The hike into Cottonwood Lake...I believe this was my third time up at South Colony Lakes. A place that for those who have been up here would arguably agree is one of Colorado's finest places to visit; pristine, rugged, isolated and thanks to the South Colony Lakes road, hard to access.
My first time up here was during the Hyman Fire on a trip to Humboldt Mountain (basically nothing more than a pile of dirt). My second time was on a climb to Crestone Needle which almost turned out diasterously bad and now, Crestone Peak. Unlike the previous two trips, Crestone Peak would prove to be a seriously enjoyable climb, an enjoyable day and thanks to the steroids I pumped into my truck (6" body lift, 32" tires MT) the notorious South Colony Lakes Road bowed before me!
As usual, I started up the access road marvelling at how phenomenal the weather was and smiling every time a pika barked as I passed by the rockslide. The sheer rock wall that starts just left of Broken Hand Peak and terminates somewhere around upper South Colony Lake is I believe one of the longest continous walls in all of Colorado, something like ~3,000ft long.
I hung a left at the fork to Crestone Needle and continued on up to the pass. I veered off the main trail considerably and eventually rejoined it at the upper stretches of the boulderfield where the rock cairns start to become more pronounced.
I was actually planning on ascending the Red Couloir and descending by the same route so I planned on and anticipated a long day. That is such an enjoyable feeling when you get back to the car/truck after psycially exhausting yourself. It really makes you feel like you've earned it, not to mention those celebritory pints afterward taste that much better!
I climbed up the pass and was greeted by a marmot up at the top foraging for food. I threw him some sunflower seeds so he would stay still for a photo.
I knew I shouldn't have but he didn't mind.
The trail is hard to see as it descends down to Cottonwood Lake. I followed it down the pass to the lake into Cottonwood Drainage. The trail blends considerably with the slope which was nice.
In the drainage, the trail became a muddy mess. There was standing water everywhere, plenty of mud and an over-zealous stream that paralleled the trail. As annoying as that was, the mosquitoes were 100x worse! Considering all that standing water it shouldn't have been any surprise. I didn't take much time to enjoy Cottonwood Lake because I turned into a buffet every time I stopped. I trotted around the lake and veered off to the north and the Red Couoloir and the lower cliff band slowly came into view. I hiked up the gradually ascending terrain to the base of the couloir.
There, a small and scant climbers began to switchback up the cliff band.
Ok, time to get serious.
The Red CouloirThe climbers trail switchbacked only a few times before it set me at the bottom of the Red Couloir. Near the top of the lower cliff band, I stopped and sat ona medium sized boulder and had some water and a bite to eat. The views were actually pretty good despite being a bit restricted. I had a small waterfall right next to me so it was nice. At least the mosquitoes were all but gone. I was sweating pretty good but it was humid and getting warmer. I got up and started climbing into the couloir. I have to say, the rock or "Crestone Conglomerate" as I've seen it referred to as was a sheer delight. It was very solid and knobby with foot and hand holds in plenty. The climb up was pretty straight-forward. There was no traversing or alternate couloirs to attend to like over on the Needle.
Roughly half-way up the couloir there came into play a rather large snowfield. I didn't feel like postholing through it so I angled over to the right towards a large fin of rock. I stayed pretty much right on the crest but somehow kept angeling to the right and eventually entered a shallow but steep basin. I continued climbing to the ridge. Where I found myself was in the large notch in the middle of the Needle-Peak traverse. I climbed up and over a smaller buttress torwards Crestone Peak and stopped on the other side in a small dirt gap. I saw two climbers slowly making their way over to me. They broke out some rope to descend the larger buttress that was further over towards the Needle. After seeing the rope, I re-assesed my location and deceided that without equipment, this traverse was no where I really wanted to be! I waved to them and descended down another shallow couloir maybe ~150ft until I reached the upper portion of that same snowfield I avoided earlier.
"Well, looks like I'm traversing this dam thing" I said. I have no problem crossing snow or ice, fact sometimes it's preferred. I just don't like to be on steep rock with wet shoes. So I double-stepped across until I regained the Red Couloir which didn't take all that long. I ended up almost at the top as it was and it was another 10 minutes or so until I gained the ridge. I was surprised at the ~10 minutes or so it took to reach the summit. I reached Crestone Peaks summit, waved and said hello to the two climbers who were already there!
The Northwest Couloir
I stayed on Crestone's summit for a good 20 minutes or so. The three of us making small talk and taking pictures. I asked if they had any sunblock and seeing the Grateful Dead patch on my pack, were more then glad to lend some to a fellow fan. At the summit, without there being any mosquitoes, the flies took over. They. were. everywhere! At one point I wore a veritable coat of flies. I stayed a little while longer after the two climbers left. I got up to go and peering down the Red Couloir, I didn't see them. And from the ridge I could see a good portion down. Looking down the Northwest Couloir, I couldn't see much because of a small lip. I reasoned they had to have descended this route. I read about the NW Couloir in Roach, Falcon guides (which I despise), 14ers.com and here at Summitpost. It seemed more difficult and considerably more steep but also more challenging. The lure of doing a "Tour de Crestone Peak" was pretty enticing after I'd read about this variation in Roach. Plus, I was curious to see what the standard route was like for so many years. So I deceided to descend and follow them! I did indeed find it to be much more difficult than the Red Couloir/South Face route. How much of that basis is due to downclimbing it vs. ascending I don't know. It certainly was steep. There was less conglomerate to be found, blocky sections and more loose rock. There was also interspersed rock bands. The couloir was actually fairly mixed in terms of rock. Back in the Red Couloir if you didn't like the pseudo-smooth center, one could always stay to the edges, no option here.
On occasion, I could catch glimpses of the two climbers further down below me. I took extra precaution not to knock anything loose which, I think I excelled at. I only remember knocking 2-3 rocks loose. There were a couple of drops in particular where I didn't feel safe going around and down the side, so I turned around to face the couloir and lowered myself over the rock with my axe. It was my first time doing that (not in practice) and I was kinda thrilled and content at it.
Roughly half way down another bloody snowfield came into play. Unfortunately, this time of day, mid-afternoon, the snow was deep, soft and "greasy". I took extra care descending. The large cliffs at the bottom of this couloir were ever present in my mind. However, I still slipped!
I fell/slid about 15-20ft before I could self-arrest myself. That was the second time I've had to relay on my axe to stop. The first being on Pyramids NW ridge route. I kicked my feet in, rested my forehead against the snow & stayed there for a few minutes getting my heartrate back down to normal.
"Ok, that really sucked. Let's not do that again!" I whispered to myself trying to feign a smile. I finished downclimbing through the very wet snow to the exit/entrance point to the ledges. Thanks to the previous footprints it was easy to find.
Upon the ledges, I have to say, I did not find them as easy to navigate as some sources say they are. I traversed with multiple downclimbs and ascends all being class 2+ and class 3 moves. It took me somewhere in the neighborhood of 30-40 minutes to get off the ledges and onto the Bears Playground. If it wasn't for the weather and clouds moving in, I'd continue on over to Obstruction Point and Columbia Peak.
I trotted across the Bears Playground stopping mid-center to finish the powerbar I'd been nibbeling at and finish my Gatorade. Oh, it fely SOOOOO good to sit down! Like I said, clouds were rolling in so I couldn't stay too long. All I'd had to eat up until this point was that gatorade, a few drinks of water, the powerbar and an apple. It's all I would have until I got into Westcliffe. On any long trip where I know I'm going to be out in the backcountry for a prolonged amount of time, I never intake much food or fluids. It's almost like my digestive system slows to an absolute minimum in order to conserve. I guess after 15+ years of backcountry experience, that happens; I don't know.
Watching the clouds (intently) and contemplating the distance I had to cover over the ridge to gain Humboldts saddle, (I was already a quarter of the way across) I deceided to drop straight down from where I was into the basin. I descended a couple of deep rubble-strewn cuts, traversed over some lightly vegetated ledges and scree fields and kept descending over this mixed terrain until I arrived at Upper South Colony Lake. I saw the two climbers only briefly as I was beginning my descent off the ridge. I believe they dropped into the basin at the elbow where Humbolds connecting ridge with the Bears Playground meets the Crestone Ledges. In hindsight, not a bad idea.
From the lake, I had one hell of a time willow-bashing around to the south side to re-join the trail proper. I hit the fork where the sign is posted for Crestone Needle & strolled out quite content and happy. I just put in 11-12 hours of consistant hiking and climbing. It did rain but not until I was well on my way to Westcliffe.
One remarkably great day!!