| Crestone Needle Postholing Epic
I grew up in Colorado Springs, but I've been living in Ohio for the last 23 years. I still haven't managed to get the climbing bug out of my system. So, I took a trip west to visit family and climb a mountain. Given my limited time, I narrowed the possibilities to three: Long's Peak Kiener's, Pike's Peak Y Couloir, or something on Crestone Needle. My long-time climbing partner wasn't available, so I eliminated Kieners and anything too technical on the Needle. Pike's Peak got a major dumping of snow before my planned climbing date, and I wasn't too keen on avalanche conditions for the Y. Avalanche reports for the Sangre de Cristo range looked more promising, so Crestone Needle standard route it is then!
I realize that solo climbs are generally discouraged by most folks. Most guidebooks flat out say "Never travel alone!" But I say "Never say never". There's some obvious risks and disadvantages to hiking and climbing alone, but there's also some advantages that many overlook. A more detailed examination of this topic follows this trip report.
After a 2 hour drive, I reached the 2WD parking lot that leads to the South Colony Lakes at 4:00 am. I was greeted with a spectacular view of the Milky Way and countless stars. Temps were probably in the low 30's with a very light wind. Time to grab my pack and get going!
My progress up the road was ok, but slower than I had hoped (3 hours to reach the 4WD parking lot). The road was relatively clear of snow most of the way to the Rainbow Trail, but not much further. Deep but well crusted snow for the remainder of the hike up the road. I hiked all the way wearing my running shoes with my heavy mountaineering boots in my pack (just trying to save my feet a little). Switched to the boots and snowshoes at the parking lot and continued on toward the lakes.
I didn't concern myself with sticking to the trail toward the lakes as there was so much snow cover, but perhaps I should have. As a result, I ended up too high on the slopes below Broken Hand Peak before reaching the couloir that leads to Broken Hand Pass. Traversing slopes while wearing snow shoes is a very unpleasant way to travel. As often is the case, one mistake can lead to another. After reaching some cairns, I knew that I was on the standard approach, but I was still traversing with the snowshoes. Frustrated by this painful and awkward technique, I finally removed them. Figuring that the couloir seemed too steep to wear them, I decided to leave them next to a prominent cairn (or large bolder) and retrieve them on my way back. Big mistake. Even worse, I failed to mark the spot with my GPS (didn't even have it turned on at this point).
Postholing and traversing my way forward to the couloir was tiring but easier and much more comfortable than with the snowshoes.
My initial progress in the couloir was OK, but I became mired in deeper and deeper snow as I continued. Unwilling to go back for the snowshoes, I pressed on and finally reached Broken Hand pass at noon.
I was feeling a bit discouraged at this point and sat down for the first time in 8 hours to consider my options. The old rule of thumb is to be off the summit by noon, and I was no where close to the summit. However, the weather was looking good and the forecast was calling for only a 30% chance of storms. The top of Crestone Needle still looked very far away.
"Should I climb up to Broken Hand Peak instead? The summit isn't much further."
"Better not. I didn't tell anyone that I would be going that way."
"What about continuing on toward the Needle, at least for a while? The weather still looks good and there's a lot of daylight left."
"Yeah, I could do that. I'm still feeling strong, and there isn't as much snow on this side of the mountain."
My progress after Broken Hand Pass was much better and a lot more enjoyable. I don't know if there are any cairns in this section of the climb, but I was able to blaze a reasonable line that didn't get me into any trouble. I reached the south face couloir at about 2:00 pm. The weather was still looking good, so on I went.
The couloir was steep, but the snow was very soft due to it being sunny, very warm, and so late in the day. Kicking steps without crampons was no problem. In fact, I still was postholing up to my knees or deeper the vast majority of the time. I had crampons with me but really didn't see any point in wearing them. I reached an icy section early on but easily bypassed it by climbing on the rocks to the right. I was enjoying this part of the climb and started to feel that success was close at hand. However, my progress was still very slow due to the very deep and soft snow. It was easier and much quicker to climb on the nearby rocks when I safely could.
The higher I climbed up the eastern couloir, the steeper it got.
I know it's possible to traverse over to the western couloir, but this route up the eastern couloir seemed very straightforward. However, all forward progress stopped about 200 feet from the summit due to very steep and deep powder snow. Fortunately, exposed rock was nearby, and I was able to keep going up after wading and fighting my way over to the rock. There was a lot of deep snow on the summit ridge, and a really wicked cornice.
Finally, at 4:50 pm, after 13 hours of hiking and climbing, I reached the summit! What a spectacular view from the summit, and I had it all to myself! Unless someone was climbing Crestone Peak or Kit Carson from the west, I don't think there was another person within 50 square miles of me. Now that's what I call solitude!
Due to the late hour, I stayed only 10 glorious minutes on the summit. I really didn't want to risk a glisade in this steep and very narrow coloir, so I took huge plunge steps to the base of the couloir and made good time. Followed my route back to Broken Hand Pass without incident and arrived at the pass by 6:30 pm. What took me 5 hours to ascend from Broken Hand Pass to the Summit of the Needle took me only 1 and a half hours to descend. I tried to glisade down from the pass, but the snow was still too soft. So, more plunge steps.
Backtracking my post holing steps from earlier in the day wasn't a problem until I came to a section that had been covered by a small avalanche. As a result, I never did manage to find my snow shoes that I had jettisoned earlier in the day. Not willing to risk an exhausting search, I regretfully continued on without them.
The rest of my route down the mountain was uneventful. I never saw another person, vehicle, fresh vehicle tracks or human footprints other than my own the entire day. After 20 hours of hiking and climbing, I finally reached my car around midnight. Tired yes, but I've felt much worse after other climbs.
Some personal thoughts on solo wilderness travel, hiking, and climbing
The obvious disadvantage for going solo is that you can get hurt (or killed), and there's no one there to help you or go get help for you. No question about it. That's a serious disadvantage. However, it's a risk that I'm willing to take occasionally if I'm confident that the route is well within my ability. I also make sure other people know exacly where I'm going and when to expect me back.
While I've done the vast majority of my hiking and climbing with at least one other person, more of my recent climbs have been solo and very enjoyable. For this trip, I simply didn't have another partner available. Sure, I could have posted a "partner wanted" add, but I'm not comfortable climbing with a complete stranger. What skills and experience do they have? Are they as fit as me? Will I be slowing them down? Will we get along with each other? Etc!
Even when climbing with people I know and like, sometimes things don't work out very well. I've had partners forget a critical piece of shared gear (or forgotten something myself), been painfully slower than me, or been in vastly better shape than me. We've gotten in heated arguments about route finding, when to rope up, when to turn back, when to continue. I've had people talk me into climbs that were way above my ability at the time, suffered the "group think" mentality and "always safety in numbers" fallacy. And what if the unthinkable happens and a good friend dies while climbing with me. I can't imagine what it would be like to explain that to my best friend's wife or having to deal with a negligence law suit from a grieving family member.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting that solo is the best way to go. I'm simply pointing out some of the disadvantages of climbing with someone else. In the end, we have to decide what is best for us at the time.
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