Scrambling Exposed Kelso Ridge for the First Time Was Scary Good!
Ready to take on some of Colorado’s more challenging 14ers? Well, hiking Kelso Ridge on Torreys Peak (14,267′) might be the best way to dive into the thrilling world of rock scrambling.
One of the awesome things about hiking Kelso Ridge is the variety of routes. It’s pretty easy to stick to class 3 terrain if you feel like taking it easy. But there’s plenty of class 4 and easy class 5 around if you’re in a free soloing kind of mood.
(Not sure what all that means? Here’s an explanation of the Yosemite Decimal System used to classify mountaineering routes in North America.)
Of course, the most exciting feature of Kelso Ridge is an exposed knife edge. It materializes at 14,000 feet when there’s really no going back! Scrambling across can test your mettle, especially if you’re scared of heights. But it can also give your mountaineering confidence a serious boost.
I’ve lived in Colorado since the 1990s. But if you can believe it, this trip on July 1, 2017, was my first time hiking Kelso Ridge! And it was so much fun, I’d hate for you to wait that long. So here’s my Kelso Ridge trip report with advice, stats, pics, and encouragement.
I love hearing from readers, so feel free to leave questions and feedback in the comments! Or contact me through the site. Happy scrambling.
Hiking Kelso Ridge: The Stats
- Trip Date: July 1, 2017
- Trailhead: Grays Peak (Trailhead info)
- Round Trip Distance: 6.75 mi.
- Elevation Gain: 3,100′
- Max Elevation: 14,267′ (summit of Torreys Peak)
- Best Months: July–September
- YDS Rating: Class 3
Check out this Kelso Ridge route description for directions, a detailed route description, maps, and emergency contact numbers.
New to Scrambling? Educate Yourself.
Rock scrambling is a step up in risk and skill from trail hiking. If you’ve never scrambled before, consider taking along an experienced friend who can show you the basics.
Important Safety Tips for Scramblers
Scrambling exposes you to objective hazards like rock fall, lightning, and exposure.
To give you an idea how quickly things can go to shit when you’re hiking Kelso Ridge, please take a moment to read this brief trip report called, “Near Death on Kelso Ridge.” (Thanks so much to xDooglex for this honest and helpful account.)
Did you catch what the search and rescue people told him? They do a lot of missions on Kelso Ridge! On a popular route and mountain, it’s easy to underestimate the risks.
So how do you avoid that kind of misery (or worse)? Here are some tips.
- Wear a climbing helmet at all times on Class 3 terrain.
- Rock fall can be a serious hazard on scrambles. Move carefully on the route and watch the people below you. Try not to dislodge rocks that could hit other climbers. Depending on the terrain, you may need to bunch up or spread out your group to mitigate rockfall danger.
- If you do knock loose a rock, shout “ROCK! ROCK!” repeatedly to warn climbers below you.
- When a rock is falling toward you, look at the mountain and lean your face and body in to the ground. (Don’t look up or try to run on loose, exposed terrain.)
- Remember, rocks break. When scrambling, maintain three points of contact at all times. Test hand and foot holds before weighting them.
- Scrambling on snow is an advanced skill, and scrambling on wet rock is just plain dangerous. Plan your trip when the route is dry.
- Scrambles are far more committing than hikes. Once you’re on the ridge, you won’t be able to retreat quickly if a storm moves in. Watch the forecast before you leave home, then monitor the weather as you climb.
- Remember that scrambling can be a surprisingly slow process. Budget 3–4 hours to complete the Class 3 section of Kelso Ridge. Even if the weather is great, start early enough so you’ll be off the summit by noon.
- On Colorado’s 14ers, snowfields can linger long into summer. When hiking Kelso Ridge early in the season, carry an ice ax. (This can also gives you the option of glissade descent.)
- Scrambling is an off-trail activity. The social trails you see may not always indicate the best route. Evaluate the terrain continuously. If one route is out of your comfort level, look for an alternate.
- It’s easier to climb up than down. But what if you need to turn around due to weather, an injury, or slow progress? A good rule of thumb: don’t ascend terrain if you’re not confident you can descend it. You don’t want to get “cliffed out.”
- Know your abilities and those of your climbing partners. Hiking Kelso Ridge is not for beginners.
- Stay together and make decisions as a group.
- Have a “safety culture.” When someone has a safety concern, take it seriously.
How Exposed Is Kelso Ridge Really?
While it’s not an official rating, 14ers.com rates the exposure on Kelso Ridge as 4 on a scale of 6. That’s doable, but it’s definitely a step up from most standard Colorado 14er routes.
For most people, the crux is the “knife edge” at 14,000′. This section isn’t particularly sharp and has plenty of hand holds. But you will have a nice drop on either side!
For more tips on overcoming fears, including a fear of heights, check out my post: How to Be a Fearless Badass in the Outdoors and Life.
Other tips specific to scrambling:
- Focus on your hands and feet.
- When you look up, look ahead (not down).
- Climb in the center of the group. Watching more confident climbers ahead of you can sometimes dispel your fears!
- Appoint a “spotter” to show you hand and footholds. (This is especially helpful on down climbs.)
How We Did It
Like I mentioned above, we were hiking Kelso Ridge as part of our Alpine Scrambling Course.
This was the first scrambling field day for our party of six students and three instructors. (Interestingly, four of us were also high-altitude mountaineering school classmates who were training for July grad climbs on Mount Rainier and Mount Baker. Kelso Ridge turned out to be a great confidence builder!)
Be warned: Grays and Torreys are very popular Colorado 14ers. And on this Fourth of July weekend, they were completely overrun.
We arrived around 5:15 a.m. and still ended up parking a quarter mile down the road from the lot. We hiked up to the trailhead, which was swarming with backpack-less tourists wearing sneakers and jeans. They gave us some funny looks when we walked up with ice axes on our packs.
The first 1.75 mi. of the hike were on the main trail. And even at this early hour, it was pretty miserable. I’ve been in conga lines that gave me more personal space!
But then we turned right at a large cairn and followed a social trail up to the saddle between Torreys Peak (14,267′) and Kelso Mountain (13,164′). To my surprise, no one followed us.
We headed up to some mining ruins on the saddle where we put on our helmets (ahem) and climbing harnesses. (You’ll notice in the pics that we wore harnesses as part of this class. They can make it easier to lower or assist a climber. But don’t worry, they’re not necessary for hiking Kelso Ridge.)
Hiking Kelso Ridge really eases you into scrambling! The lower half of the ridge is mostly off-trail class 2 terrain with some short sections of class 3 mixed in. For an extra challenge, try sticking to the spine of the ridge, which offers some fun pinnacles and gendarmes.
During this section, we could see the conga line on the main trail making its way up the Grays and Torreys standard route. But we were delighted to have much less traffic over on the ridge.
We met one group at the mine who left before us. Another pair of hikers passed us by scrambling past on a high route. And then there was a group of three climbing a bit behind us. Those were the only people we saw on the entire ridge. Not bad for a Colorado 14er on a summer holiday weekend!
As you gain elevation, Kelso Ridge gradually narrows and steepens. The class 3 sections become longer and more sustained. You’ll also notice more exposure: a steep talus field on the right and the Dead Dog snow couloir on the left.
(If the snow in Dead Dog looks crazy steep, take a deep breath. People climb and ski it all the time.)
As you make your way above 13,000′, you’ll have some really fun class 4 options! But there’s no need to leave the comfort of class 3 terrain if you don’t want to. So if sometimes feels super hard and exposed, back up and look for an easier path.
Cuts like a knife
Throughout the climb, you’ll catch glimpses of a distinct white rock formation near the summit. (You can even see it from the main trail.) This rock marks the far side of the Kelso Ridge knife edge.
As you approach the summit, Dead Dog Couloir rises to meet you on the left. The couly tops out near the infamous knife edge at about 14,000′. (This is, naturally, the spot where my GoPro helmet cam conveniently died, so apologies for the lack of pics.)
For most people, the knife edge is the crux of the route. But if you can take a deep breath and ignore the exposure, it’s really not too bad! Some people prefer to throw a leg over each side and scoot across. Others hold the ridge crest while walking their feet across a series of good holds.
At the far side of the knife edge, scramble carefully over the white rock to the top of Dead Dog Couloir. Early in the season, snow can linger above the chute. For extra security, use your ice ax to climb past this. (On our July 1 climb, the snow field was short and had excellent steps kicked in.)
There’s a party going on right here
At this point, we’d been enjoying the silence for so long, the top was a shock. We went from having Torreys Peak to ourselves to a gong show of 50 people taking pictures, chasing dogs, drinking beer, etc. Seriously, it felt like a beach up there.
The good thing about a crowded summit: there are plenty of photographers to take your group shot.
Going down, down, down
It’s totally possible to down climb Kelso Ridge. But like most parties, we chose to join the conga line down the standard route.
Along the way, we passed a woman coming up with her dog. The dog kept scampering out onto the cornice above Dead Dog Couloir.
I was like, “Hey dog! Get over here. They don’t call that Dead Dog for nothing.”
Which earned me a big hairy eyeball from the owner. Yeah, I should know better than to discipline other people’s kids.
Eventually we couldn’t stand the crowds anymore and started talking about glissading. (The basin in front of Grays and Torreys still had a nice covering of snow.)
Someone asked, “Do you think it’s safe?” And just then, we passed two drunk guys in shorts. Glissading. Without axes.
Well, if they could do it …
We hiked back to the trailhead (still a shit show) and followed some very slow tourists down to I-70.
The restaurants in Idaho Springs were packed for Fourth of July weekend. But we did score some seats at The Buffalo. They sell microbrews from the brewery next door and fresh, tasty burgers. Hey, if you just got done hiking Kelso Ridge, you earned it!
Hiking Kelso Ridge is a lot of fun, but definitely approach it with respect. So start early, bring the right gear, and keep an eye on the weather and your group members.
Above all, remember there’s nothing wrong with turning around. Some days, a summit just isn’t in the cards. Remember, the mountain will always be there!