| Crestone Classic
Mountains are the means, the man is the end. The goal is not to reach the tops of mountains, but to improve the man.
- Walter Bonatti, Italian climber
I read that insight in Aron Ralston’s remarkable book, “Between a Rock and a Hard Place,” a few weeks after our group of four Midwesterners climbed Crestone Peak. It succinctly captured our experience on one of Colorado’s most famous mountains. While every 14er is a memorable adventure, I think our climb of Crestone Peak will endure as a milestone in each of our lives.
Our quest started on Monday, August 30. Crestone Peak’s distinctive twin summits were clearly visible from the porch of our motel in Westcliffe that morning. It was not a particularly pretty picture, as a storm swirled around the peaks. After spending much of Saturday and Sunday in the high country around Lindsey, we were all glad to not be in the middle of the clouds, rain and wind that were pummeling the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
Beautiful, as long as you're not in the middle of it
Nevertheless, by mid-day we were checked out of the inn and headed up the South Colony Lakes trailhead. The weather forecast called for some improvement in the afternoon, and we were determined to camp at South Colony Lakes that evening, in order to summit on Tuesday. The skies over the Sangres were somewhat better, but still not inviting.
Not all of us were thrilled to be headed back up that day. My daughter Maryjane was worn out from the Saturday-Sunday Lindsey experience, and strongly preferred to wait another day. But she was outvoted by the three guys, so off we went. I didn’t feel sympathy for her, being convinced that her plight was entirely due to a lack of training on her part. No matter how many times I had enlightened her that summer with wise fatherly advice to work out, she always seemed to have something more important to do. So now her legs hurt. Oh well.
Now if only this went over Broken Hand Pass...
Dear Daughter sulked a little initially as we trudged up the road on a blustery, slate-gray afternoon. She didn’t complain out loud much, because every time she made the slightest negative comment, someone would call her “Sandy,” after Sandy Pittman, the Mount Everest climbing diva immortalized in Jon Krakauer’s book “Into Thin Air.” It was very effective, and pretty funny, at least in the guys’ opinion.
I was dealing with my own attitude problems, directed at the Forest Service over the whole regulation thing in that area. I like a long hike in the woods as much as any fiftysomething flatlander, but walking up the same road we had driven last year didn’t really appeal.
Then it started raining. As we sought shelter under a tree, I began to speculate internally just how miserable a cold, wet camp at 12,000 feet would be. We had attempted to protect our large camping packs, complete with foam sleeping pads, from rain, but it was a makeshift covering at best. Thankfully, the rain relented and we were soon back out on the road. Not long afterward I heard Dear Daughter’s unmistakable laugh, a hearty cackle that Mark had recognized among 150 passengers on the airplane flight to Denver. It was music to my ears, as any parent can attest.
We reached the “old trailhead,” where we had parked last year. We decided, at my urging, to try the “shortcut” which departs from the main trail at the old parking lot. Labeled “pack trail” on the topo maps, it heads directly west where the main trail turns southwest. I told the group I expected it would be a slightly shorter route, but with more elevation gain/loss than the main trail – probably not much different in total effort or time, I speculated, but the fact that it was a new way to go counted as a plus to us.
The short cut that wasn't
We wound through the woods on a well-maintained trail that reminded me of the lower Kilpacker Basin approach to El Diente. It was indeed scenic, and after a mellow start, led into some fairly strenuous elevation gain. Most interestingly, it wound over the rocky south shoulder of Humboldt Peak at about 11,500 feet, exposing us to a brutal wind sweeping down the South Colony Lakes valley. It gusted strongly enough to potentially knock you down, demanding caution at times to avoid falling down a rocky slope to the South Colony Creek bed below.
Broken Hand on the right, Marble on the left ... at least that's what Presto tells me, thanks!
Lovin' the wind tunnel
We knew we wanted to eventually cross the creek in order to reach the same site we had used last year, which was about as high as you can camp and enjoy the cover of trees. So when we came to an offshoot from the main trail heading left, we followed it. Thanks to our superb route-finding skills, we ended up bushwhacking through the woods and getting separated from each other for a while. Eventually we reunited and found the main trail on the other (south) side of South Colony Creek. Further up the main trail, we would see the connecting path that we should have taken. Overall, we definitely expended more time and effort on our “shortcut” than the main route would have required. But it was different!
Humboldt above Mark, with the South Colony Creek basin behind him
Upon reaching our campsite, we scrambled to set up as a rainstorm closed in on us, just as we had two days before on Lindsey. I think it was during this process that I realized just how much I was loving all the “secondary” experiences of climbing 14ers. Climbing to the summit is the Main Attraction, to be sure, but everything that goes with it has a wondrous charm. Seemingly insignificant tasks, like learning how best to load your pack, or even getting the blasted thing on and off when it’s fully loaded, turn into pure joy. A freeze-dried meal becomes a delicacy. The mountains change your view on life – “improve the man,” as Bonatti said. I resolved to do my best to retain that improvement through the slog of life back in the everyday world of work and home. I haven’t always done that, but I’ve made some progress. I believe more “improvement,” i.e., more 14ers, are required.
Something to do with a bear bag ... really not sure what
After the rain, Mark and I ventured back into the teeth of the wind to filter water at the creek. We saw a couple of guys coming down from the trail from Broken Hand Pass. Intrigued, we hung around to ask them what they were up to up there in what seemed to us to be absolutely brutal conditions. Turns out they had climbed Crestone Peak, despite the weather.
I thought they were crazy when they first told us that, but when they described some of the details, it didn’t sound nearly as foolhardy as I first thought. They had waited out the brunt of the storm in the morning in their tents, starting their ascent after the worst of the rain passed. They knew that lightning was not a concern, and the howling wind helped dry the terrain. Nevertheless, the storm had buffeted them, and they reveled in overcoming the obstacles. Their words were modest, but the smiles that wouldn’t leave their windburned faces told the story. “It was a real alpine day,” one of them summed up.
Sun-soaked Crestone Needle
We turned in with high hopes for the next day. Mark and I had climbed Humboldt and Crestone Needle last year, but our Midwestern bodies had not been up to taking on “The Peak” in the time we had then. This was our chance to complete the South Colony Lakes trio, along with Dear Daughter Maryjane.
It was also a chance for the fourth member of our group, Garrett, to settle a score with himself, so to speak. He had joined us two years ago for a trip to the San Juans, only to find he had a severe aversion to the type of exposure we enjoyed on 14ers. He had struggled to the top of Uncompahgre, but avoided other summits that trip. To his credit, he determined to give it another shot this year. On our first 14er of the trip, Garrett had been deterred by extreme winds on Lindsey. Now he faced one of the more difficult and intimidating 14ers, but his resolve to reach the summit was palpable.
Alpenglow on Broken Hand Pass and Crestone Peak
And so we set off in the morning with an excellent weather forecast and a healthy combination of optimism and trepidation. The first part of the route, climbing to Broken Hand Pass, went well, with the exception of a lost camera crisis that put a bit of a damper on things early. The trail was familiar to Mark and me, Garrett seemed to handle the exposure well, and the weather was indeed splendid.
Partway up Broken Hand Pass, doing OK, except we forgot that those helmets don't offer much protection when riding on the back of our packs
As we near the top of Broken Hand Pass, Garrett is looking a little bug-eyed
In our poolside pre-trip planning, we had contemplated bringing our camping gear all the way up to Cottonwood Lake. As we now scrambled up Broken Hand Pass with light summit packs, the notion of hauling a camping load over that obstacle seemed absurd to me. But we knew people do it, and we talked of the young folks who camped at Cottonwood Lake for an extended period while doing trail maintenance. If you spend a lot of time in the back country, you may forget what a remarkable achievement that is. A month later, I would talk with a young man who had been forced by his father to spend a summer in a Colorado Outward Bound program. “Changed my life,” he told me.
Some interesting terrain in the Cottonwood Lake basin
We appreciated that superb trailbuilding work as we came down from Broken Hand Pass and made our way toward Cottonwood Lake. After a R&R stop at the lake, we soon found ourselves peering up the famous Red Gully. Clouds obscured the summit, but we knew we were facing the longest sustained class 3 climbing of our lives. A couple people who had climbed it last year had described it to us vividly. “Not that hard, but it goes on forever,” a young guy had said, with dramatic emphasis on the “forever” part.
Finally ... the Red Gully ... or at least the bottom part of it
The Peak-to-Needle traverse route doesn't look too inviting at the moment
We weren’t concerned about forever at that moment. We were just worried about getting up the first section of red rock, washed smooth by centuries of water coming down the gully. It was dry now, but steep and lacking holds. Mark had scurried up it when I was looking elsewhere, but it looked like a problem to the rest of us. I realized my instinctive urge to crawl up the smooth slope on all fours, searching for shallow handholds, was misdirected. The slope was steep enough to be intimidating to someone like me, but not that steep. A couple steps upright, weight directly over my feet (the one thing I’ve learned so far from Freedom of the Hills), proved it to be walkable. I felt pretty nimble as I darted up the slope quickly, thanking God for the experience and Merrell for my Vibram soles.
Walking the smooth red rock
Garrett's gathers himself ... slow, deep breaths ...
We worked our way up the lower half of the gully by climbing just to the left of the water running down the center. As we got higher, I picked up one other climbing tidbit. We started encountering rock ribs jutting out, creating left-or-right decisions in terms of going around them. After a while, I concluded that the best decision was often neither left nor right, but right up the crest of the rock outcropping. While the sides often gathered loose debris, the outcroppings were solid, and often easy stair-step type climbing. That may be Climbing 101 to some folks, but I don’t recall reading it, and really just figured it out on this, my ninth 14er.
Garrett’s “exposure alert system” went to Code Red about the same time the rock turned that color. He managed to get up the first relatively steep section, and found a sheltered spot, where he burrowed into the rock to regroup. It was a start of a pattern that would continue for hours as we worked our way up that gully. Garrett is actually a pretty agile climber, but his brain is hard-wired to avoid heights. He would climb a section, quickly and smoothly, then find a safe place to pause and fight off the panic. After a minute or two, up he would go another section. He followed this pattern all the way up the seemingly never-ending gully.
I suppose someone reading this might question the safety of climbing a mountain like Crestone Peak with someone having that tough a time. I’ll admit it crossed my mind. But I thought it was safe on whole, for several reasons. When he did move up, Garrett moved comfortably and made good time. He never seemed at risk of freezing up in mid-slope, and if he had, two of us were right there and could have helped him with words and hands. And while the Red Gully has plenty of exposure to jangle the nerves, it’s really not one-slip-it’s-over terrain.
Regrouped about halfway up. That outcropping above and to the right of us is an example of a good spot to go right up the crest of the rib
And yes, we all wanted to reach the summit, so turning around if Garrett had needed to would have been a bummer. But, although the thought clearly crossed his mind many times, Garrett wasn’t turning around. He knew what he’d signed up for, and he was going up in his own gutty way. It seemed to me to be a remarkable accomplishment.
The skies cleared as we moved up, revealing the entirety of the rugged gully. Finally we could see the saddle at the top.
Clearing skies reveal our destination
Actually getting there proved to take quite a bit longer. We don’t do very well at recording our climbing times, so all I can say about how long it took us was a long, long time. But starting from our South Colony Lakes campsite had gotten us to the gully at a respectably early hour, and we were again blessed with an excellent weather day. That tingling feeling in the gut started, as I felt certain we would soon stand at the summit of one of Colorado’s classic mountains.
East summit, including snow, from the saddle at the top of the Red Gully
Garrett wasn’t so sure. He reached the saddle and collapsed, mentally and emotionally exhausted from the internal battle. “This might be as far as I get,” he said without opening his eyes.
After a rest and regrouping time, Mark scrambled up the blocky ledges of the summit pitch until he stood at the next high point visible from the saddle, maybe 40 feet above us. “Are you at the summit?” Garrett called up.
From the saddle, Mark pushes upward
“No,” Mark replied. I winced internally as Garrett sunk back, deflated. Dude, it would have been okay to tell a little white lie right there, I thought. We all knew it was not much further. I had seen Mark fudge his answer to the “how much further” question before to help people muster their strength, but oops, he messed up and told the truth this time.
“I could make it there if that was the summit, but if it’s not, I don’t think I can go any further,” Garrett said.
Maryjane and I rolled out the words of encouragement. “If you can make it there, let’s just get there, and then we can worry about whether or not you go further.” I think our encouragement had helped at various points along the way, but they really weren’t necessary right then. Garrett was already standing up, obviously having reached that same conclusion himself.
Once we started moving, adrenaline took over. The panic-relief stops were history as we climbed to where Mark had been, and continued upward from there. The thin, crisp wind seemed to me to sharpen the senses. The view was stunning, sweeping north and south across the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, west over the San Louis Valley – it seemed like you could see half of Colorado. Adjectives like exhilarating don’t even begin to do justice to the feeling.
As we neared the (real) summit, the route crosses over a small but deep gully. Getting up out of that gully is the final problem. Blocked by an eight-foot vertical wall with minimal holds in front of me, I carefully worked my leftward up a diagonal line. Garrett, who had been behind me, suddenly appeared to my right. “Screw it,” I heard him mutter under his breath, as he pulled himself directly up and over the wall. I had to hug the rock to keep from laughing myself off the mountain. After fighting off panic attacks for two-plus hours, the guy pulls a class five move at the top. Amazing what summit fever will do.
Four happy climbers at the summit
At the summit, we relaxed and took photos with a profound sense of satisfaction, and at least for me personally, a deep appreciation for the ability to sit at such a spot. I think we all shared Garrett’s sense of accomplishment.
Big Brother with Kit Carson Mountain and San Louis Valley in the background
Crestone Peak’s summit is a cozy location, barely large enough for our foursome. The view is beyond description, and you know photos don’t do it justice. You’ll just have to go there to experience it for yourself. (Or, if you already have, go again!) When the rest of our group wanted to depart, I lingered, reluctant to tear myself away. But prudence, and the long hike back, demanded that we move on.
Another view of Kit Carson and the basin between it and the Peak. I admit I love those "shoe shots"!
Besides, I had one more item on my personal agenda. I had resolved months previously to climb the slightly lower eastern summit of Crestone Peak if conditions were favorable. While on the true summit, I had started to campaign for also picking up the east summit. Nobody else was interested. As we worked our way down toward the saddle, I prepared to press the issue when we reached the saddle. I didn’t mind climbing it myself, but didn’t want the others to be annoyed with me for leaving the group.
My sales pitch rehearsal proved unnecessary. When I reached the saddle, Mark was looking up at the east summit. “It really doesn’t look very far,” he said. Up we went, while Garrett and Maryjane waited at the saddle. It was an easy scramble, easier than the primary summit pitch in my opinion. It was also the only part of the climb that I clocked – just about exactly 15 minutes round trip, including about three minutes at the top.
Mark and me heading up the east summit ...
... at the top of the east summit, from the saddle ...
... Mark with Crestone Peak's main summit behind him
That accomplished, we started back down the gully. We ended up taking a trail which led us to the far right side of the gully going down. It was easy going, probably easier than the route we took up, although there was some added exposure down into the gully. I was personally glad we didn’t take it going up – the mostly third-class climbing in the gully was more fun than the trail, much of which was class 2. Garrett would suffer none of the problems on the way down that he had experienced going up.
Water filtering break at South Colony Lake
We knew the long haul back, around Cottonwood Lake and back up Broken Hand Pass, would be brutal, and it didn’t disappoint in that regard. We were seriously beat by the time we got back to camp. We had planned to re-climb Crestone Needle the next day, but that gave way to reality. After another cold night in our tents, we packed out with thankful hearts and memories of a lifetime.
Sad but fond farewell to South Colony Basin, from the trail out. Crestone Needle in the center, Humboldt at right.
Civilization does have its advantages. Best sandwiches ever made at Subway!
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