Early MorningSeven of us would be climbing snow routes on Torreys Peak and attempting ski and snowboard descents, so it would be an early morning. Five of us (myself, Nate D, Val, ski Dave, and Mark) would meet at Mark's house in Boulder at 3:30 AM. A few of us were a little bit late and we left Boulder around 3:50 AM. Aaron and snowboard Dave were driving up separately and would meet us "at the trailhead". Since we were heading up Grizzly Gulch, I took that to mean wherever the 4x4 access was blocked. Val and ski Dave followed us in her Jetta which made it to a pullout just before the first stream crossing. We loaded them into Nate's Xterra and drove a mile or two further up the road, crossing the stream twice, until we were blocked just north of Torreys' North Ridge. Aaron and Dave were already there waiting for us, so we jumped out, geared up, and departed the vehicles around 5:45 AM.
Two Routes Up
We all intended to descend the Northwest Couloir. Myself, Aaron, and snowboard Dave were the token knuckledraggers. Val and ski Dave were on tele's, and everyone else was on AT gear. Mark, Nate, ski Dave, snowboard Dave, and Aaron were going to climb Emperor. Val and I had already climbed Emperor last year, and we wanted something a bit more scrambly, so we went for the obscure route Eroica between the North Ridge and the Kelso Ridge routes. We had parked our 4x4's directly below the "steep forested slope" leading to the basin between Kelso Mountain and Torreys. So we immediately diverged and started bushwacking southeast toward the basin. Everyone else would hike the road for about a mile or so before heading up.
Forest of Doom
Val and I spotted a gap in the trees heading up and went for it. This appeared to not be an avalanche path, but rather contained sawed off stumps from long ago. I briefly pondered what strange endeavor had been attempted and aborted here, and then thought of the irony of my own strange endeavor juxtaposed in this place. My thoughts quickly turned to the difficulty at hand. There was quite a bit of snow cover in the trees, varying from bare ground to two to three feet. The snow was crusty but not well frozen, presumably due to the lower elevation and the proximity of the trees. Everywhere we stepped, we postholed straight to the ground. There was no trail to follow on the approach to this obscure route. We did our best to avoid the deep patches, often squeezing between shoulder-width gaps between the timber. The going was slow, but we eventually broke the trees directly below the start to the North Ridge. We veered left and found an open snow slope that was much more firm, giving us passage with minimal postholing. We worked up the west side of the basin until we finally reached the base of our route at about 7:15 AM.
I was having a hard time keeping up with Val on the approach due to a month on my butt and a ridiculously heavy load. The only snowboard boots I have are unsuitable to kicking steps due to their snug fit. My double plastic Koflach's make dicey snowboard boots at best. So, I was packing a second pair of boots, a snowboard, a 30m 8mm rope, a small alpine rack, and some emergency supplies. On top of that, I don't have a day pack that I can fit boots and gear in, so I had to use my Bora 95! Val agreed to take the rope to better balance the load, we took some food and hot mate de coca, I snapped a few pics, and we were off around 7:30 AM. The couloir looked a little thin in the lower section, and had a lot of dirt and rock on the snow, so we threw our helmets on for good measure. The upper couloir opened up into a wide bowl that had several exit options. We plodded up in crampons with axes and reached our chosen exit after about two hours. Here the bowl ended at a steep fifteen foot section adjacent to a small rock outcrop. Val headed up first as I took some video. At one point her right crampon skated out from the shallow snow covered rocks and she slid about six inches before catching herself. It was an exciting moment, caught on video for posterity. I followed, feeling the excitement of what I estimated to be steeper than 50 degree climbing in softening shallow snow.
We pulled over onto the North Ridge around 9:15 AM and took another short break. I was feeling low on energy and had sucked down two Cliff Shots on the snow climb below. I crammed down some more calories and we finished the tea before striking out for the Kelso Ridge. It was straightforward following the North Ridge maybe a hundred yards or so before we joined with Kelso. Now I was on familiar territory. I had been on the ridge twice before in February and preferred the rock scrambling without crampons so I doffed them here as did Val. We scrambled up a bit before I caught my first glimpse of the other five climbers in our group, at least 1000 feet below to our right, working up Emperor. I began to appreciate how long we would be waiting for them at the summit. From the point where the North Ridge meets Kelso Ridge, the hike is very easy up to about halfway to the summit. Not being as comfortable climbing in her tele boots, Val put her crampons back on. I opted to leave mine off. Feeling as though I was nearing a bonk, I took a ten minute break and threw back as many calories as I could swallow. We maneuvered around and over a few third class difficulties and found ourselves contemplating the White Tower around 10:40 AM.
The White Tower
I've always downclimbed the tower on the right, and traversed on a narrow rock ledge, which is what the rope and rack were for (I've known people to fall here and have caught a second's fall here). I've never gone straight over the top, having always been in my double-plastics. This time, Val eyed the left traverse, across the top of Dead Dog couloir. The snow was quite steep and shallow here, with hints of rock just below the surface. On top of that, the snow on this east-ish facing slope had been baking in the warm sun all morning and it was almost eleven o'clock. Val started a descending traverse and soon reported how little fun she was having. I watched her struggle for a bit and decided I would climb straight down the soft steep snow about twenty feet before traversing left into Dead Dog. I grumbled something about wanting more practice downclimbing steep snow as I thought back on my only previous experience doing such in Peru's Cordillera Blanca (and not enjoying it too much at the time). I decided to leave the crampons off, feeling that the snow was too soft for them to help, and the chance of self-arrest too high to justify the risk. The descent was hairy. My axe slid easily to the head, not providing much confidence as a self-belay. After a few steps, I found I couldn't kick anything substantial in the soft snow anymore. From there, I would pull one foot out, lower it a bit, and slide into a posthole of soupy snow hoping it would hold my weight. After a few minutes of this, I started traversing below Val, hoping she didn't slip and impale her crampons in my helmet. She held, and I cruised quickly across to a runnel in Dead Dog which I was able to climb easily back up to the ridge. After a few minutes Val joined me and we hiked the short stretch to the summit.
We pulled onto the summit at almost exactly 11:00 AM, later than I was hoping. On the summit there was the usual attendance of climbers, skiers, snowboarders, hikers in shorts, and dogs all enjoying the view. I knew it would be a long wait for the others, so we threw on every bit of extra clothing we had. The skies were partly cloudy and the wind gusted to about 15 MPH, such that when the sun was hidden and the wind was blowing, I was pretty uncomfortable just sitting there. A few times I almost decided to descend without the others. Instead, I ate most of the rest of my food to help keep warm and attempted to spot the others. After almost an hour, snowboard Dave popped up on the summit alone. He had left the couloir down low and climbed all the way to Kelso Ridge on the scree in his snowboard boots! That didn't sound like fun, but he had done it quickly. He had also followed our downclimb/traverse around the White Tower and enjoyed it about as much as we had. Finally, at about 12:30 PM I saw Aaron's snowboard and then helmet crest the ridge just below the White Tower, at the top of Emperor. Half an hour later all seven of us were on the summit. Ski Dave was struggling as he pulled the summit and didn't look so good, so I have him a bunch of Cliff Shots and Blocks, my spare liter of water, and a bottle of Aleve. Mark donated some of his roast beef sandwich to the cause, and we were ready to depart by 1:15 PM. I had been on the summit for two hours and fifteen minutes.
Two Routes Down
I had been ready to descend for almost two hours, and I didn't waste any time changing my boots, picking a drop-in and buckling in. As I prepared I noted Val attending to ski Dave and Mark and Nate hiking down the ridge together. At this point we would separate, with the knuckledraggers attacking the first passable entry to the Northwest Couloir. My subconscious concern over separating was somewhat abated by the fact that the others were both buddied up in two pairs, and they possessed great experience between Val and Mark. I directed my attention below and dropped in at 1:15 PM. It was steep, icy hard, and thin with rocks poking through leaving sometimes as little as a few feet of crust between them. Aaron and snowboard Dave decided to follow me down this high line, and the skiers would hike down the ridge, and down the top of the lower-angled branch of couloir before strapping on their boards. I knew that Val had been down that way with me about a year ago so between the four of them they could figure out their descent. With that, I pushed off and scraped down the icy top, made a few jump turns, split some rocks, and found a clear exit to the left that avoided the dry scree slope below. Once I was about 200 feet down, I stopped to wait for the others. First snowboard Dave and then Aaron scraped through into view and stopped behind me. From here, we dropped into the better part of the upper branch of the couloir. Crossing to the left side, I found an inch or two of cross-loaded windblown powder that was actually pretty well bonded to the old hard stuff below. This must have been from the widweek storm that hit the area. I knew that there had been two good days of 50+ temps, and freezing nights, so I tore into it. The turns were a little tricky due to the semi-bonded interface between soft freshies and old crust below, but relatively great for this kind of backcountry setting. The freshies persisted to about halfway down, where the sun had cooked them into nice corn. At this point, our branch joined the further west branch where I got my first look up the skiers' side. Strangely, I saw nothing moving above. The others should have started by now, but maybe they were just getting going and still obscured by rocks. After waiting about five to ten minutes, my knees were freezing up, so I decided to continue down. The good corn snow lasted until about the bottom quarter, where everything went to slush. Before I knew it, Aaron and snowboard Dave were sliding up to me at the bottom.
I looked back up and much to my surprise I still saw nothing moving in the vast couloir above. The skiers should be halfway down by now. I started running through the possibilities in my head. Knowing that ski Dave had been suffering a touch of AMS, I had a vision of him collapsing on the summit ridge. Knowing that only Val had been down this way before and was probably occupied with ski Dave's condition, maybe they had missed the drop-in and continued too far down the ridge. Either way, there was very little the three of us could do from the bottom. I waited there for what must have been close to thirty minutes, sensing Aaron and Dave's desire to get back to their truck and out of their boots. Eventually I came to the conclusion that something had gone wrong, but I had no way of knowing what. I flashed back to that morning at Mark's house where we had not been able to locate his radios. I decided then and there to buy my own radios and always carry them along with spare batteries. Out of sight and out of voice range, the only thing to do was wait here or hike back to the trucks. I eventually came to the conclusion that if something was wrong, the only thing I could do would be to call in a rescue (short of climbing solo back up the mountain, where I would be of marginal use to three or four capable climbers). So, I opted for the former. The three of us descended to the creek, sloshed across, and postholed back up to the old 4x4 road. As we hiked down toward the vehicles, I took opportunities to sight the couloir through the trees but never saw any motion.
We got back to our parking at 3:00 PM and I still hadn't seen any indication of the skiers. I now faced the decision of what to do for the others. They could be stuck high on the mountain, or they could be descending an unplanned route. It had taken the three of us just under two hours to descend from the summit to the trucks, and we had gone relatively slowly. I figured that the skiers would definitely be back to the trucks within an hour and a half of our arrival, or they wouldn't make it at all. I was also balancing my reluctance to escalate the situation to a rescue with the amount of daylight left. So, I proposed to Aaron that we give them until 4:30 PM to return, or we would split up with someone driving to I-70 to make a phone call, and someone hiking back up the road with emergency supplies to assist if necessary. I pulled off my snowboard boots, pulled out my socks and double-plastics, and set them out to dry as best as possible. We all had some gatorade and water that Aaron and snowboard Dave had stashed in their truck, and rested for a bit. At about 3:20 as I was preparing to iodine some creek water I happened to be looking up towards the exit from the Northwest Couloir and barely caught a glimpse of two skiers descending towards the trees. They disappeared quickly, and I saw no sign of anyone else. The 4:30 PM deadline was just over an hour away and the two skiers were probably 45 minutes away. I still felt that the best thing I could do was get a phone call out before it got too late to get assistance during daylight. I decided to wait about twenty minutes for the skiers to make their way a bit down the road, and I would run up to meet them with supplies.
I told Aaron that if I was not back by 4:30 PM to drive down to I-70 and call emergency services. It was 3:45 PM now, so I would run up the road for twenty minutes to meet the two skiers. If all was okay, that gave me another twenty minutes or so to run back and cancel the call. Back in my double-plastics with some food, water, and emergency gear in the top lid of my pack strapped around my waist, I hustled back up the road. After about fifteen minutes of hiking, I saw Mark and Nate descending the road, alone. I yelled up as I approached, asking if everything was okay. They confirmed that it was, and I stopped to wait for them to join me. They explained that everyone was okay, but that the tele skiers had fallen behind in the soft slush and had removed their skis. Mark explained that they had in fact descended too far down the summit ridge and descended a couloir much further west than the intended route. Relieved, I offered them my food and water and told them that I had to run back to the Aaron and cancel an emergency call. They thanked me, offered me beer, and I was off back down the road. Jogging through soft snow in double-plastic boots is interesting. I got back to Aaron at about 4:10 PM and relayed the situation. I kicked off my boots for the third time that day and waited for the others. First Mark and Nate, then Val and ski Dave dribbled down the road.