| Crestone Peak, Spring Snow climbing
Last September, when I was climbing along the summit ridge of Humboldt with my Brother-in-law Kevin, I vividly remember watching a pair of headlamps in the distance slowly work their way up Broken Hand Pass in the early morning darkness. That’s when the seeds were planted in my head to climb the Crestones. At the time, I had no idea of the actual route and from that angle, it didn’t seem feasible as it appeared way too steep, but I knew they were headed for either Crestone Peak or the Needle.
On this day, the original plan was the Traverse between the two peaks, contingent upon conditions, weather, timing, etc., otherwise, the goal for this trip was one or both of the Crestones.
Below is a shot taken last September 2011, from near the summit of Humboldt Peak, with Crestone Peak on the right, the Needle on the left.
Good friend and solid climber, Jayson and I hiked in on Memorial Day, May 28th and set up our tents under the Needle near the lower South Colony Lake. He knew the route well, which took some stress off any routefinding issues which could get one into trouble on these peaks.
Oddly, even with the holiday, there were very few people around that afternoon and we only ran into two groups on the way out. This was likely due to the wind that was in the area the prior two days and in spite of the low snow year the fact that a lot of snow remained on the route. We would scope out the routes the next morning and make a determination as to what direction to do the traverse from, if it was doable, how we were feeling, etc.
Setting up camp across the valley from where Kevin and I did last fall, this campsite was another awesome spot with views up to the Needle, Broken Hand Pass and another peak I don’t know the name of, but together with the creek running up to it, looked like it should be on the cover of the next issue of Field & Stream.
Awakening at 4:00AM, we quickly ate some grub and were on our way. I am not sure how cold it was, but it was cold enough to freeze that small pond near the site. Luckily the wind that pummeled the area for the two days before was nearly gone. It was light out by a bit after 5:00AM, though sunrise wasn’t until around 5:30AM. Meaningful snow appeared just about the campsite though was low angle enough to not warrant traction yet. As we hiked up in the snow on the approach to Broken Hand Pass, Crestone Needle and its ridge were bathed in a soft alpenglow in a scene reminiscent of the cover of Gerry Roach’s 2nd Edition book on the Fourteeners.
We stopped near the base of the route leading up to the pass to put on crampons, take our axe out and put our helmets on. The sun's rays felt good on our back.
The beginning of this section is not steep but traverses across the slopes of the mountain, but then the angle steepens pretty quickly until it reaches its steepest part just before the top of the Pass. There were several sections of pure ice and few spots with ice underlying the snow, which was hard enough where the axe could not penetrate without a lot of effort. This area reminded me of the chute on Mount Whitney leading to Trail Crest.
Looking back from the lower section of the route going up Broken Hand Pass. This was a good climb in itself.
The condition of the snow in the early morning was great, just firm enough to get the crampons to bite well and the suncup formation from the prior days provided good traction for steps. This was a good solid climb in the snow but was tiring.
We opted to do the Peak first, then get a good look at the conditions on the Traverse and see how we were feeling and do a time and weather check.
Once you finally reach the top of the Pass, it’s pretty disheartening to realize you now need to descend all the way into the opposite valley and lose most of that precious elevation you just worked so hard to gain in order to climb up the Peak! There is no snow on the route on the south side of the Pass and is all rock and scree. The snow in the valley is on the North slopes of the opposite mountains adjacent to the lake.
Looking back down from the top of the Pass into South Colony – if you look real closely, you can see my red tent towards the right of the lake in the photo below just to the right of a tiny patch of snow.
Cottonwood Lake was a mirror and was completely still in the early morning. The only thing stirring were several early morning marmots, which were running around and chirping.
The remainder the valley was stunning, surrounded by the Crestone Ridgeline to the North and Broken Hand Peak/Pass to the East. Not much snow remained on the valley floor, though it was clear that the upper reaches of the “Red Gulley” were looking pretty white and had solid snow cover. This was ideal, since I had wanted to do a nice snow climb (as if the climb up Broken Hand Pass wasn’t enough snow for today).
Getting closer to the gulley, the amount of snow became more apparent, especially higher up.
A closer view of the upper portion of the South Face.
After crossing the valley and hiking up to the northwest, you approach the base of the gulley and cross a running stream, which in the morning, was partially frozen. More marmots were running around looking very hungry. Where did all these guys come from?? I was worried that upon return to camp, they would have eaten my tent and anything inside, my bag, stuff sacks and pillow!
The bottom few hundred feet of the gulley were dry and made for solid good climbing, though were wet and icy in some spots, so care was needed to ensure no foolish slips occurred, as a fall here would not have been good. As we climbed up, ice and snow became more prevalent in the gulley proper, so to avoid the ice we moved onto drier Class 3/Class 4 rock on the left (West) side .
Higher up the South Face, the snow and ice increased to the point where it was unavoidable and required us to stop and don crampons again to ascend.
Here is a shot looking down at the point where snow coverage began in earnest. Soon after this point, coverage was 100%. The condition of the snow was still good and made for solid climbing. It was steep enough though where you didn’t want to have an unarrested fall here.
Another shot looking down the snow, which in this spot was pretty dirty, perhaps due to the recent sandstorm. The views here were stunning as the Sangre de Cristo Mountains enveloped you as you climbed up.
This became a full on snow climb on the top 2/3 of this section. Glad we brought our gear. The angle again steepened as the gulley/couloir turn slightly eastward up to the notch.
The East summit of Crestone Peak, which can be seen here from above the notch.
Soon, we reached the notch at the top, took our crampons off and turned west to climb the remaining rock up to the true summit of Crestone Peak. This rock and the ledges were all pretty dry and made for solid climbing. The notch literally stops at a sharp drop-off into the opposite valley, which was slightly corniced and definitely caused me to pause looking over the edge.
In no time, we were on the summit!
Views were awesome and despite the 70mph winds the day before, we could have lit a match on the summit today without it blowing out. What a difference a day makes. A pair of ravens and a small falcon flew overhead.
The Needle seems so close, yet so far…
The Blanca massif is clearly visible to the south rising up next to the Great Sand Dunes.
My old nemesis Kit Carson Peak as well as Challenger are spitting distance to the North. There is still a bit of snow on the Avenue, so for those heading to KC, take note. It doesn’t look like much from a mile away, but walking through that on that sloping ridge would be a different story.
There are other Fourteeners in the distance, Sawatch peaks - can you identify them??
After enjoying my Summit Snickers, we didn’t spend much time on top and started to make our way down to check out the conditions of the Traverse. The conditions seemed doable, though had some icy sections on the West/Northwest side and some spots of snow in steeper places. The descent off the Needle also would see softer snow later in the day when we would anticipate getting there, which together with the ice caused us to pause in doing it today. So, we opted to just do the Peak and save the Traverse for another day. All in all, it was a great day on the mountain!
Descending off the summit and back onto the south face, the snow was getting softer now and post holing became more frequent. Getting back to the valley provided only temporary relief as we’d need to climb up the Pass again to get back down.
Coming back towards the bottom of Broken Hand Pass, you get a nice full view of Humboldt. Not sure what the ridge looked like, but the south side of Humboldt was dry.
The snow on the descent at this time was soft and particularly on the latter half of the slope was prone to post holing in some cases right to the waist, with boots stuck under a rock here and there.
Looking forward to coming back and doing the Needle. Great day in the Sangres!
To wrap up the great day of climbing, on the way out in the highlands, I saw a pair of Golden Eagles! I wasn't able to get a great photo, but did get "A" photo of them before they took off:
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):