A hair raising experience on the Needle!

A hair raising experience on the Needle!

Page Type Page Type: Trip Report
Location Lat/Lon: 37.96470°N / 105.5761°W
Date Date Climbed/Hiked: Jul 14, 2004
After doing nothing the last two days, I was getting kinda stir-crazy and thus determined to do at least one mountain, preferably a 14er. I woke up late and eventually berated myself into leaving Vail even later, around 9:00am. After speeding, rather fast, I arrived at the upper 4x4 TH for South Colony Lakes at roughly noon. I assailed South Colony Road in just over an hour-and in a stock Toyota! (I'd pay for that on the way out). I left the upper TH and started out up the trail in decent weather, not the best but definately manageble. I Gained Broken Hand pass in quick time. I don't know why I choose to do the Needle, perhaps because I hadn't climbed it and the weather was supposed to be ok. For some reason other mountains considerably closer to me weren't even an option. Since then, my outlook has changed (for the wiser).

Closer view of Broken Hand...Broken Hand Pass
From Broken Hand Pass, looking west out across the Alamosa Valley, I could see the weather moving in from the Rio Grande/San Juans on the other side. The mountains were just visible. I could smell the rain but as yet no thunder or 'fireworks'. I believe that liulled me into a false sense of security against better judgement; I climbed on towards the needle. As yet, I hadn't stopped long enough to eat so much as a peanut or to take a drink of water. Pushed for time, I couldn't afford to.

I climbed up the first couloir about half way, didn't like the look of the ridge crest that I was heading towards then angled across ( a couple of unnecessary strong class 4 moves) and gained the second couloir. I was wondering what was happening out west but I didn't give too much thought. The route finding demanded attention. I finished climbing and finally reached the ridge. It was at this point when looking out west across the valley that I couldn't see across the valley anymore! In roughly 90 minutes or so, it had literally turned into a shower curtain (no pun intended) of gray with transparent vertical streaks (from the rain). I was worried at this point but not scared. I knew I had to get down.
On the summit, July 2004. I...I had NO idea my hair was doing this

I thought I'd have time to snap a couple of quick photos from the top and scurry away. The clouds above me were definately grey with an occasional darker mass but were not consolidated-THAT also in hindsight gave me an extra push of false security. Strangely, no thunder or lightning. God should have struck me dead right then & there for stupidity,
"(in a deep commanding voice) Ah, we're sorry Ms. Thomas but we regret to inform you that your son is dead because he was STUPID!"
I covered the last remaining bit of ridge and signed the register. I took a picture and got up to leave. I took about 2-3 steps and heard this 'crackling' in the air around me. Kind of like crumpling up wax paper. At the time I had no idea what that was. I stopped, said out loud,
"What the f*ck is that?" The noise stopped. Confused, I started hiking again and the noise started again. I knew exactly what it was then. I dropped to my stomach and started to rub dirt all over me. I thought it might ground me out further or something. Then almost on cue it finally thundered, for the first time. I have to say, I have NEVER heard thunder sound like this before. It was like listening to it through an extended pop can or some kind of aluminum tube, very strange and un-nerving. This was the one time I didn't bring my axe (one iota of luck there). Now, in addition to being worried, I was scarred. I was f*cking petrified to put it bluntly. After crawling back to the entrance to the couloir, I threw my pack down (hoping it didn't go too far). I got myself a bit off route in order to catch up with it BUT I did catch up with it and I swear to God, in what took me 90 minutes to roughly two hours to ascend (from the saddle) took me an hour flat to descend to the saddle. I never thought once about falling. All I could think about was lightning and getting struck, nothing else. All in all, I was pretty clear in mind and extremely focused. Makes me wonder if this is what technical climbers experience when doing 5.8+ routes.

At the saddle, I collapsed. I ducked under an overhang (another bad idea) and had my first drink of water and bite to eat since starting out over 3 hours ago. I'm not sure if my legs collapsed due to lack of food or stress (probably both). Anyway, after only about 5-10 minutes I moved on down the pass. When I got to the open boulderfield all Hell broke loose. It started to lightning in earnest and the skies literally opened up. It rained hard!!! I'm talking swimming pools. The strange thing was that the current storm came up from the Westcliff valley. Most of the clouds that had formed had gradually moved up the valley and pretty much stayed there over the lakes slowly congregating. Either I couldn't see this happening or I wasn't paying attention. The clouds and approaching (westerly) storm didn't hit the Crestones for another 15 minutes or so. Walking across the Boulderfiled in the open with it lightning didn't make me feel any less tense, basically a crapshoot on where the next bolt was going to strike. I relaxed a little at the Needle turnoff on the main trail.

I got back to my truck around 4:30-5:00pm absolutely drenched. I drove out absolutely estatic to be alive.
Like I said earlier about paying for driving up the road so quickly, well, it was time to pay. A flat tire! Quite an impressive gash in the sidewall too, thankfully, it was during a flat spot. I was already drenched so getting out in the rain wasn't going to worry me. Problem was, as I found out, my spare tire was bigger then the tires on the truck! Dam cheap car dealership! I had the front passanger tire off with the truck still jacked up in the mud and digging a hole in the road under my friggin rotor to get my spare tire to fit. I spent a good 45 minutes to an hour in the rain digging that hole. By the time I got the spare on, I looked like I just got out of the mosh pit for Nine Inch Nails at the Woodstock show. I was covered in mud. I threw my clothes in the back (weighed them down first) and drove home in my underwear while periodically hanging my pants out the window to dry off (relatively speaking). I figure that was payment for an incredibly stupid manuever.
A day and lesson I'll never forget.
The NeedleActually taken from a seperate trip to crestone Peak


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