|I climbed Crestone Peak with Alan Ellis who also submitted a trip report. I included a lot more details and anecdotes in this trip report. Some readers may find these interesting; others may find them tedious and boring. If you want a briefer, just-the-facts version read Alan’s trip report.|
Day 1 -- August 1, 2003
Originally this weekend was scheduled to be a Mount of the Holy Cross weekend with my wife Julie. However, since Julie had been in Los Angeles the weekend before work had piled up and she wasn’t going to be able to skip out on work Friday. Consequently the plan wasn’t going to work out and we had to push that trip back a weekend or two. When those plans fell through, I had a free weekend and I was looking for something to do. Two trips came to mind: (a) knock out some easy fourteeners by doing the Democrat, Lincoln, Bross loop or (b) climb Fairchild and Hagues in the Mummy Range so I could submit them to SummitPost.com. I wasn’t sure if doing the Democrat, Lincoln, Bross loop would be possible as a one day trip from Denver, so I posted a couple of questions on the SP message board. When Alan Ellis spotted that I was looking for something to climb he invited me to join him in the Sangre de Cristos to climb Crestone Peak. This was an invitation that was too good to pass up. Meeting and climbing with Alan was going to be a great opportunity. I’d also read that Crestone Peak was one of the more difficult fourteeners so I was glad that I’d get the opportunity to climb it with somebody as experienced as Alan.
Alan was driving from Oklahoma Thursday, climbing Humboldt Peak on Friday, and Climbing Crestone Peak on Saturday. I couldn’t get down there quick enough to join him for Humboldt. Instead I was going to leave work as early as possible Friday and try to meet up with him before dark. As it turned out, I was able to put in a lot of hours early in the week at work so that I could leave the office at 10:30 Friday morning. I had all my gear sorted out so I was able to leave my office, gas up the car, and hit the road straightaway. The traffic was pretty thick, but moving well through Denver and over Monument Hill. However, on the north side of Colorado Springs there was a big rollover accident and I had to sit for a while waiting for that to get cleaned up. Ironically the accident was on the northbound side, but the emergency vehicles were all parked in the southbound lanes. After I passed through that mess traffic was thick and moving slow through the rest of Colorado Springs. Fortunately it sped up on the south end. Before long I’d made it to Pueblo and looped around the heart of the city using a little trick another SP member, Mike Downey, had told me about. This worked great and I bypassed a lot of traffic and hassle. Soon I was on Highway 96 headed west.
After I made it through Wetmore the road started to look familiar. I couldn’t remember ever being in this area of Colorado unless it was on a bike ride. I didn’t think Ride The Rockies had ever come this way. Then it hit me: back in ’95 or ’96 I did the Tour de Hardscrabble bike ride that went from Florence through Wetmore, over Hardscrabble Pass to Westcliffe, dropped down Highway 69 to the Arkansas River, and then headed back to Florence via Canon City. That was a solid ride and Hardscrabble Pass still looked like a fun climb.
I cruised over the top of Hardscrabble Pass and dropped down into Westcliffe. I stopped at the grocery store for a much needed restroom break, a snack, and some cold Gatorade for the hike. With these errands done I headed south for the trailhead. I was a little anxious about the drive up to the trailhead. I had read horror stories about the road. It sounded very rough. However, driving up the road could cut up to five miles off my hike (one way). I was driving my new Saturn VUE and I wasn’t sure how far I could make it. The VUE isn’t really an SUV, it’s more like a beefy station wagon with AWD. Right as I approached the 2WD parking lot I met a guy coming down. He was in an old, beat up pickup and we discussed my chances of making it up the road. He looked skeptically, mainly due to my lack of clearance. However, he assured me there were many places to park along the way if the going go too tough. I decided to give it a shot. Hopefully I could cut at least some mileage off the hike.
I made it about a mile up the road before I came around a bend and encountered a very steep rutted section. There was a maroon Toyota parked at the top of this section of the road. This matched the description of Alan’s vehicle so I figured if Alan couldn’t make it any further there was no way I was going to. I parked the car at the bottom of the hill and got my gear sorted out. While I was getting my stuff together a stock Jeep Cherokee rolled by. I geared up and began my hike at 15:30. When I passed the maroon Toyota at the top of the hill I realized that it wasn’t Alan’s because it had Colorado plates. At this point I was faced with a choice: I could continue with my hike or I could go back and get the car and try to drive some more. The hill I’d just walked up was pretty steep and rutted so I figured it would be safest just to walk the rest of the way. I would have a couple of hours to reflect on this choice and wonder if I’d made the right one.
I set a good pace hiking up the road and made quick progress. The whole time I was hoping for a vehicle to pass me that I might be able to hitch a ride with. None came. After an hour of rapid hiking I finally reached the real location of Alan’s vehicle at 16:30. During the last twenty minutes I heard a vehicle coming up behind me but it must not have been going much faster than I was because it didn’t catch me. Alan hadn’t been able to make it over a large slab of rock due to lack of traction and had parked on the side of the road beneath the slab. When I got there the Jeep Cherokee that had passed me at the very bottom of the hill was struggling to make it over the slab. Either he’d been there a long time, or he hadn’t been going much faster than me up the road. I stopped at Alan’s truck to get some supplies he had stashed there for me: an emergency space bivy sack, a two-way radio, and a climbing helmet. After I got those squared away and was ready to return to my hike, the vehicle I’d been hearing for the last twenty minutes showed up at the bottom of the rock slab (the Jeep Cherokee was still trying to get over it). The guy in this new vehicle asked me if this was the way to Music Pass. I told him I was pretty sure that it wasn’t. I got out my map and we looked at it. It looked to me like Music Pass was a little further to the south and he would need to retraced his steps all the way back down the valley below. He turned around and I set off once more, leaving the Jeep Cherokee to struggle with the rock slab.
During the last forty-five minutes it had started to cloud up and within twenty minutes of leaving Alan’s truck the skies really opened up. I found a nice grove of trees to hole up in and waited out the storm. Although I was staying dry, I got cold pretty quickly. I put on the legs from my convertible pants and took off my sweat-drenched t-shirt. I replaced that with a lightweight polypro turtleneck. I waited under the trees for about a half hour before the rain began to let up. As I was readying to continue the Jeep Cherokee drove past. Apparently they finally made it over the rock slab.
When I made it to the gate and parking lot for South Colony Lakes I took out Alan’s radio and gave it a shot. He could hear me on my first call, and I could hear him. But after that something wasn’t working because he couldn’t hear me. Anyway, he was able to communicate enough so that I knew when to try him next—when I hit the sign for The Needle route. Also in the parking lot was the Jeep Cherokee. The guys in it were just getting out and getting their backpacks ready. It gave me a sense of satisfaction that I made it up to the parking lot on foot as fast as they could driving. I continued down the trail and soon the 4WD road turned into single track. As I looped around the valley the shrubbery closed in along the trail. Soon my pants were drenched from brushing up against wet branches. The sky continued to look ominous and soon it was pouring again. I found another little sheltered spot to wait this storm out. This little spot was even more sheltered than my last one and I had a comfortable tree to sit on. I enjoyed listening to the rainfall and looking out across the valley back the way I had come. In fifteen minutes or so the rain let up and I continued on.
Soon I began to encounter many other campers. This was a huge departure from my previous wilderness experiences. Near Fort Collins, I spent most of my time in Rawah Wilderness and Comanche Peak Wilderness. In these wildernesses if you work it right you will only see one or two other parties all weekend. In Sangre de Cristo Wilderness you couldn’t walk a hundred feet without tripping over somebody’s campsite. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were at least thirty people camping around Lower South Colony Lake that evening! Anyway I soon reached the appointed trail junction where I was to try calling Alan again. I got him on the radio and he told me to start up the trail to The Needle. I did, and within a hundred yards Alan popped out of the bushes to lead me to his campsite. It was fun to finally meet someone from SummitPost face-to-face. I’d been a member of SummitPost for a little more than a year and felt like I knew a lot of the other members. However I’d never met one in person.
We shook hands and Alan led me to his campsite. As we got there it was beginning to rain again. I wasted no time, and with Alan’s help I set my tent up as fast as I could. It had really begun to pour as I finished up, but we did a reasonable job of keeping the inside of the tent dry. I stuck my pack in the vestibule to try to keep it dry and Alan and I hunkered down beneath some scrubby trees while we waited for the rain to let up. It finally slowed down enough for me to venture out and take care of some other chores. The next priority was to filter water for tomorrows hike. I went down to Lower South Colony Lakes and filled my 4-liter hydration bladder and two 1-liter Nalgene bottles. After that I made my way back to camp to get some dinner on and sort out my gear for tomorrow. Alan had already eaten and went to bed. I put some water on to boil and sorted out my gear. I put my hydration bladder in my pack and loaded it up with extra clothes and snacks for tomorrow while my dinner reconstituted.
After I got everything sorted out I picked up my dinner and a Nalgene bottle of Crystal Lite and walked up to the top of a little hill by our campsite so I could look off over Lower South Colony Lake and gaze at Crestone Needle. I was really impressed by Crestone Needle. That is one awesome looking mountain! While I was eating a little bunny hopped over. I don’t know if he was looking for a handout, but he kept coming up to about three feet away from me, and then got startled by one of my movements and dashed off. He did this three or four times before he left for good. Apparently a lot of the wildlife in the area is pretty brazen. Alan said that earlier that day he’d been taking a nap out in the sunshine and awoke to find a big chipmunk sitting on his chest! The sun had set about a half hour earlier and I was beginning to get a little cold. I stuck it out for a few more minutes to watch the moon set behind Crestone Needle and then headed for bed. My jacket, pants, and socks were still soaked from the rain so I laid those out as best as I could and hoped they would dry out. I set my alarm for 4:00, 4:10, and 4:20. This way I would have two snoozes before I really had to get out of bed at 4:20. Since both Alan and I had everything ready to go we hoped we could wake up at 4:20 and be on the trail at 4:30.
I was pretty cold so I zipped my sleeping bag up all the way and snuggled into the hood of my mummy bag. This was a big mistake. In an hour or two I awoke drenched in sweat. I unzipped my bag and let it air out. The sleeping bag and I dried quickly and I went back to sleep. I slept fairly well the rest of the night.
Day 2 -- August 2, 2003
I awoke to my first alarm and lay in bed for the second alarm to go off. When it did I rolled out of bed and quickly put my clothes on. My pants and jacket were still damp and my socks were soaked. Everything in my tent was also covered with a thin layer of moisture. There are a couple of things that I don’t like about my one-man tent and one of them is that it doesn’t ventilate very well. This natural shortcoming of the tent compounded by the rain the past evening and then my sweat-fest during the night contributed to everything being damp. I put on fresh socks and tossed the wet ones into my pack. I put on my convertible pants, polypro turtleneck, stocking cap, fingerless gloves, jack, and my boots before stepping out of the tent. I was a little cold in my damp pants and jacket so I was anxious to get moving. Luckily we were all ready to go so all we had to do was throw on our packs and get moving.
I really enjoy hiking in the dark. The miles just seem to fly by hardly noticed. We moved along really nicely up to Broken Hand Pass. There appeared to be one party ahead of us, and boy were they ahead of us! When we were just starting out it looked like they were nearly to the top of the pass. Our plan was to make it to the class three portion of Broken Hand Pass at dawn so that we would have natural light. Neither Alan nor I really wanted to do that part of the hike in pitch black. On an equipment note, this was the first big test of my headlamp—a Black Diamond Moonlight. It worked really well. They only time it didn’t perform perfectly was for route finding. I few times we had trouble following the cairns and the Moonlight didn’t see far enough to find the next one. I anticipated this shortcoming and had a flashlight in my pocket for such occasions.
We made it through the class three section of Broken Hand Pass and were at the top as day began to break. The sun rose somewhere behind Humboldt Peak and the sky lighted with wonderful hews of pink, purple, and red. I shed my jacket, gloves, stocking cap, and headlamp and stowed them away in my pack. I also forced down a handful of trail mix and a PowerGel. Trying energy gel while hiking was a new experiment for me. I had discovered energy gels through bicycle racing. Energy gels make the perfect food while you’re in a bike race because they’re almost pure calories and they’re so easy to eat. All you have to do is squirt the packet into your mouth in one or two gulps and then wash it down with a little water. Since I have a hard time feeding myself during hikes (I just never seem to take the time to sit and eat, and when I do, sometimes the food doesn’t agree with my stomach) I thought this might work out well.
After the snack on top of Broken Hand Pass and a moment to catch our breath we headed down the other side. After the first hundred feet or so Cottonwood Lake came into view and there were many tents dotting its northern shore. I couldn’t figure out why it was called Cottonwood Lake. There wasn’t a tree, Cottonwood or otherwise, to be seen anywhere. At about this time the first rays of sunlight were hitting the top of Crestone Needle. It was quite pretty. We lost the 600 feet or so of elevation and wound around Cottonwood Lake and past a large rib protruding from Crestone Needle. After we rounded the rib we could see Crestone Peak. We filled the empty water bottles we’d brought from a little stream, popped some iodine tablets and drink mix into them, and stashed them near a rock. We also ditched our trekking poles. While we were caching our gear, we gazed up at Crestone Peak. The route we were going to take was unmistakable. The Red Couloir was aptly named—it formed a long red ribbon careening down the mountain. While we were standing there gazing up, we could pick out a pair of climbers just making their way across the last grassy ledge as they entered the bottom of the couloir.
We set off to follow them. We hiked up the valley to where talus fields began to encroach on the grass and the slope steepens. In this area we saw a couple of mountain goats or bighorn sheep. I’m not sure which they were. They looked like female bighorn sheep to me because they were gray-brown in color, not very shaggy, and had short horns that didn’t wrap around. However, Alan thought they might be baby mountain goats because young mountain goats can also be gray in color instead of white. We reached the last grassy ledge and then cut over to the couloir. We then began the unrelenting climb up Red Couloir at about 7:15. This was solid class three climb and was really fun. In the bottom third of the couloir there was a nice little stream that cascaded down the right-hand side of the couloir. This stream was easy to avoid if we stayed to the left of the couloir. After a while the stream petered out and we continued to climb up Red Couloir. This climb reminded me a lot of The Trough on Longs Peak. The rock in Red Couloir was probably a bit more stable than The Trough, Red Couloir was a little steeper, and it was much longer than The Trough. After what seemed like a long climb, we topped out of the couloir. There were a couple of fellows hanging out at the top of the couloir. These were the guys we’d seen enter the bottom of the couloir. They had already tagged the summit and were ready to head back down. They had been watching us come up the last one hundred feet and were waiting for us to pass before heading down themselves so that we wouldn’t be kicking rocks down on each other and getting in each other’s way. From the top of the couloir, the summit was only a quick scramble away.
Alan and I arrived on the summit at 8:45. We took some photos, signed the summit log, and had some snacks. As we finished signing the summit log a couple of other guys showed up. One hailed from Omaha and the other was from Washington DC. Both had climbed many fourteeners. The guys from DC had climbed more than twenty and they guy from Omaha had climbed more than forty. The guy from Omaha was a real character and every other word out of his mouth was a profanity. This guy was considering bagging The Needle later that day. Alan and I thought he got too late of a start for that. He thought we were probably right, but he was going to descend back to Cottonwood Lake and keep his options open. Both he and the guy from DC were camped in the Cottonwood Lakes area and had come up from the west side. They said the approach hike was brutal. After snapping photos of each other we all left the summit. Alan and I regrouped at the top of the couloir and began our descent at 9:30.
On the way up I hadn’t realized that there was so much loose stuff. On the way down I had to watch myself so as not to dislodge any rock (especially on the upper half of the couloir). On the way down both the guy from Omaha and the guy from DC exited the couloir very early (probably somewhere near the halfway point). Alan shouted over to the guy from Omaha asking him what he was doing and the guy replied that this was they way he’d come up. Alan and I stuck to the couloir where we knew we wouldn’t run into any problems. About this same time we met a couple of parties coming up. With the pair of guys that were on the summit before we got there, the four of us that met on the summit, and the four people that were going up the couloir while we were going down there were probably only ten people on the summit of Crestone Peak all day. This was a far cry from all my previous fourteeners where there had been tons of people on the summits.
We finally made it back down to the bottom of the couloir and exited out the same way we entered. However, the run out of the couloir didn’t look bad and one could probably follow it all the way down to the grassy meadow below. We soon made it back to the spot were we cached our gear. We sat down and had a drink and a snack. This was the first time I’d ever had water purified with iodine tablets and it wasn’t too bad with the Crystal Lite mix in it. I made sure to down the whole liter of Crystal Lite because the last thing I wanted to do was get dehydrated or get altitude sickness. So far I was doing good—no headache and only slightly uneasy stomach. I wanted to keep it that way.
After the short rest we set off once more. The stroll back around Cottonwood Lake was pleasant and we quickly arrived at the base of Broken Hand Pass. Neither Alan nor I was looking forward to this part of the hike, but as they say: “no pain, no gain.” We made our way slowly up the pass. On the lower slopes of Broken Hand Peak the Rocky Mountain Field Institute was working to excavate rock and haul it down to the trail going over the pass. They had built an elaborate tram system for carry the rocks from the peak down to the trail where they were using the rocks to build steps and shore up the trail. Originally Alan had suggested we try and bag Broken Hand Peak too. However, neither of us was feeling that ambitious after the long haul up Crestone Peak. If I were going to spend the night again down at Lower South Colony Lakes I probably would have gone for it. However, we had decided earlier to pack out back to the car as soon as we got back down to camp. I could have stayed the night by myself, but I wanted to go with Alan because if I went with him it would cut many miles off my return trip (his car was parked near the top of the 4WD road and mine was parked near the bottom). If I’d rested near the top of Broken Hand Pass and had some snacks I probably could have summoned the necessary energy for the climb. However, the hike from camp down to Alan’s car would require several more miles of hiking with full packs and I didn’t think I had the energy to do that and climb Broken Hand Peak without a significant break in there somewhere. Instead we were going to try to get down into Westcliffe as soon as possible so we could have a nice dinner before I headed back up to Fort Collins and Alan headed towards Oklahoma (planning to spend the night somewhere between Westcliffe and Oklahoma City).
When we made it to the top of the pass we met a couple of parties. The first group was a bunch of guys heading up to Crestone Needle. It was 12:30 and it seemed a little late to be that early into the journey. Clouds were building to the west and if yesterday was any indication, they could be in for thunderstorms as early as 14:00. I was happy to let them continue with their risky plans, but Alan felt they should be warned. He tried to talk them out of their summit bid, citing the inevitable thunderstorm on the horizon and the fact that descent off The Needle was very tricky and no place to be during inclement weather. These guys were extremely confidant (bordering on arrogant) and shrugged off Alan’s warning. They seemed to think they were moving super-fast and would be up and down before the weather turned. Right as these guys left the top of the pass and headed up The Needle a pair of women came down off The Needle. They did a double take as the group of guys passed them and stopped to chat with us. They concurred with us that starting a summit bid for Crestone Needle this late in the day was a huge mistake. These gals were part of the Rocky Mountain Field Institute working on the trail improvements. We talked with them for a few minutes. They were both in the middle of a four-week stint in the area. Their base camp was down at Cottonwood Lake and they came up here every day and put in eight hours working on the trail. We thanked them for all their hard work and parted ways.
We continued on down the other side of Broken Hand Pass and after making it down through the class three section we encountered another party. These people were also planning on climbing The Needle. It was now near 13:00. These people looked fairly inexperienced and had a couple of big dogs (one was a German Shepherd). They wanted to know if we thought their dogs would make it. I doubted it, but they would have an indication pretty soon. If their dogs could make it up Broken Hand Pass (and more importantly down), then they had a fair chance of being able to make it to the summit of The Needle. I doubted they could and the tricky thing about dogs that big is you can’t really help them. It’s hard to lift or carry a hundred-pound dog! At least with my little fifteen-pound dog I can pick him up and carry him down sections that he can’t do or I could put him in my pack if worse came to worse. With a big dog you’re stuck if they can’t do it themselves. Alan gave the group his spiel about the weather and the descent being tricky. This group seemed a little more receptive to the warning and said they’d evaluate the situation when they got to the top of Broken Hand Pass and observed the weather to the west. Alan and I found out later that a fellow died on Little Bear that day. This guy was running from a thunderstorm and slipped and fell off the edge. This hit pretty close to home because we could see Little Bear from the top of Crestone Peak. We didn’t hear anything about people being killed or hurt on Crestone Needle so I guess everything turned out okay for these two parties. I wondered if they made the summit or headed Alan’s advice and waited to try it another day.
The rest of the hike was uneventful and we were soon back in amongst the myriad of campsites around Lower South Colony Lake. As we made our way to our campsite we talked with several other climbers. One fellow had climbed Crestone Needle that day and was planning to summit The Peak the following day. He pumped us for info and we told him everything we could. There really wasn’t any special info to give. You can’t miss the Red Couloir and once you’re in it the climb is straightforward. We also had a good chuckle about the bozos that had started out climbing The Needle at noon. His group had started at 5:30.
Alan and I got back to our campsite at 13:30 and started packing up straightaway. My tent, ground cloth, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad were still wet due to the rain the night before and all the condensation in the tent. I’d have to set all this stuff up when I got back home to get it dry. We got all our stuff packed up pretty quickly and headed down the trail. In no time we were back to the gate and parking area at the top of the 4WD road. Here we met another group that had climbed Humboldt that day and was going after The Peak the following day. They were going to start from the gate so they’d have that extra couple of miles to hike. We advised them to start early. The next stretch of road between the gate and Alan’s truck seemed to take forever. My back and shoulders were also starting to hurt me. I don’t know if my pack wasn’t balanced correctly or what, but I was really aching. On the way up it seemed like it didn’t take long at all to get from Alan’s truck to the gate, but now I was looking around every bend hoping to see his truck.
I was really thankful when it did appear and I got a chance to throw off my pack. We got everything squared away and began the long rough trip down the 4WD road. During the drive down I pondered my choice of leaving my car where I did. Over every rough section I kept thinking to myself, “could I have made it over this?” I concluded that I probably could have made it to where the road crossed South Colony Creek, but not much further than that. However, there were several sections of the road where Alan was white-knuckling the steering wheel and I could tell that the drive down that rough road was taking its toll on his nerves. There was one point where one of his rear wheels lifted off the ground, we lost traction, and were stuck for an instant. Luckily with a little wheel spinning Alan was able to get his truck rolling again. However, I was glad I wasn’t driving and it wasn’t my vehicle. I know if I’d smashed or scratched up our car my wife would have been pretty upset with me. The threat of this danger would have weighed heavily on me during the whole drive. I guess I was glad I parked where I did, even if it did mean that long, hot hump up the road the previous day.
We made it safely back down to my car and I transferred my gear from Alan’s truck into my car. We washed up a bit and I followed Alan into Westcliffe for a burger. Alan knew of a little hole-in-the-wall in Silver Cliff and we stopped there for dinner. We both had huge burgers and they really hit the spot after eating nothing more than a couple of PowerGels and a little bit of trail mix all day. After dinner we shook hands once more and parted ways. I thanked him for inviting me on this great weekend and he thanked me for accompanying him. I think if I hadn’t come he wouldn’t have tried to climb Crestone Peak because he didn’t want to do something that difficult by himself.
It was about 17:45 and I had a long drive ahead of me. On the way down from Fort Collins it had taken me five hours to get from my office to where I abandoned the car. I hoped it would take me a lot less to get home. The drive over Hardscrabble Pass and on into Pueblo was quick and easy. I stopped in Pueblo to get a drink and fill the car with gas. After that I slipped back onto I25 and headed north. The traffic through Colorado Springs was pretty bad but after Monument Hill it thinned out a little. As I was approaching Castle Rock I ran into a wicked rainsquall. The rain came down so hard I could barely see through the windshield and water had accumulated so fast on the road I could feel the car start to hydroplane. Traffic quickly slowed down to thirty miles per hour until the rain let up a mile or so down the road. I drove through the little patch of rain and it cleared up within minutes. The traffic through Denver was moving rapidly and I cruised through it and into Fort Collins. I rolled into the garage at 21:15. Three and a half hours from Silver Cliff—not bad. I didn’t have the energy to mess with my wet gear, so I just got it out of the car so it wouldn’t stink it up. I’d leave that chore for the next day. I trudged into the house for a shower and sleep. The shower felt good and so did the clean sheets of my bed.
I had a great time during my first trip into the Sangre de Cristos. I was really glad that Alan invited me and I was able to make it. I’m already thinking about the next time I can get down there so I can bag Humboldt and The Needle. However, next time I go I’m going to make sure I have a 4WD vehicle capable of making it up the road or that I come with somebody who does!