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I decided to try for Torreys (14,267') and Grays (14,270') Peaks -- likely the two most popular 14'er destinations in Colorado, owing to their proximity to Interstate 70 and Denver. If there was any time to avoid the crowds, it would be late in the hiking season, so I reasoned. I intended to climb these peaks on the snowy day that I climbed Mount Bierstadt, but I was foiled by a wrong turn.
My goal was to ascend Torreys Peak via Class 3-4 Kelso Ridge (northeast), climb Grays Peak via the Torreys/Grays saddle, and finally return via the well-maintained Grays Peak trail. I trust my rockclimbing skills on class 3-4, but semi-technical climbing over snow/ice-covered rocks was uncharted territory for me. I feared committing to the ridge, and then finding out that snow or ice made the route too dicey. The thought of downclimbing nearly 2000' of icy ridge did not appeal to me! Since the approach to the Kelso Ridge route is the well-beaten Grays Peak trail, I figured that I could assess conditions and simply detour up the Grays Peak trail if need be.
When I got underway from the Stevens Gulch trailhead (11,230') at 8:30 a.m., it was quite cold - probably in the teens. I quickly warmed up as I hiked into sunny areas. At 9:15, I reached the access point for Kelso Ridge and made the short jaunt to the 12,400' saddle separating Kelso Mountain and Torreys Peak. About eight people converged at the staging point, which gave me confidence that the ridge was passable. I started climbing with another solo climber, a pleasant guy named Doug Solfermoser, with six previous ascents of this ridge under his belt.
Thankfully, Doug didn't mind leading the way up. He told me about his many climbing adventures, which included high peaks in South America and a couple failed attempts on 8000 meter peaks in Nepal. Meanwhile, the climbing was quite enjoyable. Below 13,000' or so, there was no snow, and the well-worn route consisted of fun and sustained class 3 scrambling. Surprisingly, none of the other people at the Kelso Ridge staging point continued up the ridge. Apparently they all opted out for the Grays Peak trail, which ironically, was terribly icy!
As we continued, snow became more of an issue, but luckily it was quite powdery. The exposure along the ridge was considerable and sustained, nearly all the way to the top. The crux of the route occurs around 14,000', when you are faced with a 40 foot buttress. Roach's guidebook gives three options: climb the class 4 buttress directly or avoid the buttress by traversing talus-filled gullies to the north or south. We elected to climb the buttress directly, and it went off without a hitch, although the snow undoubtedly demanded that climbers devote more concentration to the climb than in summer. There is also a neat dihedral on the southeast side of the buttress that I'd rate at 5.2-5.4.
Ah, but the fun had only begun (Roachism)! Immediately after climbing the buttress, we came to Kelso's infamous knife edge. I couldn't initially understand why this knife edge was any more infamous than any other knife edge, but I soon found out that the sharpness of this knife edge distinguished it from other, butter-knife edges. As I gingerly straddled the edge and scooted across, I actually worried that the edge was so sharp that it would cut my pants!
After 20 feet of clumsy scooting, one must make an exposed transition onto the last piece of solid rock on the climb, followed by a few moves of very exposed class 3. From this point, we were only a couple hundred yards from the summit, separated by a motley mix of loose rocks and a thin coating of snow. Ironically, I felt most unsafe on this segment of the climb, although it is only class 2 scrambling. I had the same feeling on a rotten gully on my Quandary Peak climb.
We took our time on this climb to chat and rest, and made the summit sometime around noon. The skies were crystal clear, winds calm, and temperatures pleasantly cool. Easily the best hiking day I'd seen since arriving in Colorado in August. We had nice views to the southeast of Mounts Evans and Bierstadt. Perhaps the most interesting views were of the Indian Peaks, to the northeast, and particularly the Arapaho Peaks. The Gore Range, rugged in an out of place California way, dominated the nearby views to the northwest. Mount of the Holy Cross was visible to the west. The Tenmile/Mosquito range dominated the view to the southwest. Interestingly, at Breckenridge ski resort, the mountain was devoid of snow, save one run, a small white tongue on an otherwise green mountain. The high peaks extended effectively to infinity, most notably the Sawatch Range to the west.
Doug and I chatted on the summit for quite a while, in no rush to
stop basking in the sun. After taking such an exciting and
satisfying route up Torreys, it seemed almost pointless to make the
easy 560' ascent to Grays Peak, so we didn't! We descended the
"standard route", Grays Peak Trail, only to find that it was as
slick as an ice rink. I thought that it would be pointless to
bring crampons, but I sorely missed them on the 1000' of icy
descent. In hindsight, this was my most exciting alpine climb to
date. I learned a lot about what is possible in the fall months,
and I made a new friend.
Department of Geophysics