| Cool Day on Kelso Mountain
13,164 Feet (510th Highest in Colorado)
South Ridge Route (Class 2)
Stevens Gulch Trailhead (11,230 Feet)
Roundtrip Mileage: about 4.25 Miles
Elevation Gained: about 1,934 feet
October 25th, 2008
Cool Day on Kelso Mountain
Kelso Mountain was named for William Fletcher Kelso, who was an early prospector in the Bakerville area. Dozens of once-prosperous gold and silver mines dot the slopes on nearby Grays Peak, Torreys Peak, McClellan Mountain, and Mt. Edwards. The mines have all played out, but the twin 14ers (Grays and Torreys) are still a huge tourist draw. Kelso Mountain's summit offers a fantastic view with much more solitude than can be found on the neighboring peaks.
Kelso Mountain can be accessed from the Stevens Gulch Trailhead near Bakerville. The Stevens Gulch Road elicits strong reactions from drivers under the best of conditions, but it can be even more miserable with a skim of ice. There is a notoriously deep rut across the road that keeps many vehicles from making it up the road, so many hikers have to park in a small lot out by I-70. This adds about 6 miles roundtrip to the hike, which would be a deal breaker for me.
Map of the standard route on Kelso Mountain
I incorrectly assumed that Kelso Mountain would be an easy summit. Nothing was easy about the hike, including the drive to the trailhead. I barely made it through the infamous rut, which had a thick coating of ice. The rest of the road was not so bad, but several of the steep sections had enough ice to seriously test the grip of my new all-terrain tires. I picked up three CU students hiking along the road, and proceeded to the Stevens Gulch Trailhead.
Kelso Mountain viewed from the Stevens Gulch Trailhead
The start of the Grays Peak Trail
The weather was refreshingly cool at the trailhead, and the wind was not too bad. The snow was not deep, so winter boots were not necessary. I wore my gaiters, which later turned out to be a good decision. I scoped out the east slopes, and noticed that there was a mining road that might pass near the summit. I abandoned my plan to take the standard route on the south ridge, and decided to make a run at the east slope. Without going into too much detail, I did not find the ice and ball-bearing scree to my liking, and bailed out at 12,300 feet. I descended back down to the Grays Peak Trail, losing about 800 feet of elevation in the process.
Kelso Mountain's east slope
The snow on the Grays Peak Trail was packed down well, and travel on the trail was enjoyable. The grade was relatively flat and there was plenty to see. The cliffs below Mt. Edwards, McClellan Mountain, and Ganley Mountain were impressive. It was not hard to spot the various mine tunnels on the slopes. Grays Peak gradually came into view as I bore to the southwest.
Grays Peak Trail with Grays Peak in the distance
About two miles from the trailhead, I encountered a cairn beside the trail that marked the spur trail to the saddle between Torreys Peak and Kelso Mountain. Many hikers use this trail to access the Kelso Ridge route on Torreys Peak, but it can also be used to access Kelso Mountain's south ridge. An old mining shack is visible on the ridge just north of the saddle.
Cairn beside the Grays Peak Trail that marks the spur trail to the Torreys Peak/Kelso Mountain saddle
The Torreys Peak/Kelso Mountain saddle seen from the Grays Peak Trail
The spur trail to the Torreys Peak/Kelso Mountain saddle
Hiking on the leeward side of Kelso Mountain had sheltered me from the wind whipping over the Continental Divide, but I felt the full force of the wind when I reached the saddle. The trail to the south ridge was not obvious, but I saw faint bootprints in the snow that led to the east side of the ridge, well below the crest. The crest of the ridge was exceptionally rocky, but it probably would have been passable without too much effort.
Kelso Mountain's south ridge just above the saddle
There was no visible trail on the scree/talus/snow-covered southeast slope, and it got steeper as I angled up the side. It would have been difficult to head straight up the steep side of the ridge. I could see that the grade eased up before too long, and the rocky slope gave way to grassy tundra after 0.3 miles.
The southeast side of Kelso Mountain's south ridge
The slope was steep and snowy just a short distance before it eased up
The whole character of the hike changed when I stepped off of the slippery slope and onto the tundra. The snow on the tundra was patchy and largely avoidable. The ridge sloped gradually towards the summit, and it was clear that there were no difficulties ahead. As an added bonus, the sky was a brilliant blue and the bright sun had taken the edge off of the cool temperature. I was far enough down on the ridge to get plenty of shelter from the wind.
Large expanse of tundra on Kelso Mountain's south ridge
It was a long ridge with many bumps along the way. The true summit was not immediately visible. There was no visible trail, but no trail was necessary; I just took the most direct route, with slight detours to avoid the deeper snowdrifts.
The first pair of bumps on the long ridge
Approaching a false summit
Was this the true summit?
At long last, the true summit came into view. I had about 300 more feet to gain, but it was a pretty straight shot. Just below the summit, there was a fairly deep drift with fresh bootprints. I followed the track for the last few feet to the summit.
Summit shot on Kelso Mountain: Torreys Peak in the foreground, Grays Peak in the background
The weather report had called for 15-22 m.p.h. winds with gusts up to 37 m.p.h.; this seemed pretty accurate based on what I experienced on the summit. The chilly wind was mildly unpleasant, but the bright sunshine and clear skies made for excellent visibility. Torreys Peak looked particularly wicked from this angle, but Grays Peak looked pretty timid with the gentle switchbacks zigzagging across its face. Grizzly Peak was just beyond Torreys Peak; seeing it from this vantage point inspired me to plan an attempt this peak from Grizzly Gulch.
L to R: Torreys Peak (extreme left), Grizzly Peak, Pt. 12,936, and "Cupid"
Mt. Sniktau looked fairly insignificant in the distance, but I studied the ridge coming up from Kearney Gulch and pondered an interesting alternate route to the summit.
Mt. Sniktau (center of image) viewed from Kelso Mountain
The cliffs on the north face of Mt. Edwards looked unimaginably forbidding. From the opposite side, however, it looks more like a tilted slab. The ridge between Grays Peak and Mt. Edwards looked like it would be an interesting hike.
Mt. Edwards as seen from Kelso Mountain. The upper part of my descent route can be seen in the foreground.
It was beautiful on the summit, but I really didn't intend to stay very long. I also didn't intend to return by my ascent route; I'd had enough ice and scree for one day. Besides, Dave Muller described a shorter descent in his Colorado Summit Hikes for Everyone. Descending the east slope was relatively easy and it shaved a considerable amount of distance off of my return trip. I found a pair of tracks, and followed them all the way back to the Grays Peak Trail. The footing was not always easy, but my trekking poles helped me keep my balance on the slicker spots. I aimed for the deeper snow whenever possible, because it offered better footing. The shallow snow was intolerably slick because it was rapidly melting.
The lower part of my descent route, seen from the Grays Peak Trail
I had plenty of energy left when I reached the trail, so I alternated walking and jogging for a while. I slowed down to talk to a pair of hikers, and then caught up to my three CU hitchhikers at the trailhead. They looked pretty beat, so I offered them a ride back to their car. We took a few minutes to gear down, and then we hit the road. Much of the snow on the road had melted, but the ice was actually slicker with a skim of water on the surface. I had a few tense moments sliding through curves, but it was not too bad as long as I took my time.
There is little that can compare to hiking the fourteeners, but sometimes I enjoy the pure fun of hiking a thirteener. Thirteeners have many of the elements that appeal to fourteener climbers - the thin air, the barren tundra, and the outstanding views. One thing the thirteeners frequently lack, however, is the vexatious crowds. As much as I enjoy summiting with some of my excellent partners, it's always a special feeling to have a summit all to myself. Kelso Mountain has a lot to offer, including relative solitude. This frequently-overlooked summit is certainly a worthy destination.
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