| Kelso Ridge Winter: The Hard Way to Tommyknocker
MOUNTAINS: Torreys Peak (14,267'), Grays Peak (14,270')
ROUTE: Kelso Ridge to Torreys, standard Grays traverse and descent
RT DISTANCE: 14.25 miles
RT GAIN: 5,100'
RT TIME: 10.75 hours (4:15 a.m. - 3 p.m.)
CLIMBERS: Jeff (SurfNTurf), Ryan (kushrocks), Rob (RJansen77), Ben (BenfromtheEast)
(All photos by SurfNTurf and RJansen77.)
Stevens Gulch is becoming like an old friend. I’ve experienced much of what it has to offer, and two of my best days in the mountains have occurred there. Not to mention, Torreys Peak has earned itself a place as one of my favorite 14ers. Sure, it’s a casual stroll via the standard route, but it’s a sight to behold from I-70 plus it has a ton of accessible couloirs. And who can forget Kelso Ridge?
One of my remaining goals for the area was a winter ascent of Grays and Torreys. With the calendar about to tick over to spring, I was looking for something with a bit of excitement to close the season with a bang. I knew Ryan (kushrocks) was clamoring for a winter ascent of Kelso Ridge and that Rob (RJansen77) is always up for a bit of spice, so it didn’t take much coaxing. Ben (BenfromtheEast) joined shortly after to round out a solid party.
The weather forecast for the weekend was initially stellar. As it got closer it appeared Sunday, the only day we were free, wasn’t going to be so great after all. We experienced a bit of doubt, but decided at the last minute to give Kelso Ridge a go. The wind was forecast to be moderate in the morning and increasing to extreme, so we opted for a double-secret alpine start to try and be off the exposed areas before the 55+ mph gusts arrived.
A Saturday party consisting of Monster5 and matthewlewis provided excellent beta that allowed us to leave our snowshoes at home. They said the route was in good condition and “almost felt like cheating,” which for them might’ve been true. Speaking for myself after doing Kelso Ridge twice in dry conditions, the winter route is in another league. Class 4 moves over exposure were necessary for several sections, and loose snow often covered holds. We all had our ice axes out from the beginning and used them routinely. None of us strapped on crampons, but microspikes were worn from car-to-car.
We left Denver at 3 a.m. (taking into account Daylight Savings Time) and were on the trail by 4:15. Thanks to DST and noisy roommates, I’d only managed 30 minutes to an hour of sleep and I was worried about how I’d perform. The road walk was a perfect warm/wake-up. We reached the summer TH roughly three miles in at 5:30 a.m. The road, and the entire trail for that matter, couldn’t be more boot-packed. I didn’t posthole past my soles all day.
We continued up the standard trail without taking the winter deviation to avoid Kelso Mountain’s avalanche slopes. The mountain doesn’t currently hold much snow and the debris/crowns appeared very old and small. The beginning part of the well-constructed summer trail was actually easier in the winter in my opinion, as a constant ramp of low-angle snow replaced the normal series of wooden steps.
I was hoping to just get the road walk out of the way in the dark, but we accomplished much more than that. Once we gained Kelso Ridge, we took an extended break to switch gear-modes, eat and drink, and wait for first light. Given Daylight Savings Time, that didn’t come until around 7 a.m. We spent this time discussing, of course, what our post-climb meal would be (Tommyknockers). How’s that for jumping the gun? Thoughts of pulled pork sandwiches and bayou burgers danced in our minds from there on out, and often were a topic of discussion.
Taking "alpine start" to a whole new level.
The lower ridge was mostly dry. Snow was still present and it was a far cry from summer. The first crux appeared early and required a steep mixed climb up a ribbon of firm snow. As the sun rose, it became apparent we weren’t in for a “mostly sunny” day. We ascended in a gloom that never really brightened, though thankfully the high-wind forecast didn't come to fruition. The worst gusts we had were probably 20-25 miles per hour.
First mixed-climbing section.
Kelso Ridge really lends itself to nice butt shots.
Several of the summer bypasses that keep the route Class 3 were blocked by snow. Hence, the need for some Class 4. Thankfully, Kelso Ridge is a wonderful mix of scrambling and ridge walking. After most of the difficult sections we were granted some relief by unexposed Class 2.
Making progress up one of the easier sections.
Ryan, me and Ben.
The snow became more and more present the higher we climbed. On the upper half of the ridge, at times I had to wipe snow away from some holds and use my ax in the low-dagger position. There was also a pre-knife edge I’ve never noticed in the summer, so apparently it’s normally bypassed on either side.
Ryan starts up another difficult area.
Beginning one of the top-2 sketchiest sections, in my opinon.
Ben stretching for a hold.
Ben and I scrambling on mixed terrain.
Relieved to be on easier ground.
Ben joins us after one of the harder sections.
A look at the remaining ridge.
By the time the true Knife Edge came, the majority of the difficulties were behind us. We scooted nonchalantly across the first part of the famous feature, and then snow allowed us to mostly walk across the rest. Unlike many couloirs this season, Dead Dog is looking FULL! Yeehaw.
Up and over the White Rocks (we climbers come up with the most creative names...) and BAM, we'd completed the challenge. We spent a short time celebrating and reflecting, and then walked up the easy final 200 feet to the top.
Scooting across the first part of the Knife Edge, feeling ridiculous.
Rob is the next to sacrifice his pride, followed by Ryan and Ben.
Ben posing on the Knife Edge.
After that, though, it's walkable.
Ben charging up the latter part of the Knife Edge.
Ryan starting up and over the White Rocks.
I'll catch you bro!
The hard part over, just a short Class 2 walk up to the Torreys summit.
We finished at 10:15 a.m. A windy, cold summit meant only a short break and few pictures. The wind abated a short ways down to the Grays-Torreys saddle, when the chill left my bones for the first time since I'd rolled out of bed.
Both the descent down Torreys and the ascent up Grays were almost devoid of snow, let alone avalanche danger. We were standing on Grays roughly 45 minutes later. This summit was much more pleasant, so we hung out for a while and took a group shot. We departed at about noon.
The standard route on Grays also lacked avalanche danger, and the snowy trail was hardpacked. Microspikes were basically essential. We hoofed it down with the pointless but also inspiring goal of reaching the car by 3 p.m. Tommyknockers was calling, after all. We stopped only for short breaks and for me to take photos of Dead Dog and Lost Rat. I have a couloir fetish. Deal with it.
Group shot on top of Grays (L-R Ben, me, Ryan, Rob).
Kelso Ridge and the Torreys standard route.
A look up Kelso Ridge, from the bottom.
Dead Dog Couloir.
Lost Rat Couloir (no dogs this time).
We got back to the Bakerville exit at – wait for it – 2:56 p.m.! Mission accomplished. Sadly we were already full of Tommyknockers burgers by the time we noticed the Idaho Springs Subway was advertising three footlong sandwiches for $0…
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