The ApproachMountain: Crestone Needle (14,201’)
Route: Started at 10,400’on the Road up to the South Colony Lakes Upper TH. Climbed the Needle’s South Face and East Gully up to summit.
Elevation Gain - 4000’ (approx)
Roundtrip Mileage - 9 miles (approx)
Roundtrip Time – 11 hours (approx)
After a worthy warm-up on Lindsey’s 4th class NW Ridge the previous day Brian (LordHelmut on 14ers.com) and I drove up to the South Colony Lakes TH with intentions to climb the Crestone Peak-Needle traverse. With ice on the ridge and heavy showers having fallen the previous day we did not deem it fit to underestimate the route. The rain made the 4WD road very slushy and we couldn’t get all the way up to the Upper TH but pitched camp at 10,400’ on the road. There are several neat spots along the road. Our boots, socks and clothes were totally soaked from Lindsey and we went to bed hoping they’d dry a little bit. The plan was to wake up at 3AM and start hiking by 3:30. We found this to be impossible since we couldn’t get enough sleep and made a last minute decision to climb just the Needle.
We ended up setting out at 5AM on Sunday 06/17 and got up to the Upper TH at around 5:30AM. There were a whole bunch of hikers climbing Humboldt and they had stomped out a pretty solid boot-pack for us across the sporadic avalanche deposition zones from winter that had obscured the trail. Post-holing wouldn’t be a problem for now, at-least. We’d packed an axe and crampons just in case we needed to do a snow-climb up the East Gully.
We got close to where the Crestone Needle trail split off from the Humboldt trail at around 6:20AM. Here’s an exotic shot of the needle from this spot…
We started hiking up the summer trail to broken hand pass and got a ways up it by 7AM. Here’s a picture of the lower south colony lake from the route.
Lower South Colony Lake
The slope up to the saddle is snow covered and provides for a sweet glissade down later in the day. The slope is not steep enough to require crampons nor was the snow deep or soft enough to make snowshoes worthwhile.
We found a boot-pack up the snow to broken hand pass and followed it. We cached our snowshoes and poles by a rock outcropping mid-way up the slope… (Bad idea, very bad… $^%#&$ marmots). The snow-slope reaches about 35 degrees close to the pass at the steepest section. We were fine kick-stepping into the snow with our boots. We got up close to the pass and got this sweet scenic of the slope below us.
This small wall must be scrambled over to get onto the saddle. There’s still a bit of ice on it.
We got around to the South face and got on the summer trail up to the Needle. The route is pretty well cairned out. There are sporadic snow banks blocking the route from time to time but there are boot-packs over them. Keep an ice axe with you though. It’ll most definitely come in handy. Here’s a pic of Broken Hand Pk
We got to the base of the East gully by about 9AM. It’s a pretty imposing looking route and an extremely fun scramble.
Here’s a closer look at it.
It is difficult to follow the summer route up this mountain at the moment. Snow fills the gully partially and melting snow forms a pretty powerful stream flowing downhill. The summer route criss-crosses this gully.
The 14ers.com / Gerry Roach descriptions for the South Face route describe it as Class 3, but in the existing conditions there is nothing class 3 about this gully. It is Class 4 all the way up to the summit ridge. There are several small streams flowing down the class 4 sections. However the holds are bomber. There are several options on this route. Choose your holds wisely and try to stick close to the cairns during your ascent. This will make it a little easier. Brian strayed off route for a bit and found himself on some extremely hairy low 5th class terrain. He is a pretty confident climber and I wasn’t too worried. However negotiating 5th class terrain with no ropes and 40 lbs on your back is not an enviable position, especially when your ice axe is trying to gouge holes in your sleeve or head with every mantle.
If you have crampons you might find it easier to ascend the snow. However the fast flowing stream beneath the snow will make things difficult at spots. I post-holed to my thigh once right in the middle of the snow slope during our descent. This picture shows a good part of the gully.
And this is a small sample of the 4th class terrain we were faced with.
Although the scramble was a lot of fun I was pretty relieved to be up on the summit ridge and let out one of those spontaneous yodels the Needle is famous for evoking. I have never been happier to summit a mountain.
The summit block at last!!
A shot of “The Peak”.
Here’s a shot of Upper South Colony Lake from the summit ridge.
The descent was going to be pretty nerve-wracking and we were not particularly looking forward to it. Not after my disturbing descent of the NW ridge on Lindsey the previous day. I am discovering that down-climbing 4th and low 5th class terrain with a mountaineering pack is not my favorite activity. We did manage to glissade for a short distance down the snow slope though.
And then we down-climbed this section… There were several very tricky sections since we completely lost track of the cairns for most of the down-climb. And the stream flowing down the rocks was pretty cold and made some of the rock slippery. At one point I looked down at Brian and yelled ‘Dude… How did you get past this section?’ He looked up with an uneasy expression and said “Uh, dude… Don’t even… No… I don’t even… No”. We were just winging it most of the time. However, the good thing was that the rock was SOLID and 90% of the holds were absolutely bomber.
Here’s our glissade path down a section of the snow slope…
Once at the base of this gully and back to the South slope standard trail we breathed sighs of relief. The rest of the climb back down went quickly. I slid on a patch of sheet ice on the way back and went sliding down 30 feet of ice and rock and scratched up a side of my arm. A boulder arrested my slide. It is important to stay prudent while traversing this ice/snow on the South side. Keep your axe handy.
We soon got back to broken hand pass and plunge-stepped / glissaded back down to the basin. Clouds started building as soon as we were in the bushes. Here’s one last look at the Needle. It’s a wonderful mountain indeed and any scramble-enthusiast must make this a mandatory visit.
The rest of the hike down to the truck went quickly. This was the longest sustained class 4 I’ve ever done and I frickin’ love it! I have a new favorite route on a 14er. Respect the Needle.
Credits to Jack Bauer's (2005) awesome photograph which I used for the main page image