| Kelso Ridge rocks!
Our “flatlander foursome” faced a bit of a conundrum (the decision, not the mountain) after climbing Mt. Lindsey and Crestone Peak. We had planned to tackle Kit Carson, but nobody felt up to an expedition of that magnitude. The Willow Lake-Challenger-Kit Carson experience is something you want to eagerly anticipate, not enter out of sense of obligation.
Our pre-trip planning had been, as usual, too ambitious. But we were far from done with 14ers for the trip. What would be a shorter but fun alternative? Further complicating the decision was the fact that some of our group may be up for more scrambling than others.
After some late research at a Denver motel, we settled on Torreys Peak. It was relatively short, close, and it offered options. We could decide between the standard route and Kelso Ridge based on conditions and how we felt, and likewise decide whether or not we wanted to add Grays Peak.
After a day of family business and a too-brief overnight in Georgetown, we were off to the trailhead at an early hour. We arrived at the trailhead before dawn, and found it to be a tad confusing, with multiple lots packed with cars and people, including a large group of giggly middle-schoolers. Not exactly the remote gravel patches we’d grown accustomed to in the San Juans and Sangres!
Mark and I promptly got separated from Maryjane and Garrett. As we swept our headlamps around in the dark, instead of calling out for them, we assumed they had started up the trail ahead of us. So we briskly headed off up the first path that looked like a trail to us, only to stop in confusion when we reached an unmarked fork a few hundred yards in.
A vehicle was parked at the fork, with a guy sleeping in it. I suppose that might have been our first clue that we weren’t going the right way. As we peered back and forth between the two forks, I saw the dome light come on in the car, long enough to reveal the wry smile on the face of the occupant as he got out and addressed us.
“Kinda early to be lost, isn’t it?” he asked. Couldn’t argue with that logic. He graciously told us we were on the wrong trail, and that the right trail would cross a bridge directly out of the parking lot. When we got back to that spot, we found Maryjane and Garrett there, reading an information board by headlamp. And yes, a bridge.
Morning sun on Grays (center) and Torreys (right center)
Thus enlightened, we promptly headed out, eager to stay ahead of the hordes milling about the trailhead. Dawn soon broke, revealing Kelso Mountain on our right and the rugged ridge of McClellan Mountain on our left. (Named after the Civil War general? It has some things in common with him: it’s divisive, and it just sits there without doing anything.) We wondered casually what the technical difficulty would be of running that ridge, and the adjacent Mount Edwards, to Grays Peak. Looked pretty tough to us.
Sun-drenched Torreys. Dead Dog Couloir splits the face, terminating at the notch right of the summit. White rock beyond the knife edge is visible.
Decision time arrived when we reached the fork where the ridge route departs the main trail. It was really a foregone conclusion. Garrett, having expended pretty much everything he had climbing Crestone Peak a few days earlier, chose to remain on the standard trail. Mark, Maryjane and I opted for the route that sounds like a Korean War battle.
Let's go that way
Shortly after reaching the Kelso Ridge saddle, we encountered the only other person, as far as we could tell, to take the ridge route that day. It turned out to be the same guy who had chided us about getting lost 100 yards from the trailhead before daybreak. He didn’t recognize us from the early-morning encounter, which is understandable since he was looking into headlamps in the dark. Slightly above us on the ridge, he called down to ask us our opinion about some aspect of the route. “Ummm … I’m not sure you really want our advice on routefinding,” I told him, and informed him of our previous meeting. After a laugh about that and introductions – his name was Lance – he headed off ahead of us.
Lots of fun scrambling on this route
Did I mention how much fun this route was?
The trail was easy to follow as it wound to the right of the ridge in some places, left in others, and occasionally right up over the crest. The most fun, however, was where the trail disappeared into rock climbing. I enjoyed stepping aside to let Dear Daughter lead the way up the first class 3 section, and she stayed in front for much of the ridge.
Nice view of the lower half of the ridge
Stand tall, Dear Daughter
Up until we reached the vicinity of the noted “knife edge,” there was really only one section I found semi-difficult, that being the area described as a “white rock wall” at 13,000 feet (photo 13 in the 14ers.com route description). Maryjane took the crack to climbers’ left here, while Mark took a line a few feet to the right. Looking up it from below, I thought I saw a line that started left and crossed over the white rock outcropping to the right about halfway up, but when I got there the crossover was uninviting. I struggled a little to reach the top, but nothing approaching a serious problem, and the other two seemed to have less trouble than me.
OK, a little fatigue
Kelso Mountain in the background
As we scrambled along, the three of us agreed that we love ridge routes. The southwest ridge of Sneffels had been on of the most fun climbs we had done together, and this one was right up there with that. The scrambling, the constant views in every direction – and a bluebird day – made it pure joy. We could see the standard trail down to our left, and looked for Garrett, but it was too far away for our eyes to pick out people.
Another gratuitous Dear Daughter shot
Steep terrain on the approach to the knife edge
As we approached the vicinity of the knife edge, we made one routefinding discovery that I would share with others doing this route. It came at a distinctive blocky rock tower, a little above 14,000 feet, clearly identifiable from photo 31 in the route description. We didn't get any photos along this stretch, so I "borrowed" one from the 14ers.com route description to clarify the location I'm talking about:
Photo pilfered from the 14ers.com Route Description, with a little route opinion graphic added.
We found ourselves at the base of this tower, a little around to the left. We had the route description photo advising a path to the right of the tower. But we saw a line to the left of the tower that looked easy enough so we went left. It wasn’t terribly difficult, but it had one section that was dicey enough I would strongly recommend others stay right at this tower, unless you like severe exposure on less-than-ideal rock. We walked a narrow ledge with a sheer drop to our left plummeting down into what I think was Dead Dog Couloir. I remember thinking it was appropriately named, because dead is what you would certainly be if you slipped there.
The ledge was pretty narrow – my memory may be skewed, but it seems like much of it was a foot wide or less – and the wall to our right went straight up, leaving no room to lean your center of gravity away from the plunge on the left. Handholds were essential, and were present, but the rock was riddled with fractures. Solid holds were available so long as one was careful about his choices. I realized as I worked my way along, and the end of our threesome, that one bad decision about which rock to grasp could have fatal consequences. If that sounds like fun to you, go for it. If not, make a point to stay right at that blocky tower.
This is not the ledge I'm talking about - nobody was taking photos on that ledge - but it gives a sense of the exposure
Very shortly past that point, the knife edge appeared. Mark was actually below it when we got there, on a trail kind of carved in to the north slope of the ridge. I had read that it’s possible to bypass the knife edge, which didn’t make much sense to me, until I saw it. There’s enough of a fracture in the sloping rock to use to scramble across that section a few feet below the ridge, but if you’re on the ridge looking down, that fracture provides no security from a fall.
Going for it
Not wanting to miss the fun of the knife edge, Mark scrambled up to the ridge proper and crossed so quickly I didn’t even see him do it.
Mark partway across the knife edge
A good sense of what the crossing feels like - short and sweet!
Maryjane and I took a few moments to gather ourselves and crossed, her first. It was definitely intense – I’d rate it a 7 or 8 on the official Sphincter Contraction Scale – with intimidating dropoffs on both sides. But it was short, solid, and in reality, probably no more exposed than many other places we’d already experienced on 14ers. It’s just a matter of keeping your weight centered on the ridge.
Careful now ...
... almost through ...
Even more fun than the knife edge was scrambling up the tall white pillars just beyond it. Talk about a catbird’s seat! On a bluebird day, perched well above 14,000 feet, the view from those rocks rivaled any true summit.
You know it's kind of intense when Dear Daughter can't stop to smile for the camera
Climbing up the white rock
We took our time to enjoy that spot, knowing the summit was a short hike further.
There's that smile! Best seat in the house - the summit, behind MJ and above Mark, is almost anticlamitic
One final show-off pose
When we reached the summit, we found quite a few people there, including Garrett, who held off a couple of fast-moving guys in Speedo-type outfits to become the first person to reach the summit of Torreys that day. A little later, an elderly climber had tipped him off to observe a peregrine falcon as it circled in the distance. Moments later, it plunged downward to snatch its prey from the mountainside while they watched.
Three Musketeers, a short walk from the summit, with the entire ridge route visible behind us
Reunited with Garrett on top
After a little R&R, we were off to Grays, an uneventful but enjoyable hike as the weather remained perfect.
The trudge up to Grays.
There were even more people on the summit of Grays than we had seen on Torreys. We readily accepted the fact that hiking popular peaks like these on a summer weekend is a social event. If you want solitude, stick with the remote peaks, or climb 13ers. Chatting with the crazy variety of people you find in that situation can be interesting in itself. We helped a guy from Illinois convince his wife that she could wait for him at the Grays-Torreys saddle while he climbed Torreys, and that they would be able to re-connect there without losing each other or him somehow meeting with disaster on the class 1 trail.
At the top with one of those dopey signs someone gave us
Torreys and Grays were the 10th and 11th summits for Mark and me, eighth and ninth for Maryjane, and third and fourth for Garrett.
People were still streaming up the trail as we headed down. On the way down Grays' standard route, we came to the rock tower at 13,000 feet.
Garrett and MJ pause on the way down in front of the rock tower at 13,000 feet
This being the only thing I had seen on Grays Peak that resembled real climbing, I felt it had to be scaled. Nobody else seemed to think it was that important.
Climbing the tower: um, I think this is the top
The line of hikers continued to pass us as we descended – young, old, fit, paunchy, with babies, with dogs, well-equipped, not equipped – you name it. It seemed like the later it got, the younger the hikers got. We would continue to pass upward-bound hikers almost all the way back to the trailhead. How many of them reached the summit, we have no idea.
The closest thing we had to a problem on the entire trip (other than getting lost 100 yards in) came when Maryjane’s hands swelled up a little. “Ewww, my hands are fat,” she wailed in mock dismay. Unfortunately, we failed to photographically document this significant event.
The conclusion of the trek brought the usual mixture of sadness and joy. It’s always hard to leave the mountains, but it had undeniably been a great trip. We had shared many great experiences on four mountains, stayed safe, enjoyed excellent weather, and achieved new personal accomplishments. I thank God for the mountains, and loved ones to share the experiences they offer.
Back in the "other" world known as Chicago. Fortunately, not our vehicle!
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):