Crestone Peak-Red Gully
Via Upper S. Colony Lake TH
Friday September 19, 2008
After working all day Thursday I made ready and hit the road south out of Louisville at 6:35PM. Traffic was heavy but moving OK as I proceeded south via route 93 to E-470, to I-25. At Colo. Sprgs I picked-up Academy Blvd (route 115) around Ft Carson, to route 67, to route 96 through Silver Cliff, to route 69 out of Westcliffe. A few miles out of town I turned right on Colfax Lane and headed due west after the road turned to dirt and headed up into the San Isabel Nat Forest.
The S. Colony Lake TH road is a long, 4-wd, rocky, bumpy, humpy, rutted, cruddy road and the US Forest Service has indeed improved this road with rock crushers and bulldozers and appears to be in the process of adding some campsites well below the first creek crossing. After contacting the USFS I learned that in Sept 2010 this road will be closed somewhere around the Rainbow Trail or near the 1st creek crossing. It took about an hour to go from Route 69 up this road to the second parking lot just after the last creek crossing.
The night was clear and a 1/2 moon shined and brightened the area and the temperature was rather cool as I quickly made ready my Sonoma to bed-down for the night. Both parking areas had many vehicles but I saw no one and I went to sleep at about 11:05PM. I was pretty tired and it didn’t take long before I fell right to sleep.
At 1:30AM I was awoken by another arriving vehicle and it sounded like a couple of guys were packing in to setup camp somewhere in off the trail. The moon illuminated everything as it was almost directly overhead. About 4:00AM I heard more people stirring making ready to pack in and I couldn’t fall back to sleep; my watch alarm sounded at 5:00AM. The morning was frosty and cold and I dressed accordingly and put on a warm jacket as well. I fired-up my single burner stove and prepared my normal breakfast fare of instant oatmeal, black coffee and a quart of Gatorade. I was moving rather slowly and was still a bit tired as I made ready my pack and finally started up the trail at 6:37AM.
I passed the gate and it was just light enough that I could see the trail just fine. I signed-in at the trail registry and noted that there were only three people ahead of me, at least that’s what the registry was telling me. I came upon the same dead Porcupine I’d seen two months before when I climbed Crestone Needle and there were still quills everywhere. Again I hope the poor thing died of old age, instead of in a blizzard over the winter…..very odd sight. The good trail then empties into a box canyon of sorts with tall peaks to the immediate left and in front with much taller peaks in the distance to the right including Crestone Needle rising tall above all else.
I hiked around and to the right where the trail moves through a brushy section and back into the forest, I continued with a creek running hard on the right and willows now on the left as I made my way to where I could see Lower S. Colony Lake directly ahead. After a short while I came to the sign for Crestone Needle standard route and at this junction the trails forked to the left and up through some more willows. Here there were other people camping and I spoke briefly to a young guy who appeared to be pretty cold and was all bundled-up and told me of some snow they’d had the evening before. I could see Broken Hand Pass well above and clearly could see that it was certainly holding some snow.
I advanced higher up the trail and over a couple of short rises and then into a rocky area with several switchbacks that gained altitude rapidly. The view is dominated with Crestone Needle to the right and Humboldt Peak back over my right shoulder and Lower S, Colony Lake between the two of them with a vast green basin and many low-lying willows and bushes. Up ahead in the early morning light the moon shown bright at the notch defining the top of Broken Hand Pass and I could now see a person standing at the very top and another person making his way up about ½ way through the steepest section of the coulior heading up to the pass.
I soon made the base of the coulior and followed the same footprints in the ½” of snow on the trail making it easy for me to find my way on the frozen trail. There were a few slippery spots but otherwise the passage was OK and I only had to go on all-four in two steep spots before the trail became a bit more defined. There were several signs stating to stay off certain areas for restoration purposes and I continued following the footprints I was glad to finally reach the top.
The view from the pass was quite a sight with Broken Hand Peak large on the left, Crestone Needle to the right, both S. Colony Lakes (upper & lower), Humboldt Peak, and a beautiful sunny morning breaking on the high peaks and well down below from whence I had came. I followed a well defined trail left across a grassy section where things level-out a bit and then climbed down on a good trail to where I could clearly see the trail with the dusting of snow and the two separate sets of footprints leading down to Cottonwood Lake that soon came into view as I made my way down giving-up all the elevation I’d gained over Broken Hand Pass.
After a few switchbacks I was soon down on a gradual level and proceeded directly to Cottonwood Lake. Continuing on the trail to the right of the lake and through some willows with the sound of a small creek on my left and through some boulders and around the base of a large ridge on my right brought me to a large opening. Here I could now see Crestone Peak high above on the right and the Red Gully directly center-cut leading to the notch just right of the summit. Crestone Needle was high to my far right and the connecting ridge with its huge gendarmes filled the view as I followed the well defined trail complete with cairns.
I could now see two people just about to enter the Red Gully up ahead and made my way up some switchbacks heading to the right and climbing up higher to where the trail then heads left and to the spot where it enters the gully. Water was running down and I crossed over to the left side and started the scramble up the gully and I began my ascent rather carefully as grabbing a hand & foot hold was the only way to proceed. I took my time and stayed hydrated as I was working pretty hard and trying to concentrate on where I was and where I was going.
Before too long I caught-up to the two brothers climbing above and passed the one (John) and proceeded behind the other all the way up to where it gets a bit steeper and finally exits at the top of the gully and into a large notch. Down through the other side of the notch was an awesome sight with a sheer drop-off; back down the Red Gully was also a sight to behold with a grandiose view. The clouds were now starting to spit some snow pellets as I continued along a series of short ledges to the left of the notch.
I continued my ascent until I could now see the person ahead of me apparently sitting on the summit above. I made my way up a couple more short ledges and then to where the guy was sitting. He wasn’t sure if he was on the summit or not and I saw another taller section directly across from were we were and I climbed down through another small notch between the two and finally clambered up to the summit proper at 11:28. The other guy soon followed and we greeted each other with a hand shake and introductions. I told Pat that his brother was doing OK but was well below and it may take him awhile to arrive.
The views were simply spectacular with Crestone Needle, Kit Carson/Challenger Peak, The Blanca Massive, Great Sand Dunes, and the San Luis Valley clearly in view from this tiny summit perched just at the same level as the clouds closing-in from seemingly every direction. However, the sun shown brightly for most of the brief minutes we stayed and rested. We signed the summit log, shared some food and took each others photos and hoped to get some emailed to each other and we took many more of the surrounding views. I shared my cell phone and we each called home to say we had made it and all was well. About 10 mins went by and we both agreed it was time to leave.
I finished my rest with a long drink, we bid our a dues and I started down first with Pat right behind me at 11:39. I then made my way back down through the ledges and back to the notch above the Red Gully. Heading down the gully was easier than going up but strenuous just the same and I made certain to see that Pat wasn’t far behind as I made my way down the gully to where I could now see that Pat’s bro John had started back down as well. The weather was becoming a bit of a concern as the snow pellet showers persisted intermittently; I was then greeted by a lightning bolt across the way and a large thunder boom just as I reached the cairned trail leading away from the gully entrance.
I was glad that the weather held-off as I climbed down the gully as this would have made the passage extremely dangerous had the red, polished rock been wet. I wasted little time getting back down through the cairned trail and I chatted very briefly with John and told him Pat was coming along shortly. I was soon back down to more level ground and spoke to another guy with his dog heading up to where I was coming from as the snow pellets and rain started coming down harder and the thunder boomed and echoed off all the surrounding peaks making it impossible to tell which direction the weather was coming from. This guy had apparently gotten off track and thought he was heading towards Cottonwood Lake; I assured him to follow me and I’d take him right there. He had come up from Cottonwood Creek on the west side and followed me back to where he turned right back down to where he’d started and I continued on to Cottonwood Lake.
Things started to brighten and the thunder stopped as the squall had skirted away and the sun shown bright again as I made my way back around the lake and on up the trail back to Broken Hand Pass. I stopped to remove my leggings and cool-off with a long drink before the final ascent back up the pass. I wasn’t nearly as fresh as I’d been this morning and reaching the top of the pass was most welcomed where I again paused for a good rest as the weather was starting and the thunder getting closer as the sun was now blocked once again.
I wasted little time and the coulior back down the pass wasn’t any better/easier as it was this morning but the snow had melted and kept the trail a bit softer and held the scree together some which was a blessing as it afforded a decent foothold on my descent back to the firm rock trail. The weather continued getting worse by the minute as I made my way back down to Lower S. Colony Lake and to the trail back to the TH; pretty much a carbon-copy of the day I had climbed Crestone Needle back in July. The sky was dark with thunder and snow beginning to fall from out of the west and I stopped to get into my rain gear and cover my pack as the last ½ mile back to the TH was a full-blown heavy, lightning/thunder, snow storm. I know that John & Pat were well behind and were camping at Lower S. Colony Lake and I truly pray that they both got down OK.
I signed-out at the registry and got back to my truck at 3:36PM. I was beat and waited around some taking a good rest before heading back down the rugged road as the storm began to taper-off and I could see a fresh dusting of snow on all the immediate peaks. My 42nd 14’er ………….sweet!!