|A note about the photos: we were fortunate enough to have three cameras along and thus got a good selection of action shots as well as the usual scenery. Andy's photos are denoted by (AL) and Fabio's by (FS). Both are better photographers than yours truly, and I've borrowed from them liberally. You can generally tell us apart by helmet color: Andy is yellow, Fabio blue, and I'm white.|
Map of the Stevens Gulch area. Grays Peak (14,270') and Torreys Peak (14,267') are on the left. The trailhead is just off the map to the upper right. Our approach and ascent of Dead Dog are in blue, the descent of the Kelso Ridge is in red.
Andy and his brand new Jeep were waiting, ready to transport us and our gear as close to the trailhead as the residual snow and ice would allow. We piled in and ground our way up three miles of exciting, steep, dirt road. Pretty soon, brake lights ahead of us announced that we'd come to the end of the passable road and that someone was already stuck in a ditch. The strangest thing about a trailhead at 4:30 in the morning is how crowded it is!
We discussed gear options and I ended up leaving a lot of my technical gear (snow pickets, second ice axe, ice screws, shovel) in the car in favor of a lighter pack and faster pace. The Stevens Gulch trail head (which we'd gotten to within about half a mile of) is quite popular and dozens of hikers converge there to use the easy trail to the twin pyramids of Grays Peak (14,270') and Torreys Peak (14,267'). Our plan was a bit more ambitious than the well-trodden hiker trail. We would climb Torreys via either the Dead Dog Couloir or (if the couloir was not in good condition) the famous Kelso Ridge route. The Ridge rises from a saddle with Kelso Mountain to the east of Torreys and gains the summit after a mile or so of third and fourth-class scrambling. The Couloir takes the more direct approach rising 1600' up the massive east face at a sustained 40-50 degree angle exiting almost directly on the summit.
There had been conciderable discussion on SummitPost about current conditions. On Friday, robinmtns from SP and his party had climbed Dead Dog starting at 8 and summitting at 10. Also on Friday, a skier had been killed in a huge avalanche on a south-east-facing slope in-bounds at Arapaho Basin ski area at around 10 am. These thoughts fluttered through my head, a weird jittery mixture of excitement, foreboding, and the surreality that accompanies someone who is awake at an unusual time. At 4:45 we left the jeep and stumbled over packed snow and ice by the light of our headlamps toward the waiting mountains and our fate.
Sunrise over the ridge to the east.
Alpenglow on Grays Peak at about 5:30 (FS).
By 5:15, it was light enough to see the peaks starting to pinken in the alpenglow. An hour later we had reached the junction of the Kelso Ridge route with the main trail and it was time to make the decision. The Ridge was the safe option, but all three of us desperately wanted to do the Couloir! We were an hour ahead of robinmtn's schedule and the snow was pretty hard underfoot. Still, it was pretty warm and it wasn't clear that it had gotten down below freezing the night before. Numerous small slides of avalanche debris littered the bases of the gullies on the east face. From this angle, Dead Dog looked almost vertical, a wide stripe of snow between rocky fins shooting directly for the pointy, corniced summit high above. And the largest field of jumbled avalanche debris emptied out of the lower half of Dead Dog. But there were a couple strong sets of tracks through this debris leading straight and cleanly for the summit. The tracks (which were presumably those of Rob and his friends) were clearly newer than the slide activity and we resolved to give it a go.
We paused on a large, flat rock at 12,600' to switch into climbing gear. Here is probably the best place for a small confession: I'm a bit of a mountaineering poser. Sure, I've climbed a number of mountains, many of them in the winter. I own a lot of sharp metal gear and, in theory, know how it all works. But pretty much all of my adventures can be thought of as simply glorified, off-season hiking trips. This is my first bone-fide mountaineering route. The butterflies came back along with a mixture of grim fatalism and giddy anticipation as I buckled on my crampons, donned helmet, and swapped hiking poles for ice axe.
|Approaching Torreys Peak: the summit is at the center and is a lot pointier than it looks from this angle. Dead Dog Couloir is the sinuous, continuous snow band just right of the summit. The Kelso Ridge is the right hand side and extends quite a ways off-picture. Note the slide debris at the bottom of all the gullies and the line of tracks up the couloir. To give you the scale, the pair of rocks poking through the snow at the base of the slope are at 12,600'. The summit is at 14,267' (FS)||Andy climbs the lower slopes of Dead Dog.|
By 7am we had left the rock and started up the slope. Thanks to Rob and company, we had a strong set of tracks to follow and it was just like climbing a very long, steep flight of stairs. I broke my own trail for a while and found it harder than staying in the established tracks. The sun had finally cleared the cloud bank which had kept us cool for the past hour and things started to warm up. Coupled with the heat of exertion, we were soon panting, sweating, and feeling like the eponymous dead dog. I started to notice rocks buried in the snow, most about baseball size or smaller. Similar rocks began to tumble down the slope from above, loosed by the sun and melting ice. This is why we wear helmets! Occasionally, these would knock loose snow which would also come down the slope.
By 8 we had reached the upper portions of the couloir where the angle increased to about 45 degrees and the walls closed in around us. We stripped down to t-shirts, but were still quite hot from the exertion. The top of the couloir came into view as a large white block on the ridge. This block is also the last crux on the Kelso Ridge route and I immediately recognized it from the photos. Andy lead the way and we reached the ridge shortly. Popping up over the ridge, we were greated with a great view to the north and a strong, chilling wind. Doffed layers were quickly donned and I made extra sure to anchor myself and my pack from a long, long slide back down into the valley. The summit was only a hundred feet above. I grabbed my gear and eagerly headed up the broad snow slope.
|Clockwise from upper left: Andy about half-way up the couloir. CD nearing the top with our tracks visible about a thousand feet below (AL). Fabio about half-way up with the vast bowl of Grays visible in the distance. Fabio and I topping out at 14,100' (AL).|
At 8:58, I planted my axe on the snow-covered summit. The view was spectacular in every direction. Strong winds whistled in from several of these view-ridden directions and whistled in the ventilation holes of my helmet. Success! This is my sixth official 14er and 16th peak over 12,000', but every summit is a unique and triumphant experience, regardless of altitude. Andy and then Fabio arrived and we hunkered down under the summit out of the wind for a quick bite to eat. Celebratory handshakes all around and the requisite summit and view photos which completely fail to do the scene justice. The wind was making sitting still uncomfortable, and we departed at around 9:20.
|Fabio, bold mountain photographer, at the top of Dead Dog (AL)||Andy climbs the final slopes to the summit.|
|The wicked cornice running along the entire south ridge of Torreys. Grays peak and a couple dozen hikers can be seen at left. (FS).||The obligatory summit shot (FS).|
The view south and south east from the summit. Grays is the nearest peak on the right. In the center are Argentine and Square Top and in the distance on the left are two other 14ers, Mt. Evans and Mt. Beirstadt. Pikes peak can barely be seen on the far horizon in the center.
Looking south west from the summit you can see the Montezuma basin. The mountains on the right in the distance are the Tenmile and Mosquito ranges featuring a number of mountains I've climbed.
Immediately off the summit, we were faced with a very steep snow slope. Apparently, it didn't seem quite so steep on the way up. This is either commentary on how much harder things look on descent, or else how excited we were on the way up. We soon reached the white block at the top of Dead Dog and traversed around it to the south. Kelso Ridge stretched down before us looking sinuous and snow-covered. Rocks poked out here and there, but the path looked pretty straight forward after the challenging couloir. We climbed down a few more snow slopes and traversed some easy ridge before finding shelter behind a large rock at about 14,000'. Here we took off crampons and had a more leisurely bite to eat while discussing the plan for the rest of the day. We thought it would be interesting to waltz down the ridge and then climb Kelso Mountain via the continuation of the Kelso Ridge (would this be the Torreys Ridge route?).
|Fabio and I traversing across the top of Dead Dog. In summer, the white block is one of the cruxes on the Kelso Ridge. Just this side of the block is the famous knife-edge ridge. In the winter, neither of these are a problem... (AL)||Looking back up at the summit from below the white block. Our tracks can be seen coming up Dead Dog on the left and on to the summit. Two skiers on the summit are preparing to descend the couloir (FS).|
However, the ridge was not to be underestimated and kept throwing sections of easy walking interspersed with tricky downclimbs on moderately rotten rock at us. In many cases, we could just descend snow slopes instead of rock, but the snow was getting very soft and sugary. A self arrest in snow this crappy would be ineffective and the chances of sliding out of control into the valley on either side would be high. We stopped for a break around 13,700' and heard a mighty noise. Quickly looking around, we witnessed several tons of rocks break off the overhanging cliff capping the gully immediately to the east of Dead Dog. The rocks fell briefly before rolling and sliding down the steep snow. This started a slow-moving wet avalanche which sounded like a river. THIS is why we climb couloirs early in the morning! Half an hour later, a second, smaller batch of rocks fell from the same cliff adding it's own brown streak to the otherwise white snow.
|Fabio and Andy downclimb some steep snow near the top of Kelso Ridge.||Fabio and I on a miscellaneous traverse between rotten rock and rotten snow. What you don't see here is the fact that the snow is undercut on the other side and extremely rotten. (AL)||More scrambling. All part of the fun of the Kelso Ridge!|
The ridge continued to be challenging and the warming conditions didn't help. Two large towers blocked easy progress toward the lower part of the ridge. Fabio downclimbed a snowy gully in the middle of the higher one (Tower 2). Andy spied an easier route which traversed around the face of the tower. It was easy enough, but the rock did not inspire confidence, and a fall would be a long one. I scrambled up to the top of the tower and fashioned a quick belay with a short peice of rope I carry especially for moments like this. We then downclimbed the south side of the tower over various 4th class rocks. Fortunately, mountain boots edge quite well, but heavy packs and fatigued legs didn't make the job any easier.
The excitement at Tower 2: at left, I prepare a belay line for Andy as he traverses some dicey moves. Right, you can see the full extent of Tower 2. Fabio came down the snow slope and reported it horrible. (FS, both)
The second tower (Tower 1 as seen on ascent) jutted out like a fin over the lower ridge. We investigated a couple different options (none of them good), and ended up detouring down a steep scree slope to the north and scrambling back up to the ridge. Fortunately, we were pretty much down at this point because I was getting extremely tired and sore. By 1 pm we reached the base of the ridge, trudged a few hundred yards into the valley, and collapsed gratefully. All danger passed, we enjoyed a glorious half hour laying in the warm sun, watching the hoards of hikers coming down from Grays. Beer and sleep were exerting powerful calls. Climbing Kelso was briefly concidered and unanimously scrapped as a project for another day.
Hiking out after a glorious climb (AL).
We made good time on the trail out until we met a lone hiker sitting in the middle of the trail looking pretty desperate and, asking for help. His name was Allen and he was wearing sneakers, cotton pants, and (inexplicably) an orange traffic safety vest. He had just flown in from Florida on Wednesday and had succeeded in climbing Grays Peak with about a liter of water. He was sunburned, altitude sick, and desperately dehydrated. Another group (also from Florida, but much better prepared) came along and we poured about two liters of fluids into him. The liquids helped him noticably, but he was still stumbling along and going extremely slowly. Not life-threatening, but he would definitely not be at his best for the next day or two. We reached the jeep at around 3 and gratefully collapsed, ten hours after leaving it.
It was a great trip with two first-rate partners and all objectives achieved. The three of us have similar levels of fitness, skill, and ambition which made this trip extremely rewarding and educational.
The Wilderness Journal