We started from the extremely crowded S. Colony Lakes trailhead at 2:30am. As it usually goes on approaches, we chewed up the distance quickly and soon (albeit not without some minor willow problems) found ourselves at Upper S. Colony Lake, where--having forgotten to bring water at all--I filtered 3L out of the lake. We continued up to Humboldt Pass. Looking across the basin we could see many headlamps moving up towards Broken Hand Pass. On reaching the pass we followed the ridge west to "Bear's Playground." From there we contoured around to the base of the North Buttress route.
The North Buttress
The wind was blowing fiercely, so we dropped into an inset gully east of the NW couloir and started climbing up to the ridge. The knobby conglomerates climbed like a dream, and we soon found ourselves at the crux of this route: a small notch just north of "Northeast Crestone". On the other side is a gigantic V-notch which leads into the top of the northwest couloir. From what I've read most folks descend here and traverse across the west side of "Northeast Crestone" until level with the V-notch. That didn't look agreeable to me, so I opted to climb over it instead. An extremely exposed but short (maybe 15') class-5 pitch yielded to easier 4th-class climbing to gain the summit of "Northeast Crestone". Jeff followed with style. We descended the south side into the V-notch, traversed down into the northwest couloir, and then climbed up to the "red notch." From there it was a skip-and-a-hop to the summit. It was now 9:30am.
After bagging "East Crestone" we dropped into the Red Couloir. Around 13700' we exited the couloir to begin our traverse in earnest. We followed ledges, intermittent climber's trails, and spotty cairns around many blind corners. Aided by several trip reports and route descriptions, we were able to avoid backtracking, but the route-finding was not easy by any stretch. We did investigate the saddle near the "Black Gendarme", but none of the options starting there were class 4. We crossed instead through a narrow corridor behind a rock wedge, onto a thin ledge, and around another blind corner which illuminated the way to the summit. Several dihedral gullies and brief class-4 traversals to circumnavigate the gendarmes saw us at the base of the final pitch. The rock here was simply incredible, and despite its steepness and exposure, the class-4 headwall climbed smoothly onto the summit of Crestone Needle. It was now 12:30pm.
We planned to descend the South Face of the Needle. There was some confusion, however, about which of the many gullies is the "West gully." At 13800' we realized we weren't in the right place and climbed back up to the summit to get our bearings. We discovered we'd followed the wrong cairns and with the help of a climber named Matt who had just summited via the South Face, we located the West gully and uneventfully followed the well-cairned route down to Broken Hand Pass. From there we descended the nightmarish talus down to the lakes and began the long, painful trudge back to the trailhead. We reached the trailhead at 7:45pm.
17:15 is steep for a day-trip. But this is absolutely the best way to kill a sunny day in the Crestones.