I had been thinking of climbing Snowmass Peak, lately. I say “thinking,” but, really, it has only been thinking of the most fore-brained variety; merely a conscious processing of the fact that that particular mountain remains on my to-do list. I don't know what it is about Snowmass, but I just can't work up any enthusiasm for it; neither for the long hike in nor for the mountain itself. It just has never captured my imagination the way, say, Pyramid, or Blanca, or the Needle did in the years before I climbed them; nor do I feel any electric buzz deep in my gut like my very visceral anticipation of, say, the Bells, or Capitol. That ennui, then, combined with my road-weariness from the thousands of miles I've been driving to trailheads down in the San Juans and Sangres lately, gave my sub-conscious brain—that part we truly rely on for our decisions—something to mull over, and this is what it decided: the Dead Dog Couloir on Torreys Peak.
As far as I can make out, my intestines digested a bolus of reasons to choose Torreys, the first fourteener I had climbed, over Snowmass, which would have been a new one for me. For one, my memories of my murderous drive to San Luis Peak are too fresh for me to ignore the potential for roadside massacres of local wildlife on a drive to the Lead King Basin trailhead for Snowmass. Also, if I recalled a recent trip-report correctly, Dead Dog Couloir was in good condition. If so, it would be a chance to stretch myself, to use the experience I have recently garnered in steep snow, climbing Dragon's Tail in RMNP, which, by all accounts is both steeper and longer than Dead Dog, though not as high. Climbing Torreys would also give me a chance to revisit the site of the climb that got me started on all of this—back in 1995, when I climbed Torreys and Grays via the Kelso Ridge with a friend, Matt. Soon after I broke my own altitude record of 13,700 feet and just before we tackled the knife edge, Matt confessed a morbid fear of heights, but then proceeded to come through like the trouper he is. That day, we went on to summit both peaks before being chased down Stevens Gulch by a dark storm that sat directly overhead, spitting lightning up and down McClellan Mountain. These were all reasons enough, but the clincher was the fact that I’d be working two peaks closer to completing my more recently acknowledged goal of climbing all the fourteeners solo. The chance to move two peaks previously climbed accompanied over into the solo column was tempting, to say the least.
My gut having long previously settled the issue, I left the parking lot at 4:45am, and enjoyed a short, blissful hike through a brief tree-line and on up into a lightening basin. The two peaks at the end intercepted pre-dawn sunlight streaking across the troposphere a long while before astronomic sunrise, and they sat bright pink against a still-dark western sky. These peaks are the presiding dignitaries of Stevens Gulch; Torreys the elegant, dashing dauphin to Grays' couch potato king; the former as riven with features—faces, couloirs, and ridges—as the latter is bland, brown, lumpen.
The couloir, as with all features on mountainsides viewed from head-on by those about to climb them, looked steeper than humanly possible, and as I sat against a prominent rock at the end of the couloir's runout, arranging myself against a rock—doffing headlamp and donning helmet, harness, gaiters, and crampons, and leashing myself to my ice-ax—I suffered more than a moment or two of doubt. For once, I was heartened to see others in the same position: behind me, there was another solo climber, similarly arranging himself on another rock, and behind him again, a boarder/skier pair were gearing up; each of the four of us individually preparing himself for the couloir, all watching the snow brighten at its summit, all noting the gross features—particularly memorizing the left hand branch off the ‘Y’ that will take us directly to the summit—all awash in anticipatory adrenaline. I decided that I would simply start up the climb and trust that as I ascended the apron at the bottom of the couloir, the couloir itself would envelop me in its own vertical inevitability and inject me irrevocably into the climb.
And that is exactly what happened. As I climbed up and over the snow-covered debris fan, I became engrossed in the simple acts of drawing breath and planting my crampons firmly into the still hard-frozen snow, so I did not notice my being summarily sucked up into the couloir. While my back-brain provided diesel power to my lungs and legs, my fore-brain was distracted, engaged in unraveling a geomorphic puzzle.
The prominent feature down the middle of the couloir, visible from miles away—starting near the top of the gulley and zipping down its center to the head of the deposition cone formed around the bottom hundred-or-so feet—cannot surely be a glissade track, as I had first thought from a distance. At the remove of a few yards it was clear to me that it was far too deep and the couloir itself far too steep for anybody in their right minds to risk themselves to a blind slide, skis or boards notwithstanding. A few hundred feet later I solved the puzzle, or, rather, it was solved for me when I heard a muffled yell from the climber above of “ROCK!” and I defied my training by looking up to spot it. And spot it I did: I could hardly have missed it, a serving platter-sized rock hurtling down the gulley; a deadly wheel bouncing toward me. I had time enough to realize that it would pass to my left (the side of the vein) and, as I stood there entranced by this sudden burst of violence, it did. It whistled cheerily as it passed, a benign sound for such a malignant killer. As I watched, it bounced directly into the trough, and stayed there, bounding down the snow-cleft until it is ejects where the trough opened out at the top of the debris fan. A hypoxic Newton, I realized that the vein was no glissade track but a chute for the rocks coming off the sides. I had just witnessed the process that forms and maintains these couloirs; pieces weather off the mountainside, following fall-lines that concentrate their trajectories and, over the seasons, wear a path. Over the millennia these paths turn into a gulley. Over a matter of a human lifetime the gulley is re-born under a French name and re-evolves into a climbers’ and skiers’ playground. But through it all, the couloir remains no more and less than a streambed turned inside-out: a path made of water (frozen, in this case) to carry rock, as opposed to a path made of rock to carry water. For a few breaths, I processed this startling (to me) intersection of geology and hydrology and started on up the climb again. When I next looked down—a few minutes later, it felt at the time, but probably only a matter of ten seconds or so—the rock was still moving, albeit slowly and, as I stared, it came to a halt at the hem of the apron and finally dropped over onto its side.
I resumed the climb, alternately taking the slope straight ahead in German style, mixing it up with some American to rest the muscles in one calf at a time, or when the ache became too much, lessening the attack angle by tacking like a yacht back and forth across the snow. It was hellacious fun, and as such, ended far too quickly. Before I knew it, the end of the couloir loomed above me in the ‘Y’ and I followed the footsteps that bore left up and out to where I remember the summit. As I emerged from the left of the couloir, my horizon burst open; Grays loomed immediately before me, with Bierstadt and Evans behind, and the Sawtooth—the site of my first solo climb in Colorado—draped elegantly between them. The snow became steeper—about 50°, over the couloir’s 45°—and the exposure dramatic, a quick glance down the face to the left ended mere few feet away as the short snowfield dropped out into space over the east face, leaving lush Stevens Gulch in sight far below. From there, it was just a few side steps around to the left and, voila!, the summit.
When I looked at my watch, I was amazed to see that an hour and a half had elapsed since I geared up at the bottom: it felt like a few minutes, the climb was that absorbing. The wind, which until now had been pushing at my back was here full in my face from the west. And cold. I hunkered down below a low wind-wall, found the register and signed in. I was astounded at just how many people make it up here in one day—the peak’s popularity due to a combination of its proximity to Denver and the short hike in, no doubt. I removed my crampons and gave a quick glance around at the familiar landscape: the Front, Ten-Mile, Gore, and Mosquito ranges on all sides around me; the wide emptiness of South Park to the south, with Pikes standing grey to its left; Breckenridge to the west, where Dillon Reservoir looks fuller than I have seen it in a few years; then the northern Sawatch with Holy Cross and Massive in the distance, and the rest of the Sawatch only visible as a blur in the southern distance.
The trudge over to Grays was a mostly dry traverse on a well-worn path beside the ill-famed “monster cairns.” I took it at a leisurely pace, stopping to chat awhile with the climber who had ascended the couloir a few hundred feet above of me. I thank him for his “rock” callout and for his steps: it turned out that they are his indeed, but from last week, when he had last climbed the couloir. At the summit of Grays I looked around again, marveling at the trail of hikers making their way up the trade route. I counted 50 that I could see from my perch, of which one-in-three was carrying either skis or boards. I signed in, noting “#32” for my solo climbs (I simply couldn't resist the urge to write that in the registers: I know how small-minded it will make me appear to keep track of such a thing, but, damn it, I'm proud of it), and spent the next half-hour on top, napping, replenishing my blood sugar, looking around at northern Colorado, and discussing climbing and nearby mountains with a couple up from Denver.
Leaving Grays’ summit, I dropped about a hundred feet to the top of the highest snowfield I could find and started the Mother of all Glissades—about a vertical half-mile down into the bowl below the saddle. At one point, and in full view of the aforementioned train of hikers making their way up across Grays, I felt myself losing control, and had to resort to a rather unbecoming self-arrest, stopping myself a few feet shy of some rocks in my path. On and on and on again, and a few minutes later, after a thrilling and thorough ass-wetting, I glided to a halt about a hundred yards from the rock I had geared up at, not three and half hours earlier. Here, the circle closed, I took a long, lingering look back at my track around the mountains, laid out glorious and elevated against a deep, Colorado blue.
Warm now down in the bowl, I stripped off layers and strolled out down the path back to the truck, with a broad grin plastered all over my face and a friendly word for everyone I met—day-hikers, families, church-groups, the world and its dog. It was, quite simply, a beautiful day to be in the mountains, no matter how much of Denver was up there with me. I caught up to a snowboarder and we chatted the last half-mile out. He turned out to have been the climber a few hundred feet below me up the couloir. With a laugh, he said, “this time yesterday, I wasn't even out of bed.” We concluded that our lives as climbers are schizophrenic to say the least; I told him that when I left home in the morning, the last bar-hoppers were still draining from Old Town, that my roommate wasn't even home.
We arrived back at the trailhead at 10:45 AM and, with The Cure blasting from the truck's open windows, I bounced on back down to the freeway. As if to underscore my earlier conversation, I got back home to the Fort at 1:15 PM, which made for my earliest return from a fourteener-climb. When I pulled up in front of the house, my said roommate was on the porch, still in his bathrobe, having only just emerged from bed; a long, hard night written all over his face.
But here’s the thing—my take-home message: On the mercifully short drive home up I-25, it occurred to me how with climbing—as, recently, with skiing—my skill-set is now more in line with my courage (for want of a better word) than it ever has been before. This is probably as much a function of my shortening the leaps I take in what climbing ventures my guts encourage me to take on as it is a function of having simply gotten that much more experience under my belt, and, of course, of having taken classes where I have been both frightened out of my ignorance and exposed to other, more-experienced climbers. For instance, I wouldn't have thought about wearing a harness to clip my ice-axe into as a self-belay on this climb otherwise. Fair enough, as it turned out, I didn't need it, but such a need was never out of the question. This feeling of calibration is new to me, and makes for a welcome realization, a punctuation point—some sort of graduation, almost— in my nascent climbing career.
"So I was sitting in my cubicle today, and I realized, ever since I started working, every single day of my life has been worse than the day before it. So that means that every single day that you see me, that's on the worst day of my life."
--Peter Gibbons (Office Space)