| Early Bday Gift From The Peak
Peak: Crestone Peak(14,294)
Mileage: ~14 miles
Elevation Gain: ~5600 ft
NW Couloir in middle of photo (photo credit: Ken Nolan)
After a few months of focusing solely on 13ers, it is now becoming time to put my head down and finish off the 14ers. Crestone Peak was my only remaining peak not in the Elk Range, and with the low snow year I was really hoping I could knock it off in the spring and set myself up for an early summer finish. I was able to get some recent Sangre De Cristo beta from a trip report on 14erworld, Monster5 Ryan, and our man on the ground in the Sangres, Aaron Mojica. The beta looked great and the only question mark was the current system that was supposed to be dumping 3-5 inches of new snow the night before the scheduled climb. After going back and forth at least 10 times, I decided to pull the trigger and at least see what conditions were like for myself. The other Aaron said he would like to join, and I was happy for some company. With my 30th birthday coming up on Sunday, I could not think of a better birthday gift to myself, and summit or no summit, I knew that I would not regret trying.
Sunrise on the Needle
Back in the summer of 2008, I was a complete climbing noob when my wife and I came up to the South Colony Lakes area to attempt Humboldt Peak, I think it was to be only my 5th or 6th 14er. Somehow I was able to get my car to the old upper 4wd trailhead and we had a great day in an amazing place while we climbed Humboldt. We both remember looking over at the Crestones from the summit and her saying “never”, while I said “hopefully someday”, but not even convincing myself. The Peak and the Needle from that vantage point are quite intimidating looking and I was not sure that I would ever be one of those little black dots we saw on the summits.
I came up to the lakes again twice last year, once getting snowed out in August after a surprise snowstorm turned a beautiful fall landscape into a winter wonderland overnight, complete with my tent caving in from the weight of the heavy, wet snow. I made it up Broken Hand pass but was stopped at the dihedral on the route up Crestone Needle by some ice that I was not experienced enough to climb. Two weeks later I headed up again and was able to summit the Needle. Arriving at camp in the early afternoon I still felt great and the weather was cooperating so I ended up deciding to give the Needle a shot and see how far I could get before the weather said otherwise. Well, the weather remained great and I was on the summit at almost 6pm, by far my latest summit, and I could not have been more excited to squeeze it in. However, that big day sapped all my energy and I didn’t even make it up Broken Hand Pass the next morning before I was out of gas. I sort of shot myself in the foot by climbing the Needle the day before and was too beat to go for the Peak. Happy for summiting one of the two objectives, I broke camp and hiked out, knowing that I would probably have to wait until the spring for another attempt at Crestone Peak.
Throughout the winter many a plan was hatched and then fell through for going up and trying a winter ascent due to the weird non-winter we experienced. Each time the weather threw a wrench in the plans and before I knew it the calendar switched over to spring. No worries though, there were plenty of 13ers to keep me entertained and in climbing shape. When I finally made the call to try it this time, I was extremely focused and excited to possibly reach the summit this time around.
Aaron and I had planned to meet at the lower 2wd trailhead at 4am. I drove down the night before to sleep in the back of the car and was extremely pleasantly surprised that I was able to get my Forester all the way to the new upper trailhead with no major issues. A wind event in the fall had knocked over literally thousands of mature, healthy trees, but the forest service has done a great job of clearing the road. Some snow remained on certain sections of the road, but I could always keep one side or the other on dry road and pull the other side through the deep drifts. Aaron pulled up at about 4:20 and we were starting our walk up the road soon after, at 4:40.
The first part of the hike involved some climbing through the deadfall from the parking lot to the road, but it was a short stretch. Once on the road we were dealing with mainly dry conditions, with intermittent snow drifts that at the early hour were still able to support our weight. Many a fallen tree blocked the road and we did plenty of crawling under and climbing over them. There are few things more annoying than having your ice axe and/or snowshoes on your pack getting caught in tree branches while you are trying to crawl underneath a tree.
We made it to the sign for the shortcut trail to the upper lake and decided to take it, not sure if we were making the right call due to all the dead trees everywhere. It looked like a bomb had gone off with the amount of perfectly healthy and mature trees strewn about in every direction. Quickly losing the trail, we just headed in the direction we knew we had to go and would occasionally find it again, only to lose it a few minutes later. When we finally got out of the worst of the fallen trees, we came upon a pretty cool area of old avalanche debris and stopped for some pictures, as the Needle had just come into view and the sun was painting it in Alpenglow.
Broken Hand Peak and Pass
Contouring around the lower and then upper lakes we stayed on the south slopes of Humboldt in order to stay out of the willows, and this worked out perfectly. We continued traversing westward while slowly gaining elevation and eventually met up with the switchbacks going up to the west ridge of Humboldt. We took our first break of the day at the saddle and sat and took in our beautiful surroundings. The views of the northern Sangres were superb and the view of the Crestone’s were exciting and intimidating at the same time.
Needle and Peak
From the saddle we had a fun class 2 and 3 ridge between us and the Bear’s Playground area. With a light dusting of snow on the ridge, it took us much longer than we had anticipated, but the climbing was enjoyable and the weather could not be any better. All day long the sun was out and the only wind to speak of was an occasional 10-15mph gust that felt like nothing compared to the brutal winds we had each encountered all winter long.
Humboldt and ridge to Bear's Playground
Aaron with the Needle behind
S. Colony Lakes basin
Near snowshoe stash
Taking another break in the Bear’s Playground, we decided to stash our snowshoes and some other gear we knew would not be necessary for the rest of the climb. With a couloir climb ahead of us, we wanted to have the lightest and lowest profile backpacks we possibly could. From this spot the views of Obstruction Peak, Kat Carson, Columbia Point, and Kit Carson were really nice, having never seen them from this angle before.
Rounding the corner
On our way to base of couloir
Crampon, helmet, axe time
The next step was to contour around to the northwest side of Crestone Peak in search of the Northwest Couloir. Occasionally we would find a cairn, but mainly just kept moving in the direction we needed to go. This area began to become more and more snowy, varying from light, fluffy powder, to windblown, almost bulletproof consistency. It was here that we decided to crampon, axe, and helmet up. The added traction from the crampons was a welcome feeling, and we soon found ourselves at the bottom of the couloir we were looking for.
Almost to NW Couloir
Huge rock face
After a few minutes talking about our plan of attack and making sure we were both on the same page as far as safety and decision making were concerned, we started up. At first the snow was pretty much perfect, but as we climbed higher it started to become very hard. Each step had to be kicked in multiple times and even then we would only be able to get our frontpoints in a little ways. It was at this point that Aaron decided that today was not his day to summit. He had been having strap issues with his crampons from the get-go, and with the harder snow and upcoming mixed climbing, he did not think it would be smart to continue and push his luck and chance losing a crampon on harder terrain. I am sure that was the right call, and was proud to have a partner that made the decision before he was committed to the route instead of getting into a bad situation.
Starting the couloir
Looking down from start
Aaron coming up
We talked for a few minutes and it was decided that I would continue up, while he waited from a safe vantage point. We had a set of verbal commands we agreed on and kept each other in the loop as far as how we were doing and that everything was still alright. The couloir that had been in great shape was quickly deteriorating at this point. The hard snow provided plenty of support, but took a lot of energy to create each step. Not surprisingly, from here to the summit I have almost no pictures, I had more important things to focus on.
Couloir to the right
Looking down to Aaron
The higher I went up the couloir the less fun it became. Eventually the rocks started to show through and where there was snow there was only a few inches, not enough to get a purchase with my axe that would support my weight if I slipped. What followed was 2 hours of mixed climbing on icy rock. Soon after I started this section I yelled down, informing Aaron that unless there was no other choice, I would not be descending this way. The standard route on Crestone Peak is the South/Red Gully, and I really hoped it was going to be in better shape and provide a much less stressful and dangerous descent then the northwest couloir would offer. It was decided that I would continue up and that Aaron would wait to hear from me from the summit and at that point I would decide on my descent route and we would meet up later if I chose to descend the Red Gully.
Inching my way upward in no fall zone was mentally taxing, but I was completely focused at the task at hand and surprised myself with how calm I was able to remain and the moves I was able to pull off. This was my first time doing any sustained drytooling with my crampons, and although it was an extremely awkward thing, it worked and I am glad to have gained that experience. About 50 feet from the top of the couloir the icy rock gave way to the lovely Crestone conglomerate, and I was able to climb up it much faster and with much less anxiety.
Challenger and Kit Carson and 13ers
What I came up
Topping out of the couloir was a wonderful feeling and I could not have been happier to see the Red Gully held consistent snow that meant I would not have to downclimb the couloir I had just fought with for the last three hours. I took off my crampons and did some fun scrambling up the final section of ridge to the summit. When I saw the summit register it was official, I was standing on the summit of Crestone Peak! It was an amazing feeling of accomplishment and I could not believe I was down to only 3 more 14ers before I was finished with ‘The List’.
Needle in the background
I let Aaron know of my descent plans and it was agreed that he would grab my stashed gear along with his and that we would meet up again down by the lower lake. Sitting down on the summit after taking many, many pictures was very peaceful. It felt great to be able to fully relax and be in a safe, flat spot after hours of intense concentration and awkward positions. The summit register had only 5 other entries in 2012, and I was proud to put my name in as the 6th. After sending my SPOT message to my family saying I had safely made the summit and eating a much needed Snickers bar, I started to get myself together for the descent.
After downlcimbing the ridge to the top of the Red Gully I assessed the snow conditions and found them acceptable for a plunge stepping and glissade filled descent. I was able to forgo my crampons and just rely on my axe to stop the glissades and provide a safety net in case I started to slide. With the ideal snow conditions I made great time down the snow portion of the gully, descending a good 1500 feet in a matter of 10 minutes or so. The last 500 feet of the gully had melted out and provided some interesting climbing on slick rock, but I knew that the worst was behind me for the day.
Glissade route down the red gully
Base of gully
Almost entire gully
Finally getting to the flat ground at the bottom of the gully was an intensely satisfying feeling, as I knew I had made it off Crestone Peak in one piece. All that remained was a slog around Cottonwood Lake and then a final 1000ft climb up to the top of Broken Hand Pass. The late hour meant a ton of postholing commenced, but I felt on cloud 9 and did it all with a huge smile on my face. That smile did fade for about a half hour as I trudged up the Pass, but that didn’t change that fact that I felt great. From the top of the pass it was a welcome sight to see back down to the lakes and the place I would be meeting up with Aaron again.
South side of Broken Hand Pass
Crestolita looking inviting
The descent from the pass went very well as it is still holding a ton of snow and allowed for another very fun glissade almost all of the way to the lower lake. I did not forget to turn around many times for pictures and just to take in the amazing area I was so fortunate to be in, all alone. I had expected to see Aaron somewhere between the upper and lower lakes and was kind of surprised when I didn’t. Turns out he had been doing battle with a nasty scree gully while loaded down with both of our gear and was a little behind schedule.
Crestone Needle from the top of the pass
I made it to the lower lake and for the first time was able to completely relax, knowing that all that remained was a simple hike out. Aaron eventually popped into view and he joined me about 20 minutes later. During those twenty minutes I was able to sit and stare up at the Crestone’s in awe and just felt so thankful to be in that exact place at that exact time. I have been to many beautiful places so far in my quest to climb all the 14ers, but few can match this area. I had been out of water since the top of the pass so it was great to finally meet up with Aaron again, who had my water filter. We filtered some water for each of us for the hike down while sharing war stories of the time while we had been apart.
Humble Humboldt and Lower S Colony Lake from the pass
Broken Hand Peak
The hike back to the car from the lakes took much longer than expected, as is always the case. We tried to follow our tracks from the morning on the shortcut trail, but failed pretty miserably at that. What followed was an hour of battling the tree-pocalypse before we finally popped out onto the road. The warm day had softened up the snow and we switched between snowshoes and no snowshoes multiple times in order to make the going a little easier. The trees we had to crawl under that were a minor nuisance in the morning were now seemingly impossible to manage in our tired state, and many a curse word was yelled, to no avail.
Broken Hand Pass descent route
Finally we turned on the last switchback and headed down to the creek and we knew we were very close to completing this long day. At this point our feet were soaked and sloshing around in our boots, but visions of sandals and fresh clothes danced in our heads. After 14 and a half hours we finally made it to the cars and our day was complete.
Aaron, thanks for being a great partner and I cannot wait to hear that you made it to the summit, hopefully sooner than later. We had great conversation and laughs all day, but what really sticks out in my mind is our communication and teamwork, they were top notch and I look forward to sharing the trail with you again soon.
Me looking up at the Needle in awe in 2008
Lauren and I on the summit of Humboldt in 2008 with Crestone Needle and Crestone Peak in the background
As I am typing this I am now at the old age of 30, and am so happy and grateful this trip worked out, it truly was the best gift I have ever given myself, and hope to make it a tradition from now on. I am down to just Pyramid, North Maroon, and Capitol left on the list. I cannot believe I am this close, and am truly excited for the remaining adventures that I know those peaks will bring. The remaining peaks are some of the toughest, but I feel confident I have gone in the right order and am where I need to be skill-wise to be successful. Hopefully I can get up the Bell Cord in the next few weeks and then get the remaining two soon after that, because I have a 13er addiction that has no signs of slowing down! Thanks for reading!
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