Trip to Crestone
Our trip began on Tuesday, with Brendan and Joe coming from Boulder and picking me up at home in Colorado Springs. They arrived around 3:30 and we decided to stay with Joe's 2WD Accord rather than opt for my Subaru AWD as we heard that TH access in the Sangres were summery. The drive to Crestone took a little over three hours. Brendan and Joe hadn't been in that part of Colorado and took interest in the landscape as we drove CO-115 to US-50 to US-285 to CO-17. I related what meager knowledge of various mountain ranges I had, and before dark we were able to catch a glimpse of the jagged peaks of the Northern Sangres.
We arrived at the White Eagle Hostel and Lodge just outside of Crestone at about 6:30. It was totally deserted, after just selling out for a month with a large retreat group that had left the previous weekend. A nice lady with a German accent gave us a room that connected to the communal kitchen, and since no one else was staying there, we were allowed to open the door and have our own little kitchen. For $26, it wasn't too bad. The original plan was to TH camp, but Joe had been getting over a cold, and implored us to lodge for the night so that he could conserve strength.
I ate some freeze-dried backpacker food, and I should have stopped at the spaghetti meal. I thought I would "carb up" and ate a second entree of Red Beans and Rice, made by Backpacker's Pantry. Word of advice, if you see this on the rack, stay away. Stay very far away. And I should have known, for several years prior, I had similar problems with another brand and another flavor of some beans/rice combo. And given my normal intestinal incompatability with beans... I should have been smarter. It was not to be the only lesson I would take away from this trip.
So I woke up at about 1 am feeling the heat was too high and with gas discomfort. I tried to turn the thermostat down by the bathroom light but it was an unfamiliar knob that I actually turned up. Twenty minutes later with the heater ticking I got up and searched for my headlamp and then saw the knob clearly; I had turned it way up. I turned it off and then laid in bed for the next two and half hours until Joe's alarm went off. My intestinal problems were no secret to him at that point, as he had had trouble sleeping. Brendan apparently slept like a rock. I got coffee and cereal and tried to forget about my barely 1.5 hours of sleep.
When gearing up I discovered that the goggles I had been holding the day before and allowing my toddler son to put on his head were apparently still at home. Considering what I had experienced on Pike's Peak and Horsehoe Mountain recently, lack of goggles could be a dealbreaker. The weather reports were mild but 13k ridges and mountaintops are a different matter. I had glacier glasses so I would attempt to deal. Lesson #2, but also not the first break I would be getting in the day ahead.
Brendan and Joe heated up canteen water from the teapot; I microwaved my nalgene and platypi containers. Though they got a little frosty by days end, they never did freeze up, but that was owing to mild conditions as well.
We drove through the shuttered town of Crestone in darkness, found the road and Joe tenderly drove up through the rough dirt road that wasn't actually too bad, though he had to take a second run at some snowy patches, and he bonked his frame against a rock or two. We made the TH lot and got off at about 5:35, opting not to take snowshoes.
Our approach in darkness was pretty uneventful other than sharing the auditory delights of my digestive travails. We caught some good shots of ice on the flanks of Challenger point to the south of the canyon. The trail was somewhat snowy and downright treacherously iced in spots. After dawn at one point we second-guessed our trail direction, and started bushwacking up a creek under the first big wall of rock of the various steps that lead up to the Willow Creek cirque.
After consulting the vague trail line on the USGS topo, we chose the wrong direction -North- and ended up looking at a little vertical scramble to get up the wall. About thirty feet or so up, it didn't look too bad. Well, we almost bit off more than we could chew. The rock looked craggy but we failed to take the temperature, our pack cumber, and the snow in the cracks into consideration. I tried a slab route and turned back, handicapped by non-grippy fleece gloves, numbing fingers, mountaineering boots, a pack and SLR camera case on my belt. Joe attempted another route and made it up. I followed and found myself in a crux with little holds, pumping out, not finding any holds up, trying to smear a cold, worn mountaineering sole for life. I was looking at about a 15-20 foot drop with some steep rocky runout. I had already made some dicey moves to be where I was so I didn't see downclimbing as any easier than going up. I thought about dropping my pack but my SLR strap was around my neck, and the case was looped into my pack belt. I didn't like the sound of my own voice as I uttered an expletive. I retried a move up and then another and after that was a little stubby pine trunk that I hugged like a dear family member. I saw Joe above on ground more horizontal than not and we both hoped that we hadn't climbed ourselves into a trap. We heard Brendan shout out something like a curse. Joe and Brendan were sharing radios, and Brendan wisely called up that he'd be finding some other way. Apparently he'd fallen but landed okay. From our vantage Joe could see the switchbacks to the South that we should have taken and directed Brendan towards them. Joe and I joked about our variation, which I dubbed the Dumbass Route, not to disparage Joe but myself.
I bushwhacked up and found that we weren't trapped but we were treated to a good deal of horizontal water ice and deep snow. I could see Brendan distantly going up the switchbacks so Joe and I angled up and South to meet up with him. We encountered a lot of ice and collapsing horizontal slabs in the trees. I found an exemplary layer of faceted crystals in several places. After meeting Brendan, who had postholed through some heinous snow, we regained the trail which disappeared under deep snow in places. Eventually we were just bushwacking, postholing up to Willow Lake. I found I had lost a trekking pole that I had strapped to my pack for while bushwacking and scrambling. I decided not to go looking for it; it was getting late and I didn't want to waste the energy. Within the hour we made it to Willow Lake. The lake and frozen falls were gorgeous in the sunlight and we snapped a few pictures. At this point it was getting close to noon.
Brendan called for ditching our crampons, judging by how barren the ridges and peaks around us were, and Joe and I concurred. The extra two pounds dropped was noticeable. After snacking we set out up the slopes to the North towards the basin. The grassy slopes were facing the sun and above treeline we warmed up and peeled layers. In the basin we found ourselves postholing among the bushes, looking for the little grassy knobs and ridges to walk on. In the basin we paused, conferencing over our final leg. We could see the summit and the saddle, which had a long white tongue of snow loaded below it. It looked steep and dangerous. The ridge appeared to have some cornicing. A goodly-sized herd of bighorn gathered on some knobs above us to check us out; a little way after we set out they had all disappeared from that closed in basin. Funny how they do that.
We had a hellacious time postholing across the basin, through heather and willow bush with snow cover to get towards the slopes.
Feeling our way up some grassy slopes, wondering if we could thread our way up the rock bands and grass slopes to the main ridge above the saddle, we got a better feel for the steepness of the slope, and I suggested we head towards the saddle to see how far we could get safely up along one side of it where grass was exposed. It appeared that we were going to be able to climb up alongside the snow and just scramble up the edge of it. Once we were near the saddle the steepness and danger of the snow revealed itself to be minimal,if non-existent. Joe eyed an inclinometer to about 37 degrees, which would be bad if it were fairly loaded. I cached my trekking pole at this point, and stayed with axe all the way up. We scrambled up the rock and got up on the ridge with no problems, and were soon on our way up. We discovered that all the cornicing was really towards the north so the ridge only presented some patches to posthole and kickstep through in terms of snow trouble. Brendan and Joe split the difference of their thermometers and judged it to be only about 20 degrees on the ridge.
Brendan's knee was giving him problems, having bumped it climbing recently and further taxing it with a ski trip. Joe was saying he wasn't feeling well and losing energy. I suggested we cache our packs for the final summit attempt. The weather was staying mild. I cached a down jacket and they cached their packs. I had a liter of water from three left. I asked Joe if he could carry my SLR for a while. I was pulling ahead at this point, and after some climbing he suggested I take my camera back in case I summitted and he decided to turn back. Brendan, though in pain, encouraged Joe not to consider that just yet. Looking up the ridge, and by my own waning power levels, it still looked a while to go. The summit block atop the ridge looked nasty. I knew the southwest slopes were supposed to have some easier approaches, but those are difficult to see from the ridge itself, and my poor eye for steepness from the basin didn't give me the feeling there was an easy walkup in store. Up the ridge a ways, though, I could see that it was going to be easier for Joe and Brendan to start traversing across the slope , and I called down to them that they should do so. I glissaded down a little chute to get down on a line with them and before long we found the grassy slopes we needed. On one little gully ridge behind me Joe called out that was getting close to 2 pm. I kept going, not liking leaving my partners behind but also wanting to summit before it got too late. But the weather remained mild and sunny.
So up I went. When I came within sight of the final pitch I waited until Joe and Brendan came into view. I cheered them on and pointed upwards that we were there. Joe called out the time, almost 3, and asked how far. I shouted half an hour at most. And so I climbed until the summit was just above me and I sat and waited, glad now that it was in reach, waiting for my partners. I wanted to summit as a group, and when they came in sight I shouted down some more encouragement. The wind was just enough to be chilly, and on the way down it remained steady enough to warrant a balaclava for Joe and I, though Brendan toughed it out.
We rejoined and made the final scramble. We stayed maybe five minutes, snapping pictures. The register tube had a missing cap, nothing inside. We talked later that they were probably obsolete anyways, with the advent of computerized history. We could see, other than the Crestone group and the Sangres, the San Juans across the San Luis Valley, Culebra, the Pikes Massif, and the ranges to the north. A gorgeous day. We checked the time as we left, about 3:35. The grassy slopes were steep and had some snow and melt-ice in patches that made the going a little slow. We caught up with our packs just as the sun was dipping below Montana Mujeres. Brendan suggested a glissade from the saddle and I thought it was a good idea. At the saddle I checked the slab depth; barely eight inches. The base was hard with about an inch of loose powder on top. I sat and glissaded down, which wasn't terribly fast but a little fun. At the bottom I struck a rock with a buttock, but when Brendan came down he hit something a little more tender. We called up caution to Joe who made it down without injury. Leaving the basin, dusk had set and we put on our headlamps. I tried taking a quarter-second exposure of Adams with a near-full moon on its shoulder.
We made it back to the lake in full darkness, with awesome moonlit views of the mountains above us. The falls were lightly glowing in moonshadow. We packed up our crampons, snacked, and set out a little after 6 pm. We were doubly taxed by the deep snow on the way back. Once we made it down the switchbacks of the final step down the canyon the trail was a little easier but patches of ice threw some of us a bit. And we saw where we had turned off the trail, right next to the creek. All we had to do was look a little closer, and cross a small log bridge and we would have found a clear trail to the switchbacks. A final lesson. We made as quick time as possible, making a couple of stops to rest. My back was complaining, and Brendan offered me a tylenol, which I accepted. On the final mile sharp shooting pain came up from my toes. Energy-wise I was fine. I was taking gel-shots all day, along with a sport-drink mix in a platypus, avoiding solid food, though I had a chocolate bar and some peanuts. I have found this to be the best approach for climbing, and have not found energy to be a problem as long as I take one every hour or so. Some gym time was paying off as well. We debated whether leaving the snowshoes behind helped us or not. I decided that had I brought and used them I would not have begrudged the extra weight too much.
After those grueling final miles that seemed to have lengthened after our first passing, we stumbled into the TH parking lot at around 9:15. Joe was getting cell service so we called our significant others and assured them of our survival. Down the dirt road and again we drove through sleepy Crestone. The obligatory beer and burger didn't present itself anywhere, and in Salida even the fast food joints were closed up, so I had to settle for a burrito at 7-eleven, which wasn't half bad. Made it home about 1:30 am, unloaded (forgot my snowshoes in Joe's trunk), said farewell in a daze. I sat nodding off in the hot tub for reasons more medicinal than luxurious for a few minutes, then stumbled around like a drunk in the dark house before finally plummeting into sweet unconsciousness.
Called in sick to work the next day!