Friday, September 18, 2015

Larry's Excellent Adventure: Torreys Peak via Kelso Ridge

So you may remember that near the end of my Kickstarter for The Labyrinth of Flame, I ran a raffle here on the blog to upgrade one backer's reward to the "Ultimate Fan" level, which includes all kinds of goodies - like the choice of a climbing lesson, figure skating lesson, or guided peak ascent. Larry Tipperreiter was the lucky winner of the raffle, and I was delighted to find he was eager to take me up on the climbing! He had plenty of experience hiking, but none with technical rock climbing or peaks above a few thousand feet. I suggested that if he wanted to combine a little climbing with a peak ascent, we could try an old favorite of mine: 14,267-ft Torreys Peak via Kelso Ridge.

By the standard trail, both Torreys and its close neighbor Grays Peak are an excellent, easy introduction to 14er hiking. (You can hike both peaks in a couple hours.)  Scrambling up Kelso Ridge instead of tromping up the standard trail makes the ascent a little more exciting.  Kelso is designated Class 3, which means it requires no rope or technical climbing gear to ascend, but several sections are comparable to climbing a high ladder: handholds and footholds are plentiful, but you really don't want to fall. I thought Kelso could give a fit hiker like Larry a little taste of the more adventurous side of peak climbing, without the need for worrying over ropes and technical gear. 

We chose a "weather window," Larry came out to Colorado and did a few acclimatization hikes to help his lungs adjust to the altitude, and then at dawn on a Sunday morning at the end of August, Larry and I and my hiking partner Dustin Putnam started out from the Stevens Gulch trailhead.

Dawn's light 

Larry ready to tackle Torreys Peak (in background)
14er climbing is not exactly a solitary pursuit; we had plenty of other people with us on the trail, though the crowds thinned a bit once we left the main trail to head for Kelso Ridge.
Heading off the main trail toward Kelso Ridge (a spur trail climbs to the low point on the saddle)
Helmets on! (A lot of climbers don't bother with helmets on Class 3 routes like Kelso, but on a busy weekend with lots of other parties on the route, it's easy for rocks to get knocked loose onto lower climbers. Always better to be safe than sorry. That said, I only had 2 helmets, so Larry and Dustin got the protection while I just used a hat.)
Larry tackles the first short Class 3 section (Dustin at top)
Larry and Dustin enjoying a snack break
Nothing like a beautiful day in the mountains
Larry and I working our way up the ridge. 
Some sections of Kelso are fairly easy (if steep) walking, some are fun scrambling, and some are steep, slanted, slippery/slidy dirt (not so fun). There's usually a little routefinding and backtracking, too - it's easy to get off track, especially with all the "climber trails" where people have tried to bypass various obstacles on the ridge. If the difficulty starts getting to the point where a rope would be a good idea, that means you're off route, and the safest thing to do is backtrack and look for another option.

Traversing along the ridge
Larry did great, handling both rock and steep dirt with aplomb, and patiently obeying my directions when we needed to backtrack. As we got above 12,000 feet, the altitude started to kick in; most people find themselves gasping for air even on a trail, let alone climbing steep rock, and some suffer headaches and nausea. But Larry had taken care to do a few hikes up to 10,000 in the days before the ascent, which always helps a lot. We took it slow and steady and he never got sick.

Moving up the ridge
View of Grays Peak from the ridge (regular trail visible switchbacking up the peak)
Getting higher
The last major obstacle before the summit is a section known as the "Knife Edge" - a very short knife edge compared to the far more exciting one on Capitol Peak, but still, a fun little scramble. Best way across for a newbie is to straddle the rock and inch your way along the knife edge - and if you're afraid of heights, don't look down at the thousand foot drop on the left!

Climbers on the knife edge
Higher view of the knife edge (the gray section of rock behind the lumpy white block)
Larry had said that the Knife Edge was the one part of the route he was a little nervous about, but once again, he did awesome! He scrambled right across with no trouble at all.
Crossing the Knife Edge
Straddle that ridge! (A climber who crossed right after us said, "I feel like I've just made sweet, sweet love to the mountain.")
Larry climbs around the white block that finishes the Knife Edge
We did it! Larry at the summit.
Hooray for Larry! It takes a real badass to tackle a Class 3 route on his first ascent of a 14er (especially given that he comes from a flatland state!). Not only did he succeed, he still had enough energy left to trek over to 14,278-ft Grays Peak and bag a second summit. We really lucked out with the weather - though it took us 5 hours to do Kelso Ridge, no thunderstorms were in sight when we topped out. So we had plenty of time left in the day to mosey on over to Grays, enjoying the views all the way.

View from Torreys' summit
Grays Peak, as seen from Torreys summit. It's close, but you still have to trek down to the saddle and then pant your way back up another 600 feet or so. 
View of the valley we hiked up from - if only we had a hang glider or a zipline!

Second summit of the day! On top of Grays Peak
Then comes the long hike down...but it doesn't feel so long when you've got great company on the way! Had a great discussion about books, and conventions, and all kinds of things. (Downhill is social time in the mountains. It's a lot easier to hold a conversation when nobody is panting for breath.)
Looking back at Torreys - Kelso Ridge is the long ridge forming the right side of the peak
Already a hint of fall color in the valley
Made it! End of the trail.
A terrific day in the mountains! I hope Larry enjoyed his introduction to 14er climbing as much I did giving it. I'm looking forward to taking another backer up Uncompahgre in the San Juan Mountains in the near future - cross your fingers for good weather, and hopefully I can bring back a bunch more beautiful pics.


  1. Replies
    1. Definitely! Don't forget, Paul, you still have to come back one day for a rematch with Quandary (or another peak!).

  2. Way cool! Thanks for writing this up and providing the breathtaking pictures. :-D

  3. Larry did indeed enjoy his intro to 14er climbing :) I had a blast! And MAJOR props to Courtney and Dustin. I like to think I did okay, but I had the best instructors I could have. I learned a ton doing this.. including enough to know how much more there is to learn. And do. And see. Another climber taking the ridge the route commented how "rooftop finding" is a special class, and he was more than right.
    So what Courtney doesn't know yet is she's created a monster :) Though not just her: the views were incredible, and I can't wait for my next one like that. These won't be my last summits, or my last 14ers.

    1. "These won't be my last summits, or my last 14ers" that's what I love to hear! Here's hoping for tons more incredible views and fun climbs in your future. And should you ever be hankering for another Colorado adventure, I'd be happy to climb with you again!