3,543′ of Elevation Gain on Two Hours of Sleep

Jackson Nielsen

As I pulled into the bad excuse for a parking lot, the only thought in my mind was escaping the oven that was my car, due to the air conditioning being busted, and stretching my legs after the six hour drive I had just undertaken. I was surrounded by spruce trees of varying sizes and the mountainous peaks loomed over me in the background, chiefly Gray’s and Torrey’s Peak. I was in the trailhead parking lot, hoping to summit these two 14,000 foot peaks early the next morning but first I needed to get my camp set up for the night. What I would be calling home for the night consisted of a blow-up sleeping mat; one not recommended for those who have back pain, my 20 degree sleeping bag, and my inflatable camping pillow. I had opted to forgo a tent this time around as I yearned to to sleep under the stars in the wilderness of the Arapaho National Forest. With the last of the daylight dwindling, I got all set up and made a quick meal of ground beef and rice on my small but robust camping stove. With a belly less than full, and darkness fully upon me, I clambered into my sleeping bag and hoped that sleep would find me.

It did not, in fact, find me very easily. I spent many of the night hours gazing up at the spattering of stars above my head. I dozed for an hour here and there but I definitely did not get the recommended seven to eight hours that doctors recommend. After many restless hours of desperately trying to rest, I decided to just break camp and set out on my treacherous hike at 1:30 in the morning. Using only a small headlight to illuminate the path, I set out on the 11 mile round trip hike that would take me up Gray’s Peak via the Kelso’s Ridge route and then over to Torrey’s Peak. I could feel my lungs working extra hard to intake the thinner oxygen as my legs pumped up the inclines. The night air was cool and crisp as you would expect at an elevation of 12,000 feet above sea level. After many miles of hiking, I finally veered off the standard trail and began to ascend Kelso’s Ridge. This route, if you could call it that, is a rocky rollercoaster that takes you up 2,000 feet of vertical gain on exposed rock faces and perilous knife edges. I found my way up in the dark, seeing only the small circle of light that was cast by my headlamp. There were many sections that made my stomach do somersaults and if I had made the wrong move I would have needed an airlift out of the rocky valley below. 

After scrambling up the ridgeline for a couple hours, I finally approached the most infamous part of the route, the knife’s edge. This segment is a pointy, narrow section of the route that has thousands of feet of air to either side. Taking it slow, I scooted my way across, being sure that I had at least three points of contact at all times. From there it was smooth sailing, up the final stretch to the summit of Gray’s Peak at 14,278 feet above sea level. After a quick photo at the top, I descended into the saddle between the two mountains and regained all of the elevation to summit Torrey’s Peak at 14,267 feet above sea level. 

As I returned down the standard trail to my car, I passed dozens of hikers who were just getting their day started on the mountainside. My legs were cooked and my mind and body were aching due to my lack of sleep. But I finally made it all the way back down to the trailhead where I was able to get in my oven of a car and drive the six hours back to Kearney, with the windows all the way down, of course.