As far as winter summits go, I still needed Grays Peak snowy neighbor, Torreys Peak. Having battled a bad case of pneumonia and as the doctor said, “A touch of the flu” all last week, my plans were once again forcibly changed and pushed back to as yet another undetermined time. However, with all things being equal in light of frequent cancellations and attempts this winter season, Torreys Peak, as Jeff and myself would successfully summit on Thursday via Kelso Ridge, is definitely the highpoint of my winter climbing season though strangely enough, not the most fun. That honor belongs to Fletcher. This would turn out to be Jeff’s second winter summit (second time on Torreys) and second time up Kelso Ridge and my third time up Kelso Ridge and third time on Torreys.
Thursday ended up turning into a deliciously min-epic kind of day. I say delicious because everything about the morning and afternoon was a delight and a pleasant experience. We arrived at the lower parking area at Bakersville off I-70 at 5:30am. It took us a good while making last minute preparations and myself, amusingly trying to stave off sleepiness (kind of common for me). I turned to Jeff and exasperatingly said,
“Dude. It’s 5:30 in the morning. What the hell are we doing up? Even the pikas and marmots have enough sense to stay in bed.” Jeff just looked at me and started chirping, like a marmot, angrily (scolding me probably).
“Yes, but I’m not going back to Denver. It’s already quarter after 6:00am, so let’s get moving.”
The weather, when we left the truck was windy and it was snowing but it wasn’t entirely all that cold, quite comfortable really. However, at this point with the wind and blowing snow, I was thinking Torreys via Grays Peak Trail was going to be a more logical choice considering conditions.
As we started walking up Forest Service Road #189, we encountered a truly amazing and the 2nd stupidest thing I believe I’ve ever seen in the mountains. Apparently, someone thought that the snow was no match for his or her mighty Subaru. And to make it more laughable, branches, most no bigger than large twigs were crammed under the rear passenger side tire. Like that’s going to work on 6-8” deep sugar snow. I simply cannot understand some people.
The walk up to Steven’s Gulch was fairly uneventful (as it usually is). The road hadn’t seen much use of late but that could be due to blowing snow. There were only a couple snowshoe tracks at most. On the way out however, the road became a veritable highway of snowshoe and ski tracks, dog tracks, snowmobile tread and one home owner had brought in what had to be a CAT and plowed his way through to his property, quite a stark difference from the morning.
Up at the summer TH, an igloo was still there from two weeks previous. Someone had actually built another room onto it. This is where we took our first break. Jeff got out his stove and brewed us some Green Tea to complement our beef jerky and power bars. We spent far longer then we should have. But man, it was SO nice to be sheltered and out of the wind. But of course, we eventually had to move on.
Once past the bridge, we took turns breaking trail through the trees and willows. All past evidence of past exploits had been erased. Some people we stopped to talk to who were up snow-caving past the bridge had related to us that over the last couple days, the weather had been fruitfully and eagerly windy with intermittent bouts of snow. There’s something to be said about breaking trail through virgin snow, I don’t know what it is, it’s kind of a pioneer feeling in a way, it’s nice.
The clouds had all but disappeared and we were blessed with those painfully blue Colorado skies. It was still quite windy but in winter, what else is new? We took a gently ascending traverse up towards Kelso Mountain and eventually straightened out to a flat trail towards the Grays Peak NRT sign. At the sign, we stopped momentarily for some tasty beverages and to don more clothing. The sun was in full effect and it was in all honesty, rather hot but the wind was doing a bang-up job negating the warmth.
Once we reached the wind-scoured upper basin, we stashed our snowshoes and my ski poles on the first cairn we came to. Jeff had my collapsible poles & took them with him.
They wouldn’t be an issue on the ridge. Now that we could see the small col between Torreys and Kelso Mountain, we bee-lined it straight towards the old mining shack. We stopped for another break, I took some more pictures and we made a few more wardrobe changes. The wind was calm, nothing more than a mild breeze in the upper basin but once we stepped onto the ridge proper, the wind definitely reminded us it hadn’t gone anywhere. In fact, it felt compelled to keep us company for the whole trip.
We started the ridge climb at 1:10pm. Yeah, I know, entirely too late and I didn’t really care for it. We bullshitted and talked too much on the hike in and spent entirely too much time in the igloo. But this was something we both wanted and we did come prepared for it. So onward and upward!
The first part of the ridge until the vulgarities of the first gendarme are reached went by very smoothly. It was nothing more than patch snow of interminable quality, rock and some exposed grass. We stuck to the first few crags and small spires warming up for what would come later. Except for the recesses, most the crags were blown free of snow.
I had my Nuptse’s on and this was the first time I had used them on terrain that could be viewed as technical. So in saying, I took a bit longer then Jeff on the rock portions. In fact, in my futile attempts to climb a larger pinnacle directly, I eventually backed off. I just wasn’t comfortable wearing something that bulky (and heavy) while facing a slight overhang pull-up. I’d had them (boots) for a few months now and I was still getting used to them. So we traversed around to the right (north) on moderate rock till we reached the ridge again. For the whole of the ridge, the snow quality was extremely variable. I’m not saying that it would have suited a climb up Dead Dog or South Paw or Emperor but the few gully traverses and snowfields we climbed, the snow ‘worked’. It would have been nice to have fixed (or anchored) a rope in a couple sections but again, it wasn’t entirely necessary. The ridge was going to take us awhile, no secret there, so I wanted to move light and quickly especially considering our available daylight. It’s one thing to be hiking out on the Grays Peak Trail at night but another to be on Kelso Ridge. Crampons were not necessary either.
We now came to the first crux of the ridge, a decently sized gendarme that needed to be climbed by way of a short chimney. This chimney was solidly filled in with snow with a short drifted run-out leading to bare talus. Maneuvering around to the right (north) wasn’t an option as the rock goes vertical at that point. I could actually make out edlins group’s old footprints up this chimney from the previous week. I’m still scratching my head over our decision on this but instead of following in said tracks, we traversed to the left out on the south side of this gendarme and took a shorter but in my opinion, technically more difficult chimney to crest the top. There were a few sections throughout the ridge that had me nervous but this was the only instance where I was actually worried. In fact, since my boots were a bit of an issue, I took off my gloves, clipped them and climbed that way. Once I reached the top, I pushed out on my left foot and reached over to grab a rock with my left hand that was just out of reach for my right hand and pulled myself out to the right on sold rock. The snow actually continued on up out of the chimney but there just wasn’t any way to tell how deep it was or what the rock was like underneath. I waited at the top, warming my hands up and watched Jeff execute the same move. Cool, only two more to go.
Our pace slowed down after this. The ridge wasn’t too difficult but due to the snow and many crags, we just tested every footprint (see previous comment about snow conditions). We consistently dropped down off the ridge to the right (north) only to regain it again when things looked better. We actually skirted the second crux entirely feeling that it was taking us too long and that we needed to pick up our progress. Here, we dropped down maybe, ~30ft, traversed and climbed a snow line to regain the ridge. It was the first time climbing snow that I actually couldn’t make a decision about. Like I said, it worked for the time, for that ridge but anywhere else, no way.
It was a good mix of rock and snow (50-50) from here on out until we reached what to me, looked like a worn incisor jutting out of a precipice a little ways further and much higher. There was a good sized-snow drift at the bottom of this. The drift had two very distinct snow types in it. To the north side, the snow was quite good, hard and very firm. To the south, it was crappy, scary, large sugar-snow. It was kind of interesting I guess.
We then came to a filled in gully. I could still make out edlins old tracks and I didn’t see any reason to deviate, though I was eyeing the rock to my immediate left pretty hard. If the spot was right, there was a nice crack running up the slab to join the top. Other than the chimney encountered earlier, this is where I would have liked to have at least fixed a line across the gully. It was just steep enough to make things ‘interesting’ but like I said, the snow was confusing. This was another spot where I became a bit nervous. But we successfully navigated it and continued up a diagonal crack/broken ledge with yet another tough finish where I again, took my gloves off to get a better purchase. I waited for Jeff to top out with me then we moved on.
Now we took our first break on the ridge. We weren’t where I wanted to be (that plateau section higher up) but we were both starving and needed a break. At least we had a good chunk of the difficulties out of the way. The wind had almost completely died for most portions of the lower ridge (talk about a Godsend!) but it started to kick back up in earnest once we stopped. Believe me, at that point, even though as cold as it was, we really didn’t give a shit; we just wanted something to eat.
After a good 15 minutes, we continued up the ridge crest heading towards a heavy continuous snow line that ended in a good sized but gentle rolling loft of snow, not a cornice really. From the bottom, you could see it gently roll back. Post holing through this (only calf deep or so) got more difficult the closer to the top. Axe placement was definitely solid and secure but footfalls were sliding. I had to step and compact the snow a few times per step as best I could to keep my position. At least it would make it easier for Jeff. But once this mild loft was breached, finally, Jeff and I had reached the plateau and Torreys’ Peak summit was in tantalizingly close view! We sped along this section in an increasing wind. The diminishing sunlight was making us pick up our progress faster. It was a given that we were going to be hiking out in the dark but it was still possible to be at the saddle by nightfall (my goal). We still had one more ‘rough’ section of crags and small spires to surmount. We still maintained the ridge crest as best we could save for one section that had a questionable looking cornice. So we dropped down 10 feet or so and took a small ledge past this to finally arrive at the third crux, The White Tower. Now in my mind, the vulgarities of the ridge further down are harder than the knife-edge. Exposure is the only thing you really have to worry about because the rock is solid and very good. The White Tower was stripped bare of snow on the north side but heavily drifted on its south. We didn’t stop to marvel. We kept plugging away at it stopping only once we reached the other side. Though I asked Jeff to stop so I could snap a picture. Only 100yards (300ft) to the top! Once on the summit (6:07pm), the sunset over the Gore Range was breathtaking! Jeff and I could make out Breckenridge, the lights at Keystone, Dillon Reservoir etc. We stopped only long enough to take a picture of us and we were gone, probably not even 5 minutes. And true to my word, we were at the saddle with Grays a little before nightfall. We found a weakness in the gentle cornice and did a descending traverse to join the North Face on Grays Peak. This was another section that worried me a bit. I really didn’t care to be traversing a sloped snowfield in the dark, which we did. However, my beautiful BD Icon headlamp was amazing! It was something I wanted for a long time and received it as a Christmas gift.
We were now completely in the dark. However, this being my third time up here in roughly four weeks, I recognized certain rock outcroppings and trail signs, so were we able to navigate down using only portions of the actual trail. We reached the finger ridge, crested it for a bit, performed a bad-tasting down-climb and reached a well snow-covered climbers trail that we took out back to the basin floor. We reached out snowshoe stash, strapped up and got the hell out of Dodge. We at long last, through an epic kind of day, reached Jeff’s X-Terra at almost 10:30pm on the nose.