Sunday, September 16, 2007

Crestone Peak (14,298 ft.)
"East Crestone" (14,264 ft.)

9 September, 2007: First, apologies for taking so long to get this entry up. It's been a busy week. That said...
With summer winding down, Trisha and I wanted at least one more nice fourteener for this season. We had just one day so, after weighing a few options, decided on the closest one we still needed: Crestone Peak.
Aside from Pikes Peak, it is indeed the closest. The South Colony Lakes Road trailhead, which is the obvious access point for all four peaks of the Crestone group, with the possible exception of Kit Carson Peak, is scarcely a hundred miles from our doorstep. Even the peaks of the central Sawatch require a longer drive. So we left Colorado Springs at 2:30 am MDT, and reached the “compromise” trailheadabout halfway up the lousy 4WD road which connects the low-clearance trailhead with the upper one right at the wilderness boundaryat 5 o’clock. Our starting elevation was 9,930 ft, and we were hiking with headlamps by 5:05.
It took us less than an hour and a half to reach the end of the road, at the upper trailhead. Even though it was a Sunday, there were only a few high-clearance cars there, and no one was stirring. Before sunrise, we signed into the Sangre de Cristo wilderness (I had to use the flash to get a picture of Trisha at the register kiosk), and we hit the real trail, heading the 700 feet or so up to Lower South Colony Lake.
Near the lake, where the trail south over Broken Hand Pass diverges from the trail continuing on west toward Humboldt Peak, we found a cluster of tents but, again, no one stirring. The sky was still largely cloudy, with wisps coming and going. It didn’t seem to be building into any real storminess, though, although we did hear one peal of thunder, so we pressed on, hoping the day’s warmth would eventually burn off the clouds. I had told Trisha that we did have to be prepared to turn back if the weather was bad enough. She readily agreed with this, although we both wanted to summit and complete the Crestone group, but the weather there can get truly nasty, and we were even more determined to come back in one piece each.
As we climbed the pass, we finally saw some other people. A group of three or four appeared below us; they might have been among the occupants of those tents we had passed. We hoped that, for once, they wouldn’t overtake us. Just a few minutes later, we saw two young men descending from the top. We asked them if they were super early starters who had already summitted, but they said that they had turned around at the pass, after seeing too much cloudiness for their comfort. We took what they said under advisement, but basically decided that they had given up too easily, too early in the day to tell anything. We crossed our fingers and pressed on.
This was my third time up this side of the pass, and Trisha’s second, so we knew what to expect. As a result, it went--or, at least, seemed to go--faster than on previous occasions. We got up the big step by the pinnacle that is the crux of the climb with relatively little trouble, and made it up to the top quickly. The improvements recently made by the CFI crews also helped to make picking our way to the top easier.
Then there was the 600-foot descent to Cottonwood Lake. The contours of the land are such that, even though the lake is only a short distance from the summit of the pass, it can’t be seen from there. One must descend a bit on the good trail, which leads first to the left (east) before switchbacking down, before the lake comes into view. It’s a fairly large alpine lake, and appears to be fairly deep in the middle. Under cloud light, it was hard to see very far down into its waters, but the water is clear and clean.
The trail goes right along the north and west shore of the lake before it begins to climb again, and we stopped there to eat some, and to re-arrange clothing. Strangely, we never saw a cut-off for the trail which is reputed to lead up the Cottonwood Creek drainage from the west. Numerous writers have reported that this trail is hard to follow in places.
Just before 9 am, we started our climb up the Red Couloir, the standard route up Crestone Peak’s south face. We were relieved to find cairns marking the route, as well as a clear trail for the first few hundred feet. That first section leads back and forth on grassy ledges. After that, though, it’s all rocks, and the real scrambling and climbing begins.
This is the main reason Crestone Peak is a harder climb than Crestone Needle: Nearly 1,500 feet of steep climbing (the horizontal distance is negligible) mixing bouldering, gullies (some bearing scree, some bare), slab walking, and ledges, in what can seem like an endless succession.
We found good cairns all the way up, although we also found that there is no pressing need to stick to the route they mark out: There are many options for getting through each section, all of about the same difficulty. The only real problem we encountered came just about 13,000 feet, where steep rocks on either side forced us into the center of the gully. There, a small amount of water was flowing down, dropping over a distinct lip in a waterfall eight of ten feet high, followed by a long section of slightly angled slabs which were mostly featureless and smooth. It was getting by the waterfall and over the lip that seemed to be the problem.
So we found a flat section of the slabs to walk across the stream, to where what seemed to be a short section of climber’s trail on the other side led to the base of the fall. From there, we hoped to be able to climb a short distance up the rock face to get above the lip. We found it was a no-go.
The section of rock wall we needed to climb was nearly vertical, and woefully short on handholds. So, we re-crossed the water and gave the steep ledges on the first side (climber’s left) a try. The exposure and the tilt of the rock faces here proved to be too much.
So, it was back across again to try what looked like the only remaining option: climbing part way up the fall right next to the water on the right side, spanning the water in one giant step to the left side, and clinging to the rounded surfaces beside the slab formation to get the rest of the way up.
It wasn’t easy or elegant, but we finally made it work. Fortunately, that was the only place we really had to stop to puzzle something out. From there on, the slope and the difficulty were unrelenting, but there was always at least one clear path up, and often several. I can only hope the pictures I got of Trisha climbing various parts of this couloir convey how impressive it really was. This is no place for the inexperienced.
Once into the rhythm of it, however, it was fun. So our paces picked up a bit as we worked into the climb. All the while, we experienced mostly cloudy skies, not far above our heads, with occasional partial clearings. I actually began to think that when we reached the summit, we might find ourselves above the cloud deck, but we didn’t. Finally, though, more than two hours after leaving the lake (1,900 feet below), we topped out onto the very small saddle at the top of the couloir. From there, we knew we only had to take a hard right turn and continue barely a hundred vertical feet to the summit.
Even here, we found good cairns marking a route that makes use of small ledges on the left (east) side of the ridge crest. There’s a little exposure in a few places, owing mainly to the narrowness of those ledges, but the climbing was actually quite easy. Just minutes later, we popped over the ridge crest, crossed the even smaller top of the northwest couloir, and clambered up onto the actual summit block, Colorado’s seventh highest. It was still 90% socked in.
The partial clearings were becoming more frequent, however, and photos started to show a little bit of background other than blank clouds. Just as we started back down the ledges to the saddle, a partial clearing allowed me to get the only decent shot of our second goal, East Crestone, that I got all day.
A brief note about East Crestone: This minor summit of Crestone Peak is well over 14,000 feet in elevation and, thanks to the vagaries of how political subdivisions were determined, is the high point of Custer County. When viewed from a distance, the mountain appears to have twin summits and, indeed, well into the twentieth century, no sufficiently accurate survey was available to determine conclusively which one was actually the true summit. During that time, determined peakbaggers had to climb both summits, to be sure that they had really climbed Crestone Peak!
Fortunately, bagging both summits is not hard. So, now that we know for sure that the western summit is the higher one, it’s still fun to make the short climb east of the saddle to claim the minor summit as well. After all, it is a county high point (the true summit is correspondingly the high point of Saguache County), so “highpointers” still need to climb it, and they can easily get two on a single climb.
When we got to East Crestone, we also finally got some real clearing in the clouds. That’s why the summit photos we took there look so much more interesting than the ones we took on the true summit. We finally got a decent look at Kit Carson Mountain to the west (see previous entry on this mountain), as well as a nice view of Crestone Peak itself. Sadly, we did not get enough of a break from the clouds to get a good photo of Crestone Needle to the east.
The downclimb of the Red Couloir went very well. We had gotten used to the sort of climbing required, and had no real problems with any of it, including that stream crossing section that had held us up on the way up. We found that we could, after all, simply friction-walk the slabs: the rock is that good and well-textured! We were back at the lake in less than two hours.
That might have been the end of the day’s excitement. It probably would have been on most days and, truth be told, I kind of wish it had been. Re-climbing Broken Hand Pass—the worst part of this route—really wasn’t bad. The south side is much gentler and less steep than the north side, and it’s only 600 feet, instead of 1,200.
But after we had climbed down through the difficult parts of the north side, Mother Nature had to have one last tantrum at us. It started to rain. Not only did it not stop after a brief shower, the rain soon was mixed with hail—small hailstones, but hard enough to sting exposed body parts. Hats or hoods became mandatory.
And this continued for most of an hour, after which the trail was largely a ribbon-shaped lake of cold water covered with floating hail. Fun, fun, fun. We were actually better off when we got back on that awful road, since its obnoxious rockiness precluded it being very muddy, or carrying much standing water. Still, the two miles or so back down the road to the car were a cold, bleak slog. We finally got back at about 6:30—a thirteen-and-a-half hour day on the trail. We were, to say the least tired. The warmth of the car’s heater never felt so good.
Still, no real complaints. It was a very rewarding day. We both continued to expand our climbing skills, not to mention our endurance. Trisha racked up fourteener number 30, and I got number 33. And, once again and quite against reasonable expectations, we had the summit all to ourselves—both of them!
Pictures are at:


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