| Crestone Traverse
Crestone Peak (14,294)
Crestone Needle (14,197)
Broken Hand Peak (13,573)
From Cottonwood Creek TH
Saturday, May 27th – We backpacked in along Cottonwood Creek from Cottonwood Creek trailhead in Crestone. There are now no parking signs at the actual trailhead but we found a fine place to park 50 feet or so before the trailhead. Initially the trail was easy to follow but became more difficult to find the higher we went. After a couple of breaks, we found a great place to set up camp around 11,200 feet where the trail splits (the northeast fork leads to Cottonwood Lake and the east fork leads toward Milwaukee Peak and Pico Asilado).
Sunday, May 28th – We set out on the trail leading northeast toward Cottonwood Lake around 6am. Above treeline there seems to be many possible routes and there are useless cairns everywhere. We hiked up the east side of the creek until Crestone Peak's famous Red Couloir came into view. We worked our way to the base of the couloir, stopping along the way to put on more clothes as the wind became a nuisance. Much of the couloir was melted out, but two people in our group were able to do a reasonable snowclimb almost the entire way up (although it was a tad icy and rocky in places). The rest of us scrambled up solid rock on the east side of the couloir most of the way, although we did end up putting on our crampons to climb 100 feet or so in the upper portion. At the top of the couloir, one member of the group and I headed for Crestone Peak's 14,260 foot east summit, the Custer County highpoint, while the rest headed for the true summit. The scramble to the east summit was nothing and we reached it in a matter of minutes, signed the register (first ones this year), and headed over to join the others on the real summit. Roach says the scramble to the east summit is slightly harder than the scramble to the main summit, but I don't know why. We both felt it was kind of a joke.
The weather was looking somewhat questionable and we had to decide whether we were going to go ahead with our plans of giving the traverse to Crestone Needle a shot. It was cloudy and windy, but it didn't really seem like it was going to storm. Although there were clouds directly overhead, we could see a lot of nice blue sky in the immediate vicinity. Three of us decided to start on the traverse and see what developed. When we reached 13,800 feet or so we began searching for the ledge system leading southeast toward the Needle. Luckily, we had remembered to bring Roach's route description along. After some looking, we found the ledge system around 13,750 feet. We took our time and were able to stay mostly on route with no major problems by stopping every once in a while to read Roach's description and by looking around and using common sense to find what we thought to be the most sensible option. It was like finding our way through a maze and since there are many twists and turns and several good descriptions exist, I will not attempt to describe the details here. Although there were small patches of snow on the route, they didn't really complicate things any and we never needed our axes or crampons. Finally, we reached the crux – and what a crux it was! The 100 foot wall leading to Crestone Needle's summit stood before us, at first not looking too imposing. I don't know exactly how my partners felt on that wall. Personally, the first third or so was easy for me, but the further up I got, the more I realized how severe the exposure was. The wall seemed to get steeper, but that could very well have been the exposure weighing in on my perception. It was very exhilarating, and I was concentrating fully on every move I made, knowing one mistake could be fatal. But alas, the fun was short-lived and I quickly topped out. I watched one of my partners climbing the last 10 feet or so and was awed by the sight – nothing but air all around him! Although this section is rated class 4 and I've never had a problem downclimbing class 4 terrain, I don't think I would downclimb this. We walked the last bit to the summit and exchanged high fives for a job well done. This was the first of the four great traverses for me and let me tell you – I sure am looking forward to the other three!
We were feeling a bit worn out and I suspect some part of that was due to dealing with the annoying wind for a large part of the day. After a little break, we quickly set off down the Needle's standard route. When we reached Broken Hand Pass, the wind was just atrocious. Fighting to keep an upright position, we said goodbye to one of our companions who was heading back to camp and continued on toward Broken Hand Peak. Fighting the strong wind which threatened to throw us over the edge, we tried to head directly for the peak from the pass. This was a mistake. We ended up on a large, 200 foot tower that was overhanging on the other side. This was not good news for our tired bodies. We downclimbed the tower which was not a particularly easy thing to do. My advice for anyone climbing this peak is that if you find yourself on terrain that is harder than easy class 3, you're not on route. After that setback, we contoured south around the tower and then headed east toward the summit which we reached with no further complications. Luckily, we found a place to sit on the north side out of the wind. After a short break, we descended southwest toward the Broken Hand – "Crestolita" saddle. We had hopes of climbing "Crestolita" too and knew that the best bet was up a couloir on the north side. Well, the couloir was filled with snow. We went over and checked it out and it looked like a great snowclimb, but because I need some practice with self arrest, it did not look like a very safe idea. So we decided to save it for another day and headed back to camp. What a day!
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