An Easy Day for a Lady

Trip Report: Winter Ascent of Mount Lady Washington, Colorado

by Joe Grim (joeg@patriot.fc.hp.com)

Date: January 28, 1995

Climbers:

Background

Mount Lady Washington (MLW) is a 13,281 foot high summit that sits in front of the eastern approach to Longs Peak (14,255 feet) in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, USA. MLW is, generally speaking, a non-technical endeavor to climb but has a few scattered precipices, and in a good year has some ice climbing. It's mainly Class III stuff. However, don't confuse "non-technical" with "an easy day for a lady." Even MLW is a serious undertaking in wintertime.

MLW is not near as well-known as its higher and more spectacular next-door neighbors Longs Peak and Mount Meeker. In fact, I'd be willing to bet that most of the approximately 15,000 people who scale Longs Peak each year don't even realize that this huge pile of rocks is a named summit, even though they have to take a long detour around it to get to Longs.

MLW reminds me of a woman who, despite having plenty of smarts and charms of her own, gets overshadowed by a more prominent husband. MLW has plenty to recommend itself and is worthy of more serious attention. The other thing lady-like about MLW is its curvaceous shape. That shape is probably what inspired its name.

A Little History

Mount Lady Washington may have received its peculiar name from Anna Dickinson, a suffragate of the late nineteenth century who took a strong liking to the Longs Peak area, as did a number of her contemporaries who drove the Golden Age of Longs Peak climbing. Dickinson was not, as is widely believed, the first woman to climb Longs Peak (that honor went to Addie Alexander, a local housewife). Nevertheless, Dickinson is probably the first famous woman to figure into its history. She climbed Longs in 1873, five years after its first documented ascent. Ralph Meeker, son of Nathan Meeker, founder of Greeley, Colorado and the man for whom Mount Meeker is named, was also along on that climb. Both the names Mount Meeker and Mount Lady Washington were probably coined around the campfire.

The name Mount Lady Washington probably stemmed from the fact that Dickinson had climbed New Hampshire's Mount Washington at least 28 times before she turned her sights to Colorado. In honor of this achievement, and due to the fact that Dickinson happened to be taking an active interest in the area at the time when various summits were being named, the moniker "Lady Washington" was coined. There is another minor summit in Rocky Mountain National Park named directly for Dickinson but is nowhere near as prominent as MLW, Meeker, and Longs.

The Ascent

Our winter ascent of MLW was a long time in the making. I had wanted to do something in the winter, which meant that, given my meager abilities, it had to be easy. For reasons I don't remember, MLW caught my attention. Larry Chapman, whom I know from HP, had climbed it on New Year's Day a couple of years ago and told me it was a walkup. Thus was the beginning of my obsession with the Lady. One word of warning - when a super-experienced mountaineering stud like Larry Chapman tells you something is easy, be very afraid.

Since MLW is nominally a walkup, I attempted the incredibly stupid feat of climbing it solo two days before Thanksgiving in November 1994. I didn't even come close. I was turned back long short of its base by temperatures below zero degrees F and wind gusts of approximately 70-80 MPH. This is not to mention that my water and toes were freezing, my goggles had problems, my camera battery went dead, and I lost the trail due to waist- deep snow drifts.

Due to this terrible humiliation, I had to go back and try it again. Understand that I suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder and delusions of mountaineering grandeur. Don't worry - I only had a weekend pass from the Colorado State Mental Hospital to do this climb. Just pass the Prozac and read on :-).

I queried my climbing buddies Chris Sproul, whom I encountered in downtown Fort Collins, and John Gwinner, about the possibility of a re-try of the ascent in late January. Both expressed strong interest. MLW would be a cakewalk for Chris, an ace bicycle racer, rock climber, skier, and mountaineer who is one of those superhumans who can discuss a winter ascent of the Longs Peak North Face with a straight face. For John and me it would be a more serious, but hopefully doable, undertaking.

As we neared the planned date, Chris tragically was unable to come along due to having to work the only weekend I was available. Luckily John was still available and psyched about it. He had some new gear he wanted to field-test, including a really nice EMS Gore-Tex expedition parka, an REI Polartec 300 fleece jacket, a Mountainsmith Bugaboo rucksack, some Outdoor Research gaiters, a pair of Smith goggles, and a Nalgene leakproof water bottle. I was disappointed that Chris couldn't come along, because John needed a strong partner to counter my own bumbling incompetence.

John came up from Denver and spent the night at my house so we could get an early start. At about 22:00 the night before, John checked to see if his former Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity brother, Mike McKenna, could come along. Amazingly, on this short notice, Mike, an ace rock climber, said he would love to. We would once again be a threesome for the ascent. We agreed to pick up Mike at the LCA fraternity house next to the Colorado State University campus on Saturday morning at 06:00.

05:00 rolled around much too soon. I staggered out of bed, walked my hound, we ate breakfast, loaded the car and were off. We stopped by the fraternity house about 06:10, only to find that Mike was too busy with his homework and LCA's annual Sewer Party, a stinky but fun drinking gathering at the house. The Sewer Party involves a tunnel into the house, a ersatz manhole down into the bar and lots of trash. Quel dommage. We would be a duo for the trip. We finally hit the road.

The weather prediction was for a chance of snow along the Front Range. We didn't worry too much about this as Colorado is having a terrible dearth of snow this winter and most predictions for it have turned out to be wrong. Besides, this was the only day we could do the climb, so we went for it.

After a twisty but pleasant drive with an anxious eye on the weather, we arrived at the Longs Peak ranger station and hit the trail about 07:30, much later than we should have. I was amazed at how much more pleasant conditions were than when I was there in November. We didn't have a thermometer, but I'd say temperatures were in the 20s F at the start. The temperature was quite mild for winter climbing, but it was too soon to declare victory.

Some notes on the ranger station's bulletin board said that skis and snowshoes (the National Park Service called them "flotation devices" - at first I had no idea what they were talking about) were not recommended due to there not being much snow. That was a good sign as we hadn't brought any. We here along the Front Range will pay heavily for the lack of snow next spring and summer in fires and water shortages. But for winter hiking, it's a boon.

The lower Long's Peak trail had an amazing lack of snow. There are many bare spots in the forest and along the trail, which was quite different from what I found in November. We ambled along through the woods, stopped at the Alpenbridge for a quick snack, and then proceeded up above timberline into Mills Moraine at about 11,000 feet. The weather up this high was clear, but with some very ominous clouds down below us over the plains.

This day had the makings of an upslope storm. An upslope is a weather pattern where warm moist air from the Gulf of Mexico hits the mountains and causes big snows at the base of the mountains. If you are going for a climb on the Front Range and happen to get caught in a storm, make sure it's an upslope as they produce mild conditions up high and occasionally horrible conditions down low. Unfortunately most winter storms in Colorado are downslopes, which is the reason we have huge snows in the mountains and the Front Range is semi-arid. We got lucky this day.

We reached the Chasm Lake junction where we stopped for another quick bite. It was great to be feeling hungry at altitude for a change. Near the junction we encountered two men from Estes Park whom I would estimate to be in their late 60s. They stopped for a quick chat and then passed us. It was a sobering experience to be smoked by two guys 30-40 years older than John and me. They had crampons and ice axes and were bound for Chasm Lake (the trail to there is steep and icy). They had climbed MLW the previous weekend. Oh well - mountaineering isn't supposed to be competitive, right? I'd never be caught in a situation like this without an excuse for being a wuss.

Since these seasoned gents had climbed MLW the previous weekend, they advised us against taking the direct route to the top. One of them, who had what was apparently an Austrian accent, said the direct route involved maneuvering between refrigerator-sized boulders with *deep* snowdrifts in between. He would turn out to have understated the situation.

As we neared the junction John and I agreed that, despite what we'd heard, we would take the hardest route. There is no trail to the summit, but there are two main routes. The long but easy one involves walking north along the base of MLW to Granite Pass, and then walking along the easy East Ridge (I think that's what it's called) to the summit. This is much longer than the direct but much steeper route that goes straight up to the summit ridge from the Chasm Lake junction. MLW's enormous rock-strewn bulk loomed for 1800 feet above us. The Lady is formidable.

Neither route to MLW's summit has a name. We opted for the "diretissima" route because it is more aesthetically pleasing, more manly, and we wanted to feel like we had *climbed* something, not just gone for a pleasant hike.

We estimated temperatures at the Chasm Lake junction (John and I call it the Stinky Outhouse Turnoff) to have been in the teens F. They were not unpleasant except when I took off my mittens to pull on my gaiters. My fingers quickly froze and I put my mittens back on straight away. Simple things like pulling on gaiters are quite an ordeal at 11,500 feet in the winter. As we geared up to begin the hard part of the climb, three colorfully dressed gentlemen came up to the junction. Without wasting any time, they set off up the same route that we planned. We followed behind and they quickly pulled away from us. We were humiliated a second time.

The MLW "face" that we climbed is essentially a huge, very steep boulderfield with rotten, loose rock everywhere you step. After a gently sloping start, it quickly increases to about 45 degrees from the horizontal. The real climbing starts at about 12,000 feet and gets increasingly difficult until topping out on MLW's summit ridge at about 13,200 feet. Mercifully, even though there is a good bit of hand-over-hand climbing, there is no exposure to speak of. The good news is that if you fall, it won't be far. The bad news is that you are likely to be impaled on a large sharp boulder.

We had encountered a good bit of snow in Mills Moraine, but it was on MLW that we discovered the true meaning of winter climbing. This boulderfield would be a pain in the rump in summer, but in winter it turns into a nightmare of huge boulders with snow-filled gaps between them. Many of the smaller boulders and rocks are completely covered with snow, so on innumerable occasions, I stepped on something only to discover it was a loose rock that would dislodge and send me flailing. The older gentleman's analysis about refrigerator-sized boulders was conservative. In fact many of the boulders were truck-sized.

MLW, like most other high mountains is crumbling. As we wound through these enormous rocks we thanked the good Lord that Colorado is not subject to significant seismic activity. If one were under one of those boulders during an earthquake, one would be pushing up columbines. Of course the big rocks are slowly working their way downhill and turning into smaller rocks. Just don't be under one of these babies when it experiences motion.

As we began the serious part of the ascent as luck would have it the weather turned to snow and the temperature dropped. As mentioned earlier, this was an upslope storm, so the snow was light and powdery, winds were light (probably no more than 10-20 MPH, which is mighty rare at this altitude), and the worst was down on the plains. Visibility was about 10 miles, so whiteout was not a worry at that moment.

John and I crawled up the face like a couple of ants trying, mostly in vain, to follow the footsteps of the other team. Climbing this face was a matter of steering a tortuous course through the huge rocks, squeezing between them in snow that sometimes would hold one's weight, but more often would prove to be knee- or thigh-deep. Loose rock hampered progress terribly. Partially due to my pack, which was not optimal for this type of lunacy, but more due to the fact that I'm a total klutz, I frequently lost my balance and fell. John was much more sure-footed. He and I traded leads and an odd pattern emerged that when he was in the lead I would fall behind and vice versa. Falling at this altitude is quite an ordeal, as it requires an inordinate amount of energy to pick yourself up and get moving again.

We scraped and wound slowly up the face, no one route being any more expeditious than any other, when John mentioned that his upper quadriceps muscle was hurting him badly. He didn't injure it, but it just started hurting from the strain. He wasn't sure if he wanted to continue. We were probably at about 12,400 feet at this point and I tried to talk him into moving on. I still felt good despite the altitude and the snow and I wanted the summit bad. John agreed to continue but we knew he would need frequent breaks. By this time, the team above us had disappeared over the summit ridge.

We lapsed into a pattern of look ahead, wind through the boulders, fall in the snow, put one's foot on a rock to test it, fall, and on and on. We kept aiming for a table-shaped rock that was presumably on the summit ridge, but it was hard to tell at that point because we couldn't see the top. I was mainly in the lead, keeping an eye on John to make sure he was ok. As we struggled up, I spotted the other team descending from the summit ridge. This was good news as I didn't know how far we were from the top. Since they seemed to know what they were doing, I moved toward them to ask them some questions.

I finally reached the three gents. As I neared them I heard them talking about things like crevasse rescue and climbing instruction. I guessed they were from Colorado Mountain School in Estes Park, or at least that they do this for a living. It made me feel better about having fallen so far behind them. Remember never be made to look like a wuss without an excuse. They told me that at this point I was about 400 vertical feet and an hour's round trip from the summit. John was about 75 yards behind me and still hurting.

Thus began a crux discussion. I called down to John to see what he wanted to do. It was about 13:30. These guys knew we were a couple of tyros and that John was ailing. One of them told me that the peak was quite accessible and we could try it another time. Another said, "Well, on the other hand, the summit is reeeallly close, and you just don't get favorable wind conditions like this very often . . ."

I knew that I wasn't about to leave John sitting there freezing in the snow while I climbed on. The temperature and terrain were such that if you kept moving you were bathed in sweat and if you stood still you would quickly die of hypothermia. John yelled up that he was willing to press on since our goal was so close. I felt much better at that point - there was a good possibility that we would make the top, although the climbing only got more difficult for the last 400 vertical feet. As long as he was willing to keep following, I would lead on.

At this point I made a really dumb mistake. When I stopped to talk to the other team, I pulled my goggles up onto my forehead. They quickly fogged up and the fog froze immediately. There was no getting them unfogged. I would have to do the rest of the climb without them. Bummer. I prayed my eyelids wouldn't freeze shut (they didn't - it wasn't anywhere near cold enough for that).

I thanked the gentlemen for their help and climbed on, trying to keep John in sight. At one point about 40 feet below the summit ridge I encountered a boulder I would actually have to climb up and over but it had a huge snowdrift in front of it (a shovel would have been helpful here). I cleared away some of the snow so I could get a handhold but had to take a leap of faith that when I stepped into the drift I wouldn't sink in up to my chest. Mercifully it held and I scrambled over the boulder and on up and over the summit ridge. I could feel myself sweating profusely despite the freezing cold.

Finally I could see the summit. Oh, damn. There were two summits! Which one was the real summit? The first was about 300 yards away from me across a boulder-strewn and snowy, but not steep, walk. The second was about a quarter-mile beyond it, but involved descending and re-ascending a saddle. The saddle appeared to be about 100 feet deep, so it would involved climbing down about 80 feet and then up another 100 feet. John had the topo map and was nowhere in sight, and even if I had it, I wouldn't have felt like breaking it out in the cold and snow. I decided that based on what the older gentlemen had told us, I would go for the farther summit. Damn. I had to climb down and back up again at over 13,000 feet. Like a deranged boy scout on steroids I pressed on.

I scrambled to the far summit, which is a knife-edge ridge overlooking one of the most incredible sights in the world. The 2000 foot high East Face of Longs Peak was *right there*. It was socked in by snow and cloud, but still quite visible. It was plastered with snow, giving unusually good definition to Broadway, Lambs Slide, Mills Glacier, the Diamond, Kieners Route, the North Face, the Notch Couloir, and all its other famous features. I took off my pack, whipped out my camera and started snapping away. The other team warned me not to hang around on the summit, so I quickly put away my camera and started searching for the summit register.

Damn, I couldn't find it. Where was it? This summit looked higher than the other one. It had to be somewhere. I still couldn't find it. Oh well, time to leave. I scrambled back down to the saddle, went across it, and looked up at the other summit. I spotted the cable that attaches the summit register to the rock. Damn, I had climbed the wrong summit! Now I would have to scramble up to the real summit, meaning that I had done a bunch of extra climbing. I climbed up to the real summit and signed into the register (please, no flames from the Fourteener Cleaners). My hands were nice and warm, downright sweaty, despite the cold. It was no problem to unscrew the cap of the metal canister and sign my name. As I climbed up to the real summit, which is on top of a big overhanging boulder (quite different from knife-edge of the other summit) I spotted John about 300 yards down the summit ridge. This was as far as he would go that day.

Actually, I'm glad I went to the westernmost summit because the view of Longs Peak is much better there than on the real summit. In fact, in pictures of the Diamond from the real summit, the other summit gets in the way! So the extra climbing was worth it, and highly recommended.

I finally had a feel for what Agnes Vaille and Walter Kiener must have endured in 1925. They attempted the first winter ascent of the mountaineering route up Longs East Face. I could see their route perfectly. The good news was that they achieved the first that they wanted so badly. The bad news was that Vaille died near Chasm View of exposure on the way down and Kiener lost his toes from frostbite. In addition, Herbert Sortland died when he went out to look for Vaille in the raging blizzard. I realized that Vaille had died 70 years ago almost exactly to the day that I stared down on the site of her death. It was a not-so-encouraging coincidence. To this day thousands stop each year at the Agnes Vaille memorial shelter just below the Keyhole on Longs.

The Descent

John snapped me out of my space cadet meditations on the the grandeur of nature. I scrambled back to his position. He reminded me that we had to get our butts moving in a downward direction and fast. For the rest of the descent he would become the relentless taskmaster, reminding me to keep going, while I was the airhead enjoying the view. It was about 15:00 by this time, snowing, light wind, and sinking sun. We started down straight away toward Chasm Lake junction, which we could see hazily 1800 feet below us.

We learned more about this face on the way down than we did on the way up. Things like the fact that it is essentially concave, getting gradually steeper the higher it gets. On the steeper parts the boulders are bigger, making for deeper clefts between them, and consequently causing us to fall deeper into the snow with each step. Since it had been snowing lightly for the past several hours, the rocks were plastered during the descent, making them much more slippery than on the way up. The nice part about the descent was that although it was equally as aggravating as the ascent, it got easier as we went down, not to mention that the oxygen density increased with each downward step. John's hip continued to hurt him so we continued to take frequent breaks. I continued to fall and dislodge loose rocks as I had all day.

We traded leads all the way down. John's strategy was to sit down and slide wherever possible where I preferred the standing plunge-step. Both methods seemed to work equally poorly. After what seemed like an endless downward slog, we finally got down to Chasm Lake Junction at about 4:15. At this point it was critical that we keep moving since darkness was near. John led us down the trail. At one point the trail crossed a snowfield that I didn't remember on the way up. I asked John if he was going the right way. He assured me he was, that the footprints went that way, and that this was the trail. I assured him I would shut up and let him lead. As John flies airplanes, his navigation abilities and instincts are far beyond mine.

We managed to get ourselves down into the trees by dusk, which is what we very much wanted to achieve since darkness above timberline could have been disastrous. We slogged on through the forest as it got darker and darker. We were about a mile from the ranger station when it got pitch dark. At that point we realized that the trail had gotten slushy during the day and had refrozen, making it treacherous in the dark. Since I was in a better position to be falling down than John because of his painful hip, I led. The general rule was if I stumbled, it indicated a dip in the trail and if I fell down, it meant ice. I took about half a dozen stumbles and about as many falls. It got to be a bit of a joke. After a time I could recognize where we would find ice and would walk in the softer stuff on the sides of the trail.

Finally, we reached that mecca for all descending Longs Peak climbers, the trailhead register, which is about 50 feet from the parking lot and the warmth and comfort of the car. I happily checked the box labeled "Yes" under "Achieve Destination?" MLW had had another ant on her summit this day, by golly. The time was 18:30. I had written our estimated time of return as 17:00, and I thought I had padded it considerably. We certainly didn't set any speed records. Interestingly, there had only been about four teams on that side of the mountain that day. What? The rampaging hordes get scared off by sub-freezing temperatures and a little snow? Sheesh! What's the world coming to?

We peeled off our backpacks, bib overalls and boots and headed down to Estes Park for a celebratory dinner at Taco Bell. We were both starving and thirsty by this time so the food tasted as good as the cuisine of Le Lutece. By the time we reached Estes Park the snow was coming down heavily. A gentleman in Taco Bell told us that Highway 34, which is the *only* way to get from Estes Park to Fort Collins, was covered in ice, had numerous accidents and was closed to traffic. Yow! We were too tired to let this worry us and just enjoyed our meal. As we finished eating, this same gent came back to tell us the Colorado State Patrol had told him that Hwy 34 was open again. We hit the road. Hwy 34, which is windy and twisty, had blowing snow and some ice, but was mostly wet. We pulled into my driveway about 20:30.

Epilogue

As soon as I got home, I called my wife and kids, who were on a one-week vacation in Florida. My wife was incredulous that we climbed a mountain on a day where the high temperature was 38 degrees F. in Denver. I guess she will never understand my obsession with Lady Washington.

My daughter Jamie, who is 10 years old, wanted me to relay a message to John. She and John and I hiked up to Chasm Lake last summer and she suffered a bit from the altitude. To keep her moving along during the hike, John told her "No pain, no gain." Jamie's message to John, when she learned of his hurting hip, was, not surprisingly, "No pain, no gain."

Lessons Learned

Regarding John's gear, all of it passed its field test with flying colors. He doesn't hesitate to recommend any of it to anybody. He stayed warm and dry despite 11 hours in the freezing cold and snow.