Sunday, March 20, 2016

Road to Denali, part 10: Kelso Ridge

High on Kelso Ridge

The idea this weekend was for Derek to get another winter 14er ascent - to make it three weekends in a row, something I’m pretty sure I’ve never done. Thinking that Spring starts on the 21st, I thought we could go either day. Wrong! Leap Year. So, we got in a Spring ascent instead. Still it felt like winter out there and we went on skis from the car, so great training for us.

We went back to Grays and Torreys because Derek had a tough time on our previous trip. He was still having heel troubles and had a hard time pulling the sled up to our campsite at the summer trailhead. Derek switched to snowshoes to attempt the peaks, but his heels turned him back very early. I went on to just get Grays, skipping Torreys due to prodigious wind.

We left the house a bit after 5 a.m. and were skiing up the 4WD road at 6:45 a.m. A quarter mile up we found a pickup truck stuck in the snow. I shook my head. It’s so stupid to drive up this road. Unless you have a speciality snow vehicle, you’re going to get stuck. As we neared, the front door opened and a young guy (20’s) asked, “Do you have something that can jump me? My battery is dead. I’ve been here all night.” “Nope,” I said. I can’t get up this road and there is very little chance anyone down there can get up here to jump you, but a few other SUV’s pulled in and you could ask.” He said he didn’t see the sign telling him not to drive up this road. He was just following Google directions. How he ran his battery down to nothing, I’m not sure. Maybe running his heater all night? He’s learning an expensive and time-consuming lesson. The truck was there when we got back down, but the guy was not. I hope he was getting a shovel.
Torreys with the Kelso Ridge on the left.
Derek was skiing up in his mountaineering boots and I was once again in my NNN boots. I really need to get out and rip up my feet so that I can get my boots properly fitted. :-) The blisters will show the fitter what needs to be done. Anyway, we skinned up the road. Derek’s boots, skis, and bindings are considerably heavier than mine, which is surely one of the reasons I’ve been dragging my feet on using my mountaineering boots. But Derek kept up great and set the pace most of the way into the bridge at the summer trailhead. We got there in 1h15m. This is exactly three miles and gains about 1500 feet - from 9800 feet where we parked to 11,300 at the bridge. From there it is 3000 feet to the summit of either peak. Grays and Torreys are the 10th and 12th highest peaks in Colorado and there is just three feet difference between the two: 14,270 and 14,267.

On the way up the road we caught the morning sun setting fire to Kelso Ridge - the east ridge of Torreys. There is a classic 3rd class route up this ridge and Homie had already put the idea into my head. Further up, when we got a good look at the conditions, we were drawn to it like a Portland-ite to local, organic produce.

Taking skis above the bridge requires some backcountry/survival skiing experience. I wasn’t sure Derek was ready, but he was all in to try. Worst case, he would have to walk down. That could be very bad if the snow was soft, but we were committed. We followed the tracks leading across the bridge and steeply up the summer trail, not wanting to try putting in a track up the drainage. That would have been fine, as it turns out, since we came down that way. Further up, when the trail comes close to the very steep, avalanche-prone slopes of Kelso Mountain, I veered south, maybe not enough, but further away from the danger. I kept one eye on the slope above, but the snow seemed very solid. We did see a fracture line at the very top of the Dead Dog Couloir on Torreys, but Kelso was quiet and we skinned by hoping not to wake the sleeping giant.
Derek above the lower crux. Dementors looming about on the right.
We dropped our skis at 12,300 feet, per the youzh. It had been quite windy above the bridge and we even stopped to "balaclava up" and pull on our shells, but it was still and sunny. We took some time to eat and drink and stashed the skis. We continued on foot towards the base of Kelso Ridge that reared up in all her grandeur, an enticing, shining path to the summit. We gained the ridge and worked upwards, sometimes on rock, sometimes on snow. The lower crux was very steep snow (65 degrees). It didn’t last long, but after kicking a step I had to press my knee hard into the snow so that I wouldn’t tip over backwards. It was somewhat gratifying to find a rappel sling at top of this section. 

This ridge is spectacular and even more so dressed to the nines in snow, with beautiful curling cornices. Significant and exciting exposure kept us focused as we tiptoed across narrow rocky ridges. The climbing is sustained and varied, with a couple of nice, gentle sections that allowed us to catch our breath before the next onslaught of verticality. We traded off the lead pretty regularly, but Derek had a long (500 vertical feet) stretch of lagging. When he rested in a sheltered spot, I offered him: "And we're not committed to doing Grays either. One summit is still huge and a success for us." He responded with determination: "unless I am blown off the mountain, or my hands fall off from cold, we're doing Grays." Well that was that! After his rest he led a long stretch near the top and then the final 200 feet to the summit also. 
The upper part of Kelso Ridge
It was windy on top, like it was for most of the ridge. We were buffeted around pretty good and didn’t pause that long before descending to the saddle and starting up towards Grays, 550 feet above. We saw a lone skier descending Grays’s northeast slopes. We had watched him climb up Grays while we were ascending Kelso Ridge. We had watched another group of three ascending and then another lone guy. We met all four on the summit. They immediately asked Derek, leading the way once again, if we did Kelso Ridge. Derek affirmed and the dude responded, “F!@# yeah!” It was really nice to receive such immediate props. It sure put a bounce in our leaden steps. 

A snowfield high on Kelso Ridge
One of their party had extremely cold feet and they were attending to him with chemical heaters. I felt for him. He was wearing inadequate, single boots with no gaiters and his socks were caked in snow. If they were really in trouble, the only solution was to pull the feet out of the boots and warm them up by human touch - hands or stomach. At times like that, you’ll figure out how dedicated your partners are. It was cold out, we’d been in our expedition down mitts from the car, where it was 10 degrees when we started, but it was sunny and descending just a few hundred feet would get you out of the wind. I hope he got down okay and didn’t do any permanent damage to his feet.
Once again, we didn’t linger because of the wind. Lately, once the descent is joined and we’re below any technical problems, Derek is like a stable horse. He knows where the barn is and his long legs, agility, and fluid gait carry him swiftly away from me. I found myself almost running easy sections and still falling behind. Yet, I never saw Derek run. He’s really building his strength and experience and comfort in his mountaineering boots. I only caught him when I started glissading before him.
Derek leading the final steep section to the summit
Derek and I on the summit of Torreys. Our secret is revealed. Obviously we're form France...and Coneheads
Back at the skis it was once again sunny and still, but some extended  time with my gloves off proved it wasn’t that warm. We carried the skis for a bit, as we found dry ground. As soon as we plunged into the snow, we put on the skis. We kept the skins on to begin with to control our speed, and it worked out great. The new snow made skiing conditions very good and it slowed things down from the icy conditions we had the last time in here. Derek and I were able to pretty much just point the skis downhill and go. In the flatter sections I did a bit of kicking and Derek a bit of poling, as he had his heels clamped down, but it worked out very well. When things got a bit too gentle we stopped and stripped the skins off. Derek continued to cruise down nicely. His skiing has improved immensely. He fell once or twice getting back down to the bridge, but even I fell once. 
On top of Grays. I'm huge! 
On top of Grays. Derek's huge!
Once we got down the road, the going was now much faster, as it was more packed and narrow. Still, Derek now used all the speed control tricks in his bag. He snowplowed, he made short parallel turns, and he skied off the road, uphill into the powder. He fell maybe two more times on this road, but we came down from 12,300 feet to 9800 feet in an hour and ten minutes. Last time here, Derek took two hours to descend just the road. So he was 3 or 4 times faster. That’s improvement!
Back down at the summer trailhead and still smiling
We packed up really quickly, so fearful of the ski traffic were we. It was 3 p.m. and it had already started, but wasn’t into full swing yet. Derek took the wheel and we were driving by 3:10 p.m. I wrote the report while he steered us down the hill and home before 4:30. What an excellent trip! We got in nearly 14 miles and 5000 vertical feet, climbed the awesome Kelso Ridge, and skied out efficiently. 


Gayla Wright said...

Boy, you two are really becoming a team!! Love the way you share leads. We arrived at Y/C by 6:30 pm. Just two hours after you. You stated at 5, we at 7am so we each put in the same hours that day. We had an easy drive and you had a grueling. Day. Think we all achieved what we set out to do. Still in awe of your training accomplishments. All seems to be on schedule for a June departure to Danali. Congratulations for a fantastic day on Gray's and Torry's plus Kelso Ridge. Love you.

Jhon Denly said...

Lovely adventures riding. Mountain hiking and hills hiking is really enjoyable. Last week i have an hiking experience.