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Mark Oveson

(c) 2001 by Mark Oveson


Photos by John Prater and Mark Oveson

Notch Couloir on Longs Peak

By: Mark Oveson

Notch Couloir

June 16, 2001


I have failed to climb the Notch Couloir on Longs Peak three times--more than I've failed to climb any other route anywhere. My first failed attempt was in December of 1995 with Bill Wright. We hiked in to Chasm Lake, set up camp, climbed Mount Lady Washington under blue skies, and awoke the next morning to howling wind and terrible visibility. We climbed up the snow slope to the Loft in the freezing cold and called it a day.


My second failed attempt came in May of 1996, when I approached the climb with Jeff and Don, a couple of guys who worked for Lowe Alpine. Jeff was feeling the altitude and didn't end up climbing anything; Don was intimidated by the view of the couloir from the approach and requested a change of plan.  We climbed the enjoyable Flying Dutchman couloir instead and summited Mount Meeker. 


The Notch Couloir from the bottom of Lambs Slide. The Notch is on the skyline just left of center, the Notch Couloir ascends from the large snowfield to the Notch, and Broadway runs horizontally just below center. The Diamond is on the right.My most recent failure to climb the Notch Couloir was in June of 1998, with Tim "The Client" Ulrich.  We approached up Lambs Slide but decided not to climb the route because there was a great deal of ice falling down the East Face.  Instead we continued up Lambs Slide to the Loft and got chased down by weather.  Would the fourth time be a charm?  It was, and this turned out to be one of the best days I've ever had on Longs. 


John "Homie" Prater was undaunted by my history of failures.  He and I met at 3:00 a.m. in north Boulder, drove to the trailhead, and were hiking a couple of minutes before 4:00 a.m.  The sign-in box indicated that one other party had left at 3:30 heading for the Notch, so early on we expected company.  We kept a moderate pace up the trail to Chasm Lake.  I was wearing my approach shoes and carrying my heavy leather mountaineering boots.  I hate hiking in boots, and I thought I might save some energy by wearing light shoes.  The weather was perfectly clear. Before sunrise there was a beautiful crescent moon in the eastern sky with a bright planet--maybe Venus?--nearby.  When the sun rose, it was a breathtaking display.


At Chasm Cutoff, Homie noticed a lone climber coming up the trail a half mile behind us and moving quickly.  We arrived at Chasm Lake to find it was mostly frozen, and there was still enough snow that at Homie's suggestion we walked around the left side and headed immediately up towards Lambs Slide, saving us significant hiking time.  We could see a pair of climbers moving up Lambs Slide ahead of us.  As we sat down above Chasm Lake to eat (and for me to change into my boots), the lone climber who was behind us hiked up to say hello.  This guy had gained significant time on us and was obviously very fit.  We chatted about climbing plans.  He was hoping to climb one of the difficult routes on the Diagonal Wall below the Diamond, or the Red Wall (5.10) on Chasm View Wall.  He mentioned that his partner (who was several minutes behind) had been on the Diamond the week before, climbing Ariana (5.12), and that the weather had been perfect.  Neither of us asked, but we both wondered who his partner was.  Not many people climb 5.12 at 13,000 feet.  These guys were apparently quite a team.  We wished each other mutual good luck and he headed off toward the base of the East Face. 


Traversing Broadway toward the base of the Notch Couloir. Lambs Slide is in the background.For those unfamiliar with this climb, the Notch Couloir route goes like this:  From the slopes above Chasm Lake, you climb up Lambs Slide, a 35-40 degree snow/ice slope, for about 800 vertical feet to a ledge system called Broadway, which cuts across the East Face of Longs.  Then traverse Broadway for about 700-800 feet to the base of the Notch Couloir.  Broadway varies in width from 20 feet to less than one foot, and by the time you reach the couloir the cliff below Broadway is about 700 feet high.  This means if you slide down the Notch Couloir without being anchored to anything, you fly out into space and die.  Now you climb the Notch Couloir itself, which reaches a maximum angle of about 50 degrees, for another 800 vertical feet to the Notch, which is the huge notch that you see in the ridge near the top of Longs when viewing the mountain from the east or west.  (For those familiar with the Keyhole Route, the Notch is much larger and much higher than the Keyhole, and on the south side of the peak.)  From the Notch you can scramble down to the west side and finish on the Homestretch of the Keyhole Route, or climb a 5th-class rock pitch on the east side of the peak and scramble to the summit from the south.


Lambs Slide was in very good condition, firm and pleasant, with good steps kicked in all the way up to Broadway.  We took less than 30 minutes to ascend from the base of the Slide to Broadway, where we met the climbers who had signed in ahead of us.  They offered to let us go by, but they were already roped up and ready to start traversing Broadway, so we declined.  Broadway was very snowy, and we decided to rope up right away.  We simul-climbed to the base of the Notch Couloir in a single pitch, with Homie leading, and I arrived just as the second climber in the team ahead of us was beginning to climb.


Leading up a narrow chute in the Notch Couloir.  Homie gave me the rack and I started up the intimidating couloir.  From the beginning the Notch Couloir looks a bit improbable.  It is fantastically narrow in some sections--not more than 3 or 4 feet wide through one memorable chute--and there are three cruxes that involve a few moves each on rock.  But the climb protects very well, and we moved efficiently.  The party ahead of us bombarded us with debris, but nearly all of it was soft snow.  I chatted from time to time with the second climber in the leading group, who said he had climbed the couloir at least five times before.  I told him we appreciated the guide service.


Conditions were good, but a little softer than I would have liked.  I found very few places where my picks would hold, and ended up using the shafts of my axes a fair amount.  The snow was firm enough to hold feet very well, however, and through most of the couloir I was able to kick steps as deep as I liked.  I topped out in the Notch after about an hour and fifteen minutes of climbing, just as I ran out of slings.  Homie posed for a picture 50 feet below the top of the couloir and then joined me in the Notch. 


Homie as viewed from the Notch. Chasm Lake is in the background, 2,000 vertical feet below.The Notch itself is at about 13,900 feet, so we still had roughly 350 vertical feet to the summit.  We hoped to climb the "Stepladder," a direct rock finish, which Gerry Roach rates 5.0-5.2 and Rossiter calls 5.4.  I had asked the party ahead of us about it, but neither of them had ever been able to find this finish.  They had headed down to the west, intending to summit up the Homestretch.  The wind was blowing hard on the west side of the peak, but we had perfect calm on the east side.  It was only a little after 10:00, the sun was shining, there were almost no clouds, and the rock was warm.  Besides, I had hauled my approach shoes all the way up that couloir, and I was anxious to climb some rock.  I suggested to Homie that he would probably want me to lead, since he would have to climb in his heavy leather boots, but he would not hear of it.  I had gotten to lead the whole couloir, so it was only fair that Homie would get to lead the rock.


From the Notch, Homie worked up and left (west) for 30-40 feet, then cut up and right on a sloping ledge.  He rounded the corner to the east face, traversed across a Flatiron-esque slab, and downclimbed a bit to a spacious belay area below a slabby face split by a squeeze chimney.  I followed and joined him at the belay, and he launched up the pitch.  As I belayed him I could close my eyes and picture myself in Eldorado Canyon.  It was just so warm!  At nearly 14,000 feet, this was the highest-altitude technical rock climbing I had ever done, and the fact that the weather was so nice made it feel like cheating!


Homie on the Stepladder pitch. The squeeze chimney is hidden in shadow to the left.Homie did a great job leading this pitch.  Getting into the chimney was out of the question since we were both wearing packs, but the climbing on the face to the right of the chimney was sunny and mostly dry, and the holds were adequate.  The protection was very good, and Homie took advantage of this, really sewing it up.  It can be protected entirely with small cams and stoppers, and in fact you could probably get away with just stoppers.  I followed the pitch, savoring the moves.  In my sticky shoes the pitch was very enjoyable.  I'd say 5.2 is accurate, but there are a lot of smeary friction footholds, and Homie confirmed that it feels significantly harder than 5.2 in stiff boots. 


This pitch left us on top of a beautiful ridge leading north to the summit.  Getting off the ridge to either side would lead us into difficult terrain, so we romped up right on top of it, scrambling over a steep but blocky rock buttress on the way.  What a great approach to the summit!  It was fun scrambling all the way to the top.  We signed the register and lounged on the summit for a half hour, enjoying the sunshine and eating.  From here we previewed one of our next objectives for the summer:  Fair Glacier on Apache Peak.  It was 13 miles away by line of sight, but it looked awesome.


I couldn't help thinking back on my last technical ascent of Longs, via Kiener's Route, on January 1, 2000.  On that day I had been utterly wasted on the summit and could barely drag myself back down with the support of my stronger partners.  Today I wasn't even tired.  Pack weight was not the difference, nor was there any difference in acclimatization--this was the first time I had been over 12,000 feet all year.  I think the difference was an easier approach on the trail (dry instead of snowy), a lower level of exertion on the approach, lighter shoes on my feet, more sleep before the climb (4.5 hours as opposed to zero!), much more fluid in my body during the course of the approach and climb (I drank 70 ounces of Gatorade between the trailhead and the summit), and more and better food, including lots of Gu. 


We finally started down the North Face.  Initially this was fun talus hopping, but eventually we had to cross some large snowfields to reach the rappel anchors.  I was still wearing my approach shoes, and even using an ice axe this was an exciting descent.  Much of this descent is in "no-fall" territory as a slip would catapult you off into a 1,000-foot void over the Diamond.  This descent was neither difficult nor steep, but it was the most stressful part of the day for me.  I really should have changed back into my boots.  At last we reached the rock slabs of the North Face route.


At the highest rappel anchor I asked Homie if he would toprope me while I downclimbed the rock pitch on the North Face.  Homie had climbed this face a few years ago, but I had yet to climb it.  It would be a bonus for me if I could check it off.  This involved dicey downclimbing on slabs, avoiding snow as much as possible, for 120 feet or so.  Once I slipped on a bit of ice.  I was glad to have a rope above me.  I am told that many people ascend this route unroped every year.  I suspect this doesn't happen much in June. 


Homie rappelled after me and at last we were more or less safe.  We had a few hundred feet more to descend on snow, and Homie started a careful glissade down this section.  From here an uncontrolled slide would not dump us off any cliffs.  Into the rocks, perhaps, but no cliffs.  I took advantage of this fact and started an uncontrolled slide.  I was gaining rapidly on Homie, sliding on my butt, feet first, and about 20 feet above him I yelled at him to look out.  He jumped sideways with catlike swiftness, and I missed him with several inches clearance.  I was eventually able to roll over onto my stomach and execute a self-arrest. 


Now it was all over but the marching.  Still glowing with excitement from our climb, we stopped to talk to everyone on the trail who wanted to hear from us about our achievement.  Even with all these distractions, we reached the trailhead a minute or two after 3:00 p.m., for a car-to-car time of about 11:05. 


Immediately we looked at the register to satisfy our curiosity about the climber we had met at Chasm Lake.  It had been none other than "Into Thin Air" author Jon Krakauer, and his partner was Longs Peak legend Bill Briggs.  They had not signed out, so we lounged around at the trailhead hoping they would be down soon.  Within 20 minutes they arrived, and we chatted with them about their ascent of the Red Wall.  (They said it "wanders around a lot" and "the 5.10 rating is not soft.")  They commented that we must have been very fast on our climb--a charitable comment of almost embarrassing stature, coming from the likes of these climbers.  Enjoying a lot of blue sky in the Notch.I measure up to these guys like tourist hikers--those that make it less than a mile up the trail--compare to me.  These hard guys were gracious and made us feel cool.  Even if I won't ever climb like them, I ought to act more like them.


Stats:  We climbed the East Face of Longs, for the standard 12-13 miles and 5000 vertical feet.  You already know the rest.  A fantastic day in perfect weather.  The Best Mountain in Colorado keeps getting better.



(c) 2001 by Mark Oveson

Photos by John Prater and Mark Oveson



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