My roommate(Dan Wandsneider)and I first attempted Kelso ridge in winter conditions in late January, early February. We got as far as the parking lot at the bottom of the road up to the trailhead after exiting 70. At this point we both realized we had the same bad gut feeling as only guts can have about the upcoming climb. After discussing our feelings we opted to bail and head over to the Bierstadt area and do a little backcountry skiing and hiking. We wondered if we had made a mistake and let our qualms get the best of us, but remained confident that we would return soon to complete the climb. As it turned out, when we were up on a plateau on the west side of Bierstadt we saw some pretty nasty looking clouds coming in that we most likely would have been climbing into had we continued with our planned climb.
After our first aborted attempt we returned on the 13th of March to put the demons of our first attempt to rest. We drove from Fort Collins to the Bakerville exit and arrived around 4:30pm. We loaded up our packs and headed up the three mile road to reach the trailhead. The road was very hardpacked with fairly little snow and some large bare areas of no snow at all. My roommate brought snowshoes but ended up carrying them the whole way up to the trailhead. I not having snowshoes strapped on my skis and headed up, only to take them off after about a mile and half due to too little snow and the slope of the road off to one side which made skinning a very unpleasant chore. We took are time, moving fairly slowly and arrived at the trailhead just as the last of the sun was disappearing from the surrounding ridges. We continued about five minutes beyond the trailhead to find a spot to pitch our tent. In all, it took us about two and a half hours to follow the road up to the trailhead, a pretty slow pace for us. We pitched our tent, cooked our meals and settled in for a pretty uneventful night.
Approaching the ridge
We forgot to set our alarms for the following morning and woke up relatively late, about 8:30am. We got our things together and set off at about 9:00 or 9:15am. I strapped on my skis once again and Dan put on his snowshoes. This was the first time flotation was actually necessary although it probably could have been managed without, although it would not have been pleasant. We made relatively good progress and arrived at the base of the saddle between torreys and kelso mountain at about 10:20.
We stashed our skis and snowshoes and headed on up to the saddle resting for a moment near the abandoned miner shack. Thus far the weather was beautiful, though oppressively hot. We were stripped down to just our baselayers, though upon reaching the ridge we put on our shells not so much for the warmth but for the protection against the rock in the upcoming technical pitches. We proceeded along the ridge taking our time to pick the best route and taking care not to drop too far down on one side of the ridge, as I have made this mistake before and it usually results in expending more energy than would be necessary normally. We made fairly good progress on the ridge eventually catching up with a team from Boulder, Eric and Joe at one of the more technical sections. Eric and Joe chose to belay across the base of one of the many rock fins and follow a route around the side and up to the top of the fin. We chose a more direct, albeit more exposed route up a narrow chimney which i had taken before in the summer. This chimney when dry is not any more difficult than 5.3 or so, although in its current conditions it was considerably more difficult due to loose sugar snow which afforded no purchase with our axes and covered potential handholds. After some creative stemming and knee and elbow bars we reached the top of the fin, coming out about the same time as Eric and Joe came around from the other side. From this point on we swapped in and out of lead with Eric and Joe. We arrived at the knife edge, however due to the snow it was not much of an edge, and not much of a obstacle. At this point we were only about 400 feet short of the summit but we had about one more technical section plus the traverse across the top of dead dog couloir. Here Dan and i decided to put on our crampons, although Eric and Joe decided not to and they seemed to manage pretty well. The snow was very loose and unconsolidated and it was difficult to get any purchase, I ended up kicking and punching through the snow to the underlying rock to get any traction on the rock. We continued on up across the top of dead dog and this is where the crampons really became nice, although the snow was so warm and sticky it really clumped up underfoot and became a minor annoyance. After crossing the couloir we were on the homestretch up to the summit. However this is the section that ended up being the most hazardous. As we worked our way up we began noticing a dull thudding noise emanating from the snowpack beneath our feet. Dan below me could actually feel the vibrations from my footsteps where he was about twenty feet below on the same slope. Needless to say we quickly got off that slope and fast as possible and let Eric and Joe know to steer clear of that final stretch. We topped out at 3:30pm, a little late, but the weather was superb with still not a cloud in the sky. Due to the lateness in the day we didnt linger long on the summit, other than the obligatory summit pictures.
We spent only about 10 minutes in all on the summit before heading down. The descent down turned out to be one of the most arduous parts of the entire climb. The pathway down along the face of Grays was very slippery and icy. We were forced to go much slower than we would have liked and it wasnt until about 5:00 that we got back to where we stashed our skis and snowshoes. This point became the most frustrating part of the climb. I had made the decision to wear my plastic double boots on the climb for several reasons. One, i only have step-in crampons which necessitate a heel and toe welt. Also since i dont have snowshoes i needed a boot that would work with my AT set-up. This lead me to the choice between my AT boots or my plastic doubles. I had climbed a fair amount in my doubles including Aconcogua and the north face of longs in winter so I knew how they would handle in terms of hiking and on the technical areas we would face. What I had not planned on was their complete lack of support when skiing downhill. They managed to turn what should have been a pleasant downhill ski run into a nightmare of a trip down. My boots were so soft in comparison to ski boots that i could not put an edge down on my skis no matter what i tried to do but only ended in putting me on my butt. In the end i was forced to resort to snow plowing the entire way down to the trailhead. We arrived at our camp at about 5:30pm and quickly went to work packing up camp. I left camp a bit earlier than Dan in an effort to get back to the car to make our phone calls. We had told our friends including my girlfriend to expect a call from us no later than 8:00 pm to signal that we were off the mountain and ok. We have had S&R called on us before for being late by my girlfriend and didnt want a repeat of that. I rushed down the road, getting to the car in about 40 minutes to notify everyone, girlfriend included, that we were down safely.
Kelso ridge with winter conditions provided a great and fun climb. It is certainly one of my new favorites and a classic test piece. Some people may opt to bring a rope for the more difficult sections, it certainly wouldnt be a bad idea, and would give some piece of mind along the crux. Additionally an earlier start is a must. We couldnt have succeed if the weather had not been as nice as it was, and held for as long as it did. Skis worked fine once we got off the road up to the trailhead, and would have been really nice on the descent if i had AT boots, in fact we saw someone ski down Dead Dog couloir while we were on the ridge. If you have no interest in skiing anywhere on the mountain - snowshoes would be the way to go, they are much easier to use on the road up to the trailhead if they are even needed at all. In all this was a great climb, and something i would recommend to anyone who already has experience in winter conditions and is looking to up the challenge a little bit with a slightly technical climb. I would highly recommend doing Kelso ridge in the summer before attempting in the winter, although it is not a requirement, neither Eric nor Joe had done Kelso ridge and they seemed to manage very well. Give yourself lots of time and keep an eye on the weather.
Gear we brought and used and found useful:
Over night gear if you decide to do in two days.
Tent (3 season) was just warm enough.
Sleeping Bag -20
Stove - jetboil