| Thunder, Snow and Rockfall; Escape from Kelso Ridge
It's been a long time since I got up high, so I figured Kelso Ridge would be a fun route for my first 14er of the year. No dispute there, it's a really fun route, on the other hand, snow and thunder make being on the route much less appealing. Snow and moisture I can deal with, I actually like the challenge of climbing class 3 and 4 with the added challenge of some inclement weather. But what matters is the comfort level of the least confident member of your party, not the most. In this case I had brought my long-time friend (it's been almost 14 years now, we are getting old) Gabe. This was to be her first 14er, and if she knew what she was getting into, she probably wouldn't have come... Everything I've read about Kelso Ridge makes it sound relatively easy and Gabe was ready to climb something, not hike, so it was a natural choice for our route. The forecast called for possible thunderstorms after 2PM so we left the trailhead at 8AM to get our adventure started...
The morning was beautiful, the road is in awesome shape; someone even drove their Audi A4 to the top. As we got started there were low, non-threatening clouds blowing over the surrounding ridge-lines.
We made the approach to the ridge in decent time, I was dragging personally. Once on the ridge the fun began, Gabe's confidence grew with each ledge crossing and scramble; "this is why they call it scrambling huh?" Yeah, this was fun.
For some reason I had a tendency to go to the south (left) side of the ridge; which is almost always wrong. I would go scout things out and then come back and we would go the right way.
We made our way through most of the difficulties on the ridge but as we got toward the top it started to precipitate on us, graupel at first and then full blown snow. This was good and bad it seemed, good because generally lightning and snow don't go together, if it's cold enough to snow then there isn't usually enough heat to create the electricity needed for lightning. It was bad because we were just under the knife-edge. It was about 11:30AM, still plenty of time before the 2PM storms would bring in the added stress of thunder and lightning. I scouted ahead to see the best way to reach the infamous knife-edge.
Before reaching this point I had already begun discussing the different scenarios and fastest way to get off the ridge if the weather necessitated. I'm sure Gabe was wondering why I was asking her what she thought about these options, I was supposed to be the expert here. Personally I think it's important to keep everyone involved in these decisions, regardless of experience. Obviously in the end it will come down to what the leader of the group decides but you never know where a good idea will come from. We had up to this point decided that the best option was to go over the summit and down the standard route; this would be the quickest and safest way down. Then, an explosion of thunder ripped through the Grays and Torreys valley, the echo amplified the sound and added to the terror. This sent Gabe into a bit of a panic, understandably so. We didn't have many good choices at this point but were fortunately close to the one good escape route off Kelso Ridge. I try to be pretty logical about thunder and lightning and wasn't overly worried but I definitely put on a much less worried face for Gabe's sake in an attempt to reassure her everything would be okay.
I have been up high with lightning and thunder a few times but I've mostly managed to avoid this, particularly on routes like Kelso Ridge. I've never heard thunder quite so loud though. At this point the urgency of making a decision became clear. Two other climbers caught up to us on the ridge just as the thunder started. I knew we were right above Emperor Couloir and at this point had made the decision (rather the thunder forced the decision) that Gabe and I would descend here and walk to the car from Grizzly Gulch. I asked the other two if they wanted to join us and their thoughts; I suppose the motivation here was two-fold, one; I think this was the safest option given the conditions, and two; misery loves company. They agreed this was the best option and we started down the nasty rock/boulder/scree that led down to the snow.
Arriving at the snow we didn't find what I'd hoped, the snow was too soft and angled into too many rocks at the top for a safe glissade. So we carefully hopped our way down the rocks, staggering as a group so we didn't kick rocks on each other, the descent reminded me of the descent off the saddle between Redcloud and Sunshine, the one labeled with the sign below.
The sign on Redcloud/Sunshine
This was actually quite a bit worse than that though, some places you had to traverse across with quick light hops so as to not disrupt the slope too bad and slide down with the rocks. Gabe picked up the technique quickly. Finally we reached a broader part of the couloir and were able to start glissading. I went over the technique with Gabe and how to self-arrest; in the soft snow it actually worked better with the adze side of the axe than the pick. Shortly into our glissade we had to go through a bit of a funnel and went one at a time. One of the gents we had met up with went through first and as he got down a little ways we heard a rumbling from above and over from us. Some boulders had shook loose from the thunder and lost their fight with gravity. "Rock! Rock! Rock!" we screamed down, I think he heard and saw the rocks anyway but this was no joke so the yelling was compulsory. He scrambled off the snow and out of the way before several big boulders flew down the couloir to the right of us and passed him. This was one of the most dangerous moments I've witnessed in the mountains, these were killer rocks moving at killer speed and we were about a minute away from starting our glissade right through their path.
Looking down on our descent route, see the rainbow?
Gabe the rockhopper
After watching this we still had to get down and the path the rocks took was the same one we had to. Gabe asked about the likelihood of another rock slide. The way I figured it we were moving through the couloir at one of the safer times since a slide like that happens in geologic time and we had just witnessed one (convenient logic at the time I know). So we went quickly through the path and fortunately without any incident.
Gabe gets her glissade on...
The rest of the descent proved to be kind of fun actually, long glissades on reasonable snow. Just being off the ridge felt good, the thunder we heard now was no longer so intimidating. Finally at the bottom we followed the couloir that was now a stream down to the road and started our hike to the car, slog is the scientific term I'm pretty sure. The precipitation had continued and the glissade had effectively drenched all of us. I wore my softshell through several hours of rain and snow and at the end of the day had zero water on the inside; hard shells are overrated.
The red line is our descent route, the yellow marks the rockfall area and path.
I knew from some info Bill had provided that we had several stream crossings to deal with and as we approached the first we managed to find a log to get over, carefully. We all gave each other a hand and made it across dryly. The next few crossings (three I think) also had logs that allowed dry passage. Finally we got to the last stream crossing and the log was fully submerged, not many options here. I trudged through the foot or more of water and made safe but wet passage to the other end. It didn't matter much at this point, there wasn't too much wetter we could get. Thankfully it wasn't a terribly cold day and we all trudged happily along toward Steven's Gulch Road.
We made our way down Grizzly Gulch and met Steven's and began our hike up to the cars. The pair we had met had a friend waiting, no doubt nervously, at the trailhead. As we got within about a mile of the trailhead a Jeep Wrangler came down our way and I stuck my hitchhiking thumb out. Thankfully the gentleman stopped and was kind enough to give me a ride up to get the car. He also let us know that the friend waiting at the trailhead was now working his way up the route to try to find his buddies. Once I got to the trailhead I started running up the trail yelling for him and found him not too far up. I could imagine the thoughts that must have run through his head, "why does this guy know my name and where are my friends?" I immediately let him know that his friends were okay and explained the situation; from here we got to our cars, picked up our friends down the road and drove to our warm, dry, homes.
At the end of the day when I could analyze the day's events I was happy with our decision making. We could have started earlier but given the forecast I don't think that was a mistake, just how the weather here is. We were aware of our escape route and had the proper knowledge and equipment to take it. When the objective danger of electricity came into play we made (I think) the right call and took the less desirable but faster way down to safety. We also kept cool heads (Gabe gets a pass) and good attitudes throughout the day and really managed to have a lot of fun. I'm excited to get back to finish the ridge, hopefully without quite as much adventure…
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