Early in the week, Kevin was looking for partners for a winter ascent of Longs Peak. Jeff had been talking about climbing the The Trough for several years, so we decided to join Kevin and Steve on their attempt. John was also invited along, and we all met at the trailhead at 3:15 starting down the trail at 3:30. We were going to try and day hike the Trough Couloir from the Glacier Gorge Trailhead. I've been on several hikes when it has been difficult to suggest turning around or backing off a route because of group think or fear of looking weak. I didn't have a vested interest in this hike other than it was a new route on Longs Peak and a big challenging day. Since the winds were already strong at the trailhead, I immediately said I wasn't optimistic about our chances for success. Fortunately I was wrong and this ended up being my seventh summit of Longs Peak by the sixth route.
We didn't use snowshoes on the approach to Mills Lake as we ran into some strong gusty winds on a couple of sections of the trail. Once on the south end of Mills Lake, the trail wasn't as well packed so we put on our snowshoes and continued slogging up Glacier Gorge in dark windy conditions. As we approached Black Lake, the weather seemed to deteriorate with blowing snow and visibility now becoming an issue along with the cold and wind. My negative attitude persisted as I tried to foster support for bailing. Discussions after the hike revealed that Jeff and John fully agreed that conditions at that point were not going to allow us to summit; however, Kevin insisted that we either hold tight for a while or continue at a slow pace to see what happens. Little did I know that his perseverance and desire did not come from summit fever, but rather a more intimate knowledge of the days forecast.
We slowly continued up the snowfield past the Black Lake Slabs. The wind had abated from the funnel we were in at Black Lake, but as John and I waited for the rest of the group to catch up, we still weren't convinced that the weather was going to hold. The group spread out slightly, but we always remained within sight of each other throughout the day. We made it to the base of the Trough Couloir where we quickly cached our snowshoes and trekking poles. Steve decided to turn back at this point. Due to our failure to fully research the route, the four remaining hikers entered the Trough directly and immediately had to deal with a couple of steep and icy cliff bands. We reached the top of them and proceeded to put our crampons on and pull our ice axes out.
Despite improving conditions and a better attitude, I seriously considered heading back at this point too due to extremely cold feet. As it turns out, Jeff, John, and Kevin also mildly struggled with keeping their feet warm for a large part of the ascent like myself. As I spoke to Jeff about my concerns, I started to get a moderate case of screaming barfies in my feet as the blood began to flow better. As a result, I continued on. The next couple of hours were a slow steady slog up the Trough Couloir with varying snow conditions. We all took turns kicking steps at some point on the ascent of the couloir. The wind and gusts remained and it was still cold in the Trough, but it wasn't as noticeable as earlier in the day with our attention shifting to snow climbing. Once past the Keyhole, snow conditions improved. Up to this point, I was actually having a strong day despite the weather and cold feet issues. However, as we neared the upper section of the Trough I began weakening due to fatigue and altitude. I needed a break along with the rest of the group.
We all cleared the chock stone at the top of the Trough and crossed over to the Narrows. It was as though we entered a new world; one with sun, warmth, and calmness. We immediately found a bench to rest on as we ate, drank, and warmed up. With the opportunity to take a relaxed break in drastically improved conditions, all of our spirits were renewed and only the Narrows and Homestretch stood between us and the summit. After our extended and well deserved intermission, we quickly scrambled across the Narrows and began the final few hundred feet up the Homestretch. We kept our crampons on for the entire climb from the Trough to the summit, and I was actually hoping for more snow on the Homestretch to make it somewhat easier. My preference is for the Homestretch to be either totally snow covered or bone dry. The mixed conditions always seem to add spice to the scrambling. Anyway, we topped out after 8 hours and 15 minutes.
We spent little time on the summit before heading back down the Homestretch which went relatively quickly. The traverse across the Narrows was also fast and we found ourselves back at our long rest stop. We all got back into the layers we thought we would need for the Trough Couloir descent. As we prepared to re-enter the cold, I also took the opportunity to check my blood as we ate and drank some more. I was having a successful day maintaining my blood sugar levels, although I felt like I was constantly eating and didn't care for anymore fruit snacks or energy gels. We dropped in the Trough and made short work of the couloir. At the base of the gully, we traversed to skier's right to avoid the rock steps we had to climb on the ascent. Back at our snowshoe cache, we were sweating and ready for another short break to repack and prepare for the hike out. Before we knew it, we were back at Black Lake where we saw ice climbers, snowshoers, and skiers. We kept a strong pace all the way back to the trailhead only stopping to take off our snowshoes on the north end of Mills Lake. We made it car-to-car in 12 hours and 15 minutes. John, Jeff, and I stopped at the Rio in Boulder, Colorado, for a drink and mexican food on the way home.