‘Tuning Fork’ is a front-range classic. While it is not overtly steep and doesn’t have scary ‘no-fall’ cliffs to navigate, what makes this climb so challenging is its intense size. With a total elevation gain of almost to 3000′, this couloir provides one of the longest snowboard descents in Colorado. However, only those with the highest levels of endurance can reap the rewards of the descent.
I have snowboarded this line before. I remember a long, sustained slope. So long, in fact, that we encountered just about every different kind of snow condition: powder, crust, corn, and hard-pack. However, I’ve never climbed up this route (instead, we had skinned up the standard hiker’s route to the summit and dropped into ‘Tuning Fork’), so I had no idea if I had the endurance to make the entire climb.
My partner and I pulled off of I-70 at the Bakeville exit around 8:00. Fortunately, the road up to Grizzly Gulch was packed down by vehicles and snowmobiles, so we were able to drive up to the trailhead and save ourselves a few miles of skinning.
At the Grizzly Gulch trailhead, we could see the early morning sun start to light up the summit of Torrey’s Peak.
Torrey’s Peak in the morning sun. ‘Emperor’ is the craggy face in the center. ‘Tuning Fork’ is on the right, and flows down the diagonal grade along the western shoulder of the mountain.
Although my partner and I had discussed ‘Tuning Fork’, we hadn’t made the ultimate decision on whether or not to attemp the ‘Emperor’ . As we skinned up the gulch trail for a few miles, we could had an up close view of ‘Emperor’, and it looked very good. However, when we reached the base of it, we decided to continue on to ‘Tuning Fork’. (I look forward to coming back for ‘Emperor’).
While ‘Tuning Fork’ is somewhat hidden by the north ridgeline of the mountain, we didn’t see the magnitude of the line until we arrived at its base. There was a short, steep headwall directly at the start, and then a plateau. Beyond that, looming in the distance, the couloir climbed up towards the sky.
The couloir is named its distinct ‘forked’ shape
A close-up of the couloir
I thought at first we could skin up the moderate part of the mountain. However, the slope was steeper than I remembered, and shortly I traded my splitboard for my crampons and ice axe. I felt much more confident now, although I was worried as to how much the weight on my back would affect my stamina after a few hours.
At the base of the couloir, we were happy to discover that someone else had climbed it recently, and left us with a staircase already punched into the snow. No doubt that this sped up the first part of our climb.
When the couloir ‘forked’, the boot tracks went up into the right line. I chose to take the left variation, because it would come out closer to the summit and had an aesthetic ‘choke’ in the middle of it.
Approaching the ‘fork’
After we made it past the ‘choke’, it looked as though we were on the home stretch. My estimates couldn’t have been more wrong. The couloir steepened, and the remaining 1,000 feet of this climb felt like an eternity. After leading the entire climb up to this point, I moved over an allowed my partner to lead the final pitch.
At this point, I was almost completely gassed. I focused my eyes on the step directly above each foot, and counted off each step at a time, forcing myself not to look back up until I had reached twenty steps, and repeated. Every time I looked up, I felt discouraged. It looked as if the couloir would never end!
The end was in sight, but it never seemed to get any closer
Finally, we reached the end of the snow and I collapsed onto the Talus. Rocks never felt so comfortable! We still had a couple hundred feet to reach the summit, but I was relieved to take the splitboard off my back and scramble up, unburdened.
Although the most direct line to the summit would have been up to the west ridge, and then a short hike from there, I scrambled over to the ‘Kelso Ridge’ on the east side, to scope out the entrances to ‘Emperor’ and ‘Dead Dog’. (which, as I discovered both top out in the same location on each side of ‘Kelso Ridge’) After checking them out, I made the short walk up to the summit and took in the view.
I was all alone on the summit. However, when I hiked back down a few feet to check on my partner, and then returned, I almost fell off the mountain in surprise when four other residents suddenly materialized on the summit!
Four gendarmes guarding the summit
The team achieving the summit
View to the west of the 10-Mile Range and Breckenridge ski area. In the center, far off in the distance, is Pacific Peak
It was nearly 4:00 by the time we left the summit. It had taken us nearly 5 hours just to bootpack the couloir.
As we scrambled down the steep talus to our ski gear, the locals kept on eye on our safety
Looking down at the descent
While we encountered a few clouds during the climb, the weather had held for us all the way to the summit. However, it didn’t appear as though the sun had warmed up the snow surface much, so we were forced to descend on some variable conditions (reminicent of my previous descent on this line).
Like before, the middle section of the couloir held the best snow, and the angle was moderate enough to take a few high speed turns with associated ‘whooping’ along with them.
Making turns down the couloir
Approaching the ‘choke’
The descent was so long, we had to stop to take a few breaks. Finally, we reached the bottom and returned to the snow-covered road. We reached the car roughly 8 hours after we left it in the morning, totally gassed out. ‘Tuning Fork’ is not a climb for the faint of heart or weak of legs. However, the rewards are worth it on one of the most classic descents in Colorado.
Also worth noting was that I had realized early in the morning that we were climbing this route on March 20: the last day of winter. This gave me a strong boost of motivation, to make my first ever ‘winter ascent’ of a 14er.
im not sure where luca came up with the statement, but in general alot of lines are in the 3k range. we also have some 4,5 and even 6k lines but they arent the norm and usually involve a good bit of tree skiing. He probably means in one shot, meaning you could consider the “couloir” to be around 3000′, but if you ride all the way to the trailhead its more like 4500′.
Nice job, Luca! :clap: I had never heard it called the “Tuning Fork” before. That line was my first 14’er ascent/descent, Memorial day, 1998. We were able to strap in on the summit, and make some warm-ups on the ridge before dropping into the nearly 3,000′ of mostly 40 degree powder, then corn, then slush. And yes, it is a long, grueling snow climb! But I would do it again, the ride was so good. A similar line is on the North Face of nearby Square Top Mountain. Ric
The Sierra’s would be so much cooler if we had mountain goats. They are such awesome animals. I just forgot to mention how cool that’s got to be to top out over 14k and see 4 of them just chillin’. Epic! (Wolverines were just discovered last year 5 miles north of Truckee!)