Andy sideslipping the Homestretch at 14,000'.

Skiing Longs
Peak

By George Bell
(gibell@comcast.net)

Written June 2003
Trip date 5/24/2003

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Me crossing a thin section,
Palisaides behind.

The idea of skiing Longs Peak has for many years appealed to me. The problem is, the "standard ski descent" is down the North Face. A slide down the upper part of this route could launch you over the Diamond, or equally fatal cliffs farther north. Plus a rappel would almost certainly be necessary. I enjoy skiing peaks, but the thought of doing a turn with the Diamond below I knew would sap me of all confidence. I had never attempted to ski roped up, and it seemed a lot of work and would not feel like skiing at all. So skiing Longs looked like it might never happen for me.

The Clue

Longs East Face Cirque, 5/24/03
(Loft Couloir on the left)
Copyright © 2003 by George I. Bell
One June 1st, 1996, Bill Wright and I climbed the Notch Couloir. A big spring storm had dumped a few feet of snow on the peak a few days before, and the Notch Couloir was filled with knee-deep snow. This made it technically easy, but we were afraid the whole thing might avalanche (again, scary cliff at the bottom of this one). We felt pretty safe, though, simulclimbing while keeping a few pieces of rock gear between us.

Arriving at The Notch, we were exhausted from all the trail breaking. You can go down from here, but I wanted to go all the way to the summit. The easiest route to the summit I knew was to drop down the south side, and contour west to climb the Homestretch (final part of the trail). The Homestretch is a series of steep slabs and is one crux of the Longs Peak Trail. While not too bad when dry, I wasn't sure what kind of shape it would be in. Knowing that rock is generally harder when covered by snow or ice, I was even thinking we might have to belay the Homestretch.

To my amazement, the Homestretch was completely covered in snow. There was some rock melting out, but there was a continuous line of snow to the top. The snow on the slabs seemed moderate in angle, it seemed easier than in the summer! It was still an exhausting post-hole to the top, but the seed of an idea was planted in my mind: The Homestretch was easy when covered with enough snow. It could even be skied under those conditions.

The Planning

Patrol Cabin Wreckage
Copyright © 2003 by George Bell
It took quite a few years to line up the right partners and conditions to attempt a ski descent. Also, although I knew a ski descent could begin with the Homestretch, I wasn't sure how one would complete it. I knew the Trough was skiable, but suspected that it probably wasn't possible to ski from the Homestretch to the Trough, as this area is steep and ledgy and also faces south. The other alternative seemed to be to ski down Keplinger's Couloir, the couloir which goes down the south side from The Notch (and the route of the first recorded ascent in 1868). However I had never climbed the peak from this side and wasn't sure how well it held snow.

The Spring of 2003 was a wet one. It snowed so much one weekend in March that a huge avalanche took out the Chasm Lake Patrol Cabin, which had stood at the same spot for 72 years. This seemed an obvious sign that there was tons of snow on Longs Peak. Perhaps even too much? We would not want to try to ski the Homestretch before it was consolidated. While the North Face is easy to check out from Estes Park, our proposed ski descent was more difficult to scope out. The Homestretch itself actually faces SSW, and the only places to get a good view of it are very remote (or by airplane).

Climbing to the Loft
Copyright © 2003 by George I. Bell
It seemed that skiing the Homestretch to Keplingers was the best bet for an "easy" ski descent of Longs. Maybe not easy, but non-extreme. Climbing and skiing this route would require starting in Wild Basin and probably an overnight stay. To make this a day trip, we decided to leave a car at Wild Basin and then start up the usual Longs Peak Trail. We could summit via the trail or Loft Route. The Loft Route is actually slightly shorter to the summit, although you have to descend in two places (before Chasm Lake and also going around the Palisaides). I knew also that in early season it is generally possible to climb to the Loft all on snow (avoiding the summer ledge system).

The key to this ski descent is timing. Only wet spring storms fill in the Homestretch sufficiently, but you want to wait until the snow is consolidated (a few days). Since it faces south, the Homestretch can probably become unskiable in as little as one week of hot sun. Add to this the fact that the snow on the route can't be seen from anywhere easily, and it's basically a crap shoot. I discussed this possible ski route with Andy Moore over emails, and he remained skeptical there would be enough snow although he was game to check it out.

The Climbing

Top of Keplinger's, showing
the key ledge cutting left
Copyright © 2003 by Andy Moore
A large cast of characters indicated interest in this ski descent, but as the planned day drew nearer, people dropped out. Eventually it was down to just Andy, me and Bernard Vachon. Andy and I had never even met Bernard - he was a friend of Bill Wright's, who was unable to go due to a failure to find a babysitter.

We met in North Boulder at 3AM, continuing in 2 cars. After some confusion in the dark, we finally found the Sandbeach Lake parking lot and left my car there. We continued in Andy's truck to the Long's Peak Trailhead and were on our way by 4:45. To my chagrin, it was already getting light at this hour. After only about a half mile, we started seeing snow on the trail, and I was concerned to find that it had not frozen over night. By the time we got to timberline, however, we were walking continually on snow which was well frozen. We followed the Chasm Lake trail, and at the base of the Loft Couloir we passed the remains of the Patrol Cabin. Here Bernard and I switched to skis for a while but had to go back to carrying them once it got steep.

Traversing up the Ledge, Palisaides behind
Copyright © 2003 by George I. Bell
Surprisingly, there didn't appear to be much snow at the top of the Loft Couloir, perhaps this was due to the avalanche. We were able to climb it directly (rather than traversing on ledges to the left) but it was very close. There was one chockstone near the top that had melted out and required a rock climbing move to pass. This felt ungainly carrying skis and in awkward telemark boots. It was a beautiful morning; there was a layer of clouds below us extending eastward. As we climbed higher, this layer rose up and threatened to swallow us. We went in and out of a cloud and the lighting was dramatic.

Bernard was carrying his ski boots in his pack, while wearing plastic climbing boots, and consequently had a much heavier load than the rest of us. Still he was very fit and eager to break trail for Andy and I. The man had been skiing over 50 days this season and would turn out to be our secret weapon.

Me on the summit, ready to slide ...
Copyright © 2003 by Andy Moore
At 9AM, we took a break in the middle of the Loft. The Loft is a flat saddle at 13,400' between Longs and Meeker and was totally devoid of snow. The wind blows so hard all winter long no snow accumulates here. It was strange being in such a barren rocky environment in the middle of a ski descent. Fortunately looking off at areas below us we could see quite a bit of snow.

I knew this was a difficult part of the ascent, as we would have to lose altitude down a steep, loose area, and then regain it on the other side of some cliffs called the Palisaides. We continued onward, and in this section we were passed by a soloist going the opposite direction. He saw our skis, and gave us the opinion that Keplinger's might be a good ski, but the Homestretch was unskiable. We might as well leave our skis at the top of the Keplinger's, he indicated.

The news was discouraging, but at least we would be able to ski Kelpingers. My long 203cm skis were a real drag in this section as they kept scraping the rocks behind me. I found I had to back down sections which were rather low angle. We went lower, and this section seemed harder than I remembered, but Andy had done the route recently and convinced me we were on route.

Andy cranking a turn above the tricky chute.
Copyright © 2003 by George I. Bell
Eventually we reached the top of Keplinger's Couloir with the Notch above us. There were actually several couloirs dropping down and fortunately Andy had recently read Gerry Roach's description which indicates that Keplinger's was the western most of them, and it also looked the most skiable. This area was still in the shade due to the Palisaides, I was happy to see. We did not want the snow to get too soft for our descent.

The snowy ramp that I had remembered cutting west from below the Notch was still there with plenty of coverage. Above that we could see lots of rock, but Bernard was in front and did not drop his skis at the top of Keplinger's. The ramp was definitely skiable, so we figured we might as well keep going carrying the skis. At this point there were a lot of clouds around us, but also much sun. It was getting quite hot.

Above the ramp was a rock slab which barred the way towards the trail. However we discovered that by zigging east and then back west we were able to stay on snow except for a 10' section. It looked as if we'd have to take skis off here on the way down. We then reached the Homestretch itself, and the snow was definitely narrower than I remembered in 1996 but was still there. The snow here diagonalled and it looked like the only way to ski this would be to sideslip. There was also a rocky step to get over, and over the top 20' the snow got only a foot wide and then ended entirely. It was 11 AM, we were on top with our skis.

Skiing a narrow section in upper Keplingers
Copyright © 2003 by Andy Moore
We chatted with a few other climbers on top, a guide and client who had climbed the North Face were also carrying skis, and a pair who had climbed Keiners. I took off my boots as my socks were wet, ate and drank, and rock hopped barefoot to the summit register. It was calm and pleasant, although ominous clouds were circling us.

The Skiing

Bernard changed into ski boots and was determined to ski from the summit plateau. I didn't see how he was going to do this with 10 feet of bare rocks near the top. Andy and I figured we would walk down the final 40 feet of the Homestretch and put our skis on when the snow was wide enough. Bernard soon snapped into his bindings and disappeared from sight. Andy and I put our skis on the summit for some photos, but then removed them and walked down a bit. I was amazed that Bernard had managed to get down 10' of rock in his skis, followed by a foot wide strip of snow that he had sidestepped or sideslipped. We were to find out that Bernard was quite willing to cross sections of rock in his skis. I had never really considered doing this on ski descents before, but we all soon began to think this way. It was hard on the skis, but my skis were old anyway.

Andy in upper Keplingers
Copyright © 2003 by George I. Bell
I put on my skis and began sideslipping down the Homestretch. This was surprisingly easy. Andy even managed to do a turn in here. After stepping over the rock step (in the foreground of the photo at top of this page), I managed a few turns before it was time to cut east. Here was a 10' section of bare rock slab that we all walked across on our skis. This section didn't feel too bad as there was no cliff immediately below us.

After a few fun turns we stopped above a narrow but short chute. It required only two turns, but if you blew the second turn you could run into a rock wall. Bernard went first and executed two quick turns perfectly, but I was more nervous. Eventually both Andy and I sidestepped down the narrow chute, bypassing the tricky part and then doing some fun, safe turns. We were now at the western edge of the wide ledge which connected us to the top of Keplineger's Couloir. Below this ledge is a slabby cliff, and this was one place on this descent where you do not want to go into an uncontrolled slide. The ledge wasn't very steep for the most part and we primarily needed to traverse, not go down it. Bernard cut a traverse line down and shortly we were all feeling better with only Keplinger's Couloir below us.

Bernard skiing lower Keplingers
Copyright © 2003 by Andy Moore
We had to walk over another short section of rocks to get into the Couloir. From here the skiing was excellent. There were a couple of narrow sections but nowhere near as narrow as the sections above that we had sideslipped. The snow was excellent as we made turn after turn down the couloir.

Eventually it really opened out, but at this point the snow began to get too soft. Bernard was in better shape, and also using randonnee gear always seems to involve less work. After making a dozen turns I would be doubled up leaning on my poles, gasping for breath. I was feeling the fact that I had done very little backcountry skiing this season.

Near the bottom it was quite challenging as the snow was inconsistent, there were also large lumps in the snow from recent snowslides. I took several spectacular falls hitting areas that were melting out and the snow gave away beneath me. The couloir remains quite consistent in angle (perhaps 35 degrees) all the way to the base.

The clouds had really come in during the descent, and sometimes we were actually skiing in the fog. As we skied away from the base of the couloir, we couldn't see the summits around us as they were enveloped in clouds. We followed some fun rolling terrain down to an unnamed lake at 11,200'. It felt great flying down this on skis, as you know after it melts out it is miserable scree.

At this point it started to rain large, but infrequent drops. Nobody stopped to don raingear, and after a brief hammering it let up. The weather had deteriorated and it was to repeat this pattern for the rest of the day. The weather did nothing to dampen our spirits, however. We were in the middle of a fantastic ski descent! I was just glad that we were off the summit area.

Andy exiting Keplinger's Couloir
Copyright © 2003 by George I. Bell
We skied down the drainage, now in the trees. This was fast going for the most part, as there were still large open sections and lots of altitude loss. Another dousing storm came past, including lightning, as we passed under the Dragon's Egg Couloir on Meeker.

We spent some time in the thick forest trying to locate Sandbeach Lake. In this section Bernard broke a pole when the snow gave away beneath him and he was now down to one. We spotted the lake at one point, and took off our skis for a short south facing section. We then skied below the lake and missed it, but soon picked up the trail below the lake. The trail made for some fast skiing down to a creek crossing at 9600'. We had been on skis to this point practically from the summit, but now the trail frustratingly alternated between snow and rocks. Bernard once again showed his willingness to walk across melted out sections with skis on, while Andy and I took our skis off and on many times.

I had never been up Longs this way, and it seemed much longer than the usual trail. We were in no rush, though, and took a nice long break at one point. I was out of water and didn't feel like eating, but it was great to be sitting and simply breathing the damp, fragrant air after over 11 hours on the go. We put our skis on the packs for good now, but we had skied nearly 5000 vertical from the summit area. We stumbled back to the car just after 5PM, making for over 12 hours car to car. It had been a fantastic "Tour-De-Longs!".

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