| A Traverse to Remember
Ever since hearing about the Crestones traverse from my friend Brad, I'd wanted to give it a shot at some indeterminate point in the future...when I was ready. After a summer of climbs that included the Wilsons, Gannett Peak, and the infamous Little Bear, I felt that time had come. However, the Fates intervened as summer dragged on, and multiple planned traverse attempts never made it off the ground due to unsavory weather forecasts or last-minute changes in plans. I began to suspect that snow and increasing school-related responsibilities would make an attempt this year impossible--but then one last chance arose.
Brad, Brian, Matthew, and I decided on this late summer weekend--really, more like a fall weekend--to attempt the traverse. We had almost no idea what conditions to expect after the snowstorm that'd dumped several inches on the high peaks of southeastern Colorado, but decided to head in anyway and hope for the best; we decided that even a climb of Crestone Peak alone would be worth the trip. I spent the few days leading up to the climb obsessively checking webcams, snow depth models, and the conditions reports and forum on this site. With a beautiful weather day forecasted for Sunday, we were soon ready to go. Unfortunately, Matthew had to bow out at the last minute due to work-related responsibilities.
Brian and I met in Denver, heading south a few hours before Brad would meet us. After a deer-intensive drive over the Wet Mountains, we dropped down into Westcliffe as the last light was fading from the sky, just enough light to see that the northeast faces of the Sangres still held quite a bit of snow. Yikes...We decided on pizza at the Silver Dome Saloon, which ended up being the best (and probably only) pizza I've ever had inside a geodesic dome! Definitely recommended; R. Buckminster Fuller would be proud. We ate as Brian tried to text his wife in Wyoming--who he bizarrely could only reach by relaying texts through a relative in New York--and I watched the local pool sharks at work. At one point, I caught a glimpse of something on the bar catching on fire! Ah, small towns...
We headed out, planning to meet Brad at the lower 2WD trailhead, but as we bumped down Colfax, we noticed a pair of headlights approaching us from behind--sure enough, it was Brad, who'd made really good time. After a quick gear transfer at the lower parking area and a bumpy drive to the upper one, we drove a few loops looking for a campsite right by the trailhead. After almost giving up, I spotted a short trail leading up to what was an absolutely perfect camping spot. We wasted no time in setting up Brad's 4-person tent and settling in. With our agreed-upon later start of 4 AM, we'd be getting 5 hours of sleep, good enough for all of us!
We awoke the next morning after a good sleep (yes, even Brad!) and were ready to roll a bit after 4. We trudged up the road in the dark, putting some miles behind us, and passed the time chatting about Slender Man, mountain lions, and other stuff in a similar vein. You know, totally non-creepy, night-appropriate conversation matter. We reached the turnoff for the shortcut trail, got to the lower S. Colony Lake, and after going a bit out of the way compared to my last visit, found the trail to Broken Hand Pass and the famous sign.
Crestone Needle in early pre-dawn light. Photo by Brad
While we partly wanted to wait to see dawn on the Needle, we ultimately decided those 40 minutes would be better spent gaining most of the pass. Once sunrise hit, we were already well on our way, but could still see the apex of the Needle and surrounding mountainsides awash in alpenglow. That bastard was so orange, it could've been on the cast of Jersey Shore.
At dawn, the Needle peering out from behind a ridge, covered in alpenglow. Photo by Brad
The last 400 feet up to BHP was covered in a few inches of snow, but with careful and controlled upward motion, we found the ascent to be reasonable, and didn't even stop to put on microspikes. I was heartened to see a bootpath all the way to the top, and once we passed the class 3ish section, we stuck to climber's right and had a fairly snow-free ascent the rest of the way to the pass.
Nearing the top of BHP, and looking whence we came
Ten feet...five...and we had topped out to a glorious sight: the Needle and much of the traverse, awash in sunlight, with nary a spot of snow to be seen!
The Needle once more, descending the far side of the pass. What a peak!
My last ascent to this pass had involved topping out to bone-chilling winds and grim clouds over the Needle, but this time couldn't've been more different; it was warm, beautiful, and there was barely a breeze. Perhaps this traverse would happen after all...
"Crestolita". Photo by Brad
Broken Hand Peak. Photo by Brad
We relaxed a while at the pass, eating and taking pictures of the Needle and other impressive sights. A couple of Needle-bound German climbers soon reached the pass, and we chatted a bit, giving me a chance to dust off my German-speaking skills. They mentioned they'd seen a few people heading for the technical Ellingwood Arete route earlier. We bid them good luck, then followed the steep trail downhill, making good time to Cottonwood Lake. On this quiet September morning, the lake was still, and beautiful.
Stunning reflection in Cottonwood Lake. Photo by Brad
Past the lake, the Red Gully came into view. I'd been anticipating at least some snow, though not enough to turn us around, but it looked clear as August. We also noticed what looked like some bivy gear near the lake, and wondered if we'd run into whomever it belonged to. As it turned out, we spotted a group above us nearing the entrance to the gully, and we soon caught up to them at the crossover point. We stopped and chatted with the group, which included Chris, 14ers.com member MichaelJ, and an older gentleman named Jordan who was doing his 14er finisher ascent...nice people. We congratulated Jordan in advance, then began hauling butt up the gully.
I was surprised at how much of a different animal this gully was in comparison to those on the Needle. It's wider, usually less steep, more complex, looser with more scree. Rocks seemed more poised to start bouncing down the gully, but less likely to keep going beyond a few hundred feet; contrast that to the Needle's tendency to ricochet small rocks down hundreds of feet of mostly-solid gully! Either way, both of the standard routes are very much helmet territory.
Brian ascending the Red Gully. Photo by Brad
Anyway, we continued up the long slog in the gully, which was a tiring affair, but it was such a gorgeous day we didn't mind too much. Just below the steep final several hundred feet, we ran into another group descending the gully that included a 66-year-old doctor. We looked around, saw a few cairns off to the right, and realized we were probably at the start of the traverse. We took a mental note, as well as waypoints we'd never end up needing.
The final few hundred feet seemed to slow to a crawl, but at last there was no more gully to ascend.
Challenger and Kit Carson from the top of the Red Gully
The moment of truth was at hand: would we be able to climb NE Crestone? As we reached the crest and I looked down the other side, my first reaction was to be disheartened; the downclimb was steep and absolutely covered in snow. Even with microspikes, I knew there was no way I would be willing to risk it.
The daunting view down the other side; the wall we traversed is at R. Photo by Brad
However, a bit more inspection revived a small glimmer of hope in me, as I noticed the NW-facing slope of E Crestone was dry, albeit very steep. NE Crestone itself also looked pretty dry, and I felt that if we could make it over to the E/NE saddle, it would be within our grasp. I had spoken at length with Britt about the route up NE Crestone, and he'd stated that the downclimb to reach the E/NE saddle was the crux of the route. Many thanks again for your help and advice, Britt!
However, our first goal was E Crestone. I'd always heard the climb was trivial, but never saw an easy route in any of the pictures taken from Crestone. As it so happened, it really was the easy class 2+ ascent everyone says--you just walk up a big knobby slab right from the notch, make a few moves, and voila! you're atop Custer County.
The Needle from E Crestone. Photo by Brad
NE Crestone from E Crestone. Photo by Brad
A rather cool view of Humboldt from E Crestone, looking more dramatic than usual
Colony Baldy, cliffs, and snow from E Crestone
A slightly snowy vista to the south, including the Blanca group and Spanish Peaks
This was a new summit for all of us. We took a few pictures and headed back to the notch. Next up was the real Crestone Peak, and this ascent ended up being a bit harder than I was expecting.
Crestone from E Crestone. Photo by Brad
The steep terrain and ledges were more reminiscent of Eolus or the final few hundred feet of S Maroon. However, within ten minutes or so, the terrain yielded and the summit was before us. The view from the top of my 52nd 14er was incredible on this day...Pikes, Greenhorn, the Spanish Peaks, the Blanca group, Culebra and Trinchera, the San Juans near South Fork, and Ouray rose in the distance.
The distant dunes from the apex of the central Sangres
We could see a bit of the plains of southeastern Colorado in the distance, and the San Luis Valley was about as clear as it gets. The recent death of Chris Gray weighed heavily on our minds, and I like to think that a part of him was there, enjoying this most amazing of views with us...
We sat a short while, waiting for Jordan's party to summit. Brian disclosed to us that he'd been having a nagging bad feeling about NE Crestone, and that he would sit this one out and return for it another day. Brad and I made the somewhat less wise decision to at least attempt it, and see what sort of terrain we encountered. Jordan's group finally reached the top, and we congratulated him on his accomplishment. What a day to finish! Brad and I began to head down, with Jordan's group and Brian opting to stay on the summit and watch us on our way to NE Crestone.
Brad and I reached the notch, dropped our packs, and put on microspikes; our initial plan was to go down the gully, feet in the snow and hands on the dry rock wall. I let Brad, who is more confident on difficult terrain, go first. He descended to the couloir and started heading down it, but reported getting spooked and not feeling comfortable on the snow.
Brad (in blue) and I starting across the fairly exposed wall. Photo by Brian
Meanwhile, I was noticing a promising-looking side traverse to a large flake about 20 feet away, but beyond that, I couldn't see around the bend. In a relatively safe spot, I decided to remove my microspikes and see what lay around the bend.
Brad: "LOL, what exposure!?"
From the flake, there wasn't a clear easy way down to the E/NE notch, but there might, just might be a way down to it on the near-vertical rock wall. Slowly, painstakingly, occasionally backtracking, I picked my way down and across the face, trying to ignore the 30-50' of exposure and tortuously-twisting snowy gully below me. I reached a spot where I was unsure how to proceed, and opted to drop near the snow and try to traverse. Brad, still ahead of me and now back on the rock, was having similar difficulties here. At last, we figured out the key to the last bit of the traverse--swinging around to a decent foothold, and making a few sketchy moves down to a ledge--and we had the ground back under us. Whew! My mouth was horribly dry; I grabbed a bit of nearby snow and ate it.
After 45 minutes or so on a low-5th-class wall, the remaining climb was a piece of cake in comparison. The guys on the summit (who were close enough to yell back and forth to) remarked that the remaining climb looked pretty much vertical from there; we informed them that their perch likewise looked pretty impressive from where we were standing!
Brad leading the way up the summit pitch of NE Crestone. Photo by Michael
Brad led up the 100' or so of scrambling that remained, and I soon followed. It proved to be about as difficult as Britt had told me (mainly 3rd class, with perhaps one or two 4th class moves near the top) and surprisingly, far less exposed. Amazingly unexposed in fact--not that I was complaining! We topped out on the small summit, with about enough room for the both of us. As we took a few minutes to rest, we could hear a pack of coyotes warbling somewhere in the valley far below.
On the airy summit perch! Photo by Michael
Crestone Peak looks pretty sweet from here. Photo by Brad
E Crestone from NE Crestone. Photo by Brad
A wee bit of exposure on the summit here...Photo by Brad
Snowy, jagged Crestone Peak and ridge down to the notch. Photo by Brad
Already feeling bad we'd taken so long and held Brian up, we headed back.
Me, at the base of the summit pitch, which is less steep than it looks here. Photo by Brad
The downclimb of NE Crestone posed no problems, and even the 5th class wall went much quicker this time since 1. we were upclimbing this time and 2. we knew where to go.
Coming back across now. Photo by Brian
Brad getting his rock climb on
Spiderman, Spiderman, does whatever a spider-man can...
After perhaps 15 minutes, we had regained the notch, and I let out a whoop of pure relief. After eating and drinking, we headed down, now ready for the traverse. Ten minutes later, my legs were still shaking...
If there was ever a deserving time to bust these out, this was it! (Also, we forgot our "Dumbass" patches). Photo by Brian
We caught Jordan's group again right at the exit point for the traverse, wished them well, and began the traverse.
Looking across the Red Gully from the exit point for the traverse. You should be dead even with the scree patch at the base of the vertical cleft
We discovered this first half of the traverse to be easy, fun, and fairly unexposed as it elegantly wound its way along a series of ledges. Finding those first few cairns is the key to the route, and if you have a few good pairs of eyes keeping a lookout for the next cairn or the most obvious route through this complex terrain, it's pretty easy and relaxed going. Brad revealed that when he'd done the traverse with Terry Mathews before, they'd never found the cairns and had instead followed a much harder route higher up. After our adventures on NE Crestone, I had no problem whatsoever sticking to the easiest route!
The Needle, looking sexy and intimidating
The one slightly confusing spot came at a scree/talus gully, which we opted to just climb up for about 100'. At the top, we saw we were nearly at the slopes below the Black Gendarme, and saw that the terrain cliffed out on the right, forcing us to go left. A bit of reasonably solid scree slopes and rocky rib crossings later, and we were at the base of the Black Gendarme.
Good overview of the upper traverse route. The class 5.2 section is in the shaded gully with snow
Here, there are two options: going high to the right of the Gendarme over a brief 5.2 section, or staying lower and doing some 4th class sections. As the first option seemed more interesting and more well-defined, that's what we opted for, in the hopes that the little bit of snow we'd seen in the gully and on one of the subsequent ledges would prove only a minor obstacle.
At the 5.2 section, I went first, but discovered the blocks were far more difficult to scale than I'd expected, with no decent handholds I could find at the top, and a patch of snow there to boot. None of us wanted to use the dangling rope, so I ultimately went for some knobby rock to the left of the chockstones. After an adrenaline-filled few moments where I didn't have my feet under me well, I'd surmounted the climbing section. Brad and Brian followed soon after.
Brian negotiating the 5.2 section. Photo by Brad
I was already ascending the rest of the gully, which held a few inches of crunchy snow atop talus and scree--easy enough, but I just wanted to get some distance between me and the section we'd just climbed. At the top of the gully, we reached the ridge crest, and its accompanying dizzying exposure, for the first time of the entire traverse. I waited for the others to catch up and considered the knife edge.
The knife edge looked (and proved) to be solid, and actually had some decent handholds and footholds, but it also ascended somewhat steeply and terminated on the snowy ledges I'd seen before. I went first once again, crossing in a matter of seconds but having one scary moment where I wobbled on a particularly narrow part.
Me, topping out on the knife edge to sketchy snowy ledges. Photo by Brad
Given my general comfort level on snow, I crossed the snowy ledges as quickly as I safely could, hugging the wall and taking every step deliberately. Once on bare rock again, I tried to relax and waited for Brad and Brian. Both soon arrived, but we were all a bit shaken.
From here, there was easy terrain up broken rock to the left, or a less-promising-looking ledge to the right; we couldn't see any cairns. I scoped out the left option, but didn't recall hearing of any ridge-esque sections of the traverse after the knife edge. The ledge proved the correct way, and we took it to a sort of broken seam in the rock ahead.
Getting closer to the final pitch. The route follows the 3rd class flakes up and to the left from Brad
I led up this class 3 seam, followed a gully up, discovered we needed to traverse another ledge, and we were rather suddenly in the gully just below the base of the crux pitch. And for the first time, we were being buffeted with a stiff, chilly breeze. Hoo boy...
Stoic Crestone Peak looming to the west. All three summits can be seen
Brad wanted to go first. I watched with fascination as he scrambled right up next to the sheer 2000' dropoff and began climbing the hundred-foot knobby wall.
Brad climbing the first pitch of the crux
After about 40 or 50 feet, he yelled down that he'd reached a safe spot, and for me to start up. I carefully began the steep scramble, finding it to be generally straightforward on good knobby 4th class rock, with a few loose knobs. I soon met Brad on the small ledge where he was waiting, and we had Brian come up.
Brian on his way up the crux
I could see perhaps another 40 feet of climbing above us, and what looked to be a smaller, but still decent set of knobs. Below, I caught a glimpse of a heretofore-unseen solo climber who was only a few minutes behind us on the traverse.
Brad headed up, a bit slower this time. Brian and I were chatting about the comparison between what we'd just climbed and the climb up NE Crestone, until Brad yelled, "Guys, shut up--I need to focus!"; we shut our traps. Gotta say, that did not sound encouraging. Soon enough, it was my turn, and I quickly realized this was the true crux of the route, far trickier than it looked below. Footholds were smaller and more treacherous, and the handholds less ideal; very doable in climbing shoes, but a definite added challenge in clunky hiking boots. Halfway up this pitch, I hesitated, unsure where to go. I didn't dare look down. I didn't dare go up.
Me, getting some air on the scariest part of the crux section, near the top. Photo by Brad
After what seemed like an eternity, I found what looked to be the least bad of several unsavory options, and went for it. After a few seconds, I had my feet solidly back under me and the most difficult part of the climb behind me. As I joined Brad on the top of the shelf of rock where he'd been waiting, I whispered to him (so Brian wouldn't hear me): That. Was fucking. Terrifying. I needed to get away from steep drops for a few minutes, and so scrambled a bit higher to a safe spot just below the summit and sat down, waiting for Brian so we could summit together.
Brian having a great time. Photo by Brad
A few minutes later, the three of us made the final steps of the traverse to the summit of Crestone Needle.
"That JUST happened!"
For a few minutes, we had the chilly, airy summit to ourselves. It was now 3:30, about two and a half hours after starting the traverse, and the sun had made much of its inexorable journey toward the western rim of the world.
Atop the Needle, looking to the north where Adams dominates the views
In the clear, chilly air, lengthening shadows, and snow-dusted northern faces of the peaks to the south, we could feel the first hints of fall and the waning of summer.
Late afternoon Sangres beauty...
The Blanca group from the summit
The vista around us was, if anything, more spectacular than that on the Peak, and I was thankful to be here on this late summer's afternoon with not a threatening cloud in sight--such a rare, sublime treat. Against the odds, we had done it, and we spent some moments enjoying our reward.
The Needle in negative
Before long, the solo climber behind us topped out. We found out that the climber, named Blake, had started the traverse around when we had, but had gotten lost and had been unsure about the route. Blake mentioned having done the Bells traverse, and after describing it as tougher than the Crestones traverse, I decided to write that one off for the foreseeable future--what we'd done was excitement enough for me! A short time later, two climbers topped out in the other direction--the erstwhile Ellingwood Arete team. We spent a few minutes talking, getting pictures, and signing the summit register, then prepared to head down. Blake had already departed; the other two climbers asked if they could follow us down, as they didn't know the standard route.
Going down the standard route was like revisiting an old friend. It was perhaps a bit more exposed than I remembered, but just as enjoyable to climb, and I soon remembered why the Needle ranks as my favorite 14er in the state. Descending the West Gully, I was unsure where to cross--it seemed we'd descended far enough, but the terrain for the crossover didn't match up. Brad continued another hundred feet down and found the correct spot. Once the two climbers behind us were in sight again, we crossed over, making the few sketchy moves down the other side and into the broader East Gully. Here, I knew from my past ascent that the first trail to descender's left was not the correct exit point, but the other climbers did not know that, and when I tried to yell up to them to keep heading down past it, they either didn't hear--the wind was still picking up--or didn't listen. We waited at the rocky wall past the true exit point until they saw where to go, then booked it back to the pass.
Broken Hand Peak on the descent
The Needle, being intimidating
After a last look back at what we'd accomplished, we began heading down the pass. We cockily started talking smack about it, and no sooner did we than a large jagged boulder came loose and rolled right toward us! It stopped just short of us, but the message was clear: respect the BHP. We continued downward, more cautiously now, Brad wearing microspikes and Brian and I trying it bareboot. Within 15 minutes or so, we were back on dry ground, and in perhaps another 20, we were back on good trail. Unfortunately, it was now so late in the day that the Needle was cast in shadow, so Brad never got the classic picture of it from the lakes. Oh well--guess that's yet another reason for a return trip to Columbia Point!
Back at the Lake, and after a bit of discussion, we decided to try the longer, gentler standard route back down the drainage. Even though it may have added a bit of time to the hike out, I'm glad we did. It was easier on our sore legs, knees, and feet, and provided some nice views of Humboldt and snow-covered Marble Mountain. The Needle made a last dramatic appearance, its rocky buttress thrusting itself heavenward at the head of the valley. Reaching the long, straight section of road, there was now nothing to do but walk. And walk, we did.
Afternoon views in the valley. Fall is in the air...
As dusk fell, we made the last few weary steps back to the parking area. It had been fifteen and a half hours since we'd set out from here, but it felt like a week ago...so much had happened in those hours, and the three of us felt we'd pushed our boundaries in accomplishing what we'd once thought almost impossible. At the same time, the traverse was mentally trying enough that all of us were content to make it the last and greatest challenging trip of the summer (walk-ups, here we come!). The traverse may have been the greatest climb of my life. It was certainly the greatest climb I will never do again; not just because it scared the hell out of me, but because it seems foolish to try to improve upon perfection. Although I still have six 14ers left to climb, and hopefully hundreds of memorable climbs in my future, this day somehow felt like the end of a chapter of my life.
Thank you Brad and Brian for being the best climbing partners I could've asked for, and Chris Gray and Rob Jansen for having given me the chance to have met you both. Your untimely passing has served as a reminder to not only be careful in the high country, but to never take things for granted, and to live each day to the fullest.
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