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What a way to finish the “front nine!” Crestone Needle was my 27th fourteener, and a very satisfying climb, especially since it was the third time I had set out to bag this summit. The first time, in 2004, we had given up at the trailhead, when it became apparent that the weather was bad and only getting worse. The second time, in 2005, I had run solo from the 2WD trailhead, and succeeded in climbing Humboldt Peak, only after turning back at roughly 13,300 ft on the Needle, again due to wet and dangerous weather.
This time, with the weather forecast scoped out in advance, my daughter Trisha and I drove to the new, higher, 2WD trailhead on the South Colony Lakes road Friday afternoon, and hiked the remaining half of the road. We made camp just as the light was fading just above the road’s end, near the owners of a brace of super-hardy, high-clearance 4WD vehicles who had driven all the way up. We couldn’t get there early enough to take attm of SP up on his generous offer to ferry us up that still-rotten road, but we decided to do the first leg of hiking that evening, instead of in the morning, in order to shorten the hiking day. Thanks all the same for the offer, Barry!
With a decent (all things considered) night’s sleep under our belts, we got up at first light, and headed up the trail at about 5:30 MDT. High clouds hid the peaks, but I was confident that the morning sun would eventually burn them off. We didn’t set any speed records. Several parties passed us as we slogged our way up Broken Hand Pass. Still, we reached the pass (where CFI is in the process of greatly improving the trail), and pressed on to the point where I had turned around the previous fall early in the morning. At that point, those annoying clouds finally began to dissipate. By the time we started up the eastern couloir of the south face in earnest, glorious sunshine and clear blue skies were presenting us with expanding views of the dramatic territory to the south. It was so much easier, and so much more encouraging, to navigate when you can see where you’re going! I also got what I think is a pretty nice shot of the Blanca group exposed above the low-lying clouds farther south.
At the beginning of the downclimb (you guys who have made this climb know the place I mean), Trisha turned in a commendable performance in conquering her fears to cling to that rock face, and then make the step across the gap. This was definitely the most challenging climb she has undertaken to date, and I couldn’t be prouder of the way she stepped up to the challenge.
That challenge continued as we launched into the serious, sustained scramble up the eastern couloir. We both improved our techniques over the course of that scramble. We were never sure we had found the point to which Roach refers as the appropriate place to traverse left over a rib and enter the western couloir for the remaining climb to the summit ridge. Thus, we simply climbed the eastern couloir all the way. In light of our subsequent experience, I think I can say that it is six of one, half a dozen of the other, whether you switch couloirs or not. The hardest part of the eastern one is certainly not at the top, so one might really as well just follow it all the way to the top. It certainly makes route-finding, the bane of all Needle climbers, much less of an issue.
Within that couloir, we found many places where there are two or more choices as to how to navigate a given stretch, but, for the most part, it really doesn’t matter which choice a climber makes. It’s all good, solid, Class 3 scrambling. It’s challenging if you are used to walk-ups, but the rock is absolutely wonderful and reliable.
As we approached the top of the couloir, wispy clouds had begun to develop, again, in the valley below us. The effect was stunning, but it made me worry a bit about the weather prospects for the descent. So it was a real relief when we reached the short, thin summit ridge, with the true summit in full view just a short distance away. There is _real_ exposure on this ridge, especially to the north, but, after the exertion required on the way up, it felt perfectly comfortable to stand upright again, with no need to use one’s hands. We were blessed with only the lightest of breezes, and were able to enjoy the almost unbelievable airiness of the small summit in shirt sleeves. I was pleased to find that there is a CMC summit register on this mountain, in an era when they have disappeared from so many more popular peaks. Trisha looked beautifully exultant as she signed it, and I was happy to add my name to the, still, relatively small number of people who can claim this dramatic summit as somewhere they’ve gotten under their own power.
We shared the summit with only a handful of others, a trio of twenty-somethings who had arrived at virtually the same time as us. We swapped picture-taking, and took some landscape pictures of our own—including the incredible view of Crestone Peak and Kit Carson, which I hope come out as good as the actual view—before deciding that just a little snack of gorp would be in order before heading down.
After a little informal debate, we had decided simply to retrace our ascent route, and had actually started down that way, when we saw a pair of climbers pop up onto the ridge, obviously having ascended via the western couloir. So we retraced a few steps and queried them as to the relative difficulty of going back down this way. They assured us that 1) the top of the western couloir was, as advertised, easier than the top of the eastern one, and 2) the cairn marking the best spot for traversing between the two was impossible to miss. So, based on that, we changed our minds and headed down the western couloir. It was the biggest mistake we made all day! The saving grace was that, just after starting down, we encountered fellow SPer JamesC and his father. They were faster, and overtook us later on the descent, which gave us time for a very pleasant interchange.
The western couloir is narrow and steep, but actually fairly easy to negotiate, at least at the top. The biggest problem was that, despite advice to the contrary, we were never able to locate definitively the point where it is easiest and most sensible to abandon it and traverse over to the eastern couloir. As a result, I’m pretty sure we followed it too far down, and we soon found ourselves doing downclimbing that was clearly Class 4, and looking unhappily for some way to get over the ridge on our left and back into the couloir which we had ascended. We finally found a place to do just that, but only after some very slow and demanding downclimbing, and it was undoubtedly at a lower elevation than what the guide books recommend.
Even then our routefinding adventure wasn’t really over, as, under the cloud light, the territory we were descending didn’t seem to resemble what we had seen on the way up in clear sunlight. We were left in continuing doubt as to where the exit from the couloir was, and where we could rejoin the traverse through the notches that would finally lead us back to Broken Hand Pass.
After linking up with another group of descending hikers—who themselves actually took one wrong turn and had to backtrack down the couloir some distance—we finally found the exit, and got to a place where we were sure we were retracing out steps on the ascent Things started to look familiar, and, sure enough, we at last encountered the short climb that leads to the highest of the notches. Hardened by experience, Trisha made it back across the gap with no trouble, and we were on our way back to the pass.
By this time, the sun, as if to mock our uncertainties under the cloud light, had reappeared in full summer glory, and it was finally time to shed all the extra layers of clothing. The rest of the day was real shorts-and-t-shirt, summer hiking under clear blue skies. We should have applied more sunblock, but our anxiousness to get back down overrode our better judgment, for which we paid with a slight sunburn, mostly on the back of our legs.
All in all, the weather gods smiled on us this time. Unbroken sunshine from the git-go would, of course, have been better, but I can’t really complain. After two aborted attempts, it was extremely satisfying finally to bag this exhilarating peak.
I’ll post pictures on imagestation.com later.
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