It’s Not the Mountain We Conquer

Kelso Ridge – Torreys Peak

I straddle the cold granite of the “knife edge”, a fitting name for the rock obstacle separating me from the summit of Torreys Peak just a quarter mile in the distance. On my left is a thousand foot drop down a snowy couloir. I look down to my right and find a similar plunge with sharp boulders. I scoot the twenty feet to the other side of the knife-edge and reach toward a rock pedestal. Suddenly, my right calf seizes into a raging cramp. Pain sears through my leg. I cling to the knife-edge with one arm and use the other to desperately massage and stretch my calf.

Moments like this demand calm concentration. They’re not the best time to ponder life’s deeper mysteries in casual introspection. Yet there I was being unconventional, thinking how my wife and this cramp both remind me why I love climbing mountains.

I was introducing my wife Liza to her first class three hike. Earlier in the day, under a blue clear sky, we hiked the first two miles of the standard Class 1 route up Grays and Torreys Peaks in Colorado’s Front Range. By 14er standards, it’s relatively easy hiking through a narrow alpine valley above tree line. These two fourteeners are some of most popular for residents and visitors of the Denver metro area, just an hour or so away. The small parking area at the trailhead fills up before sunrise, and by mid-morning cars stretch bumper-to-bumper down the road for a mile or more. So many climbers pack the summits that they feel like crowds at a rock concert. If you enjoy peaceful communing with nature, these mountains aren’t for you.

Torreys from the main Grays-Torreys trail
Torreys from the main Grays-Torreys trail

However, there is a less popular alternative than the standard route. At 12,300 feet along the main trail, a narrow unmarked path branches to the right (north) and seems to disappear up a slope. It gains the ridge connecting Torreys Peak and Kelso Mountain then follows Torreys’ rocky eastern spine to the summit. This is Kelso Ridge, and it is one of Colorado’s best introductions to class three hiking. It’s the route we were taking today.

The path slowly transitions from class one to class two as it heads west over rock outcroppings on the ridge crest. It is here where we met a British couple making their first ascent of Torreys. We also encountered a Meetup group of about a half dozen climbers. Liza and I, the Brits, and the Meetup group more or less shadowed each other up the mountain, an eclectic bunch of climbers if there ever was one. For the rest of the hike it was my goal to keep the Brits talking just so I could enjoy their accent. I was successful, though to them I’m sure I was just an obnoxious American.

The Kelso Ridge trail starts easy enough
The Kelso Ridge trail starts easy enough

The first Class 3 obstacle on the route is a chimney about 20 feet tall. Liza and I climbed a slightly easier line to the left of the chimney, while the meetup group opted for the route straight up the chimney. They were a mix of experienced climbers and newbies, and it was fun watching the veterans encourage and advise the inexperienced in the group. Liza and I were also able offer some assistance, and for the rest of the climb we felt like honorary members of the meetup group. This kind of camaraderie is uncommon on the standard routes of the overcrowded Front Range 14ers.

The next obstacle is a wall of white rock, where Liza began to express concern. Though the wall offered numerous hand and foot holds and featured an easily navigable seventy-degree slope, the climb had become much tougher and more imposing than anything we had done together. I reassured her she was doing well and to keep climbing.

The first significant obstacle
The first significant obstacle
Our new friends from the Meet Up group
Our new friends from the Meet Up group

Above the wall is a scramble up loose rock and soft dirt. Our feet seemed to slide down almost as far as we stepped up. Once we finally found more solid footing, it was easy hiking along the ridge through some rock and mild exposure.

Navigating a little exposure
Navigating a little exposure

From this vantage point it’s easy to see the area’s geology and the faulting that was responsible for pushing many of these mountains through the sky. A lush blanket of lime-green alpine grass carpets Kelso Mountain’s gently sloping south face. It’s obvious this side of the mountain had once been horizontal, but forces unimaginable betrayed its tranquil past, thrusting it up and tilting it like a table missing a leg. The north slope is practically a sheer cliff, as if God’s axe whacked the mountain in half. The process took hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of years, and sets into sobering perspective the brevity of our own existence.

From here one can also see the entire standard route and its throng of hikers, like ants on a slow march to a picnic. In contrast, below our group on the Kelso route there was another dude or two.

Looking down the ridge. Kelso Mountain is the nearest peak.

We continued climbing, staying to the left of the ridge. The trail placed us onto a wide ledge, and a snow patch blocked the best route to higher ground. We had caught up with the couple from across the pond, and we watched as they scaled up around the snow. After listening to their advice (another opportunity to hear them talk), we determined they had indeed chosen the best route. The climb around the snow patch necessitated some rather creative moves–disconcerting considering the significant exposure below us.

Lining up to cross the knife edge
Lining up to cross the knife edge

Another short section of exposed class three climbing put us back on top of the ridge and at the east end of the knife-edge. While we waited for the Meetup group and the Brits to cross, a few of our new Meetup friends offered to take our phones across and snap some pics of us as we scrambled across. So we happily handed our phones to some guys we just met that day and whose names we didn’t know. After they crossed, they paused their climb to take pictures of us as we inched across the knife-edge one by one. I went first.

It was here, at the end of the knife-edge, when my leg seizes. I pull myself off the knife-edge and up onto a rock ledge, and the cramp subsides once I’m able to stretch out my calf and drink about a quart of water. In the exhilaration of climbing earlier, I forgot to drink water when I wasn’t thirsty.

Your author crossing the knife edge. Liza waits her turn behind me.
Your author crossing the knife edge. Liza waits her turn behind me.
That's me moments before my leg cramp
That’s me moments before my leg cramp
Liza: "Look Ma, no hands!"
Liza: “Look Ma, no hands!”

A short scramble across a ledgey section leads us to class two hiking and the windy summit of Torreys. We’ve lost the Meetup group but are able to chat with the British couple as we eat lunch. They tell us they moved here within the last year from New York. Though they climbed internationally, this is their first 14er. In fear of sounding weird, I resist the urge to tell them I feel like I’ve just met my new best friends.

We bid farewell to our British friends after a quick lunch and take the standard route down the mountain. The relative ease of the descent offers us a chance to reflect on our climb, and the wide path allows us to walk side by side and chat about the experience.

Liza describes the climb in just a few words: “Scary. Out of my comfort zone.” Then she elaborates:

“At least at first. But my favorite part was getting to the knife edge. We were so close to the top, and it didn’t scare me anymore. There’s no turning around, there’s no choice but to move forward. If I just did it and stopped thinking, my instincts were better than my thoughts. That’s what you should be doing with life. Stop thinking so much about everything.”

Liza out of her comfort zone
Liza out of her comfort zone

My experience on the knife-edge was similar. To that point, hiking 14ers had become mundane. But when hanging on to that granite precipice, I remembered a quote attributed to George Mallory: “It’s not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.” Complacency is one of our greatest enemies. When we test our limits or persevere through difficult circumstances, we just might discover parts of ourselves we never knew.

Adventure on.

–Steve

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