| A Crestone Lynxperience!
South Colony Lakes
4.5 hours from Lower South Colony Lake to the summit. 8 hours round trip.
All Saturday long, the winds were gusting away, blowing dust around, knocking over beetle-killed lodgepoles and attempting to take my hat away from me. Matt and I had to nix our plans for Humboldt due to this weather, which would have been otherwise perfect had it not been for the strong gales. We set up camp not far from Lower South Colony Lake (first in one spot, then we changed locations) and spent the rest of June 9 napping and snacking, and commiserating about the blowing dust. We hoped that tomorrow would bring a better, more tolerable forecast for mountain climbing.
After eating a filling dinner of corkscrew pasta with chicken smothered in Velveeta cheese, we called it a night sometime around 9:00.
It must have been around 2:00 in the morning, and a strange dream had awakened me. As the winds howled outside of our little North Face tent, I wondered if Crestone Needle was even going to be a possibility for us later that day. Matt woke up from my stirring and we both lay there listening to the winds up high, whooshing through the needles of the Krummholz. We were starting to feel discouraged. Would we be able to get the Needle when the sun came up? It all depended on if she wanted us to or not. A few words and moments later, we both fell back asleep.
At 4:00 in the morning we woke up to the jingling of Matt’s watch alarm, and the winds were still blowing out there. Matt made the decision to sleep in until the weather improved, which was a wise choice. When we got up at 5:00, the winds had vanished! Crestone Needle was saying “Come on up today! You can summit me.” We quickly gathered our supplies and layered up for the morning ahead.
Packed and ready for adventure, we started off down the trail. Only a few minutes into our hike, a porcupine appeared in front of us! Startled by the clanging of Matt’s ice axe against a carabiner, he waddled from the trail down into the willow marsh, and he was out of sight before I could snap a good photo of him. We playfully dubbed him “Mr. Crestone Needles.” I was so excited because I have never seen a porcupine in the wild before! They are a lot bigger and cuter than I expected. The sunlight shining through this one’s quills made them look vibrantly colored.
Onward to Broken Hand Pass. As we approached BHP, we admired the orange alpenglow on the Needle, and looking back down into South Colony Basin was a beautiful sight.
As we came up to the snowfield, I put on my Microspikes and we both took out our ice axes. I was a little apprehensive about this snowfield, and I had learned my lesson about using caution on snowfields last November on Grays. After a quick lesson from Matt on how to use an ice axe, and a little bit of practice plunging it into the snow, I began to feel more comfortable. I was amazed at how well the axe anchors you in the snow. The consistency of the snow was hard and crusty because the morning sun had not begun to melt it yet. This worked in our advantage.
As I got higher and higher up the snowfield, I looked back down at Matt, and the song “Not Afraid” by Eminem began to play in my head. I had a good feeling about Crestone Needle, and the weather was cooperating.
We reached the top of the snow, and then we climbed up a little further on a gravelly muddy slope to get to the top of Broken Hand Pass. From there we had a clear view of several other mountains in the Sangres, a breathtaking view indeed. The shady side of the pass was noticeably cooler than the sunny side. A slight breeze made me rethink my decision to remove a layer.
We followed the ridge on some convenient trails weaving around rock towers made of the unique “Crestone Conglomerate.” I took a brief Moment of Zen on a grassy patch before heading up the gullies.
As we approached the gullies, the Class 3 began. I quickly remembered what it felt like to be on the Ledges and the Homestretch on Longs Peak, except this rock was better – solid, knobby, with a plethora of handholds. It was like a jungle gym as we climbed up and down the intricacies of the rock.
We soon started our way up the East Gully.
There was ice and water running down the rocks, which we generally avoided if there was a way around it. Matt pointed out to me that gullies and couloirs often look impossibly steep until you are inside of them. After several hundred feet of climbing up this East Gully, it gets very steep and turns into Class 4. It was time to exit this gully. Matt checked to see where we would go next. There were at least three possibilities, but only one was the right one. We had to pick carefully. I stopped and admired the valleys below as he poked around in the rocks.
Finally we decided on an exit. After Matt ruled out two possible crossovers (below where the actual one was), cairns finally showed themselves and the route ahead. Up we climbed, then down into a thin band of snow and back up the other side. It was only a moment after this point that we came upon “The Move.” The move I had been dreading all morning – a Class 3 maneuver over serious exposure. Matt had already traversed it when I noticed where he was sitting and stopped dead in my tracks. I could see the danger here. I had to think before I moved, plan out what I would do and focus, but I started to lose it a little. I was scared; petrified… but then I thought of something my friend Jimmy had told me a few days ago: “The mind is always worried about consequences, but the heart knows no fear. The heart just does what it wants.” My heart was not afraid. Somehow I knew I would be okay. Matt patiently guided me through the traverse, step by step, and I have never been more grateful in my life for having such long legs, and such an understanding boyfriend.
After The Move, we sat for a few moments, hydrated ourselves and ate a peanut butter sandwich. It took me a little while to settle my stomach.
Once on the rib, we made our way to the next gully. Up we went until we found the West Gully. A band of yellow webbing marked the place to exit this gully on the descent to avoid getting cliffed out. We made careful note of any other landmarks so as not to go down too far on the way back.
400 feet of Class 3 maneuvers up the West Gully; all the while the views were getting more and more incredible. At the top of the West Gully, we gained the summit ridge. It was somewhere around here that we laid down both of my trekking poles as a marker so we would choose the correct path down.
We could now clearly see the steep Arete of the Needle, Humboldt’s summit, the entire South Colony Basin, and the Blanca Group to the south. There were very neat little trails along ledges on the way to the summit which prevented us from doing much scrambling in a precarious area. I could not believe I was actually going to summit Crestone Needle, and the weather was gorgeous. After a few more minutes of skirting along the boulders on the summit ridge, we reached the summit. “Oh my God,” I said, incredulously. “Oh my God….” It was so beautiful that I wanted to cry. We made it!
Someone was there to greet us!
The summit was relatively small, but there were plenty of places to sit and you could easily walk around a little bit up there. The summit photos commenced.
A view of Upper South Colony Lake below us.
A view of Crestone Peak.
A view of Humboldt Peak.
On our descent, we carefully retraced our route to avoid the many dangers of the Crestone Needle. We found my trekking poles and descended back where we came from. Facing in, and then facing out, I felt a lot like a ballerina, delicately dancing my way down the mountain.
For almost the entire day, we had the mountain all to ourselves. What a treat! However, as we downclimbed the East Gully, a man in a red climbing helmet appeared below us – it was Ken Nolan! Jean was with him, too. They were on their way up the Needle, and Ken even recognized Matt. Matt had spoken with Ken before but I hadn’t. It was a pleasure meeting both of them.
Down, down we climbed until we were finally back to the ridge leading to BHP. The CFI has done a wonderful job with the trails on this mountain, and for the most part there are lots of good cairns. We returned to BHP and descended past the knobby spire of rock that marked where to re-enter South Colony Basin.
The views of the descent were no less remarkable than the ascent.
Matt next to a big cairn with Lower South Colony Lake in the background.
Me blissfully crossing a snowfield.
I was thoroughly satisfied with my weekend. It was a fantastic experience overall – my first real backpacking adventure in a Wilderness area with more wildlife than I have ever encountered on a 14er trip: ruby-crowned kinglets singing in the forest, a porcupine, two mule deer, a snowshoe hare, and more marmots than I have ever seen. The abundance of wildflowers was equally spectacular.
The weather for our hike of Crestone Needle could not have been better. As we took down our campsite and headed back to the car, we were thankful to this wonderful mountain for letting us experience its beauty and power.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):