My good friends Will, Kirsten, Henry (the Golden Retriever) and I had a chance to see the Crestones from South Colony Lakes in June of 2013 when we hiked Humbolt Peak. I clearly remember looking up at Crestone Peak and Crestone Needle and wondering how you would even begin to climb those mountains. Upon my return from Humbolt, I immediately started to look at route descriptions for the two peaks in order to determine the best way to reach their summits. Some of these descriptions included what is considered by some as “one of Colorado’s four great 14ers’ traverses”; traveling from Crestone Peak to Crestone Needle via a ridge that connects the two mountains. After looking over some of the photos of the route that other hikers posted online, I can tell you that I’d immediately written off ever trying the traverse and told myself that I would return to the mountains to climb them separately sometime in the future.
Fast forward to June of 2014. While trying to plan a few weekends to get out and enjoy some hiking and climbing in the mountains, the discussion of climbing Crestone Peak and Crestone Needle began between me and my friends John and Jeb, who have joined me on previous adventures for Summits for MS. Jeb finished his quest to climb all of Colorado’s 14ers’ in August of last year during our trip to Chicago Basin, but was interested in returning to the Crestones to give the traverse a try. My immediate thought was “no thanks guys”, but after some reassuring, I was convinced we could do it.
The weekend we settled on, July 12th, was soon upon us and we gathered at John’s house to load up our gear and head towards the tiny town of Crestone, Colorado in the Sangre De Cristo mountain range. Each of us had assessed the area we would be hiking and climbing in via the eastern side of the range (South Colony Lakes), and we decided to try a less traveled route know as the Cottonwood Lake approach. This approach accesses the base of the Crestones from the west side of the mountain range and was previously closed for several years, so route finding was a bit of a challenge due to overgrowth and limited trail maintenance.
As we arrived at the trailhead, the clouds were already building. True to form, it seems that the rain always comes when John, Jeb and I head for the mountains. The forecast for the weekend was questionable at best with a high chance for thunderstorms, rain and hail. We knew we would need to make quick time of our trip to the lake and would need an early start in the morning to make a successful attempt at climbing the mountains.
Our goal was to reach the lake where we would meet two of Jeb’s friends, Brian and Heather, who were hiking into the lake from the other side of the range. They would be coming up the South Colony Lake trailhead and over Broken Hand Pass to reach the lake. Brian and Heather planned to join us for our ascent of Crestone Peak, but would hike back down to the lake before we planned to head towards Crestone Needle via the traverse.
Overall, the weather held and after some interesting route finding, a.k.a. making our own route, we arrived at the north end of the lake to find that Brian and Heather had arrived and set up camp for the night. The skies were still looking ominous, so we wasted no time getting our tent up and our gear stored away.
We took time to enjoy the amazing setting we were now in while preparing dinner and discussing our plan for the adventure that lay ahead. Our campsite offered a perfect view of the entire route we would be taking in the morning. To say it was intimidating would be an understatement. I had to keep telling myself that these mountains always look more challenging from a distance. I would soon find out first hand that that is only partially true.
As we finished up dinner, the rain moved in and we were soon “tent bound” for the rest of the night. John, Jeb and I started to have flashbacks to the 17 hours we spent together in a tent in Chicago Basin last summer when the rain simply wouldn’t let up. We set our alarms for 4:30am in hopes that the skies would clear and offer a window for us to complete our climb and get back to camp before more weather moved in.
The alarm sounded and I could see the moon shinning through the tent wall. This was a welcome sign and when we opened the fly on the tent we were welcomed with a star filled sky and only a few lingering clouds. It was a struggle to get moving, but we grabbed a quick breakfast bar and hit the trail at 5:30am.
Our first goal of the day would be Crestone Peak. To reach the summit of Crestone Peak, we would assent the infamous Red Gulley on the peak’s south face. The gully is steep, has water running down the entire face and was still holding a few snow fields that we would have to maneuver our way over and around. As we worked our way up the gully, we were careful not to dislodge any rocks that would easily pinwheel down the gully directly towards climbers below.
We made good time working our way up to the top of Red Gully and were soon on the saddle with the final summit pitch ahead of us. This involved another 300 feet of scrambling up more solid rock and was much more enjoyable than the Red Gully.
A few more moves to negotiate and the entire group was on top! We were the only ones on the Peak that day and the weather was still holding. The views in all directions were amazing. To our south, our journey to the Crestone Needle was laid out before us. We grabbed a few photos and gathered our gear for our next goal of the day – the traverse.
The start of the traverse was 300 feet below us as and is marked with a climber’s carian (basically a pile of rocks marking an undefined trail) that identified the start of the route. We reached this point, said our goodbyes to Brian and Heather and watched as they descended the Red Gully towards our camp below. The next two hours ahead of us would involve careful route finding, a watchful eye to the sky for changing weather, and a few moments of frazzled nerves.
The first half of the traverse is fairly straightforward. We worked our way over several series of ledges and followed small carians left by previous climbers. We were all mindful of listening to one another and stopping frequently to access our progress and discuss our next move for the route ahead. We had read several descriptions on the route that offered varying options for tackling the traverse. The most promising route involved a short steep wall to gain entrance to the steep gully below the summit. In this area, we dropped our packs as it would be difficult to maneuver the wall with this extra gear. John successfully climbed the wall first and we were able to pass our packs up to him. I was next, and then Jeb followed. Old rope and rappel gear left by climbers who had come from the other direction (Needle to Peak) and repelled this area were still visible on the wall and in the gully. We were careful to avoid using any of this gear while making our way up this section. It was a good test for what was ahead!
With packs back on, we headed up the short gully to a small knife shaped ridge that connected our gully with the next series of ledges we would tackle before reaching the final summit pitch. While short, the knife ridge was extremely narrow with a dramatic drop on both sides. After crossing this area, and working our way across the next several series of ledges, we were soon at the base of the final pitch to the summit - a steep, exposed 100 foot wall with some vertical climbing. I had been thinking about this moment ever since we decided to give this route a try several weeks before hand. I wondered what it would be like to actually be there and if I would have the nerves to get up that wall.
With excitement and caution, we started up the final pitch. The hand and foot holds were solid and halfway through the 100 foot climb; I started to feel very comfortable with my abilities and progress. As we neared the top of the Needle, an amazing rush came over me. We had done it! Thinking back, it was hard to believe where we were and where we had come from. We only took a few minutes to enjoy the summit before heading down. Clouds were starting to build and we knew time was no longer on our side.
The down climb was no easy feat. The Needle is a hard climb with many different routes. Thankfully, Jeb remembered some of his previous climb on the Needle and we were able to find lower ground without many difficulties.
We were soon back at camp, about six hours after we had departed that morning. It was a great feeling to have completed the route that we just did, but we also knew we needed to pack up our gear as quickly as possible and head towards tree line, before the stormy weather moved in. We grabbed a few quick bites to eat, loaded up our gear and were soon headed down.
Our camp at Cottonwood Lake was at an elevation of 12,300’ and the trailhead where we had started our journey is at an elevation of 8,700’, so needless to say we had a good amount of ground to cover.
The rain set in almost immediately as we departed camp. We had taken a higher route into the camp to avoid the willows that clogged the main trail below us, but we opted to try and drop off the ridge, to get out of the weather. This proved to be a mistake as we were soon on top of a huge cliff ban with nowhere to go, but back up. We decided we would head back up the ridge and follow the route we used to access the lake. This added some extra time to our descent, but was definitely the wiser choice.
We were soon back to tree line and while we were happy to be lower in elevation, we were soaking wet from the heavy rain and small hail that was still coming down. Thankfully, we had not heard any thunder.
Three hours later, and after some more route finding, and we were back at the trailhead. The only casualty of the weekend ended up being the back of John’s calves, which had been eaten alive by the overwhelming number of mosquitoes that we encountered in the woods on our way down the trail.
This was truly an adventure. I have Kimberly and my friends to thank for accomplishing this goal. Going out and climbing and hiking in these mountains is not something I would be able to do without Kimberly’s support and the adventurous spirit of all our friends that have joined me on these mountains. Thank you, everyone, for another amazing experience!
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