I rolled out of bed at 1:30am and collected my kit and had a little breakfast. By 2:10am I was on the road headed for Bakerville where I was to meet Charles and Fabio (CharlesD and brenta respectively). We had decided to meet at the Bakerville exit of I70 so that we could transfer their gear into the Jeep for the drive up Stevens Gulch. I arrived a little before 4:00am and put on my boots and gaiters while I waited for Fabio and Charles. They rolled in a few minutes later and piled their gear into the Jeep. The drive up Stevens Gulch wasn't as bad as I remembered, but we were halted about a half mile short of the trailhead by snowdrifts across the road. We geared up and set off at 4:45am.
We hiked up the road in the dark and through small snowdrifts. It didn't take long to reach the trailhead and by this time it was light enough to turn off the headlamps. As we continued hiking up we were treated to a nice alpine glow on Grays Peak. However, by the time we turned the corner to get a good view of Torreys Peak the sun was up and the alpine glow was gone.
As we neared the cutoff for Kelso Ridge we had a couple of decisions to make: (1) Do we go for Dead Dog Couloir and (2) Do we carry our snowshoes or ditch them here? We all really wanted to ascend Dead Dog Couloir, but there were some complicating factors. The recent heat wave meant that the snow might not have had a chance to firm up the night before and there had been a huge avalanche just a few miles away in Arapaho Basin Ski Area that had killed a skier the previous day. However, we had the inside scoop from fellow summitpost.org member Rob who had climbed Dead Dog Couloir the previous day. He had entered Dead Dog at 8:00am and topped out at 10:00am and said the conditions were perfect. There was a lot of evidence of small slides all over the basin, but Rob's tracks went right across the avalanche debris at the base of Dead Dog Couloir, thus none of the slides had occurred between his ascent the day before and ours. We were an hour ahead of his schedule so we thought we were in good shape as far as the snow conditions went. We decided to go for it. The harder question was, "Do we bring the snowshoes?" In the end we decided to bring them with us because we thought there was a chance we'd need them crossing the large snowfield below the couloir and we didn't really want to leave them laying around in such a high traffic area. Besides - carrying around some extra dead weight would only make us tougher!
As we made our way to the base of the couloir we saw a lone climber ahead of us entering the couloir from the left. Before beginning the real climbing we found a nice big rock to sit on while we sorted out our kit. We put on our crampons, strapped on helmets, traded trekking poles for ice axes, and put on climbing harnesses (just in case we ran into something dicey). We departed from the rock at 7:00 and set off into Dead Dog Couloir.
Conveniently, Rob had already kicked steps up the couloir the day before so we followed these. Initially we started moving very fast and as the sun began to rise I got really warm, really quickly. Soon I stopped to shed my long sleeve shirt and hat. The couloir was sheltered from the wind so it was really comfortable to be climbing in just short sleeves. As we made steady progress up the couloir the climber above us remained about 100 yards ahead. I thought we would close on him and catch him but as we neared the halfway point our progress began to slow. This wasn't due to getting tired or difficult conditions. Instead I think we all realized there was no reason to rush - we began to chat more amongst ourselves, we took more photos, and simply enjoyed the fantastic surroundings.
At this comfortable pace we made steady progress upward. The climber ahead of us soon pulled out of sight and we never saw him again. However, it wasn't long until we topped out of the couloir ourselves right at the rock fin we had been told was the crux of the ascent of Kelso Ridge. Upon topping out on the ridge we were met be fierce gusts of wind - it was time to put the warm clothes back on! I opted for my fleece and balaclava and Fabio and Charles put their shells back on. After snapping a few photos we continued the last hundred yards to the summit. Crampons hadn't really been necessary in the couloir but they came in really handy up on the ridge where the snow was steep and packed hard. This was my first opportunity to use my new crampons that I had bought the spring before for the ascent of Peak C. They seemed to be working well and I was happy with the purchase. I just needed to find more excuses to use them!
The last hundred yards to the summit went quickly and we arrived by 9:00am. We took the obligatory summit shot and had a few quick bites to eat. The high wind was making it quite cool on the summit though, so we didn't stick around long. As we prepared for departure we met a couple of skiers coming up the standard route. They scouted several different descent options before opting for Dead Dog Couloir. As we began the descent we could see them preparing near the summit, but unfortunately I missed them actually skiing the couloir.
We skirted the rock fin that another fellow summitpost.org member Doug had told us was the crux of their ascent of Kelso Ridge without trouble and continued making our way downwards. I thought to myself if that was the hardest part of Kelso Ridge this thing will be a breeze and we'll have plenty of energy to zoom up Kelso Mountain when we're done. Charles and Fabio concurred. The top of the ridge consisted of some steep sections of snow mixed with easy strolls across the flat ridge. Some of these slopes were so steep that I didn't feel comfortable plunge stepping down them and instead opted to face in to the slope and downclimb them while belaying myself with my ice axe.
Upon making our way down to 13,700 feet we found a nice sheltered area to take a break and grab a snack. We also figured we were down past most of the snow so we opted to take our crampons off. At about this time we crossed paths with a pair of climbers ascending Kelso Ridge. When we had been down in the valley we had seen them silhouetted at the very bottom of the ridge. After saying our hellos we set off.
We made pretty steady progress down the ridge and at what I estimated was the halfway point elevation-wise we sat down to take another break. As we snacked we heard a tremendous roar behind us and we turned to look as huge section of stone peeled of a rock face high on Kelso Ridge and fell down the face into a couloir (not Dead Dog Couloir though). There it started a good size avalanche that continued down the couloir to the basin below. We congratulated ourselves on getting out of the couloir before the sun had warmed up the snow and rock causing such spectacular events. I suppose they're only spectacular if you can witness them from afar - from inside the couloir it would have been terrifying and deadly!
After witnessing the rock fall we continued downward but the going began to get more difficult. We began to encounter gendarmes and rock towers that required downclimbing or creative traversing. None of this would have been too bad except that as the day wore on and the temperature continued to rise the snow conditions completely deteriorated. What had been nice consolidated snow suitable for ice axe placements was now slush. The alternative of downclimbing the rock wasn't much better because the rock was fairly rotten. On one of these outcroppings Fabio found a steep snow gully to descend. This looked very sketchy and when he made it to the bottom he told us that it looked easier to downclimb the rock. I had already come down into the gully a little way so I tried to traverse out onto the rock face. This turned out to be a mistake as I soon ran into trouble when the holds ran out. It's not so much that they weren't there - it's that the rock was so rotten that I pulled them all off. I still had two or three dicey moves to pull before reaching safer terrain. Charles was above me and offered a belay which I gladly accepted - it was nice that I still had my harness on. Feeling a little more confident on the rope I pulled the last three moves and stood on safer ground. Breathing I sigh of relief I got off belay and continued the downclimb. It felt like some pretty solid class four as I descended a hundred feet to join Fabio below.
Charles followed right behind and then we continued to descend only to find ourselves in the exact same position of trying to negotiate another gendarme. This time we decided to traverse around it by dropping down the north side of the ridge on a talus ramp. After losing a hundred feet we traversed around the base of the gendarme and then climbed back up to the ridge. Once we'd made it back to the ridge it appeared that most of the difficulty was behind us and all that remained was some straightforward class three scrambling to reach the Kelso-Torreys saddle. By this time I was beginning to tire slightly and all the time spent on the rotten rock and slushy snow had frayed my nerves. I was glad when we finally arrived at the saddle.
We decided to drop down into the basin where we would be out of the wind to take a much needed rest break. We all agreed that Kelso Mountain would have to wait for another day - we had definitely underestimated Kelso Ridge. At 1:00pm we arrived on a nice grassy slope down in the basin that provided a great place to rest. We stripped off our climbing gear and extra layers of clothing and basked in the sunshine. Some snacks and drinks rejuvenated us as we watched the steady stream of hikers descending the Grays and Torreys standard route.
After a half hours rest we were ready to make the final push back to the car. We made quick progress and all the traffic made the trail manageable. There was a little postholing but it was relatively infrequent and was only knee-deep. We passed several dayhikers on our way down but one in particular looked pretty pathetic. He was staggering down the trail and for some reason had an orange traffic safety vest on. As we approached he turned and asked us for help. He unabashedly admitted that he was in way over his head and need some help getting back to his car. He was a Floridian and had only been in Colorado three days before attempting Grays Peak. What's more, he had done it on about a liter of water. Charles loaned him his trekking poles and along with some other passing hikers we tried to fill him with as much water as he could take in. Nursing him back down to his car was a tedious process but we finally made it at 3:00pm. Some other hikers from Florida had taken over the "rescue" process by that time so we left this guy with them. I got the impression they were going to drive his car down to Denver for him because he didn't seem fit to drive yet.
I shuttled Fabio and Charles down to their car at the Bakerville exit and then we hit Tommy Knocker on the way home for a beer. It turned out to be a fantastic day and I was really glad to knock two routes off my wish list in a single day - Dead Dog Couloir and Kelso Ridge. It was great to meet Charles and climb again with Fabio. Another great part of this experience was all the beta we got from fellow summitpost.org members Rob and Doug. Hooray for summitpost.org! As always, I can't wait to do it again!