| A Crestone Escapade
July 20, 2012
South Colony Trailhead (11,700’)
Climbers: MtnHub, unclegar (Gary)
Starting Time: ~0330
Return Time: ~1730
The Crestones have been on my radar for quite a while. The Needle especially seems to be one of the most popular favorites among 14ers.com members. I have never been in the Sangre’s at all and I wanted to change that this season.
But because I could probably only swing one or two days down there this year, I was hoping to try the Traverse across them to hit them both on the same day. The Traverse also interested me as I really love ridge climbs, and I much preferred doing it as a day hike instead of carrying a heavy pack in and camping overnight.
Gary and I have been in contact over the last few years and we finally climbed together on my finale in 2011. He was willing to try the Traverse with me this year.
My wife and I got a room at the Westcliffe Inn the night before. Gary was planning to drive down from Estes Park later that day. It ended up being quite a bit later as he was delayed by an accident on the Interstate before he even got around Denver. It was almost 8pm before he stopped at the motel so we could discuss logistics for the next day.
All along I had been studying and planning to do the standard Peak to Needle Traverse. Gary had mentioned once before if I knew anything about the North Buttress route coming from the backside. I had never heard of this route before and never had a chance to really investigate it, but now Gary was asking if I wanted to try it. It would eliminate a lot of extra elevation gain that going up the standard route to the Peak would involve.
We got on a computer and looked over a recent TR on it. He said it would also involve a little more class 4 stuff and wanted to make sure I was OK with that. Except for a climb up Capitol last year, I really didn’t have much experience beyond class 3, but looking at the pictures of the report, it didn’t appear to be too bad. Gary admitted that he hadn’t had time to do a whole lot of homework on it either because he’d been so busy at work the past week. But we agreed to give it a try in the morning.
He was going to car camp at the lower TH and I would meet him there around 0300. Since he had 4WD, we took his vehicle to the upper TH. We were planning to reach the lower lakes by dawn so we’d have maximum early daylight to do the harder stuff.
We got started around 0330, and as the “trail” is really a road, it was easy to follow with our headlamps. At a trail junction we headed north to the upper route, which leads to Humboldt. We were above the lakes when dawn’s first light shown upon the Crestones.
The Needle in alpenglow
They are truly magnificent! Such a spectacular group of peaks!
Broken Hand Pass
We stopped several times along the way to photograph the alpenglow.
Gary stopping for a photo shoot. The ridge in the back of the basin is what we were aiming for.
When the trail to Humboldt branched to the north, we continued straight towards the back of the basin.
Looking back at the South Colony Lakes.
Gary heading up the basin.
It was our hope that there would be an accessible gully leading up to a low spot in the ridge. We did our best to try and stay level or even ascend slightly when we could along the skirt of the slope. Some of the terrain we met was rather loose, and occasionally we had to drop down a little to get across a steep drainage gully.
But finally we found a wide enough gully that looked promising to grant us access to the ridge above.
Gary climbing the gully.
The South Colony Lakes basin.
Gary almost to the top of the ridge.
MtnHub coming up behind. (photo by unclegar)
It was after 0800 before we finally reached the ridge crest. From here we could see Columbia Point just beyond the Bear’s Playground, a grassy plateau between the peaks.
Columbia Point (center)
Looking back (east) along the ridge with Humboldt in the distance.
As we hiked along the ridge to the south we had some stunning views of the North Colony Lakes basin.
The North Colony Lake basin.
MtnHub coming across the ridge. (photo by unclegar)
Now on the ridge, our goal was much closer for better observation. Gary studies it to determine our line of climbing.
As we started climbing up behind our mountain, Kit Carson came out of hiding and could be better seen over to the northwest:
A better look at Kit Carson (L) peaking out behind Columbia Pt in the center.
Gary started up the ridge line. We were looking for a unique Y-coulior, and in particular, the branch to the right.
We followed a narrow ledge along the backside of the Crestones looking for the right gully to ascend. In a few places the shelf was loose and a little sketchy where extra care was needed.
Gary on a particularly tight section.
Looking back along the ledge we were traversing.
Every gully we found never appeared like we thought it should. They either looked pretty loose and awful to climb or they didn't seem to lead anywhere.
One of the last gullies Gary attempted to climb.
While Gary was checking out another gully, I decided to just beeline it up the side of the steep slope to reach the high ridge above us. Perhaps I could get a better view of where we were and if there was anywhere we could access the peak. The knobby conglomerate rock would be excellent practice for me.
MtnHub climbing on the Cottonwood Creek side.(photo by unclegar)
But after a couple of hours of searching and trying various gullies, it became obvious we were not in the correct place. We finally made the decision to accept this fact and return the way we came.
At the top of the ridge, at the mouth of the South Colony basin, we looked over our options. I wanted to try to stay on the right (south) side of the lakes and stream so we could eventually descend by way of the standard trail back to the TH instead of returning on the same trail we took earlier that morning. That way I would be able to see the standard route in daylight if and when I'd ever returned again to make another attempt. From our perspective it looked like a pretty straight shot with few obstacles.
Well, I should have known from past experience that everything looks relatively level and easy from a far distance. We first chose to take a different gully down to the basin, one closer and to the south of where we came up. It was full of loose scree and talus. And although it wasn't as bad as some that I've been on, it wasn't particularly easy either. There were several places where I completely lost my balance and fell backwards or I just keeled over onto my side and into the rocks. I never really got hurt or injured per se, although a couple of days later my left arm was all bruised up and discolored - my wife, Karyn, thought I'd been in a fight and lost!
Once we finally reached the basin, we found the terrain not to be especially accommodating in many places. We went through challenging boulder fields, thick willows, got cliffed out several times on small bluffs, and we eventually had to cross the stream to the north anyway to reach the main trail. This took a major toll on our time and energy.
The South Colony Lake from one of the bluffs.
It was about 4pm by the time we were finally cruising down the standard trail to the parking lot. Well, cruising may not be the most accurate term. We were pretty exhausted by then and dragging might be closer to the truth. Although I was disappointed in not hitting the Traverse or either peak, it was still a wonderful hike in an absolutely gorgeous area. The weather was beautiful, I had a chance to practice some class 4 climbing, and I still returned in (mostly) one piece. So I'm very thankful!
But I did learn (or relearn, in some cases) some important things:
1) You can never do too much research on a particular route. It's always best for every member of a climbing party to do the homework and learn the route, especially when it's not a standard route and it's new to you.
2) An established trail is almost always the easiest and quickest way to reach a destination. Rarely does bushwhacking or short-cutting save time and energy even though it may look like it from a distance.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):