“Let’s go climb Mt. Meeker this weekend! It’ll be fun! We’ll do it for your birthday!”
My friend Anh’s excitement was contagious as she described the 13,000-foot peak that she wanted to climb for by birthday. Mt. Meeker may not be a Colorado 14er, but it’s a jagged ridge across a couloir from Longs Peak with a long, icy, committing ascent. Our plan was to camp directly on a ridge overlooking Chasm Lake and set off early the next morning for a sunrise summit. While the route does get technical in small sections, we wanted to climb fast and light, forgoing a rope for ice axes, crampons, and minimalist packs. What I thought was a simple hike actually turned out to be a full-on alpine experience, the type that I absolutely love. We’d be ascending the steep couloir and veering left to gain the serrated knife-ridge leading us to a jagged summit. We even had a couple small bottles of champagne to celebrate my birthday while watching the sunrise.
And what a learning experience it was.
We set out on Sunday morning for the short hike towards Chasm Lake, crossing a snowy forest in a short, but easy 3.5-mile trek to the basin. It was a bluebird day with minimal wind or other parties on the trail. The conditions seemed too perfect as we joyfully hiked past the treeline and into a spectacular alpine environment. As we crossed an ice-glazed boulder field, Anh and I got our first view of the massif that we’d be climbing the next day.
The enormity of the rock wall in front of us was overwhelming.
To the right was Longs Peak, with its signature, intimidating Diamond Face and sharp skyline. To the left was Mt. Meeker; it’s summit the highest point of a long ridge. Between the two mountains was a long ice ridge, the couloir, dubbed the Dreamweaver Route was a skyscraper-sized ice route, angled about 50-60 degrees, that directly gained the ridge. My eyes kept leading up the couloir first at a gentle angle that was manageable at first, but then steepened to where I questioned our decision to leave the rope at home. I’d have to be brave and do as much as I could.
Unlike rock climbing, which tests muscle and creativity on steep, technically difficult faces, alpinism is all about efficiency and finding the most direct and continuous route to the top. I’m not built like a powerful sport climber, but I love the marathon-like efficiency that alpine climbing delivers.
While the Dreamweaver wasn’t exceptionally tall – it would only take a couple hours to ascent at our best speed – it was going to take all our ability and skill to navigate this magnificent line.
We set up camp on the ridge overlooking the two peaks, just above chasm lake. The wind was gently blowing as was expected, and I was excited to try out my new Teton Sports tent, which looked like a proper base camp and backpacking shelter. While the wind was picking up slightly as we finished behind a rock and admired the sunset over the Front Range, we never expected the night that we were about to go through.
Settling into our sleeping bags for the 5:00 AM alpine start, the wind began to whip the sides of the tent, gently at first, but sometimes with a ferocity that bent the walls inward and created a claustrophobic space that had us cocooned deep inside our sleeping bags. The wind picked up until the tent was directly on my face, whipping my sleeping bag, popping back into place, and then semi collapsing on top of us again. By midnight, we estimated that the gale-like wind was blowing at 60-70 mph. Luckily we had everything stored in our vestibules.
Except my backpack. At midnight, I remembered that my backpack was still outside.
In a frenzy, I looked outside and realized that my pack wasn’t where I had left it. I crawled out with my headlamp and swung it around. In a bizarre moment of beauty and panic, I looked at the mountain shrouded in a dark blue haze, the couloir looking all the more scarier in the dark. Behind us, the lights of Boulder, Golden, Lyons, and Denver were shining spectacularly in the valley and the stars. Oh the stars were blanketed across a semi-cloudy sky. As much as I wanted to admire this moment, my pack was still missing and I looked for ten minutes across the ridge before a random swing of the headlamp brightened the familiar Black Diamond logo. With the wind continuously whipping at my back, I saw my backpack lodged in a tree, only mere feet from diving into the Chasm Lake basin. I pulled it back to the tent and slipped inside.
Throughout the entire night, the deafening wind tortured my poor tent, bending the poles, collapsing the walls, but holding firm. As unpleasant and uncomfortable as it was, I was never scared. I felt security knowing the tent would hold. We decided to delay our departure to 6:00 AM so that we could see our route and decide if it was worth climbing.
We set off for Mt. Meeker under the golden glow of the run rising from the horizon, illuminating the Diamond Face and the Dreamweaver in an eerie red glow. While the wind was still blowing fiercely at our campsite, it subsided as we started the long trail up the canyon toward the base of the wall. While stopping to take photos and film, we felt an optimism that we might actually get on the route. Unfortunately, that optimism soon faded.
As I started unpacking my climbing gear and shedding layers, I looked up at the wall and felt a cold chill blast down from the top of the couloir. My hope for getting on the route faded and I just didn’t feel safe getting on the couloir, especially with no other protection. After a short conference with Anh, I decided to turn back and she should do the same. Sadly, we both agreed and began the short walk back to camp.
In the end, turning around was especially the right decision, and I’ve written about these calls before. In alpinism, there can’t be an “I don’t know” or any sort of hesitation, especially when it comes to big technical routes, where escape might be tricky. There’s one thing I’ve stopped doing in the face of my recent trips. I’ve stopped feeling like I need to make the summit and just enjoy the adventure. They’ll always be time to come back and try it again.
Returning to our half-collapsed tent, we slipped inside, the wind still whipping at the walls, and we popped open a mini bottle of champagne that we were going to save for the summit. As we shared a surreal moment between champagne sips, and our shelter collapsing around us, we could only laugh at the utter absurdity of the situation. Mt. Meeker would have to wait another day, but we had our adventure.
A Note On Gear
If there’s one aspect that stood out on this trip, it’s how well my gear stood up to the ferocious wind. The Teton Sports tent, while it did developed holes in the mesh and the poles bent, held up exceptionally well through the long over 14-hour windstorm. One of the biggest players in keeping me dry and warm was the gear that I received from North Face, particularly the Fuseform Dot Matrix Shell and the Thermoball Remix layer. Without getting exceptionally technical, the Fuseform has a dual abrasion proof layer up top with a breathable waterproof fabric around the waist. When I slipped outside with these two pieces together, I was warm and while the wind was blasting me off my feet, my chest was superbly protected and warm. Yes, the Fuseform held up in 60 mph wind.
Talking about boots, I was really hoping that I’d get to utilize my boots from ECCO because of their exceptionally warm Yak Leather and Gore-Tex coating. Unfortunately, the point of the toe and the rise in the heel rendered them incompatible with my Black Diamond Contact Universal Crampon. I switched to the La Sportiva Hyper Mid GTX, commonly a spring / summer boot, and its shape was more conducive to the crampon shape. Still, romping around the snow in my ECCO boots was exceptionally warm and I never felt water, nor snow creeping inside.
It just makes me more excited to take my ECCO’s on the multiple 14ers that we have planned this year.
In the end, we didn’t get the summit, but I got to test some incredible gear and we have a great story to go with it. Here’s to the next attempt.