July 8,9,10, 2001: An eleven hour drive brought us to a nice Forest Service campground outside Westcliffe, Colorado. On the drive up highway 69, we could see the distinct profile of Crestone Needle peeking through the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo range.
This expedition started about nine months before when I asked James, my Crestone Needle partner, to teach me rock climbing. I had backpacked the Rockies for years and figured out that it was summiting mountains that I really liked. So after a couple of walk-ups, I decided that mountaineering was my calling, and summoned James to help me see this goal. The year before, my wife and I taught James to skydive, so I figured I was in good hands.
Crestone Needle seemed like a good choice for a first.......only a couple of technical pitches, lots of cool exposure, and easy access. It would be my first technical alpine climb after spending several months at the gym and the crags.
Bright and early, we left the FS campground and drove to the Colony Lakes trailhead/parking lot. I had heard about the rough road to South Colony Lakes and decided the abuse to my new Toyota Tacoma would not be worth it. So after hiking about a mile, we caught a ride with a fisherman to the end of the road. The South Colony Lakes area is very popular with car campers, day hikers, and fisherman. If you get to the trailhead/parking lot anytime on the weekend, you should be able to get a ride to the mountain, which will save you 6 miles of hiking up a boring mountain road. This is definitely a four-wheel drive road....no way a car could make it. The road ended and we hiked the last mile or so to the camping area near the lower of the South Colony Lakes.
Up at 4:30 AM in the dark but with a full moon. I was nervous and excited and somewhat disorganized with gear. This would prove to be a lesson later. Too excited to eat also. The evening before, James had scouted the approach so we started to the base in the dark. We saw three headlamps coming from the other direction towards the base. Turns out later it was SummitPost "jratk". See jratk's summit log entry. We saw them only once more during our climb. It took almost an hour to get to the base and the glow of sunrise began as we started up the ledges. The beginning ledges are mostly third class and gradually gains altitude as you move towards the arete. At the arete, it turns to fourth class and we roped up for one small section near the red knob. After the knob, we unroped and continued climbing fourth class ledges for about 1000 ft. I had heard that some people rope up for the entire section above the red knob but we never felt that necessary. It would take a long time to climb that mountain if roped up the whole way. We arrived at the headwall and the first technical section. By this time the clouds had gathered and were getting dark. My gear disorganization was becoming evident as I could not find our FRS radios and other items we needed. Since James was leading all the pitches, I had the pack with all the gear. As we were setting up a belay, a solo climber came up behind us. He waited while we did the pitch, then climbed up and passed us on the next section. This soloist (who was a guide from a well known Durango guide service) said he would wait for us at the summit to show us the tricky way down the back side of the mountain. The next section (5.7 crux) is where I had a little trouble. The guide books say the crux move is “awkward with a pack”. But I thought I could do it. Boy, was I wrong. That move was impossible for me to do with a pack. And I didn’t have a small pack, but a Gregory Fury (2400 cu) loaded with mine and James’ gear. So in the middle of the crux move, I took off the pack, dug for several slings, tied them together, and lowered the pack on a clown-rope tether. After the move, I drug the pack back up and finished the pitch. God help me if I had dropped that pack with all the rain gear, etc. By this time the clouds were really dark and we heard thunder in the distance. After a short third class section we were on top where it began to rain and hail. We took a couple of quick pictures and we started down the backside third class route. Our “guide” must have beat feet as soon as he hear the thunder and I didn’t blame him. It hailed harder and we hunkered down under some overhangs. Afterward, the hail began to melt and the cascading meltwater turned our descent from class three to four. We basically followed cairns all the way down the gully and soon reached a grassy bench. By this time I had run out of food, water, and energy. I drank some meltwater. At the grassy bench, the cairns split, one set going down the west side of the mountain to the valley opposite South Colony Lakes, the other set started at the top of a small cliff opposite the gully. We started down the west side but soon realized our mistake and climbed back up to follow the other cairns. After climbing up the small cliff, there was an obvious trail which led to Broken Hand Pass. We arrived at the Broken Hand Pass snow slope and started down. James slipped, slid into the rocks and apparently broke or cracked his tailbone. This would have been safer with an ice axe. Anyway, we arrived back at camp at around 6:00 PM, thirsty, hungry, and exhausted. We crashed immediately and slept about 12 hours. Before hiking out the next day, I found all the stuff in the bottom of my pack that I couldn’t find on the mountain. While packing and sorting gear, James pulled out the clown rope and laughed. Lessons learned. We hiked out, got a great meal in Westcliffe, and drove home.
Thank to James for being a great mentor and leading me up the hill on my first real mountain climb. Thanks Crestone Needle for being there and providing a great experience!