Peak(s):  Culebra Peak  -  14,047 feet
Little Bear Peak  -  14,037 feet
Blanca Peak  -  14,345 feet
Ellingwood Point  -  14,042 feet
Mt. Lindsey  -  14,042 feet
Crestone Needle  -  14,197 feet
Crestone Peak  -  14,294 feet
Humboldt Peak  -  14,064 feet
Kit Carson Peak  -  14,165 feet
Challenger Point  -  14,081 feet
Date Posted:  07/18/2020
Date Climbed:   07/05/2020
Author:  SpeedWalker
Additional Members:   MounTimo
 Sangre 14ers in 5 Days  

Sangre 14ers in 5 Days

Alex "SpeedWalker" Walker


Just two weeks after setting out on the journey to complete all of Colorado's 58 14ers in the calendar summer of 2020, my hiking partner Tim and I prepared to leave on our second week-long adventure, this time in the Sangre de Cristo range. My plan was to hike all 10 of these 14ers in just 5 days (while Tim did as many as he could), just like I had (almost!) finished all 15 of the Sawatch 14ers on our previous 7-day trip. Here is the link to that trip report, where I introduce ourselves more formally and explain in detail just how things went.

Anyway, the tricky part of scheduling a trip through the Sangres is Culebra Peak, requiring a $150 per person reservation made in advance. So, I put this southernmost peak first on our list, which is nearly a 5-hour drive from home. In order to break up the monotonous driving a little, I also threw in an easy 14er along the way, Pikes Peak, which we would do the day before. You can read that trip report here; it was actually much more eventful than I thought a hike up this boring mountain could be. This trip report picks up from there, as we made the drive the rest of the way down to Cielo Vista Ranch. Our daily schedule for the remainder of the week looked like this:

  • Culebra, (Lake Como Approach)
  • Little Bear/Blanca/Ellingwood
  • Lindsey, (South Colony Lakes Approach)
  • Crestone/Crestone
  • Humboldt/Kit Carson/Challenger

And if we were still on schedule by the end of this, we would stop back by the Sawatch range to complete the Tabeguache/Shavano/Antero combination that we didn't have time for on the previous trip, before once again heading home.

Day 0 - July 4th, 2020

After leaving The Crags TH, eating lunch, and stopping by to pick up a new pair of trekking poles (this is all explained in my last report), we headed off towards Culebra. This summit is less than 10 miles from Colorado's border with New Mexico, so it's quite the drive compared to most 14ers (at least, any 14er not in the San Juans). Although Google Maps fails to lead you the right way when searching for "Cielo Vista Ranch," we found that if you look up "Cielo Vista Ranch, north gate," it will bring you to the correct location. We arrived at the closed gate in the late afternoon, with surprisingly many other cars also spending the night there. You can sleep in your car just outside the gate, like we usually do, or hop over the gate (where a bathroom is located) and set up a tent. Either way, you have to be ready with your car at 6:00 AM when a representative from the ranch comes down to check off your name and let you drive to the lower headquarters parking lot.

Nice rainbow while setting up for the night outside the gate

We ate dinner, packed our bags for the morning, and went to sleep, knowing this would probably be the most sleep in a night we would get all week.

Day 1 - July 5, 2020

Culebra Peak - Northwest Ridge

Class 2 | Distance: 11.23 mi | Gain: 4,587 ft

  • 0:36 to Upper TH
  • 1:29 to Culebra
  • 0:40 to Red
  • 2:01 to Upper TH
  • 0:35 to 10,800 ft

We woke up at 5:30 AM, and were soon getting into a line of cars. They checked off our names, and we made our way up the easy dirt road to the headquarters. There, Carlos gave us a brief talk and showed us the way to the upper 4WD trailhead. However, I wasn't planning on starting from there. After first hearing of the "3,000 ft rule," I knew my perfectionist self wouldn't be able to handle gaining any less than 3,000 feet on my way up to a major summit this summer. So, Tim dropped me off at around 10,800 ft on the road, giving me plenty of buffer room on not only Culebra, but also nearby centennial Red Mountain that you're also allowed to climb for the standard $150. This was also where the biggest difficulty of the easy 4WD road was, a short rocky section which Tim had some trouble with, although it wasn't anything that a 2WD car with a decent driver couldn't handle. I quickly hiked my way about 2 miles to the upper trailhead where Tim had been waiting.

Tim in the initial area of the ascent

The most unique part of climbing Culebra peak is that there is no trail, at least for most of the lower section. It's just a wide open grassy slope (with some rocks mixed in) up to the ridge, followed by a well-traveled rocky path the rest of the way to the summit. The easiest way to gain the ridge is to immediately descend and cross a creek upon reaching the upper parking lot, then take a sharp left and take a straight line to the top of the slope. You can also start off up an old 4WD road from the parking lot, staying to the left of the creek, although the route is longer and rockier from there. Just don't take the old road turning slightly right just after the creek crossing; it leads totally in the wrong direction, and we saw plenty of people having to turn around after making this mistake. We took the standard easy route, which starts out on wet ground through some trees, but quickly turns into a pleasant walk up mostly soft grass to the ridge. Upon hitting the top of the slopes, you've gained over half the elevation from the upper TH to Culebra, and are greeted by a singular, giant cairn. You can see the rest of the ridge to the peak from here, descending briefly before heading the rest of the way to the summit.

Giant cairn on the way to Culebra

We made our way up to the top, with one major false summit along the way, and took our pictures. This marked my 14th 14er summit of the summer.

#14 - Culebra Peak

We continued along the obvious ridge to Red Mountain, a centennial 13er, which had a bit of a switchbacking trail up the last couple hundred feet to the summit. We took some more pictures and noticed some intimidating weather coming in. The forecast had called for rain by noon, which was quickly approaching, with a thunderstorm soon after. So, we quickly headed back over towards Culebra, bypassing the summit by contouring around it. This shortcut wasn't too bad, but the rocks were annoying enough that it may have been better just to head back over Culebra. As we made it back to the giant cairn, I decided to split up and quickly stop by the unranked 13er "Punta Serpiente," just at the other end of the ridge. It was only a couple minute's walk, after which I immediately headed down the slopes to avoid the oncoming storm.

Dark thunderstorm rolling in, and it's not even noon

I took an interesting route back to the upper trailhead, curving around until reaching that old 4WD road I mentioned earlier. If you look at a satellite map of the route, you can see just how rocky this northern area of the slope is. It wasn't a ton of fun; I would definitely recommend sticking to the grass as much as possible. After making it back down to the car, I gave Tim the keys and began hiking back down the road to our original dropoff spot. He picked me up, then we headed back down to headquarters, signed out, and drove out of the ranch. After stopping in town briefly to pick up some ice, we headed towards our next destination: the infamous Lake Como Road. This extreme 4WD road starts out as easy dirt up to around 8,000 ft, before turning into a pile of increasingly-larger rocks and, eventually, giant boulders that only the most insanely-modified 4-wheelers could drive over. We hoped to drive up to around 8,800 ft, midway through the "easy" rocky part at the beginning, where a rough and narrow section blocks passage to more cautious drivers. The road actually doesn't get too terrible for a while past this part, but I knew I wouldn't have the skill to continue on. Unfortunately, even my modest goal of 8,800 ft turned out to be too much for our car (and my inexperienced driving), so we wound up giving up less than a mile into the initial rocky part at under 8,400 ft. This would add almost a mile to our backpack into Lake Como, although it was the furthest I was willing to go.

Awful rocks on the "easy" section of Lake Como Road, where we gave up

Lake Como - Approach

Class 1 | Distance: 5.34 mi | Gain: 3,563 ft

  • 2:19 to Camp (12,000 ft)

We got all our gear ready to backpack in for the night, although it soon started pouring rain, so we took shelter in the car. After waiting around an hour for the storm to pass, it was already 6:00 PM, but we had no choice but to begin our ascent up this "road," likely arriving in the dark. Our destination wasn't Lake Como itself, but along the trail a little further, right at the turnoff for Little Bear Peak. We would be starting the climb up this mountain early the next morning to try to be the first group in the infamous Hourglass, avoiding any risk of human-induced rockfall above us. Hours later, we found a perfect camping spot just into the trees by the junction. This would allow us not only to start up the gully first thing in the morning, but also return to the tent later to swap out gear before heading up the standard route to Blanca and Ellingwood. Of course, I decided not to do the Little Bear/Blanca traverse, as even if it could've saved a bit of time, it would've been way more dangerous and difficult. We had never even been up a Class 4 route before that day, much less Class 5 along a long, exposed ridge.

Sunset over one of the more ridiculous sections of Lake Como Road

Anyway, we set up our tent in the dark, along with a quick bear bag, and went to sleep at close to 10:00 PM.

Day 2 - July 6, 2020

Little Bear/Blanca/Ellingwood - Combination

Class 4 | Distance: 12.89 mi | Gain: 4,771 ft

  • 2:01 to Little Bear
  • 1:36 to Camp
  • 1:30 to Blanca
  • 0:53 to Ellingwood
  • 1:19 to Camp
  • 1:43 to Car (8,400 ft)

I woke up to my alarm at 4:00 AM. Despite the lack of sleep, I was still feeling pretty good so early into the trip. We retrieved our breakfast and packed our food for the day, then set off towards the standard route up Little Bear. Starting from where we did meant that this route never touched an easy section of trail, it's all Class 2 and up. There's a short hop through a boulderfield to get from the trail junction to the first gully, which heads straight up to the ridge. You gain over 600 feet before hitting a quarter mile. This first gully is obnoxiously steep and loose, and in my opinion is nearly the worst part of the route, second to the loose section just below the summit. Although no Class 3 is really required, many sections feel more secure by half-scrambling up them, just to gain more contact with whatever solid ground you can find. It's certainly safer and more pleasant to avoid the loosest, central section of dirt and scree in favor of larger, occasionally solid rocks around the sides. Eventually you'll make it up to a notch in the ridge, from which the next half mile or so is comparatively easy.

View of the moon above Alamosa upon gaining the ridge

From where we started, the entire standard route up Little Bear is barely a mile long. After the terrible gully, you'll get to within about a sixth of a mile from the summit on a somewhat well-established trail. Again, it's nearly all Class 2 if you stay on course, although that's easier said than done. My strategy is always to draw out a super-precise GPX path in advance, then upload it to the map on my watch so I can easily tell where we are relative to the correct route. This works great because it's always easy to tell which direction to go when it seems you're slightly off path, plus it will notify you if you go totally the wrong way. For this section, you want to stay a little south of the ridge, gaining elevation at a slow but constant rate while following a decent line of cairns. About 0.4 miles from the gully, the path continues in an obvious direction forwards, but based on my planning, we opted to stay a little higher to join another less visible path. Going in this direction, you ascend more steadily straight to the base of the Hourglass, instead of going up what looks like an annoying loose section just before it. I would assume that most people use the lower path while ascending (because it's more obvious from that direction), then descend on the upper path to avoid that loose section.

The base of the Hourglass; the lower obvious path requires going straight up a couple hundred feet of this loose rock

Anyway, now it's time for the Hourglass, the scariest part of the entire route, right? The advice has always been to get as early a start as possible on a non-busy weekday to avoid anyone above you in this section. There are thousands of rocks big enough to kill someone waiting just above the Hourglass to come loose and funnel down towards you, and other people are certainly the most likely to trigger such rockfall. Though we were the first to start, another group of climbers had just caught up to us at this point. Still, as long as you keep a reasonable distance away from each other, the risk of actually knocking a rock down from within the Hourglass is relatively small, as it's by far the most solid part of the route. Just make sure everyone's to the top before continuing onto the upper, loose section. Now, as long as you manage rockfall, I actually found this to be the most fun part of the route. The climbing feels very secure and barely exceeds Difficult Class 3. It's a great break from the rest of the terribly-loose route. The crux was one tiny, narrow section with water running down the center which you have to avoid, although with a bit of searching around for good holds, it's perfectly manageable. I generally found climbing just to the left of the water to be easiest, although I switched back and forth occasionally. Overall, the Hourglass was definitely less tricky, less scary, and even shorter than I had imagined, whereas the loose section that followed was just the opposite.

Tim topping out on the Hourglass, entering the endless gully of loose rocks

Upon reaching the rope anchor atop the Hourglass, you begin to have more choices as to your route. The climbers in the other group seemed to be going left, so I went to the far right of the gully. There was a good amount of solid rock to hug while maneuvering carefully around the loose stuff, although the key is really just to go slow and test every foot placement. I avoided knocking any sizable rock down more than a couple feet, although I did see others send some much further. This section is a little bit longer than the Hourglass, but a lot more tedious. It was definitely my least favorite part of the whole route. But before I knew it, I was making my way the last few feet up to the summit, at around 7:00 AM.

#15 - Little Bear Peak

We were glad to see the other climbers heading off in the other direction, on the traverse towards Blanca. We would be the only group descending for now, so we quickly got moving. I reached the top of the Hourglass just as Tim knocked down a small but terrifying rock that flew right past another group of climbers. They immediately told us to stop descending until they got to the top of the Hourglass, so we agreed and waited. After they made it up, I made my way down as fast as possible, although luckily the group above us seemed very careful to avoid rockfall. I able to descend all but that one wet, narrow section while facing outward, simply crab-walking on my hands and feet quickly down the smooth rock. Tim had a bit more trouble with the descent, although we eventually were both down the most difficult and potentially dangerous part.

Looking back on the Hourglass

We made our way back along the ridge and down the initial gully, with only one minor incident. I flipped over a somewhat-large rock such that it landed perfectly on my big toe. I was already having some weird foot pain in this area earlier this summer from hiking so much, so I was scared it would make it hurt too much to walk. I took off my shoe to assess the damage, to which I was surprised to see nothing unusual. In fact, after an hour or so of hiking, it stopped hurting. Better yet, in a matter of days, the toe pain from earlier was gone too. Maybe I just needed to smash it with a rock to fix it.

Our little campsite, first seen in the daylight after descending Little Bear

We found ourselves back at camp around 11:00 AM, a little later than I had hoped, although the weather still looked great to continue on to Blanca and Ellingwood. Tim was exhausted from the climbing, so he stayed back at the tent. I grabbed my trekking poles and set off towards Blanca. I would describe this hike as getting increasingly more difficult as it goes. It starts out the easiest (and best-looking) near the bottom with a Class 1 road walk, turns into a nice dirt trail, becomes a decent trail through some rocky sections, gets more difficult to follow as you ascend the slopes up to the ridge, then ends up as an annoying, steep boulder hop the rest of the way to the top.

The easy section around 12,000 ft on Blanca, with great views, too

The route-finding is relatively minimal for most of the hike, with a fairly obvious trail and lots of cairns, although I did find myself confused about where to switchback a few times on the upper slopes. Once you reach the ridge, you can basically follow it the rest of the way to the top, bypassing any tricky sections by moving slightly to the right. It never exceeds Class 2.

Walking the ridge up Blanca, looking towards Ellingwood

I made it to the top in the early afternoon. There were annoying bugs everywhere, whose numbers seemed to increase as the day went on, probably as the temperature increased. I enjoyed summit for a bit and took some pictures, although I ran out of fingers while trying to hold up the correct number.

#16 - Blanca Peak

I headed back down the ridge to the turnoff for the standard route, marked by a large cairn. I wanted to try out the Class 3 traverse over to Ellingwood, so I cautiously reread the route descriptions and put on my helmet. However, to my surprise, this section of trail was remarkably easy. In fact, it was better marked than most of the rest of the ridge between these two peaks. There were one or two unavoidable Easy Class 3 moves, although nothing that took any significant effort.

Fun, well-marked traverse to Ellingwood

Overall the traverse was way nicer than I had expected, and I actually found it easier than the rest of the route up Ellingwood. This probably because I tried following a rough path a little under the ridge, whereas I should've just gone all the way to the top. This is probably a good alternative if you don't like crazy exposure, although it was definitely harder to follow. Still, I made it to the top without too much difficulty.

#17 - Ellingwood Point

The way down Ellingwood was a bit of a different story. I meant to retrace my steps down to the beginning of the traverse, then descend onto the standard route for Ellingwood. But instead of taking the ridge or even the path I had taken up, I descended way too quickly and wound up on an obscure "trail" quite low on the slopes. Still, I knew I would run into the turnoff for the standard route sooner or later, so I just kept an eye out on the map on my watch. Unfortunately, just as I needed it the most, the map glitched out and started lagging behind by a matter of minutes. I didn't know this, so I kept on going way past the turnoff, eventually realizing my mistake when I recognized the terrain as part of the traverse. My watch died soon afterwards, so it was probably just acting weird on low battery. Anyway, instead of backtracking, I just carefully made my way down the slope until meeting up with the proper trail, which soon brought me back to familiar terrain on the switchbacks up Blanca. I jokingly wondered whether Ellingwood even had a standard route to the top; I sure hadn't come across it.

Descending the Blanca trail, with the weather finally rolling in

The rest of the descent back to camp was uneventful, although the weather was starting to look considerably worse behind me. I was glad to be off the high peaks for the day, and Tim was glad to see me around an hour after I predicted I would be back. He had already took the tent down, so I quickly packed my backpack and purified some water for the way down. I went all the way down to the car without stopping, arriving a little before 6:00 PM, which would mark the 24 hour mark since we had left.

Finally in view of the car, 18 miles, 8,000 vertical feet, and 24 hours later

We got everything packed up and painfully made it down the short section of Lake Como Road we had braved the previous afternoon. We then headed off on what was supposed to be an uneventful 2 hour drive to the Lily Lake TH for Mount Lindsey. However, the first problem arose when Google Maps told us to take a left off the main highway onto a small dirt road. We followed its instructions, but the road was immediately blocked with a gate which said "No Trespassing." I eventually convinced it to reroute us along the next connecting road, which added on another 30 minutes. This was also a long, obscure, dirt county road, although it was at least passable. This lead us to the correct highway and eventually the town of Gardner, where we followed another long road to the final junction. At this point, you drive down a nice dirt road for a while through a State Wildlife Area, then through yet another long section on private property. It turns into slow, annoying 4WD near the end of this part, with endless miles of bumps and rocks, but nothing too crazy. You finally reach the lower "rough 2WD" trailhead, but must continue a couple more miles on a steeper, narrower section to the upper parking lot. The point I'm trying to get across is that this trailhead is extremely remote and a very long drive. It ended up taking us over 3 hours, to get just 7 miles from where we started on Lake Como Road. The last 10 miles from the junction I mentioned took nearly an hour alone. We finally arrived close to 10:00 PM, ate some dinner, and went quickly to sleep after a very long day.

Day 3 - July 7, 2020

Mount Lindsey - Northwest Slopes

Class 3 | Distance: 9.76 mi | Gain: 4,439 ft

  • 2:13 to Lindsey
  • 1:30 to Huerfano
  • 1:59 to TH

I decided to sleep in a little later than normal after two late nights in a row, so I woke up at 5:00 AM. This was actually a nice time to start, as I didn't need a headlamp by the time I left. Tim wouldn't be summiting this peak with me, as he wanted to make sure he'd at least have the energy for the backpacking later this afternoon. I was soon making my way up the first few relatively flat miles of the trail. About a mile into the hike, there's a pretty major creek crossing, although the water wasn't running too high, so it was possible to get across without getting my feet wet. From there, the trail heads practically straight up a cool little valley, where you have trees to your right and rocks to your left. It's not too bad, although some sections are rather steep. You stay on the right side of this valley to avoid a gully of endless talus, reach treeline, then descend slightly through a nice meadow before heading straight up a steep slope towards the ridge to Lindsey.

Looking over to Lindsey after reaching the ridge

At this point, you're within 1,000 vertical feet of the summit, but the hardest section of the hike remains. You can either choose a series of loose gullys, rated "Easy Class 3," or take the solid, exposed, Class 3 ridge. Though the ridge is often recommended, I decided that "loose" meant nothing to me after what I had been through yesterday, so I took the easier way up with the gully. And, well, compared to Little Bear, it really wasn't that bad. There was definitely a lot of loose stuff all around, although by staying at the edges you could easily avoid the worst of it. There were some occasional Class 3 moves, such as near the top of the first major section of the gully, but I would say it's nothing too crazy. Avoiding loose rock is the worst part of the route, but you're done with the gully and back on top of the ridge pretty quick.

Looking back down the first section of the loose gully to bypass the ridge

From there, it's just an easy, gentle ridge walk to the top. I reached the summit just before 8:00 AM. I once again improvised on my finger-counting summit picture, while apparently deciding to look directly into the sun.

#18 - Mount Lindsey

I headed back down off the ridge and down the gully, making good time. Since it was still so early in the morning, I decided to head over to nearby centennial 13er, Huerfano Peak. Instead of heading off back down the standard route to the left, I continued forward towards unranked 13er "Iron Nipple." After quickly summiting, I continued on down the ridge towards Huerfano, which starts off pretty rough but eventually gets grassy and much nicer. Upon making it to the peak, I signed the summit register and looked through to find a few names I recognized. I also took some pictures and enjoyed the very nice views from the summit.

Lindsey (left), Blanca (center-right), and Ellingwood (right) from Huerfano

Translating literally to "orphan," Huerfano definitely seems like an extremely remote peak. The easiest route to this point involves at least 2 hours of hiking and an hour of driving just to get to the nearest paved road. Combined with being a 13er with rather infrequent summits, it feels like a much more unique location than the crowded top of any 14er. Anyway, I headed back down while slightly bypassing the subpeak, then continued down the ridge back to the standard route. The area continued to impress me with its nice views as I descended in the sunlight, getting some very pretty pictures of the valley.

Creek and trail running down the beautiful valley

I arrived back at the car around noon, and we headed off towards our next destination: South Colony Lakes TH. We took a short detour up to Westcliffe for gas, ice, and a bit of food, then headed on towards the road to the trailhead. There are actually five 14ers that I planned to climb from this location, which are normally done in two or three separate trips. I knew it would still take me two days, so we planned to backpack up to South Colony Lakes at around 11,700 ft and stay there for two nights. The approach up to this point is tricky for a few reasons: first, the 4WD road was blocked off many years ago, a number of miles further back from the lakes. We probably wouldn't have been able to drive this far anyway, but it still makes everything feel a bit more remote. Second, the part of the road that is open has apparently gotten a lot worse in the last few years; I knew it would be one of the harder 4WD roads we would attempt. And third, the first entire 1.5 miles of the road (which contain many of the roughest sections) are entirely on private property, so you have to either make it past this section, or turn around. Keeping all this in mind, with the confidence of just making it to the top of the last 4WD trailhead, we started up the road.

The start of the 4WD road, which quickly becomes much worse than it looks here

We made it about a quarter mile before completely giving up and turning around. It was already getting somewhat steep with all sorts of huge rocks to dodge all around, and it didn't seem to be getting easier anytime soon. The car couldn't make it over what I thought would be a relatively easy bump, so after a couple tries, I just gave up. We drove back down to the 2WD parking lot as I began to realize what this meant: over 6 miles of backpacking in each direction. We were able to manage it fine, but it definitely made things feel a lot different when we were planning for 3.5 miles.

South Colony Lakes - Approach

Class 1 | Distance: 6.29 mi | Gain: 3,022 ft

  • 2:25 to Camp (11,700 ft)

We quickly packed up our bags with what we thought would be plenty of food for 2 days, plus enough water to last through the first day of 14er summits. Next time, I'm definitely ditching most of this water in favor of purifying all I need for subsequent days once we're at camp. A number of hours later, we finally make it to the lakes. I looked around for a good camping spot near the turnoff for the Crestones, without being too close to the water. We set up the tent with what turned out to be an extremely beautiful view of Crestone Needle behind it.

Tim getting his gear in the tent for the night, with Crestone Needle behind (right)

Unfortunately, the wonderful view also came with its downsides. This would be the windiest night of the week, and we had just set up our tent in one of the most exposed areas possible. I made sure to stake everything down very well, even tying it to a few rocks, but it didn't stop the wind from being extremely loud all night. Despite this annoyance, after so many days of little sleep and long hikes, I was asleep by 9:00 PM.

Day 4 - July 8, 2020

Crestone Peak/Crestone Needle - Combination

Class 3 | Distance: 6.68 mi | Gain: 4,675 ft

  • 1:45 to Crestone Needle
  • 2:17 to Crestone Peak
  • 2:24 to Camp

Knowing that this would be our shortest day of hiking, and that the weather would be great all day, we again chose a relatively late wake-up time of 5:30 AM. We started out the climb up Broken Hand Pass with the sun making its way over the Crestones. Tim was with me for his first peak since Little Bear, and he wanted to climb just the Needle before returning to the tent. I would've much preferred to do the Peak first, so that I wouldn't have to reascend the pass at the end of the day, but I agreed to do the shorter one first for Tim. Needless to say, we weren't planning to do the traverse. Now, the climb up Broken Hand Pass isn't particularly hard, but it does make up a significant portion of the route, about half the overall distance and gain from the lake to the top of the Needle. The first half is a decent rocky trail, which turns into a moderately-steep gully near the top. It's relatively similar in difficulty to the gully up Lindsey, although a little shorter and less loose overall. There may be one or two Easy Class 3 moves along the way. Enough snow had melted by now to allow passage without ever touching any.

Tim ascending Broken Hand Pass, with South Colony Lakes below

After reaching the top of the pass, the next quarter mile is relatively flat on an easy trail, followed by a quarter mile of real scrambling to the top. There's a number of confusing junctions through this first part, although they all go to the same place. I would recommend staying to the left if in doubt. About half way between the pass and the summit, you reach a short class 3 downclimb, followed by a trail leading down and to the left. Instead of following this trail, you can also begin ascending a gully right in front of you, then cross over to the left into the east gully. I'd recommend just following the trail to the left; it's a tad longer but you avoid some steep scrambling. I mention this variation because, while descending, I accidentally followed a cairn down it, and Tim didn't enjoy the extra scrambling. So make sure you remember where the trail starts at the base of the east gully, so you don't leave too early on the way down.

Start of the east gully

Anyway, once you get to the base of the east gully, it's a fun Class 3 scramble on very solid rock with good holds up a few hundred feet. These upper gullys were by far my favorite section of climbing I've done on a 14er so far. Once you reach a narrow section as pictured in the route descriptions, the crux of the route is a tiny Difficult Class 3 move to begin the crossover into the west gully. Finding good hand and foot placement was kind of tricky, so I ended up just jumping across the hard section to a good handhold at the end. Tim took it a little slower and more methodically.

Tim on the crux of the route, beginning the crossover from the east gully

After this move, you return to easier scrambling, following some well-placed cairns through the small passage into the west gully. There's a very obvious cairn marking this point, but we madesmade to look around and remember the place to cross back over for the descent. The west gully is a little longer and narrower, although the scrambling is still pretty easy and just as fun. Once you're at the top, you can follow a pretty obvious ridgeline the rest of the way to the summit. I got to the top around 8:00 AM, and Tim arrived soon afterwards. We took some pictures and enjoyed the great views.

#19 - Crestone Needle

Soon we were heading back down the series of gullys. I found the descent enjoyable and significantly easier and faster than going up, basically just crab-walking all the way down. Tim looked like he was properly downclimbing much more of it, and it took him a lot longer.

Looking back down the west gully; it's easier than it looks

We made our way back over to the east gully without incident, which I accidentally left too early on the alternate route mentioned above, to Tim's dismay. But back on the easy trail, we quickly made it to Broken Hand Pass again, where Tim headed down towards the tent, while I headed down the opposite direction towards Cottonwood Lake. I was surprised at just how much elevation you have to drop before reaching the base of Crestone Peak, and at how much longer the steep part of the route was than that on the Needle. You follow a fairly obvious trail up to the base of the red gully, where the long scramble begins.

Bottom of the red gully

I expected most of this gully to look like the picture above, a water-polished avenue of solid rock with fun scrambling. However, in reality, most of it looked like the following picture: a slope of loose dirt with more solid rock on the sides to bounce between.

The reality of most of the red gully

None of the route was particularly difficult; in fact most of the gully was hardly above a steep Class 2. It was mostly just annoyingly dodging all the loose stuff, and it seemed to go on for a long time. There were also the occasional patches of snow to dodge, including one huge snowfield near the middle with a reasonable bypass to the left.

Walking around a huge snowfield

After nearly a thousand vertical feet of climbing in the red gully, you turn left and finally reach the short but most fun part of the route: a series of ledges to maneuver around and up towards the summit. This is probably the most technically-difficult section, although it was still easy compared to even the Class 3 climbing on the Needle.

Top of the red gully, turning towards the ledges up to the summit

Despite the not so fun route to get there, upon reaching the summit, I was met with one of the best summit views I've ever seen. Not only could you see nearby 14ers Crestone Needle, Humboldt, Kit Carson, and Challenger, but also the huge valleys on either side, as well as the Great Sand Dunes and Blanca Mastiff in the distance.

Kit Carson and Challenger (left), Humboldt (left of center), Crestone Needle (right of center) from Crestone Peak

I enjoyed the views along with the amazingly clear weather, considering it was already almost noon. There was a 0% chance of rain all day for multiple days in a row. I eventually took my summit picture and headed back down.

#20 - Crestone Peak

The ledges were just as fun as before, and the red gully was just as long and annoying. Still, it went by fairly quickly. I made it back down to Cottonwood Lake, only to realize I still had over 600 more feet of climbing back over Broken Hand Pass to finish off the day. Overall I would say I liked Crestone Needle much more: once you're up Broken Hand Pass, it's all very fun hiking and scrambling, and before you know it, you're at the top. The routefinding is definitely trickier, and there's longer sections of harder scrambling, but it's definitely my favorite. Crestone Peak's loose, somewhat-steep gully just went on and on, and wasn't much fun. I'd say overall that it's easier in a lot of ways, except for being so much longer, at least starting from South Colony Lakes. I would love to do the traverse some day, though.

Cottonwood Lake, featuring a marmot swimming away from me

I slowly made my way back up and down the pass. The portion from the Peak back to camp wound up taking longer than either the ascent to the Needle or the portion from the Needle to the Peak. I made it to the tent before 3:00 PM, drank the rest of my water, ate a bunch of the food I had left at the tent, and fell asleep.

Descending Broken Hand Pass towards camp at South Colony Lakes, with Humboldt in the distance

I woke up again around 6:00 PM, knowing I now had to retrieve water for the next day. I walked down to the creek flowing from the lake and filled up both Tim's and my water bladders, adding some purification tablets I had brought. On future trips like this I'm definitely going to buy and bring a water filter, it'd be nice to have clearer water and to not have to wait hours before drinking. I ate some food for dinner and fell back asleep with the sunset soon after 8:00 PM.

Day 5 - July 9, 2020

Humboldt/Kit Carson/Challenger - Combination

Class 3 | Distance: 13.91 mi | Gain: 6,073 ft

  • 1:14 to Humboldt
  • 1:44 to Obstruction
  • 0:32 to Columbia
  • 0:35 to Kit Carson
  • 0:33 to Challenger
  • 2:31 to Camp
  • 1:25 to Car (9700 ft)

I awoke on the fifth and final day of our trip (or at least of the Sangre section) at 5:00 AM. It would also be one of the hardest days of hiking, although luckily I had just gotten plenty of sleep. Tim would be joining me on the short hike from our camp up to Humboldt, then I would be on my own for the remainder of the tricky climb over to Kit Carson and Challenger. There's definitely a reason most people do these peaks from a different trailhead, although I was able to save a lot of time and mileage by doing it this way. We got out of the windy tent and set out in the early morning light towards Humboldt.

Shadow of Humboldt cast over the Crestones

There's a very easy to follow, well-constructed trail up to the saddle below Humboldt, which takes you about halfway there from our camp. The final half, however, is a lot rougher, especially on the steep sections. It's nothing more than a normal Class 2 walk up rocks, but the proper path gets a little convoluted with a mess of alternate routes among the tight unmarked switchbacks. It's really nothing special compared to other less popular routes, but it definitely could use some trail work.

Tim nearing the summit of Humboldt

I guess I left Tim a little too far behind to be able to follow my route precisely, so he was pretty frustrated with the path when he came over the ridge a few minutes after me. It was made all the more annoying by the sun, which happened to be at the perfect angle directly in front of us so that we were staring into it while trying to assess which way to go. Still, if you don't count the approach, it could be considered the easiest peak we would do all week, taking just over an hour to get to the top.

#21 - Humboldt Peak

I was soon heading back down, knowing I still had a long day ahead of me. Again, the weather forecast couldn't have been more perfect for the next couple of days, but I knew that even at a good pace, it'd be into the late afternoon until we got back to the car. I made it down to the saddle and said goodbye to Tim for the rest of the morning, then headed off towards unranked, unnamed PT 13,290. Getting to the top is steep, but not too bad as long as you stay close to the ridge. I made the mistake of following a nice ledge which didn't go up fast enough, then ended up having to ascend an even steeper slope to regain the elevation. From the top, it's about a third of a mile of less steep terrain, although it's rougher and more difficult to navigate. Generally, sticking just to the north side of the ridge worked out well for me. I did a few little Class 3 moves, although you could probably make it through on just Class 2. Finally, you'll emerge onto Bear's Playground, the nicest section of terrain of the entire route. It's a wide-open, flat, grassy field that makes for perhaps the easiest off-trail hiking possible. From here, you can head up the pleasant slopes towards "Obstruction Peak," or pick out a line to contour around its rocky face and save a few hundred feet of gain. I tried the latter on the way back, but first I wanted to go to the top.

Looking back on Bear's Playground, from which you can see the rough ridge of PT 13,290 leading to Humboldt (left), plus the Crestones (right)

The walk up "Obstruction Peak" is quite nice, as you're able to stay on the soft grass of Bear's Playground for around half the way up. It reminded me of the off-trail hike up the initial slope of Culebra. After that, it's a typical easy rocky ridge walk to the top. Heading down the other side is much of the same thing, although the slope increases slightly. This is where the extremely confusing terrain of the Kit Carson group begins. It's less than a mile of hiking and scrambling from here all the way to Challenger Point, although the style of terrain seems to change with every few steps. After crossing this saddle, you begin to head up the somewhat-steep bowl-shaped slope up to "Kitty Kat Carson," a subpeak of centennial 13er Columbia Point.

Looking towards "Kitty Kat Carson" at its saddle with "Obstruction Peak"

It's a fairly easy hike up the right side of this bowl to the top of "Kitty Kat Carson," switchbacking up a series of ledges with occasional trail segments to the top. This is where I put away my trekking poles and got out my helmet (although it would've been smart to have it on back near PT 13,290), and started to use my hands for the occasional scramble up some easy, solid rock. From the top of this subpeak, it's a quick drop down and back up similar terrain to hit Columbia Point. This was one of my favorite centennials so far, with confusing terrain on all sides blocking passage to all but a few climbers. There's a plaque at the highest point commemorating the Columbia Space Shuttle crew, just like at Challenger Point, and I had fun looking through the summit register. Most of all, there's great views all around of Humboldt, the Crestones, Kit Carson, and much more.

Humboldt (far left), Crestones (left of center), and Kit Carson (right) from Columbia Point

Now the real fun begins. You descend partway down a ridge from Columbia Point, then take a passage onto a ledge which you walk along until reaching the proper gully to descend. This is where the definitive Class 3 scrambling begins, and probably the hardest route-finding of anything I've done so far. Pay close attention to the route description and its pictures; I was checking in on my phone constantly and still got pretty confused. This gully is a pretty serious Class 3 downclimb (downscramble?), similar to the upper stretches of the west gully on Crestone Needle.

Descending the 2nd gully off Columbia, towards Kit Carson (cut off on upper-right of picture)

I'm still not exactly sure of the proper way to leave this 2nd gully; the first time I think I crossed over a little too high and joined up with the bottom of the 3rd gully, and the second time I started at the very bottom of the gully, which definitely entailed a move harder than Class 3. Nonetheless, I made my way onto the slope up Kit Carson and had soon rejoined the standard route. This final slope to the summit is your typical steep mess of loose rock, reminding me of some of the more annoying sections of Crestone Peak, before you walk across the ridge to the top. Again, the views from here are wonderful, on par with those from Crestone Peak (maybe even better because you can see Crestone Peak), so I took some time enjoying the sights and great weather.

#22 - Kit Carson Peak

I headed back down the standard route of Kit Carson, which although is rated Easy Class 3, felt extremely relaxing compared to where I had come from. After going back down this first slope, you join up with the Avenue, a surprising passageway seemingly carved directly into the side of the near-vertical face of the mountain, allowing an easier Class 2 walk the remainder of the way to Challenger Point. You do end up gaining and losing some excess elevation, but I'll take that instead of traversing across a sheer rock face. The Avenue goes up and to the west, before taking a sharp right turn near "The Prow," a cool rock formation that I later crawled up. The trail then descends towards Kit Carson’s saddle with Challenger Point; from there, it’s exactly 300 feet up to the summit of this barely-ranked 14er.

The Avenue turning right, around Kit Carson then up to Challenger Point, as seen from “The Prow”

I continued on up these final slopes to my last of 10 14ers in the Sangre de Cristo range, just 5 days after my first. It’s an impressive time for sure, but it just makes me appreciate people like Andrew Hamilton who have done these same peaks in the span of just 30 hours, in the middle of a much longer record attempt. I guess I’m just happy to have gotten more sleep than he did.

#23 - Challenger Point

The view from this peak just makes you realize how little 300 feet of prominence actually means. Kit Carson absolutely dominates the view, 100 feet higher and just over a thousand feet away. It definitely doesn’t feel nearly as much like a 14er as most others. Either way, I now realized I was standing at about the furthest I had been all week from the car, which would take about 5 hours more hiking to reach. I headed back across the Avenue, descending a little too low and having to choose between a steep, loose slope, or some tricky but solid climbing from the very bottom of the second gully. I chose the latter and eventually made it back into familiar terrain on Columbia Point. I bypassed the peak and contoured around to its saddle with "Kitty Kat Carson," then did the same for this subpeak. I headed back down the slopes towards the saddle with "Obstruction Peak," and again aimed to bypass the summit by choosing a line of cairns across its rocky face. I made the mistake of choosing a path much lower than the one I had planned for, which worked out but probably made it more difficult for me. You really want to just contour around and avoiding descending much at all until reaching Bear’s Playground. I went back across the short but slow ridge along PT 13,290, before finally reaching the saddle with Humboldt. From there, it was a quick walk down a nice trail back to camp, where Tim had taken down the tent and was waiting for a while. We ate the very last of the food we had brought, I used up the last of my water purification tablets, I packed up my backpack, and we began the 6 mile trek back down to the lower 2WD parking lot. With less than 2 miles to go, a friendly guy in a Jeep offered us a ride back down to the bottom. Tim instantly accepted, and although I would’ve rather finished the round trip, I had at least descended the necessary 3,000 feet from each peak, and I knew Tim wouldn’t want to wait for me at the bottom. So in the name of saving time, I agreed. And man, that road was rough, even in a Jeep. I have no idea how the people at the upper parking lot had managed to get a Subaru up there. It is by no means "easy 4WD" anymore, as the trailhead description suggests. We made it back to the car around 5:00 PM, happy to be done with our first full range of 14ers, although I still had ambitious plans for tomorrow. On our last trip in the Sawatch, a scheduling conflict meant that we only had 6 out of the requisite 7 days to climb all 15 peaks. So, finding myself once again 6 days into hiking 14ers, we set off towards Jennings Creek TH to tackle Tabeguache, Shavano, and Antero the following day. But that's a story for next time.

My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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 Comments or Questions

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07/18/2020 22:28
SpeedWalker is appropriate. Those are some impressive times, impressive number of peaks in such a short span. Great report!

08/02/2020 09:29
How were the mosquitos at south colony lakes?

great trip!

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