[On October 18, Kevin Cooper and Kelly Cordes completed a new three-pitch mixed route on the lower east face of Longs Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, which they named Cannonball (M5 R WI5+/6 X, 3 pitches). Cordes wrote the following story about their experience on the rarely seen ice formation.–Ed.]
On a beautiful autumn day, standing waist-deep in snow with freezer-burn ice plastered to the wall towering overhead, I vaguely remembered that I really don’t do this anymore.
“Man, check out that view,” Kevin Cooper said. His voice snapped me from my thoughts. Chasm Lake shimmered below, and the snow faded into the foothills of the Front Range. It would have been a fine day to climb sunny rock down in the valleys. At 12,000 feet, though, on the lower east face of Longs Peak, the wonders of aspect and elevation can cause ice to form remarkably early–if the ice forms at all. October tends to be best, and by mid-November it’s usually gone. Years pass between the return of even the most reliable routes. Potential lines often appear for a day or two and then sublimate away under high winds. Climbers chase the smears with maniacal fervor, in part because of the area’s deep history and wild location, but also for reasons of utility: the underlying granite is compact and often devoid of crack systems. The search for passage requires an old-school reliance on the presence of ice, even millimeters thick. The climbing tends toward heady.
I continued racking up in silence, pausing to enjoy the natural beauty and hoping to draft off Coop’s perpetual stoke. For me, it had been a while. Internal questions swirled, and I reminded myself to hold zero expectations. But when Coop blurted out that he had the song “Danger Zone”–the soundtrack from the movie Top Gun–playing through his head, I knew it was on.
THE LONGS CIRQUE, with the Diamond dominating overhead, is a special place for climbers. On the edges of the lower east face, prominent gullies form classic mixed routes: Alexander’s Chimney (M4 WI4) on the left, and the steeper Field’s Chimney (M6 WI5) on the right. Before I get too far, though, it’s worth noting that the always-tricky game of rating such a changeable medium is particularly absurd here, and the numbers represent little more than educated guesses that can, and do, vary wildly, especially in the vast swath between Alexander’s and Field’s, which holds much of Longs’ mixed mystique. Home to 5.12 summertime rock routes, the face seeps and sometimes freezes. In the 1980s (probably 1986, though they can’t remember exactly), legendary climbers Malcolm Daly, Duncan Ferguson, and Jeff Lowe established the route that started it all: the Smear of Fear (generally considered M6 WI5 R).
As a young climber in Montana in the ’90s, I had been inspired by an old photo of the Smear. The ice was so thin that it appeared to be little more than a translucent veneer frozen over the rock; climbing it looked like magic.
When I moved to Estes Park, Colorado, in early autumn 2000, I lived in a $65-a-month shack and was completely in love with ice, mixed and alpine climbing. I could hardly believe it when, that October, I climbed the Smear and then lucked into some new routes in a concentrated zone to the right, where drips that had long teased climbers had finally formed. Just barely. That year, three challenging routes went up: Crazy Train (WI5), Wrecking Ball (M6 R WI5+), and Morning Dew (M6 WI5+/6 R). In the ensuing 18 years, these routes, which became loosely known as the “Crazy Train smears,” only formed a couple of times and occasionally saw repeat ascents. But nobody had seen the area ice up like it did this October.
“I’M TALKING SHIT because we haven’t left the ground,” I said, suddenly excited, “but if this goes, a good name could be Cannonball. It’s like a direct shot to where it joins Wrecking Ball for a bit, and then the pillars above look like a cannon.” Crazy Train came from the Ozzy Osbourne song, Wrecking Ball from an Emmylou Harris song that fit nicely with its unprotected traverse, and Morning Dew from a Grateful Dead song that certainly matched the quality of its ice.
“Love it!” Coop said. “And it fits the song thing, too, you know that awesome Van Halen song, ‘Cannonball! Cannon ball-all-aaaah-ahh-ahhh-all, Cannonball!’ Love that song. David Lee Roth swinging around on ropes and everything in the video.”
I thought for a second and cracked a smile.
COOP SEEMS AGELESS. His 2013 send of Window Pain (WI6+), up high on the Diamond, surely ranks among the most awesome ice lines in the Lower 48, and he gets after it every season. But for me, climbing things like the Crazy Train smears seemed like a lifetime ago.
Back in 2010, in a moment of inattentiveness while ice climbing, I shattered my lower leg. In the following six years, I had eight major surgeries, including an ankle fusion, a shoulder reconstruction and another spinal fusion (my second). Chronic pain dominated my life, but I tried to be stoic and strong, hiding it from the world as I walked around a little more sad and a little less brave.
These days I mainly rock climb and mostly do shorter approaches. But as the heaviness fades since my last surgery, sometimes I’ve begun to feel–barely, timidly, fearfully–something like a spark emerging from a place I’d long forgotten.
Coop and I don’t know each other well enough for him to know much of this–somehow, over all of these years, we had never climbed together–so when he asked if I wanted to go, I said sure. After all, I’d seen a picture of the ice on the Internet, and from the comfort of home I’d started to dream.
The previous weekend, the first new route since 2000 was added to the zone when two young crushers, Tyler Kempney and Wesley Fowler–who are literally half the combined age of Coop and me–scored an elegant smear of glistening ice near the middle of the wall. They called it Conditional Love (M5 WI5+/6 R). To its right, though, remained a series of unclimbed freezer-burn splotches. And Coop is obsessed with new routes. “Firsties,” as he calls them. He wanted to have a look, but the line didn’t look likely.
“CANNON BALL-ALL-AAAAH-AHH-AHHH-ALL!” he kept singing. The rhythm stuck in my head, if not the song, so I started climbing, inelegantly. To start, I humped my way onto a snow mushroom, thrashed through snow-ice (sn’ice), and found nothing to climb. A seam in the corner was mostly closed, and my crampons skated as I tried to remember how to do this shit. Eventually, I thunked a tool into frozen moss, made my front points hold on a sliver of rock, and got my first pro–a Pecker equalized with a nut wedged between rock and ice. Welcome back, I thought. Twenty feet up, I’d have bailed if there had been enough to bail from. I remember thinking that at least there’s deep snow at the base. Which, I guess, was a sign that my old mindset was returning. Coop remained patient, sending up encouraging words as I nudged higher, fluttering between hesitation and something like forgotten confidence until, finally, after I’d built a nest of tiny gear where the wall steepened, I set aside my fear and climbed like I used to do. Somehow.
Coop had stopped singing once he started Pitch 2, the money pitch. Straight off the belay he balanced across verglassed rock with sparse gear, then climbed into a mixed corner, placing bomber pro before tiptoeing up sn’ice too thin to protect for the final 60 feet, equalizing all points of contact as he moved because the ice was too fragile for anything more. Delusional or not (and who doesn’t delude themselves for pure joy) I knew he wouldn’t fall. And I knew that the pillars on the next pitch, spilling from those roofs above Wrecking Ball, those pillars that everyone had always wondered if they might form–I knew they would go. I was cheering, singing, drafting off Coop, and it was working.
Partway up Pitch 3, a piece of metal poked out of the ice: an old buttonhead bolt, surely from the 5.11 rock route Slippery People. I clipped it and climbed higher, through the pillars, until pumped out of my mind at the top, soaking wet and beaming with absolute elation.
It was only a climb. But I can’t remember the last time I felt so good.
Back at the base we jabbered and giggled like school kids. The sun had set when we stopped at the foot of Chasm Lake to have a snack, finish our water and sit beneath the shadow of the towering east face, while the stars and moon rose over Mt. Meeker. We were thirsty and needed to rehydrate, especially Coop. He’d be back at work in the morning, siding a house. Beast.
“We’ll hit the Pagan Stream in about a half-hour and fill up there,” he said. Pagan Stream? It’s a subtle spot I’d passed countless times but never seen, where water bubbles straight from rocks in the ground, filtered by the earth.
“Nice,” I said, “should tie us over until the trailhead–I brought beers.”
“So did I,” Coop said. Veterans.
I stood and shouldered my pack, following Coop down the boulders below the lake. Suddenly I was struck with a revelation.
“Dude, it’s Panama!”
“Huh?” Coop said.
“Not Cannonball. Man. The Van Halen song, it’s Panama – Panaaaama. Pan-a-ma-ah-ah-ah-ha-ha, Panama!”
Coop paused and then burst into laughter. “Yeah, you’re right,” he said, with a tone that resembled lighthearted resignation, before he noted that surely, somewhere, exists a song called Cannonball. Yeah, he’s right.
Soon we traversed the narrow path along the flanks of Mt. Lady Washington. Below us, alpine tundra dropped away for a thousand feet into a marshy valley. Moonbeams reflected off of frozen ponds below, treating us to a lightshow in the swamp: the rays of light 240,000 miles away shifted whenever we changed the angle of our vantage with a single step forward or backward.
Forward, back. Back, forward–the strange lights would appear then vanish. We both shrugged, laughed, and continued our elated march, all 102 combined years of us, climbing together for the first time, just two old guys tiptoeing up smears as magical and fleeting as rays of light dancing in the sky.