Thursday, May 14, 2009

Wednesday, 05/13/09 Torreys and Grays via NW Face

Torreys via NW Face/Grays Peak
~14 miles
5,060 vertical
Bakerville Winter TH
Partner: Sierra

Our recent climb of Guyot made me realize how much I have been missing the high peaks and the small section of using crampons and axe had me wanting more. For years I have been eyeing the NW Face (climb 2.12, p. 27 in Roach’s 2nd edition Fourteeners book) and Emperor Couloir, but have never made it over there. Since I could not stir up any partners aside from Sierra at the last minute on a Wednesday, I opted for the easier option.

I started up the road at 7:00am and got a great pull from Sierra on the leash, as a blue pickup truck passed and she was sure that it was Dave Hale and her doggie buddies and wanted to chase. I tried to convince her that Dave drives a Toyota, not a Dodge, but she was having none of it.

We reached the Grizzly Gulch turn in 15 minutes and from there to the summit, it would be new scenery for me. After enjoying a snow free cruise from Bakerville, I was forced into my snowshoes about 1/5 mile beyond the junction. Soon there were some secondary junctions with tracks leading in multiple directions. I always picked the more travelled looking path, knowing I need to stay on “the road” for quite some distance. Sooner than expected, the road I was on ended at a mine and there was no sign of trail, road, track or anything.

Not wanting to backtrack, I made my way into the thickly vegetated woods along the creek bed and was bogged down in the bottomless sugar snow. My heart rate was maxed and I was going nowhere. To my right, I spied a S. facing, but steep slope and headed for it. After a few choice words, a reachy acrobatic creek jump with snowshoes from icy rock to a mystery landing, I made it up the dry slope and regained my intended route on the snow covered dirt road.

The snow was mostly packed if I stayed on old tracks, but with all the snow and having never been up Grizzly Gulch, the route was not always obvious. I made it to a point in the valley directly under the NW Face at 11,160 at 8:15am and took 15 minutes to get geared up for the climb. Initially, after swapping snowshoes for crampons, I was having trouble staying on top of the crust and was post holing, regretting the choice to put on crampons so early. Soon, the slope steepened enough that snowshoes would have done no good, as I worked hard to surpass the initial bench to get to the actual base of the mountain.

As I approached the base, the snow firmed up a bit and conditions were perfect for kicking steps. I initially made good progress as the wind was mellow, snow conditions were good and the temperature was just right. Before long, I started to look up and make guesstimates of when I may top out. I was thinking just 10-15 minutes more, for what seemed like forever, but a quick glance to the right revealed that I was not even as high as Grizzly Peak (only 13,427). I was hoping to just cruise up, but was instead getting discouraged with my slow pace and occasional pauses to catch my breath (although at the time justified it as taking in the views). Then things got interesting as the full brunt of the winds raking the divide picked up in earnest.

The wind sounded like a jet roaring overhead, I would look up and see a swirling blizzard of wind driven snow racing down the snow slope toward me. I would bury my axe, make sure both feet were firmly embedded and just hang on, as I watched snow fill the cuff of my glove. I have better mittens in my pack, but there was no way I was going to dig for them now. Between bursts, I would step step, plant (axe), step step, plant as quickly and safely as I could through the wind deposited powder on top of semi-breakable crust, all the while keeping tabs on the next assault from above.

After what seemed like an eternity, I finally gained the ridge close to the summit and was reminded what real wind was all about. I skulked along the wide, gentle, snow covered ridge toward the top, but needed to plant my axe more than once to not get blown off. Sierra crept along low to the ground, keeping close to me, though all the while smiling and wagging her tail.

I was starting to bonk and was really getting cold, as it felt more like winter than May. I tagged the summit and immediately noticed that there was no place to hide, so down I went toward the Grays/Torreys saddle without breaking stride. From past experience, I knew there would be no respite at or near the saddle, so I decided to blow off Grays and just quickly drop off the saddle in hopes of finding some shelter.

My toes were about as cold as I can ever remember from being compressed by the crampon straps and front pointing for nearly 3,000 feet and I was starting to feel a bit desperate. As I descended, they started to warm, but it felt like thousands of stinging needles and my toes felt as if they were swollen. Surprisingly, they felt somewhat better in the 10 minutes or so it took me to reach the saddle, but the wind was not relenting.

Being stubborn, and a glutton for punishment, I decided to give Grays a shot, even though I was feeling a bit worked. By staying a bit below the ridge to the left as I ascended, I was able to stay mostly out of the wind, but it meant dealing with deep snow with unpredictable talus underneath. Though difficult, it was far better than dealing with the hurricane force wind.

Fortunately, there was enough of a wind shadow behind the summit rocks that I could collapse in a fetal position, pant, gasp, groan and put down some gel, water and a few Clif Shot Bloks. Once recovered, I remembered that I had a camera with me, took a few photos, enjoyed the views and was able to remember why I love coming up here so much.

On the descent, I was able to piece together mostly consolidated patches of snow and kept my crampons on all the way to just beyond the Kelso ridge jct. and was actually thankful to have them on in at least one spot, as the summer trail had disappeared under a steep snow slope. I think there is more snow up in Stevens Gulch now than I have ever seen.

The trip out was a cruise for the most part, as I was able to stay on top of the crust with my snowshoes and post holing was minimal. A truck had made it to within a mile of the summer trailhead, but it looked like an effort. The drive to the steep section of road by the first houses is almost completely melted out and would be easy to drive there if you have 4wd/clearance.


Start Bakerville: 7:00am
Grizzly Gulch Turn: 7:15am
Base of climb at 11,160 8:15am
Start climb: 8:30am
Torreys Summit: 10:40am
Grays Summit: 11:17am
Summer TH: 12:40pm
Finish Bakerville: 1:24pm


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