| Sublime Sangres Summit
The theme of our 14er quest on Labor Day Weekend 2009 was summed up by a Great American Philosopher in 1973: "A man's got to know his limitations."
The philosopher was, of course, Harry Callahan, a.k.a. Dirty Harry, in the film Magnum Force. My brother felt compelled to remind me of that precious nugget of wisdom several times as we considered our options following a brutal "warm-up hike" on Humboldt Peak the day before. After climbing that "easy" peak with no acclimation time from the Midwest, we thought we might be finished with 14ers for this year, and maybe this lifetime.
Some frank self-examination of our limitations followed that ordeal. So how did we end up, I found myself thinking two days later, cliffed out on the wrong gully of one of Colorado's hardest Fourteeners, with a dropoff over the dizzying east face of Crestone Needle in front of us and a tall, stark wall of rock sitting between us and our summit aspirations?
The path that took us from "early retirement" from Fourteeners to a dead end on Crestone Needle started the morning after our Humboldt trek. One of Colin Powell's life rules is, "things look better in the morning." That was certainly the case for my brother and me as we sat outside of our motel in Westcliffe and looked southwest over the Sangres.
It was Mark ("Big Brother") who suggested we camp overnight at South Colony Lakes to whittle the summit climb down to a manageable size. We had brought a bare minimum of camping gear, but neither of us had been keen on the idea. I distinctly remembered the last time I had camped: Memorial Day weekend, 1980. Re-discovering the sport in the remoteness of the Sangres didn't seem like a good idea. But the toll taken on our bodies by Humboldt's eight-mile round trip, racing the clock against incoming afternoon weather, changed our minds.
So, in a move that Brett Favre would no doubt appreciate, about 24 hours after telling 14ers.com member Yeonderin that we were "retiring" from the sport, we headed back up the trail toward South Colony Lakes. We had decided to trade in our comfy beds for an early start the following morning from a campsite at 11,600 feet.
Our destination, framed nicely in the evergreens of the beautiful valley.
Lugging the extra camping gear and water (no filter) wasn't as tough as I expected, and the weather gave us a nice, dry, leisurely hike in. As we approached the lakes, we eyed up a campsite to the left of the trail, down in a low hollow. We had talked to the couple camped there the day before – they had climbed the Needle via Ellingwood Aręte. They were now gone, and the spot looked perfect, but we pressed up the trail a little further to get a bit closer to our target destination.
We almost came back to that original spot, but we stopped to check out an alternative, and noticed a big buck eyeing us up from a small opening in the nearby woods. After we stared at each other for a while the buck got bored and ambled off. We then realized the spot he had been standing was a nice campsite, and settled there.
Our camping gear consisted of a cheap backpacking tent and two even cheaper sleeping bags. We had also picked up a couple empty paint containers (for food) and some rope at the Westcliffe Ace Hardware. The gallon-size paint can proved to be kind of redundant, since we slung a bear bag (bear can?) from a tree, but it seemed like it would eliminate any enticing scent anyway. The leisurely pace made this experience more sociable than our past climbs, as we chatted with a number of other campers, and climbers coming down from Broken Hand Pass. The latter group included Yeonderin, who had climbed the Peak that day.
Mark had sat in misery at this creek crossing for a long time two days earlier, after climbing Humboldt. What a difference some acclimation makes!
Those conversations helped us settle on our goal for the next day. Ever since we had selected the Sangres as our destination, I had been determined that we should not attempt Crestone Needle, at least not until after we regained our legs on Crestone Peak. I was intimidated by the difficulty and exposure promised by every account of the Needle that I had read. But the returning climbers we talked to that evening were all returning from the Peak and described it as an extraordinarily long, arduous climb – not technically difficult, but taxing. With many of them planning the Needle for the next day, we decided to go for the shorter Needle route, knowing we would have some company, which was reassuring to us despite the rockfall implications.
Our decision to seek another summit of any sort had raised some consternation on the part of our Westcliffe host. The proprietor of the Golden Corner Suites, an old guy named Charlie, had seemed genuinely concerned for our safety. "You boys hafta be careful up there," he had drawled to Mark upon learning of our intentions. "Those mountains can be dangerous. You gotta remember …"
Mark listened intently, hoping to hear some nugget of backcountry wisdom from this grizzled native. A tip on watching the weather perhaps, or advice on dealing with the wildlife?
" … yer old!" Charlie concluded. Armed with this priceless counsel, Mark had returned to our room to dutifully report it to me.
Scoping out the next day's destination: Broken Hand Pass is the low point on the ridge to the left, while the Needle towers above.
The evening brought a steady drizzle, and not surprisingly, we had a miserable night of attempted sleep. But we did snooze some, and even managed to oversleep a little. The full moon set over Broken Hand Pass while we prepared for the day. We hit the trail at 6:10 a.m., pitching our headlamps back into the tent at the last moment, judging them to be unnecessary in the dawning light.
Sunrise in the Sangres
We headed up toward Broken Hand Pass in a beautiful morning glow.
Despite the presence of a well-marked trail, it didn't take us long to wander off of it, and we worked our way up across broken slabs below the pass, until we re-united with the trail. We would judge later that this particular venture off-route didn't cost us time or energy, and may have in fact saved time from the meandering trail. But I would stick to the trail if I had the choice to make again, for the sake of the erosion of the slope as much as the safety principle of staying to the established route.
We were one of the first groups on the mountain that morning, although a lone speed demon passed us soon. His gear appeared to consist entirely of two small water bladders on his back hips, and his pace up the rugged trail was just short of jogging. He soon faded into the rubble ahead of us. We would see him one more time that day: when we crested Broken Hand Pass, we would spot him far ahead on the trail, motoring along toward Crestone Peak at his near-jog.
Our hike up to the pass was a grunt, our packs loaded lighter than on our last trek but still too heavy. After struggling for hours two days ago to reach Humboldt's saddle of comparable elevation, I had resolved to consider Broken Hand Pass to be no small achievement. When we gained the saddle, I made good on my internal commitment to savor the accomplishment.
Above, approaching the Class 3 section of the trail to the pass, with lower South Colony Lake behind. Below, the view back from near the top.
When we reached the saddle, everything in front of us was dusted in snow. It presented no problem, as it would melt before we reached more difficult terrain. We stashed our trekking poles and some other excess gear at the first rock outcropping, and headed up the trail below the Needle's southeast ridge.
Looking back from a short distance up the trail from the pass.
Pleasant trail sections alternated with a few rocky areas until we found ourselves in the couloir referred to as the "east gully." As we moved up in it, we spotted a cairn to our left leading toward what appeared to us to be a different gully. I'd read of misleading cairns on this route, and about people trying to cross into the "west gully" too soon. At my urging, we ignored the cairn and headed up.
As usual, Mark moved ahead once the scrambling started. He was having fun, but I thought some of the sections were pretty tough going. Some spots were steep and exposed, and though the famous Crestone conglomerate rock was indeed knobby, good holds were not always to be found. I had conditioned myself to expect a sketchy route, so I didn't think much of it – until our gully suddenly terminated on a saddle.
We had cliffed out. The drop ahead of us was precipitous. The summit was somewhere to our left, but all we could see was a tall, steep wall of that knobby rock. I was too upset to enjoy the beautiful view of South Colony Lakes and Humboldt. Our research on the route had indicated nothing about a saddle or steep wall, and that wall was at least class four terrain, maybe low class five. Clearly, we were way off route.
Mark wasn't so sure. "Do you think the summit is up there?" he asked, eyeing the wall of rock. "Because I could climb that."
I freaked out a little at that point. "I'm not climbing that, and neither are you," I said, or something like that. "We're off route and we need to turn around."
I rarely try to order Big Brother around, even though he gives direct orders to me all the time, and I generally respond meekly. This episode reminded me why that is. He came back at me with a stubborn "you're not gonna tell me what I do or don't climb" type response. There ensued a brotherly disagreement which quickly grew sharper, but stopped short of fisticuffs, which is good, because I suppose that would be considered bad mountain etiquette.
Eventually I convinced Mark that going back didn't necessarily mean going home. That cairn that we had ignored wasn't that far back, and it was obvious now that we should have followed it. We were early enough in the day that we could backtrack and get back on route. I didn't think of it at the time, but I could have settled the argument quicker by just saying, "A man's got to know his limitations." I certainly knew mine when I looked at that rock wall.
When we back-tracked to within sight of the cairn, it was clear that it did indeed lead into the "correct" east gully, and we had taken a dead-end offshoot further to the east. On the other side of that gully was a large rib of rock, which now looked like the rib separating the east and west gullies.
I think this was taken coming down from our off-route detour. The snow and shadows indicate it's looking southeast, back toward broken Hand Peak.
At this point our backtracking connected us with another pair of brothers on their way up: Jeremy, stationed at a Colorado military base, and his brother from the West Coast, whose name escapes me. They were among those who had climbed the Peak the day before and convinced us to go for the Needle today. We headed up the west gully together, looking for the recommended spot to cross over to the west gully. We found the 14ers.com route description to pinpoint this spot with perfect clarity, including the narrowing of the gully to a dihedral, a specific red rock in the middle of the gully, and a distinctive rock outcropping and notch in the separating rock rib.
The crossing of this rib is generally described as the crux of the Needle route. I found the toughest spot to be crossing the gully itself, as it required an awkward move pulling around a rock that projects out over the gully. The drop below to the bottom of the gully isn't very far – maybe 15 feet – but enough to do some serous damage, and the gully is steep enough to quickly compound the problem if you fell. Once past this move, I thought the crossover was indeed exposed but not particularly difficult.
Here we made another error in judgment, but one which would not cause any harm. Thinking we were getting pretty close to the summit at this point, we stashed our backpacks. Going light on the "summit stretch" had saved our altitude-sick tails on Humboldt two days ago, and it seemed like a good idea here as well. Well, let me tell you, that crossover point on the Needle is a long, long way from the summit. However, with bottled water in our pockets for the remaining distance, we would find that we did not miss our packs this day.
It still boggles my mind to realize, on our seventh Fourteener, how we continue to grossly underestimate how freaking big a mountain like Crestone Needle is.
At any rate, the rest of the route – really the entire climb, other than our off-route detour – was pure fun. Yes, a lot of it is pretty steep, but not enough to trigger the heebie-jeebies, at least not in the excellent weather that we enjoyed. When the west gully V'ed into left and right branches about two-thirds of the way up it, we followed cairns to the left, the correct way. But I don't think going to the right there would be catastrophic, just a little longer.
Getting near the top
The gully would eventually lead to a delightful ramp, with great views and a building sense of anticipation as the summit really was getting close now.
The view down the ramp on the way back.
From there, an awesome summit ridge walk, narrow enough for that airy feeling but not so narrow as to be uncomfortable. And then … the summit, at around 10:30 a.m. Crestone Needle's summit has to be one of the most stunning in the state. To the west, Crestone Peak, Kit Carson, and the Great Sand Dunes. Humboldt to the east, with the Wet Valley not far beyond, but six thousand feet below; and the expanse of the Sangres stretching as far as the eye can see to the north and south.
Above, Mark signs the summit register as Jeremy approaches, with Humboldt and the valley in the background. Below, the view down. People actually climb that side of the mountain?
Standing atop Crestone Needle was a real personal victory for Mark and me, after a bad experience on El Diente to close our climbing last year, and a tough altitude-sickened slog up Humboldt two days beforehand. We appeared to be the first on the summit that day, with our early start from a high camp; and we both felt great. Jeremy and his brother joined us shortly, allowing us to exchange photography services. We could see people atop Crestone Peak's summit, and waved heartily, knowing they probably couldn't see us that well but supposing they were doing the same.
Above, Crestone Peak with a person visible at the summit. Below, Jeremy & Bro., either real mixed up on directions or clowning around at the summit - you decide.
Our acute sense of safety prompted us to keep our stay on the summit short. We didn't want to invite a return of altitude sickness by overstaying our welcome at 14,000 feet. And, we were determined to minimize the risk of getting caught in bad mid-day weather at high altitude. So we headed back after about 15 minutes, making a point of enjoying the summit ridge and the ramp just below it as much on the way down as on the way up.
Beauty in every direction in the Sangres.
On the way up, we had heeded excellent advice to look back frequently and carefully to help in route finding on the way down. This would especially help in getting back into the west gully, as a cairn further east along the ridge could lead someone to miss that exit. (After ignoring a "good" cairn earlier, I gained some solace from seeing that misleading cairn on the ridge.) Further down the gully, at the crossover point, Mark and I had stopped on the way up to look back together and describe aloud the landmarks to help us find it later. Jeremy, returning down after us, would miss the crossover and have to retreat back up the gully to find it.
Before we reached the crossover, however, we passed a number of climbers coming up the gully – maybe a dozen or so, including Yeonderin's, as he picked up peak #31 on his list (with #32, Humboldt, following the next day).
Looking down the west gully on the way back, as other climbers come up. This photo sums up the feel of the climb for me: steep, fun, but not freaky exposed or scary.
The crossover to the east gully seemed no harder coming down than going up. In fact, it was easier, because at the most difficult spot above the gully, instead of the awkward move required on the way up, I simply jumped over the gully onto a nice flat landing spot. It's really an easy hop on the way down, but there's something exhilarating about rock-hopping with a little air beneath you.
At this point we encountered a Texan named Lawrence, whom we had met at the trailhead two days prior. He also had climbed the Peak the day before, with Yeonderin, but had judged himself today to not have enough fuel in his tank to summit the Needle. He opted to climb down a ways with us. His presence was serendipitous for us, as this was the stretch we had missed on the way up with our off-route misadventure. Jeremy would also help us with route finding, as the two young brothers almost caught up to us while we scratched our heads at some point. From above and behind us, he called out directions, pointing and describing some landmark they had passed on the way up.
Our overall experience on the Needle convinced Mark and me of this self-evaluation: While Mark is a good non-technical climber, and I'm okay at it, we both kind of suck at route finding. We research the daylights out of our routes in advance, but we still manage to get mixed up pretty easily when we're actually up there.
Eventually Lawrence parked again to rest and wait for the rest of his party to come down. We tried to keep a good pace going down, as we wanted to be below Broken Hand Pass before any afternoon weather moved in, which seemed inevitable this day. I continued to misjudge how far it was back to the pass, thinking each rocky outcropping we encountered was the one near the pass where we had stashed excess gear. Finally we reached the real one, and a few minutes later we were heading down from the pass.
The weather was bringing in some precipitation, but it turned out to present no problems to us or to the others on the mountain behind us. A light sleet, or graupel or whatever, cooled us off with no threat of lightning. It didn't make anything slippery, and in fact seemed to make the sloping scree/gravel/mud of the trail a little firmer.
The trail from Broken Hand Pass to South Colony Lakes, part of which we had missed on the way up, seemed to take forever. The lower route is marked with huge "mega-cairns." I know some people find them a little offensive, but with our route-finding issues of the day, I was glad to have a ridiculously easy trail to follow. We eventually made it back to camp as a mixed precip continued to fall.
After a short rest and a final chat with some of the other climbers as they returned, we broke down what little we had of a camp and prepared to head out. We had decided one night of roughing it was plenty for this trip. It was certainly enough to convince me that the three greatest inventions of modern man are toilets, soft beds, and showers, in that order. But the benefits far outweighed our lack of appreciation for roughing it. In avoiding that tactic previously, I had stubbornly pointed out that some people do longer routes in a day from the trailhead. What we acknowledged this trip was that most of those people are much younger than us, or native Coloradoans, or both. On our future climbs, camping will be one of our concessions to age and our Midwest lungs. After all, a man's got to know his limitations.
I'd love to return to that spot next year.
We had an extra three-liter bottle of drinking water, so we started looking for someone who could use it. The closest people were three college students, hanging out on a knoll a stone's throw from our campsite, carrying on a boisterous conversation the whole time we were around. We asked if they wanted the water.
"Nah," said the tallest and loudest of the three. "We have tequila. Y'want some?" He held out his own bottle – a near-empty fifth.
After we passed on that, "Mr. T" started asking about our climb. They were clearly pretty well lit up. So it came as a bit of a surprise to me when they announced their intention to climb Crestone Peak the next day.
"D'ya have your route all scoped out?" I asked casually. I was thinking of offering them our printed route description for the Peak, complete with several 8x10 color photos.
"Nah," said Mr. T. "It's Labor Day weekend, there'll be plenty of people who know the way."
I realized they would value our printed route description about as much as the water we offered, so I kept my mouth shut. We found someone else who was glad to have the water, and headed out.
We soon came to the spot we had almost picked for pitching our tent. It was a huge mud puddle, with standing water about three inches deep in the middle. We laughed at how short we were on camping common senses to almost pick that spot. It was dumb luck that we didn't, with the emphasis on the "dumb" part.
I did wonder about the people who had camped there the day before us, to climb the Ellingwood Aręte route on the Needle. I decided either they knew something about the weather that nobody else knew – because it rained almost every day during that period and certainly threatened mightily the day they camped – or they were a lot better at climbing than camping, and just got lucky with the weather.
At any rate, we soon were making our final trip down the South Colony Lakes Road, On our drive back up the valley to Westcliffe, we were treated to classic Colorado weather in stereo. One storm swept across the plain of the valley south of us, raining lightning; while another socked in the Sangres to our west.
As we headed out the next day, feeling melancholy about returning to the humdrum of the Midwest, Mark and I agreed on several conclusions from this trip:
* First, we'd climb Crestone Needle again in a heartbeat if the opportunity arose - ideally, with Dear Daughter, our previous climbing companion, whom we both missed greatly on this trip.
* Second, we'd camp for any lengthy route from now on. The added time to appreciate the mountains and the people, the reduced fatigue on the high stretches, and the easier timetable for summiting before bad weather made the experience much more enjoyable.
* Finally, the Sangres are our number one choice for returning next year. Crestone Peak, Kit Carson/Challenger, and the southern Sangres Fourteeners are begging to be visited by these Flatlanders.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):