IntroductionAs last February came to an end, I decided it was time to climb a new peak. However, after a week-long series of storms had dumped 1-2 feet of snow over the local mountains and with plenty of windloading on lee slopes, the snowpack in most parts of Colorado was less than stable. Around the same time as this storm, I happened to adopt the Cottonwood Peak page for Summitpost. Located in southern Colorado in the Sangre de Cristo range, Cottonwood Peak was likely to have a thinner, more spring-like snowpack than the central and northern mountains. On my adopted page, I found an excellent description of a primarily west- and south-facing route, which was perfect for this time of year. Thanks to RyanS for posting the West Ridge route, which proved an excellent way up Cottonwood Peak in early March.
Day 1A strong ridge of high pressure was forecast for the weekend. I wasn’t sure whether the storm, which had left us with a decent amount of new snow in the Mosquito Range, had even affected to Sangres. The CAIC wasn’t much help either, citing “insufficient info” for the entire range. Erring on the side of safety, I decided to wait until Sunday morning to climb, allowing any new snow that may have fallen a couple of extra days to stabilize. Knowing that spring comes early to the Sangres, I wondered: would the snowpack be hard or icy enough to warrant plastics and crampons up high? Would there be enough snow to need snowshoes down low? Would my plastics even fit in my snowshoes? The answer to the last question, I have discovered, is definitely a no. This, along with a strong reluctance to pack two pairs of boots, persuaded me to brave it in just Sorels and snowshoes. My snowshoes are going on six or seven seasons now, and as a result of shameless overuse, the front crampons are quite a bit more rounded than pointy. I could probably sharpen them, but it makes for much better climbing stories if you mention that your crampon points were severely dull.
At 11 miles round-trip and just over 5000' of elevation gain, Cottonwood Peak’s west ridge (via Hot Springs Canyon) would be a relatively straightforward dayhike in summer. But, in early March, with an undetermined amount of snow, I wasn’t sure if a dayhike would be feasible, much less pleasurable. So I packed a basic overnight pack, plus shovel, probe, and beacon. Admittedly, most of my avalanche paranoia was probably unwarranted, but given the lack of information about the local snowpack, I wanted the shovel and probe to be able to evaluate it. And the beacon? The possibility of a rescue would be unlikely (being solo on a seldom-used route in a remote wilderness area). But in the hopefully improbable event of a slide, the beacon, I am told, would make the eventual body recovery easier. Amid such cheery thoughts, I left Alma at seven o'clock on a Sunday morning, stopped in Buena Vista for a coffee, and arrived at the Hot Springs Canyon trailhead by 8:30 a.m., under cloudless skies. The sun was just climbing over the bulk of the Sangres as I began my hike.
The Hot Springs Canyon/Garner Creek trailhead sits at about 8300' on the eastern edge of the San Luis Valley, right on top of the Sangre de Cristo fault zone. Located between one of the world's highest rift valleys and a the state's only fault-block range, the area tells an interesting geological history. Because of the 5-7,000 foot rise from the valley floor (depending where you measure), the Sangre de Cristos also host a large diversity of species, transitioning from pinyon-juniper savanna to scrub oak forest, then to willow and aspen forests. Higher up, there is a dense belt of spruce-fir forest, and above that, ancient bristlecone pines, dwindling into the alpine tundra above treeline. As a narrow, north-south chain of mountains, many of the drainages in the Sangres are oriented east-west. As a result, the snow can be extremely variable, with the north-facing slops holding new snow for weeks after a storm, and south-facing slopes completely melting out after a few sunny days.
I started out at a relatively quick pace, mostly to escape the din of squawking pinyon jays that had gathered around my truck. The trail, lightly used in winter, was melted out and obscured by a maze of game trails. A detailed historical log of the local wildlife’s activity had been recorded here: deer, elk, cottontail, snowshoe hare, coyote, fox, mountain lion, human, and possibly a yeti or two. I left the trail and tiptoed over barely-thick-enough sun crust, directly uphill, into the mouth of the canyon, managing, for the most part, not to posthole into the sugary snow beneath. At around 9200' the character of the route quickly changed. From the sparse, sunny pinyon-juniper forest, I skirted around some scrub oak entered into the shady stillness of dense aspens. Finding deeper snow here, I put my snowshoes on. Although the south-facing slope 20 yards to my left was completely dry, the creek bottom had a good two or three feet of snow, and I decided to follow the trail as long as I could. The most recent activity, it appeared, seemed to be someone on snowshoes who had come through a week or two before me.
At around 10,000' the character of the canyon changed again. Here, the shadowy side of the drainage held a good three feet of snow, with dense spruce and fir replacing aspens. The aspect of the canyon also changed, tending north-south for a half mile. With the sun directly above and behind me, the temperature jumped 20 degrees. I was down to one layer and sweating by the time I reached a clearing where the drainage forked. Here, the route swings back east, beneath a high ridge. The sun relented. From this point, looking west, one can begin to see out over a small wedge of the San Luis Valley, with Antora Peak and Sheep Mountain further to the west. Though it was probably well before noon, I didn’t have a watch, and decided it was lunchtime. I broke out the meat, cheese, and bread, and drank all but 1 liter of my water. Upward.
Hot Springs Canyon curves left and right, and eventually, back left again. This section, from around 11,000' to 11,750, proved to be the most difficult of the entire route, not because of steepness or technical difficulty, but simply because it was so damn hot. At least on this day, with my rather heavy pack and snowshoes laden with wet snow, this section was a grunt. Not least because I was trying to ration my remaining 1 liter of water until camp was set up, wherever that was. Due to its aspect, the basin at head of Hot Springs Creek reflects and intensifies any available solar radiation. This creates the effect of a solar oven at midday. Soaked with sweat, I pushed on as fast as I could. Moving quickly from the shade of one tree to the next, I soon found myself at the top end of the canyon.
It was hard to see, looking uphill through the bristlecones, what the snow was like up higher. None of the south-facing slopes was bare or windscoured at this altitude, but the snow wasn’t particularly deep either. I was able to probe down between 2 and 4 feet. About 500 feet below treeline, on a SSW aspect, I stopped and dug a couple of small snowpits. Despite the warm air temperature, the snow didn't seem to have warmed that much from the night before, and I was able to stand on top of it in boots, indicating a low chance of wet slides. I found at least two distinct upper layers which had bonded well to each other (resisted shearing). Lower down, there were several consolidated layers, with 3-5 cm. of sugar snow at the bottom. Due to the thin snowpack, the entire slope seemed to be resting on a lurking, well-developed layer of depth hoar. This gave me some pause. Yet the overall slab seemed extremely cohesive, and the slope seemed well-anchored, with a decidedly “solid” feel. Seeing no recent slide activity on adjacent slopes, I decided to go for it, cautiously. Probably overcautiously–but hard slab on top of depth hoar definitely makes for less than ideal snow conditions. Heading up the steeper (maybe 40 degree) headwall above the canyon, I caught a glimpse of rocks showing through high on the ridge above. The slope appeared to be windblown as the angle lessened toward the top. I headed directly uphill in the trees toward that area. The snow turned to ice-glazed windcrust and thinned as I got higher, and by 12,000 feet, the slope was almost completely windblown. Thirsty and hungry, I gained Cottonwood Peak’s west ridge sometime in the early afternoon.
After spending a good length of time gaping in awe at the surreal views around me, it was time to rehydrate and set up camp. I dug a little platform/windblock for my tent in the windcrust on top of the ridge, with a nice, 10-foot cornice as a front yard. I melted snow in the Jetboil until I had drunk 2 more liters and had full water bottles again. As I sat on my newly constructed snow couch, eating smoked oysters and granola bars, I remembered that I had told my girlfriend that, if I had a signal, I would call her after I had set up camp. I am normally reluctant, if not morally opposed, to using my cell phone in the backcountry, but she, for some reason, has the ability to compromise these principles. Solo climbs, I think, are meant to be solo. For me, they serve as quiet, almost therapeutic reprieves uninterrupted by the intrusion of the world below. Yet it might also be true, as Chris McCandless put it, that 'happiness is only real when shared.' Such was my paradox as I turned on my phone. No signal.
This should have solved my dilemma, but as I sat there looking at Cottonwood's subpeak above me, I decided to see if I had cell service up there. It would be cool, I thought, to watch the sun set from that point as well. My legs were a bit tired from the 3000' I had gained with a heavy pack, but I figured I could use a little walkabout to keep them from stiffening up. And it wouldn’t hurt to scope out the rest of the route, for the early morning climb. I started up again with a light pack–parka, headlamp, a liter of water, and a few bars. On snowshoes with an ice axe, I gained the subpeak quickly. Still no cell signal. Okay then, I won’t call her, I thought. I sat down to watch the sunset. However, seeing that the sun was still 45 minutes or so above the horizon, I suddenly had an idea. What the hell? I thought. I’ve come this far. Guessing at the distance to the top, now fully in view, I set the goal of summiting by sunset.
The zigzag ridge steepened, the sun sank lower in the sky, and I continued up. Wild, intricate patterns appeared on the surface of the hard sastrugi snow. Low sunlight illuminated hundreds of beautifully wind-sculpted, concentric waves and spirals everywhere I looked. Focusing on each next step, feeling the effects of the long day, I repeated, one word per step, the mantra for places like this: om mani padme hum.
The wind had picked up out of the north, steadily blowing at around 40 or 50 mph and filling my empty head. I made my way up a continuous line of snow, my dull crampons biting solidly into the hard surface, being careful not to step out onto the cornice on my left. About 50 yards below the summit, my snow ran out, and I cached the snowshoes. A couple of minutes later I was looking at the summit cairn, lit up gold and yellow in the low sunlight. I made it about five minutes before sunset, leaving five incredible minutes to hunker down out of the wind, enjoy a summit smoke, and make a few pictures. I stood in awe of the view, the exposure, and the beauty of the Sangre de Cristos.
To the south I could see many peaks along the spine of the Sangres (Thirsty Peak, Rito Alto, Lakes Peak, Electric Peak, Crestone Peak & Needle, to name a few). To the west I could see out over the flatness of the San Luis Valley, already plunged into darkness, and the San Juans in the far distance. The view north stretched from the far northern peaks of the Sangres to the Sawatch range, with Pikes Peak to the northeast and the Wet Mountain Valley far below to the east. As the sun began to set, Cottonwood Peak’s umbral shadow appeared on the eastern horizon, projected onto nothing but hundreds of miles of air. Combined with the wind, the exposure, the incredible colors of the nearby peaks and the sky, this made for a pretty amazing moment atop Cottonwood Peak.
Before I started down, I remembered to check my cell phone for a signal. Five bars! Unwilling to commit the blasphemy of calling someone from a summit, I descended a few yards and committed a slightly lesser blasphemy. Wishing to share the moment with her, I called my girlfriend, shouting over the wind and becoming aware, as usual, of the difficulty of finding words to describe such profound beauty. Nonetheless I was happy to hear her voice and let her know I was okay. I turned my phone off and began the descent, down the hard, steep snow, ice axe gripped in self-arrest position. The western sky slowly faded from a brilliant tangerine color to something like a faded orange peel.
I reached Cottonwood’s subpeak and Venus appeared, unexpectedly large in the western sky. I continued down to camp, grateful that I had decided to camp so high. I sat down on my snow couch, exhausted, and watched the stars come out. Even though I’ve lived in Colorado my whole life, I don’t think I’ve ever seen such bright stars. Eventually, the night’s sharp cold began to set in and I crawled into the tent, seeking warmth. Before going to sleep I made more water and feasted on curry and mashed potatoes. After two cups of hot chocolate and another liter of water, I was quickly back outside again. Shivering, I watched the moon rise slowly over the ridge above me, waning but still almost full. Suddenly it was bright outside again, and incredibly still. I climbed back into the tent and burrowed down in the bag, colder than expected, even with two hot water bottles.. In a few minutes I was out. I must have slept for a few hours, but not much. Even with most of my gear between me and the snow, it was cold. I normally sleep warm, and this sleeping bag, rated to 20 degrees, had kept me plenty warm even at 17,000 feet in the Himalayas. But evidently it couldn’t hang in the Sangres. Eventually it got light and I made a half-hearted effort to get up. But when the sun hit my tent, it became gloriously warm, and I passed out again for another three hours.
Day 2After much procrastination I got up, made breakfast, and broke camp. The sun was high above the horizon by the time I started back down. Following my tracks from the hike up, I descended into the bristlecone forest.
At mid-morning on a south-facing slope, this part of the forest was alive with birds and squirrels. I jumped 2 ptarmigan, a huge hawk I couldn’t identify, and half a dozen rabbits. It was heating up again, and I hurried down to the shady canyon bottom. From there, it was only a couple of hours until I was back at the truck. No one else had been at the trailhead. I started the truck and, feeling a little sore from the previous day's 5,000 vertical feet and the long, hot descent, I made the five-minute drive to nearby Valley View hot springs. A perfect ending to a great couple of days in my favorite mountain range.
Although unique in many ways, this is only one of dozens of similar routes possible in the area. So many Sangres, so little time.