May 27th, 2005
The Dead Dog Couloir. The name instills fear and excitement for those who aspire to climb it. It is a 1,200 foot couloir, averaging somewhere around 40 to 45 degrees, that splits the east face of the 14,000 foot Torreys Peak. We climbed the Lost Rat Couloir on Grays Peak last year as Amyís first snow climb and we had been eyeing the Dead Dog for the last few weeks. With a cold front moving into Colorado, bringing a good freeze overnight to the high country snowpack, I felt the conditions were finally prime for an ascent of the Dead Dog. For a trip report of Torreys Peak from Chihuahua Gulch CLICK HERE For a winter trip report of Torreys Peak and Grays Peak CLICK HERE
Dead Dog Couloir 5/27/05
The Dead Dog Couloir. The name instills fear and excitement for those who aspire to climb it. It is a 1,200 foot couloir, averaging somewhere around 40 to 45 degrees, that splits the east face of the 14,000 foot Torreys Peak. We climbed the Lost Rat Couloir on Grays Peak last year as Amyís first snow climb and we had been eyeing the Dead Dog for the last few weeks. With a cold front moving into Colorado, bringing a good freeze overnight to the high country snowpack, I felt the conditions were finally prime for an ascent of the Dead Dog.
Our plan to climb the Dead Dog was hatched at the last minute, 11 p.m. Thursday night. Amy and I both had Friday off and thought it would be better to attempt the Dead Dog on Friday to avoid the Memorial Day weekend crowds. We only slept a few hours before the alarm clock rudely announced it was 3 a.m. and time to get packing. We organized our gear and hit the road out of Boulder at 4 a.m. Traffic at this ungodly hour is non-existent so we made great time to the Stephens Gulch Trailhead arriving just after 5 a.m. The road is now clear of snow all the way to the trailhead. We grabbed our packs and headed off into the darkness just after 5:15. I was very happy that it was a chilly morning in the high country and the snow was frozen firm. We hiked quickly to keep the chill off and also to get in front a few parties we could see further up the trail.
Shortly before the base of the Dead Dog we passed a party of two guys, also heading for the Dead Dog, and a kid heading for Grays Peak. As the trail approaches Torreys Peak the Dead Dog looks fairly steep and imposing. We reminded ourselves that in the mountains, features usually look worse from a distance than they actually are. We departed the trail and walked over to the base of the slopes below the Dead Dog Couloir arriving at 6 a.m. We donned our crampons and traded the trekking poles for an ice ax. The work, and also the fun, was about to begin.
We turned on our avalanche beacons as well as an added precaution. There had been some sloughs in the area the last few weeks, but nothing was looking too recent. The two other guys joined us at the base and after talking with them for a few minutes one guy turned out to be Steve, a fellow 14erworld member. Steve and his partner Brendan were quicker than us getting ready for the snow climbing, so they departed ahead of us up the couloir.
As Amy and I departed up the slopes to the couloir two other guys arrived that were also planning on ascending the Dead Dog. Iím glad we didnít decide to do this climb on Saturday, there may have been tons of people on the route. The crampons were biting into the firm snow nicely and the steep slopes had us overheating quickly. I had to stop to unzip all the vents in my softshell and also my snowpants. Ahhh, much better. We continued up the slopes at a comfortable pace, avoiding the dash and gasp technique we had mistakenly employed up the Lost Rat Couloir last year. The repetitive nature of climbing steep snow can become almost meditative as you keenly focus on the task at hand, blocking out everything else.
After a few hundred vertical feet of climbing we entered the bottom of the Dead Dog Couloir. About midway up the couloir my concentration was abruptly broken when I heard Steve and Brendan loudly yell ďR O C KĒ. I instantly looked up and saw a rock about the size of a grapefruit that had my name all over it. I quickly shuffled to the right and the rock whizzed passed me, missing me by about 3 feet. Wow, that was close! Rockfall is a definite hazard to be aware of when climbing the Dead Dog. Continuing upward the snow in the upper portion of the Dead Dog was already getting soft, but our crampons were still getting good purchase. Amy passed by me when I had to slow my pace a bit, I had sweat streaming down my face. The couloir was becoming an oven and I was baking. I wanted to stop and take off my softshell but the top of the couloir was close and I didnít really want to spend any extra time in the couloir than necessary.
We exited the Dead Dog just after 8 a.m. taking us 2 hours to ascend the couloir. The Dead Dog joins up with Torreyís Kelso Ridge about a hundred vertical feet or so from the summit. Once I exited the couloir and stepped onto the ridge, I was treated to the cold, icy wind out of the west. It felt great and quickly cooled me down. We took a short break before continuing up the very small stretch of the ridge to the summit where we topped out at 8:30 a.m., just under 3.5 hours for the ascent. Not too bad. On a normal Friday morning I would just be getting to my office about this time.
This was my 4th time up Torreys via three different routes, but the Dead Dog is definitely my new favorite. We signed the summit register and quickly retreated behind a snowdrift to take shelter from the wind. It was nice to sit down for a bit and reflect on the route we had just climbed. I didnít feel it was much steeper than the Lost Rat Couloir on Grays Peak, but longer and more effort. We talked away with Steve and Brendan while eating and soaking in the views. After about 30 minutes my feet were cold and I was wanting to get moving to warm up.
On the descent to the Grays / Torreys saddle, we noticed some pretty big cornices ready to break loose and tumble down the east face of Torreys Peak. Down at the saddle we decided to pass on Grays Peak, we didnít have much desire to climb it for a 5th time. The snow on the face of Grays Peak hadnít softened up enough to allow us a nice glissade so we resorted to plunge stepped down the standard route.
As we got back to the base of Torreys Peak, we could see a party of seven about 1/3 of the way up the Dead Dog. We looked at the clock, it was 10:30 a.m., it seemed way too late to be in the couloir to me. We hoped things would turn out ok for them. We caught up to the solo hiker we had seen earlier in the morning and he asked us which direction the parking lot was. Amy and I decided we better keep an eye on the kid since it seems pretty hard to get disoriented in Stevens Gulch on a bluebird day.
As trail enters the bushes near the trailhead the kid missed a turn and headed out into the thick of the bushes. We could see he was sinking into the snow up to his waist and having a difficult time thrashing in the bushes. I whistled loudly several times and yelled to the kid, but he just kept going and dropped out of sight. Further down the trail we saw him uphill from us and yelled to him that the trail was down where we were. He waved to us and preceded in our direction, so we continued downward, checking back from time to time to make sure he got back on the trail.
We arrived back at the trailhead around 11:15 a.m. bringing our roundtrip time to 6 hours. The Dead Dog wasnít as bad as I had anticipated, but still should be approached with respect. Consider the conditions carefully and make sure you leave early, the earlier the better. This is an extremely fun, rewarding route and gives Torreys Peak a whole different feel, much more alpine than the standard route.
May 27th, 2005