Crestone Needle, four hours into our approach
Having forsaken my comfortable bed in Aurora six hours earlier, I had no need to remind myself why I was so crazy when the vista opened up to reveal the Sangre de Cristo mountains. Josh had never been here, and I was eager to return. We could already see the mountain we would be attempting, Columbia Point (formerly known as “Kat Carson”). Conditions looked good, and we had the whole weekend free to explore the mighty Colorado Sangres.
After a no-use attempt to drive the South Colony Lakes Road with chains on his truck tires, Josh parked at the two wheel drive trailhead and we got all our gear together. There appeared to be no new snow, but plenty of old hardened snow, so snowshoeing the five mile four-wheel-drive road looked like it would not be too bad.
We did not start walking until 9:30, and it took about four hours to finally reach the end of this road and thus the four wheel drive trailhead. Post-holing was minimized thanks to the mostly old snow, but it was still a long 5.2 miles.
We did not have a thermometer with us, but temperatures were probably in the teens. Since we were walking through the heavily-shaded evergreen forest the whole time, we kept cool and mostly kept moving. There were only occasional breezes, but as we neared the four-wheel-drive road that began to change. We could hear the wind, and we could see the blowing snow whipping furiously off the ridges above us.
A couple had pulled in behind us and started hiking shortly after we had left. They caught up with us at the end of the “road,” and started blazing a trail for us through the snowy woods near the entrance to the basin. The snow was powdery here, and the going was slow and difficult. Our trail-breakers went too high and ended up running into some cliffs, so they backtracked and we continued around the large knob of trees to gain access to the South Colony Lakes basin. This short section is normally a breeze without snow. I remember hiking from the 4WD parking to the Humboldt Peak saddle in one hour last summer. Today, it took us two hours just to make it from the 4WD parking area to timberline in the basin.
But, all the work was worth it. The views of Crestone Needle, Broken Hand Peak
, and Marble Mountain
were spectacular, and we relished the scenery as we set up camp near Lower South Colony Lake. The couple, who was obviously in better shape, set up their tent nearby, then headed for Humboldt Peak. The sun had already set in the basin, though it was only four o’clock. They wanted to make a late ascent and return to camp to leave early in the morning. However, they were only gone an hour or so before they returned, having decided it was getting too late. They had plans for the following day, so they simply went to sleep and left early the next morning.
Josh and I set up our tent within the scrub trees to shield us from the wind, but with a great view of the Needle. He boiled some snow, and it was nice to sip on some hot water before going to sleep.
It was getting cold fast. With occasional gusty winds and crystal clear skies, the temperature began dipping below zero as we tried to fall asleep. Josh had his negative twenty bag, and he said he was warm. I however, had only my zero degree down bag, and it did not quite cut it. I wore a hooded sweatshirt, down jacket, fur hat, sweatpants and ski pants, and for the most part I was okay. However, it took a long time to get my feet warm. I put fresh socks on and wrapped my feet in another jacket, and still I slept fitfully throughout the night. A full moon was out and everything was lit brightly, so I covered my face as well. Still, Josh and I were both awakened several times by the howling winds.
February 12, 2006: Obstruction Peak
On Obstruction Peak's Summit (Columbia Point, Kit Carson in background)
I was surprised when I looked at my watch: 7 o’clock! I had checked the time at 1:30 and had fallen asleep again, and we had both obviously overslept. I woke Josh up and we hesitantly got out of the tent. Amazingly, the air was calm and not nearly as cold as we expected. It felt as if it had warmed up since the previous night. Our neighbors were already gone, and the sun was casting alpenglow on the peaks around us
, most notably on Crestone Needle
. At 7:30, we were on our way.
Josh and I left our snowshoes, which was a good decision. There was only a short section of post-holing past the lower lake, and then we were greeted by mostly bare slopes above us. We cut up onto these slopes and angled upward toward the Humboldt Peak saddle. It felt like we were making decent time, but we still did not make the saddle until 8:45.
The ridge running between
this saddle and “Bear’s Playground” had surprised me with it’s difficulty last summer, and it was no easier today. The ridge is not technically difficult–-it is actually quite fun-–but it is involved enough that it can slow down your progress considerably. What snow and ice there was added some difficulty in a few short sections, and a couple times we had to readjust our path due to necessary route-finding. It took about an hour and a half to get across this short section of ridge.
Meanwhile, the views of the peaks around us opened up. The Crestones were awesome as always, and ahead we could see the impressive Kit Carson Massif beginning to reveal itself. Josh suggested a turn-around time of eleven, which was wise considering the long trek we had ahead of us to get back to the truck. So, we both agreed we would not make Columbia Point’s summit on this fine day. Winds were almost nonexistent, and the sun was shining bright, but we had simply slept too long to allow enough time to try for the summit.
But, we pressed on, convinced we could at least make it to Point 13,799, also known as “Obstruction Peak.” This is one of the two-hundred highest peaks in Colorado, but pretty boring when compared to the peaks which surround it. It is basically a large hill of talus which rises to 13,799 feet. We were already above 13,000 feet when we arrived at the large saddle known as Bear’s Playground
, so we simply hiked uphill until we got to the ridge-line leading to the summit
. There was some snow to contend with on these slopes, but for the most part it was more helpful to our ascent than anything. There was not enough snow to present any possibility of avalanche danger. Furthermore, the snow was mostly solid and great for kicking steps.
Eleven o’clock, right on time, we made it to the summit of “Obstruction Peak.” It definitely was worth the while to go this perch and view Kit Carson, Columbia Point, the Crestones, and many other lofty mountains in the area. It was also surprising to see the cliffs of the north side of “Obstruction Peak,” showing us that this wasn’t completely just a hump of talus after all.
We stayed on the summit for perhaps twenty minutes. There was a usual PVC pipe used as a register, but there was no cap on it. Instead, there was a small film canister inside, with just one tiny slip of paper in it, signed by Ken Nolan a few days after Christmas. On it, he stated that he also completed the traverse to Columbia Point.
From our vantage, it was difficult to tell if the traverse to Columbia Point would have been a realistic goal, even if we had woken up on time for an early start. There was more snow on the slopes than we had expected. It looked solid, but we would have had to get closer to tell for sure. In any case, we were satisfied for today with making it as far as we did.
We made great time on our return, but the ridge traverse
was a bit of a pain at this point. We were almost hot by the time we got back to camp this afternoon. The sun was shining and there was no wind at all. We ate a little, tore down camp, and put our snowshoes back on for the trip out.
We made even better time the rest of the way. Leaving camp at 2:40, it would take less than three hours to make it back to the truck. Josh was flying, and I struggled to keep up, though I was moving pretty fast myself. The last mile and a half had fresh snowmobile tracks on the snow, and I silently wished we had been able to catch a ride.
Our feet were hurting the whole way out the road, and it was a great relief to replace my boots with flip-flops once I got to the truck. At the trailhead, we caught up with a guy named Rick who had been walking his dogs up the snow-covered road. We proceeded to follow him to a place in town where we grabbed a bite to eat and talked a while before leaving Westcliffe.
All in all, Josh and I had done about 17 miles and 5,000 feet of elevation gain, topping out on “Obstruction Peak.” I was more than ready to take a hot shower and return to my warm bed when I finally arrived home, 42 hours from when I had left it.