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Dawn of an empire

Started: 2009-07-05 20:57:26

Submitted: 2009-07-05 22:28:06

Visibility: World-readable

Last September, while climbing mount Adams, Willy and I talked each other into planning on climbing the highest summits of each of the eleven contiguous western states. Some of these summits are little more than hikes with elevation gain (including the two highest summits, Colorado's Mount Elbert and California's Mount Whitney), but some require more technical expertise: Mount Hood is a snow climb, and Mount Rainier requires climbing teams roped together for glacier travel.

Clearly, I needed hardware and wetware upgrades to properly ascend my eleven goal summits sometime in the next decade. The hardware upgrades were easy enough; I got crampons for Christmas and picked up an ice ax and climbing helmet at REI last Thursday. The wetware upgrades required a copy of Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills (also from REI) and several training climbs. Early July is the tail end of the snow-climbing season in Colorado. I studied nearby mountains (especially fourteeners I hadn't climbed) and liked the idea of Angelica Couloir on Mount of the Holy Cross but for the three hour drive, one way, to the trailhead. Closer to home I found the north-facing Emperor Couloir on Torreys Peak, a hard climb on a peak with a reputation for being easy.

My alarm woke me up at 05:00 on the Fourth of July. I drove the hour and a half up I-70 to Grizzly Gulch, barely making it up the rough, pitted road in my aging Civic. I parked at the mouth of Grizzly Gulch, donned extra clothing in the early-morning mountain chill, and headed up the four-wheel-drive road on foot shortly after 07:00.

My first challenge was crossing Quayle Creek at the four-wheel-drive ford. My boots are not as waterproof as they once were; in any case, the cold water overflowed the top, drenching my socks from above.

Torreys Peak from Grizzly Gulch
Torreys Peak from Grizzly Gulch

I pressed on, reaching the base of Emperor by 08:30. I found a pair of skinny logs fashioning a crude bridge over the creek and made my way to the base of the snowfield, which looked pretty scraggly at the bottom. I donned my crampons and helmet, deployed my ice ax, and headed up the snowfield.

Emperor Couloir, Torreys Peak
Emperor Couloir, Torreys Peak

I forgot to charge my rechargeable AA batteries before leaving home, and the batteries in my GPS receiver died before I reached the base of the snowfield. The snow was firm and the slope was gentle at first; as the couloir took shape and the rock walls rose above me the slope steepened and I switched to a two-handed grip on my ice ax. The couloir climbed relentlessly, winding between the rocks, as I gauged my progress on the mountains opposite Grizzly Gulch.

Halfway up Emperor Couloir, Torreys Peak
Halfway up Emperor Couloir, Torreys Peak

After two hours of climbing, the couloir opened up into a steep basin and the snow became soft from the relentless sun. The normal route, directly ahead, was partially melted; I didn't fancy mixed scrambling on my new crampons, so I veered to the right and found myself on steep soft snow. My ice ax sunk to the head when I drove the pick into the snow.

Emperor Couloir spreads out, Torreys Peak
Emperor Couloir spreads out, Torreys Peak

After another hour of climbing, I topped out on the narrow ridge between Emperor and the north-west face, a few hundred feet below the summit. I stowed my crampons in my pack, protected my ice ax but kept it handy, and kept my climbing helmet on. A pitch of class 3 scrambling up loose talus gave way to the class 2 ridgeline.

As I approached the summit, I smelled something I didn't expect to find above 14,000 feet: barbecue. To celebrate the holiday, a group brought a portable grill to the summit for a miniature party, complete with watermelon and a keg. (I expected to find a crowd at the summit. I did not expect to find a party.)

Fourth of July party on Torreys Peak
Fourth of July party on Torreys Peak

I contemplated dropping over to Grays Peak but decided against it; I had already climbed Grays (and suffered hypoxia) in 2005. My climb up the north face had taken longer than I expected, and I still had a difficult descent of the north ridge ahead of me.

Jaeger on the summit of Torreys Peak
Jaeger on the summit of Torreys Peak

Shortly after arriving on the summit, around noon, I spotted four jet fighters flying east, across Loveland Pass, apparently inbound for a flyover over someone's Fourth of July celebration on the Front Range. It's not often that I get to look down at airplanes in flight, especially while standing on solid ground. (I did get pictures, but the jets were roughly ten pixels long and not worth showing.)

After half an hour on the summit, I headed down via the north ridge route. (I didn't want to descend Emperor without better self-arrest technique.) This included the crux move on the knife's edge of Kelso Ridge; I bypassed the knife's edge by scrambling on the ridge to the north. After the crux, the ridge smoothed out and grew a distinct track until the north ridge split from Kelso Ridge.

Kelso Ridge, Torreys Peak
Kelso Ridge, Torreys Peak

I headed north and had a bit of trouble following the correct line down the ridge. After a bit of rain, just long enough to put my rain coat on before it dissipated, I dropped below treeline and tried to keep the creek to my right far enough to my right so I wouldn't get stuck at the bottom of its gully. I finally made it to the bottom of Grizzly Gulch and rejoined the four-wheel-drive road for my final return to my car and civilization beyond.

Climbing Emperor was the dawn of my snow-climbing empire.

Everyone I'm sure, knows that when something goes wrong somewhere,
anywhere, anytime it is automatically SCOTT'S FAULT. Your dog ran away?
SCOTT'S FAULT. Your car won't start? SCOTT'S FAULT. Your power got
shut off because you forgot to mail the check? Yep, once again, SCOTT'S
FAULT. It is very similar to the "six degrees of separation" theory.
Somehow everything can be tied back to Scott.
- Renee Galvin, 25 October 2000