So even though it is a bit late in the season, I still wanted to climb at least one 14er this year. I have always wanted to do Grays and Torreys, so this was the logical choice.
I had been carefully watching the weather, and was a bit nervous, as a big winter storm was headed our way. However I have found that you can never really tell how the weather is going to be in Colorado unless you show up. The mountains have a way of surprising you - usually for the worst, but sometimes you get lucky.
I had to work at our Winter Park office on Friday, so I decided to stay overnight there, as it is much closer to these mountains than my home in Longmont is. The forcast was for overnight lows in the 20s, mostly cloudy and a 40% chance of snow. I like those odds! I got all my gear ready in the hotel, and settled down for the night, but went to bed not sure if I was climbing a mountain in the morning or just driving home :)
On the early morning drive up, down, and back up again, I spent most of the time hunched over the steering wheel trying to gauge the weather by scanning the mountain tops. Not sure why I wasted my time, because what I saw would have sent me right home! I arrived at the interstate exit I was looking for, and in the early morning light, I saw a sight that caught me a bit off guard- the peak looming out of the darkness - and NOT covered by clouds!
From there, the drive to the trailhead is along a fairly rugged mountain road. At times it is impassible to a sedan like mine. Fortunately, they had recently graded the road, so it was merely very bumpy for me.
As I sat in the car at the trailhead, it was very cold and the wind was howling. Motivation was waning fast. I stalled.
Eventually I managed to drag myself out of the comfort and warmth of the car. Sliding on my pack, I was once again struck by where I was. Having grown up at sea level, it is still astonishing to me to step out of a car and prepare to hike at rediculous STARTING elevation of 11,300 feet! The peaks I climb back home top out around 4,000 feet - a good mile and a half below where I am starting. Even standing outside the car, I was already feeling the reduced oxygen levels.
My calf had been hurting all week from my crazy decent off Longs Peak, so my goal today was to try to run a bit, but mostly to go slow and avoid injury. Even after being on the trail for a while, I was finding this goal rather easy to stick with, as my motivation was seriously lagging, and I couldn't run more than a few steps without having to stop and catch my breath. The weather was looking pretty good to get up this thing, but on the other hand, trudging up the valley trail, I could hear the awesome roaring of the wind over the ridgeline above. I pondered what awaited me on the peak ahead.
Grays and Torreys are twin peaks - two massive mountains towering more-or-less 14,270 feet over a dramatic curving valley. They are known for their accessibility, and widely considered a good place to experience your first "14er." The trail is easy and the mountain slopes gently. All you have to deal with is the lack of air. On a summer weekend, this area would be crawling with people from dawn to dusk. Today it is completely empty. Not a soul in sight.
My route today will be the standard one. I will first summit Grays Peak, on the left. After that, I will descend to the saddle between the peaks and back up to the peak on the right - Torreys Peak. Finally, I will backtrack to the saddle and shortcut across the face of Grays back to the main trail for the rest of the descent.
Not long after starting I have to cover up more than I expected. Who would have guessed that of all the high-tech running hats I have tried over the years, that the best would be the one I just found last week - made by Carhart?
Pushing on, I began to hope for some sunshine to warm my body. Soon thereafter, the sun crested the ridgeline, but as for warmth, I was to be disappointed!
Not long after sunrise, I began to start feeling a bit better. I was able to trot along a bit more. Right around 12,300 feet, the trail splits. The left fork takes you up the standard route to Grays. The right fork takes you past a very old mining shack and on to a very difficult knife-edge ridge that you can climb in better weather up to Torreys. I took a left.
Trail conditions were mixed. There was some snow on the trail, and in places it was quite deep due to drifting. But overall the trail was clear, and about half of the hike was on rocky trail or hard snow. Overall the snow was not a hinderence, but was more an embellishment that made everything more beautiful and dramatic.
Due to the fierce wind, I kept getting colder and colder, so I took another break to put on my outer layers. Starting out this morning, I had to stow my camelback hose inside my pack. In this kind of weather, it will freeze the tube and you can no longer use it. Thus, I had been taking short breaks on the way up in order to drink.
One thing I always carry on trips like this is my trusty Army Surplus Goretex footies. In case you were wondering how I survive in winter weather like this wearing only running shoes, this is your answer. I like these in particular because they are so thin. These are really no different than putting a shell on over your sweater. It's a shell for my feet! Very warm and waterproof.
Pushing on from here, I immediately ran into some hip-deep snow. But not to worry - it was just a wind-drift. I was definately glad I stopped to put on my warmer gear!
From here, the trail transitioned up on to the flank of Grays itself. Looking back was quite a view. Little did I know at the time that it was dark and snowy down in Boulder, yet sunny up here. The mountains are wierd like that.
Now I really started to feel the effects of less oxygen. I kept thinking about what I wuss I am, as people actually live at or above these altitudes in other parts of the world! This is what no air looks like. Scary, I know!
The wind was really howling up here. And with all the loose powder blowing around, the trail at times was hard to see. But really amazing to watch...
Not long after this, I hit the final set of switch-backs. To call them switch-backs is a bit of a misnomer, as they go a long, long way between turns! From here, I could gauge my progress to the summit of Grays by looking across to its twin, Torreys.
Fortunately, I began to feel better as I neared the summit, which honestly was quite unexpected. This was the moment for which I had been waiting a long time. How would I handle being at 14,000 feet today?
For the past few years, whenever I got to about 14,000 feet, I always had noticeable problems. One time, I started getting dizzy and felt like passing out. That day, I had to stop for about 20 minutes just to be able to finish the trip to the summit. I was beginning to believe I had a permanent problem with high altitude. Today I was on a quest to disprove that notion.
So approaching the summit, I began to trot! No, I began to RUN! Success! I was at the summit and still going strong. I could remove that worry from my mind and focus on future adventures at altitude.
In retrospect, I believe my former problems were due to summiting 14ers in the summer without proper hydration. The air up here is thin, but it is also really dry. Not keeping up on hydration can be deadly - and it is magnified up here. Today, I had been stopping more often than neccessary in order to drink fluids. I beileve it is what made the differnece.
The summit of Grays was CRAZY windy. I felt really exposed. Trying to take pictures up here was like trying to balance on a slack-line. I manged to get a somewhat acceptable self-poitrait. You can see the snow whipping by like crazy.
From here, you can finally get a really good view of how the valley I came up makes a really great looking curve, and then disappears around the mountain to the left.
Now I turned my attention to my next target, Torreys Peak!
From the top of Grays, there is a fairly rugged scramble down to the saddle, which is about 500 feet below both summits. The brutal wind started to decrease as I left the summit, and it was fairly nice in the saddle.
From here, the trail ascends pretty much straight up to the peak of Torreys with few switchbacks. With the wind blowing from the west, there are moments I felt a bit exposed, as the trail occasionally passed within a few feet of the cliff that is the east face of Torreys.
The trip to the top of Torreys was reletively easy, although any attempt to run ended abruplty in 10 feet with me hunched over trying to catch my breath! Shortly, I was on the summit.
Its funny that I felt a lot safer on Torreys, even though it is steeper and more exposed. Maybe it was because the wind was fiercer on Grays, but I was really uneasy on Grays, but comfortable up on Torreys.
Looking back down the valley, the alternate route - a Class 3 climb/scrable can clearly be seen. It is the knife-edge ridge leading up from the valley floor. Not a route I wanted to mess with today!
After a brief rest, it was time to turn to the descent. Here is a great shot looking back at the summit of Grays. You can clearly see all the trails that go up, down and across the peak. My route from here was to be down to the saddle, then across the face until I would meet the trail I earlier took up to the summit of Grays.
When I got back down to the saddle, I wasn't thrilled with the cross-trail. There was a snow field that sloped away with no run-out. I chose to climb back up a bit and cross on some rocks. Then I punched down a differnt snow field - which was really fun! This brought me back to the cross trail I was trying to get to.
Now I was able to start picking up speed. Not too much, though. In order to help my calves recover, I was determined to not turn this into my tyical pell-mell sprint down the mountain. I focused on just running easy.
Not too much further down the trail, I saw a sight I had not seen all day: A Real Live Person! Someone was coming up the trail. We exchanged trail info and then I asked him to take a photo:
A few minutes later, I stopped to take off all my cold weather gear, as it was (finally) beginning to warm up. Continuing on, I really began to feel tired, so keeping my pace slow was no longer a challenge!
And one more long look back at where I had been today.
So I finally made it back to the car, where it had somehow turned into summer! What a relief. It was a good day, but quite taxing. It was nice to change clothes and settle in for the drive home.
All together it was about a 4 hour round trip. 2 1/4 to Grays - half an hour to Torreys and 1 1/2 back to the car. Not bad, considering my lack of training and the weather.
Before leaving, I took this photo, just to show people that this road is currently driveable. Look at all those sedans!
As an afterword, the drive home was fairly interesting. Not long after getting on the interstate, I dropped suddenly into clouds. The trees were all white, but not from snow. Frost. As I mentioned earlier, I was not aware that a heavy, cold, wet weather system had blanketed the plains. Denver had awoken to black ice on all the roads. Driving through Denver, there were cars everywhere on the side of the road from the morning spins. Returning home, I felt really lucky to have spent the day in such gorgeous conditions, knowing what it was like down here!