I had been itching to climb another 14er for some time now, and the urgency of this feeling increased as I noticed more and more snow accumulating ontop of Pike's Peak from my dorm window at Colorado College. I convinced one of my friends, from Germany, who is also an adamant climber as well, to come along. I had chosen Gray's and Torry's Peaks, I wanted to assend them using the Kelso ridge. I had done plenty of research before hand and knew what to expect as well as what to bring. I had done the infamous incline the day before to prep my legs.
It had rained in the Springs the night before we left, so I assumed that the high country had a nice dusting of snow. I actually looked forward to climbing in the snow a little, and the weather in the Springs prompted me to bring along my ice axe and crampons.
We left at 3 a.m. from the Springs, a hard task indeed as Saturday night was filled with the ususal college activites of drinking and hanging out with friends into the wee hours of the morining. Nevertheless, we were both excited to get outdoors and have a longer journey than our typical afternoon climbing sessions in the Garden and in Cheyenne Canyon.
We took my 1979 Chevy truck, urban camoflauge in color, up I-25, then to I-70 and exited at 221. As we began driving to the trailhead I noticed the first snow. I guess I was just not paying any attention before, perhaps because it was so early, but there was a good 3-4 inches of fresh powder on the dirt road. A few minutes of off-roading later with some Beck blaring in the cab, we arrived at the trail head, as the first people on the mountain.
The Climb: Morning
We got out of the truck, and although it was not terribly cold due to cloud cover, it was definately chilly enough to warrant the use of a soft shell. We strapped on the head lamps and were underway!
About an hour into our hike, the sky became ever clearer and lighter, signaling a good day ahead.
The hike up the well kept trail was not very physically straining since we are both fit, and was quite enjoyable. It was still very dark, and the clouds covered the outline of the ridges, making it difficult for me to tell where we exactly were. I had no map of the area, and my GPS had no topo map loaded for the area, so we just kept going assuming we would figure it out. Slowly Mt. Edwards and the sourrounding ridge came into view. The snow had covered the moutains, creating flutings and highlighting ovbvious avalance paths. They looked so spectacular that one could easily imagine them being in the Andes or Himalaya.
The snow was incredible, light and powdery, as if someone had come up and poured powder sugar over the terrain before we came. The headlamps created a glisten on the snow that was hard to look away from, but eventually caused me to have a slight sense of nausia. It had the same feeling as if I were blacking out, tiny white sparkles and spots moving all over infront of me. I had to stop several times and take a drink, I knew that it was all an optical allusion caused by the reflections, but needed a break now and then to regain control.
This is where I made the fatal error in our day... The trail comes to a junction, in which you can go left or right. I did not see the junction since it was covered in snow, and continued to the right, up the mountain that I assumed was Gray's.
We were swinging back around the mountain in the direction that we had came. The terrain soon became much steeper, and route finding more difficult. Chris had along some ski poles and was heavily relying on them for balance. I pulled out my ice axe and also had to use it a fair amount on the terrain for stabilization. After a fairly steep and loose pitch next to some exposed rocks, we made our way to the flat ridge that moved towards the top of the mountain, where we encoutered some mountain goats.
The Climb: Early Afternoon
We were both quite happy at the progress we made, we were already at 13,100 feet. The sun then came up rapidly and colored the sky in various shades of pink and orange. At this point I had realized my mistake, being that we were 900 feet to low and were already at a summit. Suddenly Gray's and Torry's Peaks came into view and the clouds began to migrate towards the plains.
Chris on the upper portion the slope leading to Kelso's Peak.
I told Chris that those were the moutains that we wanted to climb, not the one we were on. Shit! Oh well, we decided to go for Gray's since the climb seemed shorter and easier, and we had already used two hours of the day.
Red route shows the route we took, blue route shows the route we should have taken.
I thought that the ridge we took seemed much simpler than I had read about, and it was clear that when we came to the foot of the ridge leading from Kelso to Torry's that this was the ridge I had intented to do. We were both wanting to summit a 14, so decided to forgo the Kelso ridge up to Torry's. It did not seem that bad, but with the snow and ice melting now, footing would be dangerous, and we were not prepared to rope up for protection.
We now saw some people moving on the correct path up towards Gray's Peak. We decended the ridge and got on the right path at around 11,500 feet.
The weather was clearing up, but at around 12,000 feet it seemed become more and more cloudy. This was fine by us and we continued on our way, having a great time. We stopped at the top of a switch back for a water break and chance to eat a little. We were both fairly tired now, but wanted badly to peak so continued on ahead.
Clouds move in and the sun refuses to shine about 12,500.
Soon we encountered the two that were ahead of us, they were on the way down. They said that they had found an ice patch, and could not navigate around it. After wishing us luck they continued down... and we continued up. I had brought my crampons and put them on quickly, and the clouds seemed to be moving in quickly now. We reached the 'ice patch' which was indead quite slick, and I told Chris to stay back while I tried to kick in some steps with the crampons. I did so, and Chris followed quickly, without crampons and without any problems. The crampons definately helped gain some extra purchase as it seemed that the ice was about 4 or so inches under the snow everywhere. I kicked in steps as best I could so that Chris would not slip. Chris kept on moving just as quickly as I and we soon were making good time once again.
Going up Gray's finally, the right route. Crampons made the climbing easier for me, and for Chris too since he had some pre-made steps.
As we went higher, the clouds became worse, and our energy drained more quickly. Our pauses were more fequent and soon I pulled out my GPS to see how far we had to go. 13,850. Ok, we are close. I did not fool myself though. Even though we only had about 400 feet of verticle elevation to go, this by no means ment that we had only a little longer to walk. I could see some faint switchbaks going higher and higher, and asked Chris what he wanted to do. I was quite tired from leading and kicking in steps in through the powder covered ice patches. I asked Chris what he wanted to do, and it was clear that we just had no more energy and had to turn around.
Getting high from the altitude and my favorite snack, Clif Bars!
We headed down, and the lower we got the clearer it became. We pased a few groups on the way down, all asking about the conditions above and thanking for the beta. I was deeply disapointed that I had lead us up the wrong mountain, for I was sure that we would have had the time and strength to get to the top of Gray's or Torry's had we not done Kelso.
Taking our final break, I know we have to turn around because we are low on energy and it would be dangerous to downclimb on our reserves.
When we arrived at the truck a lot of the snow had melted, and we relaxed a little before taking off back to the Springs. I had had a great day of climbing, and knew that I would be sore in the morning, but was conflicted since my mistake led to our eventualy pre-summit turn around.I guess that I needed to be more cautious, but my zealousness of climbing that day was so strong in my mind that I just went straight up. Chris did an awesome job all day. This was to be his first 14er, and I was amazed at how fit he was at higher elevations. I felt bad too since I thought that I had in some way robbed him of a 14er. All in all, we made the right decision, and we will most definately go back! I could not help thinking of Ed's famous quote 'summiting is optional, getting down is mandatory', which helped me put my day into perspective.
On the way down.
Enough babbling, I should be climbing right now...
Theme Song of the Trip