Peak(s):  Torreys Peak  -  14,267 feet
Post Date:  06/14/2010
Modified:  06/19/2010
Date Climbed:   06/11/2010
Posted By:  JB99

 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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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…

More pictures...
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Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):

  • Comments or Questions

8 am start on Kelso Ridge?     02/05/2011 00:22
Not to rag on you, but the thunder and lighting could‘ve probably been avoided with a 5-6 am start instead...

Better luck next time.


Thanks but did you read the trip report?     11/30/2010 17:28
If you had you might have noticed what I said about the forecast and seen that 8AM was a perfectly reasonable start time. I also conceded that we could have started earlier... this wasn't my first rodeo.

Barrett Cooper

Good report     06/15/2010 01:50
Well written and way to use and keep your head. I enjoyed reading about your adventure as it is really a good insight into your rationales and how you dealt with one obstacle after another to make it back home safely (though maybe not as planned). Thanks for posting.

summit co kc

Since when can you trust the colorado weather man?     06/15/2010 02:54
In my opinion if the forecast says 2 better to be back at the car at 12:00. 8 was not a resonable time to start, your the experienced climber, bad example for your first timer.


Cool report...     11/30/2010 17:28
Reminds me of my own experience on Huron just one year ago when thunder chased us from the summit. And then after a summer of thunderstorm hiking I just could not trust the weather man any longer. On a "10% after 2 PM" day last August, I had to bail off of Niwot Ridge at 9:30 AM due to a nasty thunder cloud that formed overhead in about 30 minutes. Longs Peak treated me similarly. And when we hiked to the top of Bierstadt two weeks ago, we started at 8 AM. I felt bad going up, and I felt like I got away with something coming down. I told my partner next time, 6 AM start. She agreed.

Thanks for the report.


Okay there Monday morning quarterbacks...     11/30/2010 17:28
I'm glad you all follow the strict doctrine of being back at the car by noon, in my experience you can trust the weather forecast pretty well actually. This day was much more the exception than the rule. Thanks for your opinion though summit co kc, it is yours to have.

Perhaps for Kimo the opposite has been true though... I've generally found the forecasts to be pretty close although there are always exceptions. Thanks for sharing your experience Kimo.

Thanks Barrett for your comments as well.


No criticism here...     11/30/2010 17:28
JB99, ah man, I wasn't second guessing your decision to start at 8 AM. It's your decision. And there is no doubt this weather was the exception to the rule. But that 10% chance of forecast miss has me prepared for a summer of 6 AM, or earlier, starts. Your report helped remind me that time to start waking early is here. I don't want to risk that 10%, although I must admit that an earfull of thunder is unbelievably invigorating.


...     11/30/2010 17:28
Hey Kimo, I wrote that title and top comment before I read yours, then I edited to include a response to you. I didn't get that critical or Monday morning vibe from your comment at all and genuinely appreciate your sharing. It‘s the judgment calls from others that get me a little annoyed, especially when I say in the report that we could have started earlier...


Good alternative report     06/15/2010 03:33
It is good to hear a non-summit report with some detailed information on a secondary ”emergency” route. Last year my party got stuck in lightning on Wetterhorn. One of the scariest experiences, but nothing like the criticism (although well intentioned) we took after my TR. It is hard to convey in a TR the details and conditions that lead to decisions. We do the best we can and sometimes we get caught. The more you climb the probability goes up that something less than ideal is going to happen. Overall a good report and way to break in Gabe.

summit co kc

Just saying     06/15/2010 03:37
Dude I‘ve slept on top of about ten 14ers, so don‘t always adhere to the 12:00 rule. I‘ve lived in summit county since 98 and know that the forecast is not accurate to the hour. You endangered your friend by leaving to late.


Good Stuff     11/30/2010 17:28
Thanks for the report JB. You did well getting off the ridge quickly when you needed to, that's the important thing that should be focused on by readers of this TR. I wouldn't pay much attention to people ragging on you about starting at 8am, if you left at 6am and ran into trouble they'd say you should have left at 4am . The fact is that weather in this state can sneak up on you at any time of day, it's just part of the game.

Anyway good luck next time you head up there, the last section of the route is the best part!


...     07/07/2013 18:19
Dcbates- Thanks for the comment. Your Wetterhorn trip report was a good read, sounds like an exciting day. You really just don‘t know if you‘re not there...

Summit co kc- nobody was in danger on the ridge because of lightning. We left at the first sound of thunder because I was aware of my surroundings and knew where we could get off the ridge if needed and once it was needed, we did. We never saw lightning and the position we were in was much more emotionally threatening than physically. Had we continued up toward the summit or turned back down the ridge that could have changed. Overall Gabe learned much more about a day in the mountains and making good decisions through our experience this day than she would have through a nice, average day with no problems. I don't know how you can be so sure of what I did or didn't do right just because you read my trip report. If you knew what you were talking about you would know you need to be there to truly make a judgment call on someones actions in the mountains.

Benners- thanks for the comments, I think you're right about the ”if I left at 6AM it should have been 4AM” thing... some people just know better no matter what.


Benners is right on     11/30/2010 17:28
It's all part of the game. Last summer, IF I started from the parking lot for Niwot Ridge at 4 AM instead of 5:30 AM, I would have been stranded on the high-point of the ridge with limited bail options when the thunder hit. As it was, the thunder came when I was lower and could still safely bail into the drainage above Lake Isabelle. Every day in the mountains is different, sometimes they get it right, sometimes they don't, and what is important is how we handle the situation we find ourselves in. Your bail from Kelso was a good decision. I would have done the same.

And to be honest, I've been seriously considering heading up to climb Kelso in the evening after work in the next few weeks because the route is a blast and I'm jonesing for a solid scramble. I expect the typical 10-20% chance of afternoon t-storm forecast, and I'll roll the dice...

summit co kc

Ok     06/15/2010 04:48
You took a first time 14 er climber on a route that has few ways to bail easily. If you knew from the forecast that you believed that weather was a possibility, how did you determine the time to leave? How did you know your partner could climb kelso fast enough to avoid the weather? Im not saying that the lightning was the dangerous part, but to have to go off route to bail down a rock filled chute, was dangerous. If YOU knew what you were doing you would have left earlier and summited.


...     06/15/2010 05:14
Okay Mr. Armchair, not that I have to explain anything to you; we determined the time to leave based on when we could get there and what the forecast dictated. Possible storms at 2PM, 6.75 mile route, 8AM start, summit by 11:30-12 (which we were on track for), fast descent with glissade opportunities, back to the car by 2PM. The other decisions, ”how did I know she could climb fast enough...” were based on what we saw throughout the day, she kept up just fine. As for the descent down Emperor, that was no more dangerous than the ridge we were on. We made a plan, then adapted it through the day as circumstances changed or met our expectations. I‘m not here to have a pissing match with you, you‘ve stated your opinion and that‘s fine, but don‘t pretend that you know so much better or can truly make any judgment from the comfort of your computer. Things happen in the mountains, both Gabe and myself were aware of this and acted accordingly. We mitigated the risks as they came and got down safely. By your logic you imply that you get down by 10AM everyday the forecast calls for possible thunderstorms at noon (”if the forecast says 2 better to be back at the car at 12:00”) which is irrational. Benners is right, had I left at 6AM and the same thing happened you would be professing how you would have left at 4AM. Hindsight is 20/20 buddy.


Thanks for posting!     11/30/2010 17:28
While I think discourse is important, you clearly know what/how/why/when you did what you did, and I see no reason to say anything other than "great report, and thanks for sharing it with us." These adventures are exactly that, and sometimes adversity rears its ugly head. No criticism here!


Thanks Keith...     06/15/2010 17:27
I appreciate the comments.


Jesse ....     11/30/2010 17:28
All I have to say to the "second-guessers" is READ MY SIGNATURE line. Sh*t happens ... it could have happened if you left in the dark. Give me a friggin' break. I‘ve left for summits at noon, at 6:00 pm, etc. Anyhoo, good trip report. Sounds like you made the best of the situation and no one suffered ... good on ya for looking out for others that were on the ridge that day (that probably also "left too late" according to our 14er "experts" on this site). Thanks for posting. Happy trails!


Thanks...     06/15/2010 21:49
Presto, I always appreciate the kind words. The others on the ridge were well prepared and definitely helped us as well so it was certainly mutual. The guy who drove me up to the trailhead at the end of the day started at noon and made the summit so it is definitely to each their own...


Kind Words?!??!     11/30/2010 17:28
, I don't know how kind some of them were Jesse, but they came from the gut (which geographically speaking is close to my heart, and not too far from my head which usually houses my brain).


Ha...     06/15/2010 22:46
True, kind for me though.

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