The first thing anybody wants to know about climbing in the Crestones is the condition of “that road,” up to the South Colony Lakes trailhead. “We've all heard about it, all read about it, but how bad is it really?”
Well, it's bad. It's just as bad as they say, and then some. At least for Humboldt Peak, it makes the crux of the climb simply getting to the trailhead. It is 5.5 back-breaking, liver-bruising, neck-jolting, shoulder-stiffening miles from the 2wd trailhead--and they're just the effects it has on you. As to the damage you're inflicting on your vehicle by bullying it up here, the evidence lies everywhere: that patch of blue on the baby head in the middle of the road is not some rare mineral—that's Toyota Dioxide; that shiny token hanging from a road-side fir is no Christmas decoration—that's Dodge Wing-mirror. With half-buried boulders, bath-tub sized holes, and rock-slabs arrayed willy-nilly all over the road with scant regard for automotive passage, it's not a road at all, really: it's a dry mountain streambed and it's never seen a maintenance crew in its existence.
“OK, so the road is bad, but is it worth it, driving it?” I don't know how to answer that... I've driven it before—when I climbed Humboldt—so I knew how hard it was going to be. Next to the infamous Lake Como road, it is, I considered, the worst road I have ever driven in Colorado, or anywhere in the States, for that matter. Hell, it is worse than any road I encountered in the Middle East, or even Africa. Stumbling from the truck back then I told myself I'd never drive it again, at least until I had blocked the experience from my memory. Apparently, amnesia is a fast healer - it only took me three weeks to forget.
Let me just say this, then: if it takes you an hour to drive this road then you've probably gone too fast, and probably irreparably damaged your vehicle; if you're driving faster than you can walk, then you're going too fast; those backcountry roads that commercial makers are so fond of--the ones where the latest greatest new Hummer or GMC Off-Road Behemoth outfitted with massive tires, roll bars, and light grilles spit up gravel from mountain bends, or splash nonchalantly through streams, or erupt through virgin snow banks--well, this is not one of those roads. Why? Two reasons: first, there's no way they'd get the cameras up here; and second, they'd flat-out break the vehicles they were trying to sell.
All of which begs the question, “Why drive the road at all?” Well, many people--cautious people, wise people, people who respect their vehicles--opt not to and instead stop at the 2wd parking and walk the road to the trailhead. Me? Screw that! I'm not walking an extra 5.5 miles when I don't absolutely have to.
Finally arrived a little after 9 pm, I am more than a little surprised to be the only person up here. The last time I was here, in truly dreadful weather (a thunderstorm battered the peaks all evening, filling the basin with six inches of fresh snow), it was a job to find a parking space. Now, with a jewel of a forecast and on a Friday night, nobody else has braved the road. Maybe I should take this as a sign that the climbing season is over. It may be that all over the Front Range, boots are being waterproofed and stored in the backs of closets; summer fleeces washed and put up; backpacks re-stitched at repair shops; and eyes are turning instead to skis and check-books to season passes. In my heightened sense of isolation, the thought occurs that I am the Last of the Tribe, the last of the summer climbers squeezing one frantic, final push out of myself in desperate denial of the onrushing season of cold, of long nights spent only dreaming of sunny peaks.
Above the forest, only Cassiopeia shows through a clear, neon sky lit bright by a moon two days from full. The deserted parking area is flooded with light. From my vantage point, I can see the snow patches on the moonlit northern face of Broken Hand Peak. It is with a shock of near-recognition that I see them as a collection of knives, of sharp, silver blades hanging directly overhead. “I am Damocles,” I think despairingly before I retreat to the back of the truck.
Hunkered down in my sleeping bag, I turn to Stegner for distraction. I relish the play of my new Petzl LED-headlamp over the pages and I rejoice in his call for a new western aesthetic, as through the windows of the topper, squares of bright grey wash over my sleeping bag. Peace doesn't last long. My thoughts of West as Aridity are completely and instantly dispelled when the truck quite distinctly rolls from side to side, as if buffeted by a gust of wind. I am completely startled, as the night is quite still. For the first couple of times it happens, I put it down to Nervous Leg Syndrome, to my constant shifting in the sleeping bag having matched the harmonic frequency of the truck's suspension. The third time, however, when I am concentrating on keeping still, there it is again... something is shaking the truck. Some thing. Some thing quite silent and quite intent is bodily rocking the truck on its axles, and me in my sleeping bag.
I wait to be scared, for the full dark intent of whatever it is prowling out there in the dark to occur to me. I wait for the thrill of “it wants me,” or “just exactly how thin is that aluminum?” But it never comes. The fear simply doesn't materialize. Instead, I am simply annoyed; pissed at having been dragged away from the words of my literary hero. The next time it happens, I set up a much more obvious motion by rolling back and forth in my sleeping bag, as if to compete with the unknown beast, to intimidate it into pissing off and leaving me the hell alone. As if to stay, “just watch how I can shake the truck... you know that when I come out I will eat you unless you run away. Now bugger off and let me read.” And it works, this primitive cross-species communication. It does stop, and I have peace.
Peace, at least, until I have turned off the lamp, pulled the bag up around my freezing shoulders, and turned to thoughts of sleep. Then there is the unmistakable sound of rocks being lifted, shifted around, scraped heavily across the ground. Something big is moving around out there in the moonlight again. The rock show stops after a few bars, and is soon followed by the familiar rolling. An atavistic rock'n'roll show in my honor. I remain unimpressed, and instead wait until the next movement. As soon as Side B starts up, I interrupt it with a few licks of my own: I pound on the inside of the aluminum topper, howling out, in my best Johnny Rotten, “piss the f**k off and let me sleep, you lousy bugger!” I have no idea whether it works or not, as I am completely deafened by my banging on the inside of my own drum.
I do sleep. I must, because I am wakened again, by yet another mammalian visitor. This one much closer... this one inside the truck. OK, this time I am royally pissed: it is after 2 am and all I want to do is sleep... is that too much to ask of the local wildlife? It seems so, at least to the hungry pika I surprise when I poke my head through the connecting window to the cab and shine my light on a furry flash. He has somehow found his way in to the locked truck, and has been nibbling noisily on my chocolate bar, like an ignorant movie-goer crunching through an un-ending bag of chips. My chocolate bar, damn it! He scuttles off quicker than I can follow. Where he goes, I have no idea, and no care. All I want is some kip, damn it!
And on that note, I sleep.
The South Colony basin is stunning in the early morning sun. The snow of three weeks ago, so thick and seemingly permanent at the time, is long-gone from every south-facing slope, and now a thousand tans and greens swarm, while shaded now has drifted over everything facing north. To keep warm, I hike swiftly up the rough track that clings to the southern wall of the valley. I rapidly gain the lower lake, where I rest, amusing myself for a while, throwing pebbles onto the thin ice that seems to be melting even as I watch. Then it is straight up the southern slope towards Broken Hand Pass, and almost immediately onto snow-covered scree. The snow has already started to soften in the sun and as I ascend towards the upper bowl, below the sharp east-leaning pinnacle sitting like a guard immediately below the pass, I suffer the death of a thousand post-holes. I put my head down and concentrate on maintaining a smooth rhythm, looking for an even surface, either all softened, or all ice. I march to the off-beat by stomping each foot forwards and plunging my ice-axe to the hilt in the soft snow. The five-part rhythm I establish could only be appreciated by the most strung-out fusion jazz percussionist, I muse, as I endure the stop-and-go of a terminally constipated snow-field.
The ever-changing temperatures necessitate constant adjustment and re-adjustment of layers of clothing. As I climb up towards the pass, I am swimming up through the Venturi chill of the wind, which, having been forced up the south side of the ridge, has lost in heat content what it has gained in elevation. Squeezed through the narrow slot at the top, it rushes downwards as a river of bone-chilling air, and I wrap myself tightly in wool and fleece and down.
All change at the top of Broken Hand Pass. Sunlight streams through the Eye of the Needle and ushers me through the looking-glass of aspect. The split identity of a north-south range is laid out before me: to the north, mountains stretch away to a bare and brown infinity; to the south they are rugged, cleft, and snow-blasted to the far horizon. I stand for a while and absently loosen all my layers: opening the down; unzipping the fleece; removing the outer, insulating gloves; and cramming the wool hat into my pocket. I slowly turn, soaking in the sun and the beauty. Southward below me and bathed, too, by sunlight, a snowy cirque sits just clear of the tree-line and cradles green Cottonwood Lake, its outlet creek a westward ribbon of red willow, flashing brightly through the canyon, rushing down and out toward the Rio Grande, out there somewhere in the dusty emptiness of the vast San Luis valley, itself now visible for the first time. The way I have come is a steep, dark gulley on a snow-filled apron billowing down and away from me. The bare, brown flanks of Humboldt are almost shining, bright in the far wall of the valley to the north.
One of the great charms of hiking in these Blood of Christ mountains is the imagery they conjure up, this geography of holy anatomy. The Sangres form an exalted spine stretching away both north and south; each vertebra a jagged ridge, and each interstice a cirque. Each cirque cradles another baptismal font pulsing with His Blood, each pulse bearing its load of His Body, worn away through the grief of a hundred millennia of winters, alternately anointing the Wet Mountain valley to the east and the Arkansas river somewhere beyond the horizon and, beyond a hundred more horizons, the Mississippi, or to the San Luis valley to the west, and then the Rio Grande, and, finally, the Gulf of Mexico.
Even as I appreciate the confused beauty of religion in geology, I know that at 12,900 feet I am far from the top. The rest of the climb lies around a rock rib to the west, the top 1300 feet of the Needle rearing up, tilted at a frighteningly jaunty angle thousands of feet out over the South Colony Lakes. I take stock, comparing the vertical landscape ahead to the reports I have garnered of this climb. It is easy enough to recognize the main couloir, a wide gully starting lower than me at this elevation, and with a narrow vein of snow up its center. In its higher reaches, the gully dissolves into its own grey rock in a jumble of angles and shades. Somewhere up in there is the corner that Dawson speaks of, and there, too, the narrower side-couloir off to the west. I can't distinguish much that far ahead, and trust that all will reveal itself as I climb.
The path is dry and undulate, gradually rising around ribs and yielding vertiginous views down narrow slots of snow that run all the way back down to the valley I have climbed from. Gradually ascending into the summit block, I cross into the main couloir, and begin the hand-and-foot climbing. A random mixture of social and official cairns appear to lead all the way up. The climbing here is interesting at last, with steep sections of some significant reverse exposure necessitating the rule of three—three solid points of contact with the rock sustained before a fourth is sought. It reminds me of Pyramid in this aspect, but the life-protecting necessity learned on that deadly sedimentary rock-heap—of testing each hold once, twice, thrice before trusting it—is almost redundant here, on this solid conglomerate.
In looking too closely at my holds, I am not paying enough attention to the larger picture, my trend up the mountain becoming steeper and steeper until I find myself exposed many feet up a side wall of the couloir, doing fifth-class moves on a fourth-class climb. I curse myself and vow that when I have extricated myself I will continue more carefully. But in the meantime, my pack feels suddenly heavier, and threatens to overbalance me, to pull me backwards into the abyss I have climbed through.
It is at this instant that the world goes flat. One-eyed flat. What was previously knobby conglomerate rock becomes mere wallpaper: colored but flat, the image of a wall, not the wall itself. No relief, no substance, no texture; just color. No holds appear anywhere on this plain plane before me. In horror, I cling to my hold, as if by squeezing harder to two dimensions I can sustain the missing third. I plaster myself to the rock as hard as I can summon the strength and will to, and I shake my head in absent wonder at this revelation; that this is how the world is supposed to look to a one-eyed Englishman—something I've never learned in the years since the accident. I'd heard people marvel at how different, how flat, the world looked with one eye closed, but, not able to repeat the experiment myself, I never really believed them. But now I am starting to understand this stripping away of structure, this dissolving senselessness, this blinding. I shake my head free of such feelings and fall back into habit. I rock my head back and forth, like a snake trying to make sense of the world, a dog straining to find the direction of a noise. I am an animal again, bobbing and weaving my head to add faux stereoscopy to my armory. It works. My head clears, the world fades back into proper view again, and relief washes back over the rock and over me.
Soon enough, the couloir crests out onto a thin summit ridge just a few yards walk from the cairn marking the highest point. I throw down my back and, lightened, float as I turn, marveling at the view. I spend a few minutes in my ritual: a slow summit pirouette, arms akimbo, mouth agape. Then I wander west across the room-sized summit block to examine the infamous traverse over to the Peak, the unacknowledged goal of the day. It is indeed as convoluted as threatened in all the reports I have read, but every feature is identifiable, and, more to the point, from this vantage point, it all looks doable. Doable, that is, until I wander closer to the soft dropping edge and at last gaze upon the first move, the crux: the 90-foot down-climb west off the Needle. It is steep—bloody steep—and long, and beyond its crazed horizon lies nothing but air; thousands of feet of air down to the lakes below. There is little protection and no escape from its convex bulge. Alone and un-roped, I think, there would be no margin of safety: one slip would sail me out over a whole lot of nothing.
Then comes a big moment for me: I decide that I am not going to do it. Talking to myself again on a summit, I say, “I am ready for the traverse, I am psyched for it, I have the energy for it, and I have the time for it, but I will not do it,” as if by rendering it aloud I can make the decision irrevocable. This will be the first occasion in my climbing career that I have elected to back off a tricky move simply because I am on my own. Maybe discretion—such an easy concept, but formerly so hard in its undertaking—may actually be growing on me, wise decisions becoming easier to make, and more importantly, to follow. This sudden, blossoming rose of wisdom does have its thorn, though: I will have to make the down-climb in the same couloir I ascended, and I am not looking forward to it. Not one little bit. “But it will be safer than a solo traverse,” I convince myself.
The decision made, I relax and stare around me at the landscape below. To the west, the entire San Luis Valley lies dusty below me, the Sand Dunes are a puddle of brown ripples washing up against the spine of the Sangres between me and the Blanca massif, streaks of yellow cottonwoods mark the courses of streams as they burst from the abrupt mountains out onto the valley floor. West, beyond all of this, lie the San Juans, visible as a snow-line above the dusty valley air, and topped by a thin, linear layer of cloud along the far horizon they form. A similar line of cloud tops the Sangres here, but it is so thin as to be of no concern.
The northern aspects of Blanca, Ellingwood, Little Bear and Lindsey appear covered in snow. The Huerfano Valley is off to my left, and I believe I can just make out Gardner Butte. The Wet Valley lies between me and Greenhorn. All the way over my other shoulder, across the broad summit of Humboldt (unvisited today, as are all the Crestones, it seems: indeed I have seen nobody since a mile in from the trailhead) is Pikes Peak, bare of any hint of snow from this aspect. Here, on the summit there is not even a breath of wind, so I lie down as best I can and enjoy my next summit tradition: a nap.
When I awake, I find the descent of the South Couloir every bit as difficult as I had anticipated, until I find a boot-glissade down the vein of snow in the crease of the couloir. I feel a little relieved of the tension of down-climbing, and it suddenly occurs to me as a certainty that, “I'd be dead by now, if I had tried that traverse.” No, it is more than a certainty—it is an absolute, a given. I congratulate myself again on my blooming mountain wisdom, and make my next step directly onto verglas, which shoots me directly down towards a cliff band. I manage to squeeze some friction out of my pants, boots, and backpack and come to halt mere feet above disaster. When I gather my wits, I step gingerly to the side of the ice, back onto the rock and the drudgery of descent.
Back at the truck, the pika is still on my mind and I am unconvinced that it had found its way out of the locked cab that it had found so porous in the night, so I throw open both doors and empty the cab of everything I can pull free. While the precious sunlight drains from the sky, I futz around in the back of the truck, wasting time: deconstructing my bed—folding my Thermarest, rolling my sleeping bag—and changing back into blessed cotton, trying to give the little guy opportunity to vacate the cab. When I can wait no longer, I pack up and move off down That Road, down into the deepening gloom.
Why the pika chooses not to remain in the cab and how it survives the pounding of the road down into the valley, I’ll never know, but it does. I know it does because the next morning, back in Fort Collins, when I discover fresh scat in the dregs of an ice-cream cup I had placed on the floor mats, as a final check.
Of course, the pika doesn’t last long at 5,000 feet. Whether due to the internal injuries suffered at the hands of my off-road driving or simple loneliness, I don’t know, but by the time I have been to the Humane Society for a live-trap, the little mite is dead. Dead, and buried somewhere deep in the mechanical labyrinth of the cab of my truck. Beyond sight, but certainly not beyond smell. I have been driving around town with the windows down for a week now, and I’m damned if I’m spending any more time in that truck than I absolutely have to. Maybe this year's climbing season is finally over for me.
"After the first glass, you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally, you see things as they really are, which is the most horrible thing in the world."
--Oscar Wilde on Absinthe