SUNRISE TO SUNRISE
Bruce and Dick had done the Kieners Route on Long’s Peak twice before, always in July, but this year they were doing it a little earlier in the year and Joe was going along with them. It was June 29, 1991. They knew that having three people doing the climb instead of two would take longer, and had estimated it would take about 7 ½ hours to reach the summit of Longs Peak. However, they had not allowed for the extra snow that had fallen that winter, and this simple climb turned into quite an adventure for the threesome.
The three men left Greeley at 3:00 a.m. and started up the Longs Peak trail, still blurry eyed, around 4:30 a.m. It took them a couple of hours to reach Chasm Lake, where they munched on hiking bars as they donned their climbing harnesses and crampons. With ice axes in hand, they started up Lambs Slide, a 45 degree snow slope at the base and to the left of the prominent rock wall known as the Diamond Of Longs Peak.
The three climbers made it safely up Lambs Slide, but wasted a lot of time trying to find a ledge on the right called Broadway situated above Diagonal Wall. As its name suggests, Broadway is a fairly wide stone ledge, and is usually easy to find, but the mountain had received unusually heavy snow fall that winter and Broadway was still hidden under the snowy depths. After about 45 minutes the men located the ledge and began tentatively to wade through a 45 degree angle of the white stuff. As they shuffled along huge mounds of snow fell a thousand feet or more to Mills Glacier below.
As the ledge was slippery, the group used two ice screws and belayed each other the 500 feet along the ledge. It took three pitches as a rope length is 150 feet long. When Bruce peered through his feet at Chasm Lake below he was inspired to mutter, “Don’t look down, but look down.” The rocks below glistened in the sunlight, their jagged edges seeming to wink at the three men clinging to the edge of the mountain, perhaps inviting them to join them far below. Seeing these rocks had the men wondering if they should perhaps turn around and go back. The conditions were not the best for climbing and the way up ahead didn’t look any better, but they pushed on regardless, a decision they would later regret.
As they reached the end of Broadway the climbers had an excellent view of The Diamond. It’s enormous, black, sheer rock face just inches away from them. The route above proffered a series of snow covered chimney chutes and boulders. After snatching a bite of food and a swig of water, the men started slowly making their way up, belaying rope as they went. The summit was still 1,500 feet above them and the men were frustrated as they realized how much time they had lost on their careful walk along Broadway.
Now the climb was proving to be more difficult than they first thought. The rocks were wet and slippery, and the rope was getting saturated and heavy. In turn the rope was steadily re-depositing the moisture onto the climbers as they fed it through their hands. At one point Bruce had to remove his pack to get through a chimney and Joe had to feed the pack through to him. All these things were eating up time, and slowing the men down. In addition, they were getting tired, the snow and wet making progress very slow.
At 2:00 p.m. the men were still 500 feet from the summit, whereas they had expected to be hiking out by now. They could not believe how long it was taking. However, it was too late to turn around now and so they continued their slow progress. The hardest part was behind them and it would be easier to go up than to turn around at this point.
It was two hours later and they were still 200 feet from the top when Joe’s ice ax, karabiners and other climbing equipment started to hum and buzz. All three men froze in horror. Humming equipment could only mean one thing — lightning was close by! Their fears were confirmed as a bolt of lightning struck the rocks above them.
The men quickly untied from each other and removed their packs that had various items of climbing equipment hanging from them and tossed the packs, along with their ice axes, away from their bodies while zings of lightning popped all around them. Joe eyed his equipment warily, feeling sure he was not far enough away from the metal equipment, but they were on a steep rocky slope with little room to maneuver.
The men hunkered down close to the ground, using their coiled ropes as insulation against the snow. Darkness descended on them as they sat crouched in the lightning position. The thick black charcoal colored clouds swelled around them and devoured the three trembling men. A heavy drizzle fell, and the men grew cold. Time passed. Each lightning strike had the men counting their blessings, and ten minutes felt like an hour. Finally the clouds started to gray in color and the lightning stopped. Dick was shocked to learn that they had only been hunkered down for thirty minutes, certainly the longest thirty minutes in their lives.
Slowly and stiffly they gathered their climbing gear. Looking up they noticed some large boulders jutting out from the mountain, and figured that these rocks had been their life savers, shielding them from the lightning strikes that had punished the rocks around them.
It was 7:30 p.m. when they finally summited Longs Peak in a heavy drizzle, and discussed what to do next. They decided that descending via the Homestretch would be too dangerous in the dark, and so decided to rappel down the old cable route, usually the quickest and most direct route off the mountain.
They wasted a further ten minutes trying to find the old cable tie. While searching for it Joe slipped on the snow and was forced to execute a self arrest with his ice ax. All the men were exhausted by now, and concentration was waning. Joe crawled back up the slope yet another disaster narrowly avoided.
Finally the men tied into the eyebolt and Bruce slung a rope around a nearby boulder so they could lower themselves down the first pitch. When they tried to tug the wet rope free it stuck, and they wasted more precious time freeing the stubborn rope. The men were no longer thinking clearly, and each small task became a major undertaking. They had run out of water some time ago, and through all the confusion had not been eating enough. While dangling from their ropes they drank the water that was flowing down the side of the mountain. No one could be bothered to take off their packs to find food. They just wanted to get off that forsaken mountain.
The men were now soaked to the skin, despite their gore-tex clothing. Water running down the ropes and the constant drizzle had worked its way under their clothes and mingled with their sweat. They were partially frozen and their fingers felt numb. At one point the ropes got twisted and the men dealt with it in almost a trance like state. Just another thing to slow them down, they were no longer surprised.
Finally their boots touched solid rock at the other end of Broadway. At least it is just a walk home now, thought the men. They looked around and were surprised to see footprints in the snow. Assuming they led somewhere, the group decided to follow the tracks. The prints eventually led them to an icy snowfield which they crossed carefully, but could not find the tracks on the other side. The men then realized they were lost.
It was 1:00 a.m. when they stumbled onto the boulder field. They were baffled as to how it had taken them 5 ½ hours to get from the summit of Long’s Peak to the boulder field. Time was surely playing tricks on them.
At this hour, back in Greeley, Joe’s wife Barb was eyeing the clock nervously. She had expected her husband back hours ago, and was wondering if she should call the search and rescue group. She settled with calling Bruce’s wife Jan instead, and learned that Jan had not heard anything either.
Barb did not feel any better after talking to Jan, who had been quite casual about the whole thing, saying she would call Rocky Mountain National Park in the morning. In Barb’s mind it was morning. Perhaps because Jan had her two daughters with her she was not feeling as lost and alone as Barb. Barb was all alone, and her mind kept going over all the things that could go wrong on such a climb.
Dick, Bruce and Joe stumbled across the boulder field. At one point they found a huge flat area that looked suspiciously like a small frozen lake, none of them could remember having seen such an area in the daylight, and they were puzzled about it.
When they disturbed some people camping, they knew they were near the trail, but when the campers pointed and said, “The trail’s a 150 yards that way.” It could have been a mile to the three climbers. They were disoriented, tired, cold, dehydrated and generally in terrible condition. They would stumble along for twenty minutes, and then sit down to rest. When one of them started to fall asleep, they would get up and plod forward for twenty minutes more then take another break. For hours they repeated this cycle. Sometimes they found the trail, but frequently lost it again on the switchbacks.
Joe had caught some water in his bottle when coming down the cable route, but upon drinking it his stomach refused to accept it, and Joe was left with the nasty taste of bile in his throat. Now on the verge of hypothermia, his wet rope and clothes partially frozen, he just wanted to sit down and sleep. He imagined removing his frozen socks and shoes and tucking his feet into his pack to keep them warm. It would be so warm and dry in there, he thought, and sleep would be so welcoming. He could almost feel the warmth enter through his toes. A firm shove from Bruce shook him from his dream state, and Joe forced himself to take another step.
By the time Bruce, Dick and Joe reached the more obvious section of the trail near timberline, there was a tiny sliver of red appearing on the horizon in the East. The twinkle of lights over The Front Range were growing faint, and were being replaced by the dawning light of a new day.
As the sun started to show its face, the men squinted in pain at the startling light, unable to believe that they were watching the sunrise for a second time on the same climb.
The men reached Chasm Lake junction at 6:30 a.m. They had no need of the facilities there, as all the men were dehydrated. As they gazed at the toilet with a view, they had no idea that at that moment, back at home, two extremely concerned wives were talking to a ranger about their husband’s whereabouts.
Jan had called the ranger office as promised at 6:30 a.m. When no one answered Jan left a message and within minutes a ranger returned her call. That ranger informed Jan that a ranger in the field had spotted the three weary climbers on the trail, having recognized them from the description of their packs that they had recorded in the trail register. The men always left pack descriptions rather than clothing descriptions because coats may be removed and clothing items changed, but the color of a pack remained constant.
The ranger had been looking for the climbers because they had not signed out on the trail register, and their car was still in the parking lot. He had spotted them from a distance that morning, and saw they appeared unharmed. The ranger estimated the group should be back to their vehicle around 8:00 a.m.
It took the three stumbling men a little longer than that, but they were still back at the trailhead at 8:30 a.m. Walter Tishma was there to greet them. His concern was apparent, and he was genuinely relieved to see his friends alive, if not too well. His warm handshake was most welcomed by the three adventurers. After warming themselves in the little ranger cabin and calling home the three men said their good-byes to Long’s Peak.
Finally, their bad luck was over. A new day was beginning, but as they approached their car they could not believe what they were seeing. There, tucked firmly behind a windshield wiper, was a Rocky Mountain National Park government parking ticket!
By Roxy Whalley
Written for my column Tales from the Trail in The Estes Park News, in October 2005.
* Note – Walter Tishma died on December 26, 2011. He was an amazing man!