoint had been a few feet below Broadway Ledge, the big scar splitting the East Face. We could see our goal, but couldn’t find a safe way to get there. Ice was breaking off everywhere, the rock was too loose to protect, let alone climb on, and we were really fucking cold. So we gave up and rappelled, nearly cutting our rope in the process on deviously sharp ledges.
There were many reasons for not sending last time, from simply not being fit enough to bringing the wrong gear. This time, I wanted the summit more than ever, and came up with a list that really echoed the mountaineer’s minimum. This is a concept I came up with (I actually just made that up right here, someone else surely has a better grasp on the concept) that explains what a climber really needs for a specific route. Bring the absolute fewest things you will need. You will be uncomfortable and things will get silly up there, but that's half the fun. Carrying around a bunch of shit you don't need is worse than being a little uncomfortable for the summit push. Learn to improvise with what you have, and bring only what is absolutely necessary. If you cant come up with a specific reason you need something on that specific route, leave it at home. It can mean using a nut tool for an ice axe on easier terrain, or using your pack as a shelter.
That meant the following: 45-degree down sleeping bag, warm puffy, softshell, hardshell, climbing pants, strap crampons, gore-tex approach shoes, mountaineering axe (I use a leashed BD venom for its versatility), 6 cams, a set of nuts, a handful of slings, 4 ice screws, helmet, my camera, and a 30m rope. With the gear, we brought four liters of water, six packs of Clif Shots, two Bison bars, and two Clif bars. This added up to roughly 2000 calories. Split that by two climbers. Yummy.
We left Boulder after work on Saturday and made the quick drive up to the Longs Peak trailhead after stuffing our faces with Wahoo’s burritos. The parking lot was completely full when we arrived shortly after nightfall. Must have been a late night for many up there. Sure enough, we encountered four tired parties descending within the first mile of the hike in, stumbling down the trail like zombies without a leader.
There are a handful of caves at Chasm Lake to bivy in. Hidden underneath the largest boulders, they are usually pretty easy to find, especially with other parties around. But by the time we arrived shortly before midnight, everyone was asleep and the only sound was the water slowly hitting the shores of Chasm Lake from the breeze.
“Fuck man, I’m too tired to keep looking, there’s a flat rock up there,” Matt muttered.
Sleeping on a rock seemed like our best option at this point. Of course, agreeing to go as light as possible, we had forgone sleeping pads and any sort of creature comforts. It was summer, after all, wasn’t it?
I bundled up in all the clothes I brought, and found the flattest spot on our rock to lie down. From my sleeping bag, I took a few photos of the stars before getting relatively cozy and drifting off into oblivion.
“Yo Max, do you have more clothes? Its fucking cold.” I heard a very muffled version of Matt’s voice calling out to me. Was he serious? His pack was so much bigger than mine. I answered with a “fuck you, let me sleep” groan.
“Dude I’m serious, I’m freezing, what’s going on with me?” He was serious, I guess. Blame it on the altitude or something. I asked him about the softshell he had taken off earlier on the hike, and suggested a second pair of socks for his cold feet. He took the advice and shut up, but by then I was wide awake from the commotion. The sleep never returned. I remember thinking that I shouldn't look at the time because we would just be demoralizingly far through the night already.
The alarm rang at 6:30. After what seemed like the loudest 30 seconds of my life, I finally found my phone buried in my pack to turn it off. Surely, we had woken up anyone sleeping nearby, in addition to an entire colony of marmots and pika. I looked around, and all was silent.
The sunrise was incredible over Chasm Lake, and by the time I crawled out of my sleeping bag, I saw silhouettes of other climbers on the far side of the lake making their way towards us. Today would be a busy day on the mountain, so we had to get going.
We hiked the last half mile from our rock to the bottom of Lamb’s Slide. At the start of the snow, we briefly chatted with an already-tired party gearing up for Kor’s Door, a heady old school 5.9 that climbs a crack system up the East face, put up heroically in 1958 by who else than Layton Kor. After gearing up and re-adjusting our crampons multiple times we started up Lamb’s Slide. This 1500-foot couloir is one of the most iconic Colorado snow climbs and ranges from 40 to around 50 degrees near the top. It is directly north-facing, so it holds snow year-round. The first few hundred feet were a breeze to climb, kicking steps and plunging my axe were all I needed to move fast. However, as we ducked into the shaded part of the couloir, conditions immediately went to shit. What had been Styrofoam before now turned into bulletproof ice that would barely take the front point of my handy approach shoe-crampon combination. Sketch!
The wise choice was to rope up here, and I placed two screws as an anchor. Hanging out for a second, we pondered our existences and made the choice to continue. It was only 7:30, so we still had some time to waste. I started upwards again, making some interesting maneuvers to get over to the side of the couloir to move on the rock rather than the ice. Bad choice. The rock was the polar opposite of the bulletproof ice: loose, blocky, and falling everywhere. Every single piece of rock I touched for the next eight pitches moved. Most of them ended up hundreds of feet below us on Lamb’s Slide, narrowly avoiding Matt cowering on the side. Calling out rockfall seemed a moot point.
Scary climbing that is not necessarily hard gets you into an interesting headspace. You are not worried about whether you can physically make the next move, but rather if the rock can physically hold the next move. One must diligently test every single hand- and foothold before committing to it. While not really physically tiring, my brain was fried by the end of it. We still had two thirds of the route above us.
Pitch after pitch of bullshit finally got us to Broadway Ledge. The last pitch required crawling backwards on a six-inch wide ice shelf around a car-sized boulder in order to reach for a good axe placement. From here I had to maneuver my pack around the boulder and stand up to awkwardly stem between it and the ice to left. This was all protected by a shallow screw placement 30 feet below.
We rested at the start of Broadway. Matt was tired. I was tired. Unfortunately, at this point, the easiest way down was up. Rappelling Lamb’s Slide with a 30m seemed suicidal, especially now that the sun had been baking the ice for the better part of an hour. Up we went.
Crossing Broadway is a cool experience. I finally understood the irony of the name as we crossed farther and farther out towards the Diamond and the start of Kiener’s. The famous boulder move is well, pretty fucking exposed. You can sit on the ledge with your back to the wall and have your heels dangle over a face that goes all the way down to Chasm Lake. Not bad.
This was the section we had originally brought a rope for. After crossing it, it seemed utterly harmless compared to what we had already climbed. Just a little exposed was all, nothing hard.
Then came the heartbreaker. We crossed over the top of Alexander’s Chimney. Peering over the edge, I saw my highpoint from two winters ago, maybe 30 feet below where I was standing. Our bail slings were still there. I was almost tempted to climb down and grab them, but we were already behind schedule.
From here, the route meanders upwards to the Notch Couloir. This infamous gash up high on the mountain marks the beginning of the end of the climb. On a side note, people ski it relatively frequently. It’s really fucking steep. And it ends at a 1000-foot cliff.
After crossing it, we spent a few minutes looking for the chimney that marks the start of Kiener’s proper. We roped up, hoping that the 30m would reach somewhere with decent anchor possibilities. I started climbing, and immediately found myself in 5.9 terrain. Not on route. I looked to my left to see a fixed pin about 10 feet over in much easier terrain. I down climbed and headed over to clip it. Much better.
The climbing got easier from here, following a chimney/dihedral system for about 200 feet before spitting you out on third-class stuff. After climbing for nearly eight hours, we were thrilled to be on easy ground again. However, the deception is real up there, and soon enough we were making fifth-class moves again, with our energy reserves draining fast.
Scramble, climb, belay, repeat. This continued until we stood on the final ledge below the summit. One more pitch, supposedly 5.4 to the top. In keeping with the spirit of the day, the climbing was not 5.4. Closer to 5.8. I will take the blame for that, as I climbed myself into harder terrain, and made the decision to just go straight up for simplicities sake, instead of taking the easier roundabout way. Of course, the 30m didn’t quite reach the top, forcing me to build an intermediate anchor at the base of the final chimney. I remember at that point not even caring what lay ahead. I was done.
Matt got scared when I let out my scream of relieved agony at the top of the pitch.
“What the fuck is going on up there?” he yelled. I replied with something along the lines of: “Oh nothing, I’m just on the summit and its pretty cool,” and set up the final anchor to pull him up.
We summited at 7pm. Despite starting early and trying to move as fast as possible, it still took us 12 hours to do the route. Significantly longer than we had expected. That's what we get for doing 30 pitches with a 30m rope.
Our rope was too short to do the rappels on the North Face, so we were forced to take the long way down the Keyhole route. We took a few photos on the summit boulder and forced some more energy gels down our throats. Headlamps on, we started the descent down the slippery slabs that mark the top of the Keyhole route, a part known as the Homestretch.
The descent was awful. An unhealthy mixture of fatigue, uncertainty, hunger, and hallucinations. Neither of us knew the route, forcing us to follow red on gray markings painted onto the uniformly gray rock. The trail markers may as well have not been there at all.
We thought we had already twice passed through the keyhole before we made it to the actual formation. While disheartening the first two times, passing through the actual Keyhole allowed us to see the rest of the way home, and we both sat down and breathed heavy sighs of relief. At this point, we were out of water and each had one energy bar remaining. My phone, which I had been using to play motivational tunes had also died.
Following the barely discernable cairns through the Boulderfield, we stumbled across the NPS campsite, where several tents were set up.
“Damn, you guys are alive!” a voice cried out to us. Unsure of what was really going on, we simply walked towards it. A group of hikers were camped there after their successful ascent via the Keyhole. Graciously accepting their offer of food and drink, we sat down and ate like kings, if kings ate cold rice and beans and drank lukewarm water.
From here, I simply followed Matt’s tracks all the way back to the car. The last few miles became a hallucinatory blur filled with rather intense visuals of deer and bigfoot running alongside the trail. Fatigue is a pretty cool drug.
Fuck. We left the car’s lights on. Neither of us even cared at that point. It didn't matter. Our daily allotment of fucks to give had been exhausted.
Luckily, the car started first try.
-Words by Max Ritter
-Images by Matt DiTullio and Max Ritter