| Humboldt from S. Colony Lakes
Preface: The Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range is one of the longest and straightest mountain chains on Earth. It runs from Poncha Pass, Colorado, in the north to Glorieta Pass, New Mexico, in the south. Along the range there are ten peaks over 14,000 feet high and more than two dozen over 13,000 feet. In Colorado, the range's spine rarely dips below 10,000 feet.
Sangre de Cristo is Spanish for "Blood of Christ." According to legend, a Spanish Priest, Father Francisco, was mortally wounded by an Indian's arrow. In his dying moments, Father Francisco raised himself on his elbow, viewed the setting sun's red glow on the mountain range and gasped, "Sangre de Cristo."
Jen and I were hoping to climb Humboldt Peak on Saturday and Crestone Needle on Sunday. (We were also hoping to meet up with USAKeller, Lordhelmet and his friend while they were in the area, but unfortunately our paths didn't cross.)
Our plan was to leave our jobs in Boulder on Friday afternoon, drive to Westcliffe and on to the end of the 4WD road, and then hike up the trail and make camp near the lower South Colony Lake – all before the sun set (which is roughly 8:30 or 9 p.m.). Apparently, everyone else in Boulder had the same plan because we hit mad traffic leaving town. I wondered how so many people had jobs that allowed them to leave early like us. And then, as always, we hit some stop-and-go traffic in Colorado Springs. Plus a little in Pueblo.
We left Boulder at about 3:30 p.m. and arrived in Westcliffe at 7 p.m. Based on Lordhelmet's recommendation, we stopped at the Conoco Subway and ate fresh. Some really loud and obnoxious local teens came in after us and Jen mouthed the words, "Shoot me." They just kept going on and on and it was like Chinese water torture, only with words.
Here's a shot of the Sangres, viewed from the Conoco Subway (Hwy 69 is in the foreground; south is to the left):
After quickly inhaling our food, we got back on the road. Dark clouds loomed over the mountains and it began to rain. While I was fiddling with my ineffective wipers, we missed Colfax and had to turn around.
It was something like a quarter after 7 p.m. when we finally passed the lower parking area and started up the 4WD road.
The first 2.5 miles or so to the first creek crossing was easy, even though it was wet and muddy in some sections. The first creek crossing was a non-issue, and it was actually lower than I expected (especially with all the hot weather melting the snow and the current rain we were experiencing).
The road started to get rougher, but it was still pretty doable. By the way, for reference, I have a stock 2001 Nissan Xterra with BF Goodrich All Terrain tires. The rain-slickened rocks did cause the truck to slide and kick out at times, but it was more or less controlled slippage that I was expecting.
At one point, while happily bumping along, we both caught a big whiff of beer. We were like, "Man, some campers must be drinking a lot!" And then it got stronger and stronger, and I thought, "Wait a minute …"
After pulling over I popped open the back and noticed that Jen's ice axe had punctured one of the beers in my pack, and beer was spraying all over the back of the truck. The can looked like it had been wrestling with a Cougar – and lost. I salvaged the last few ounces down my throat, crushed the can, threw it in the back, and we were back on the road.
Here is a shot of one section of the road. Keep in mind, the photo doesn't do it justice. It's much rockier and rougher than it looks:
The second creek crossing, which has two sections, wasn't bad at all. It was really low and easy to cross.
I kept waiting to come across the crux of the road, but every time I thought I passed the crux, I came up on an even more difficult section than before. In hindsight, it would be hard to say which section was the hardest. There are really three or four "interesting" sections to contend with. Regardless, the last 2.5 miles of the road is all pretty rough. It's a relentless, unforgiving road that gives the driver a real mental and physical workout. Anyone that attempts this road in a stock SUV or truck should really have some off-roading experience.
The third and final creek crossing is right before the end of the road, but it didn't look too deep so I went ahead and crossed it. Here's a shot of the S.S. Xterra making the third creek crossing:
From start to finish, it took us an hour to drive the 4x4 road. Darkness was falling fast, so it was decision time. Option A was to sleep in the truck and then hike up in the morning, set up camp, then climb Humboldt Peak. Option B was to go for it, and hope to find a campsite before it got completely dark. After losing precious minutes talking about it, we chose Option B and set off up the trail.
Jen was on a mission as she hauled ass up the trail with her large 30-pound pack. I had to do everything in my power just to keep up. It wasn't easy hiking on the many snowfields (and over a big fallen tree) with a 45-pound pack. Bringing that 6-pack of beer probably wasn't the best idea.
Here's a shot of us loaded down (taken on Sunday, on the way back down):
Luckily, we found a campsite before dark. It was about a mile up, at 11,500 feet (about a half mile before the lower lake). We were able to quickly set up the tent before it got completely dark, but we had to hang the bear/marmot bag in pitch-blackness. Not the easiest thing to do.
Here's a shot of our campsite (taken in the morning). Notice the ridiculously large DEAD tree threatening our little tent:
After a freezing-cold night of broken sleep, we crawled out of our cozy sleeping bags and spent more than an hour to put ourselves together, eat and purify some water at the creek. We finally started up the trail to Humboldt at 7:30 a.m. It was a perfect bluebird day and the temperature was cool, yet comfortable.
From the lower South Colony Lake, Crestone Needle was a striking sight to see. Pure eye candy. Photos don't even come close to being there for real.
There were a few patches of snow in the trees, but nothing bad at all. The creek was free of snow, making the crossing easy.
We slowly meandered up the trail to the saddle. The trail, by the way, was surprisingly nice. It was built really well and easy to follow.
Me, with Crestone Needle and Crestone Peak in the background:
Above the saddle the route became rockier but there was still a pretty good trail to follow. Funny enough, we still managed to get off route by going too far to the left, below some small cliffs. We didn't get far before realizing the mistake, and we just had to scramble up some easy class 3 rocks to get back on track.
From there we just stayed slightly to the right of the ridge's high point, and then scrambled up the last set of rocks to the top.
Jen and I made it to the summit at 10 a.m. I signed the register (which was brand new, just placed there two days earlier) and wrote a little note to TalusMonkey.
Here's a shot of the summit, taken from the eastern portion of the summit, looking west (Crestone Needle and Peak on the left; Kit Carson right of center):
Looking south toward Blanca and the other 14ers:
On the way down, near the lower lake, we noticed a turn-off to the right but kept going straight. After crossing some snow that we didn't remember crossing that morning, we turned around and went back to that turn-off, which went down to the creek crossing. Curiously, we didn't notice that right turn on the way up.
Made it back down to the lower lake at 11:30 a.m. Overall, the climb was pretty easy and straightforward, as far as 14ers go. And even though we got slightly off route a couple times, we never got lost and it was easy to get back on track.
On Sunday morning we readied ourselves to climb Crestone Needle. Unfortunately, the stars weren't aligning in our favor. (1.) The night before, we talked to a couple climbers on their way down from the Peak. One of them told us that the Needle's West Gully was still full of snow. Jen and I don't have very much snow climbing experience, so this concerned us. The snow was also melting FAST, so I was concerned about wet slides. (2.) We lost our pre-filter for our Steripen water purifier, so I had to rig up a towel, but it didn't filter so well. (3.) We forgot to bring our damn helmets. This bothered us a lot because we don't like to climb gullies that have rock fall potential without helmets. (4.) As we started up, the trail ran right into a large patch of snow over a pond or stream. There weren't any fresh tracks on it, and as soon as I walked on it I started to posthole a bit. The previous night wasn't very cold and the snow was already slushy at 7 a.m. I was worried about busting through the whole thing. And while bushwhacking around this obstacle was very doable, it was kind of annoying and it threw off some of our rhythm. (5.) Before I had even scouted out an alternate route, Jen said she had a bad feeling about the climb. I was getting the same sixth sense, so we scrapped our summit bid and called it a day.
It was a frustrating decision to make, especially since it requires so much effort to just get to the trailhead (3-1/2-hour drive, 1-hour 4x4 ride, $150 to board our dogs and $50 worth of gas, not to mention all the prep, etc.). But based on the conditions and our experience (and missing helmets), I think we made the right decision. You just can't force these things.
We're already planning to go back to climb the Needle and the Peak after the snow melts. Which, based on the meltage I saw over just two days, would be sooner than later.
After breaking camp and hiking back down to the trailhead, we saw just one other truck at the end of the lot. It was Lordhelmet's Xterra (on the left, in the pic below). It was nice to see my Xterra's brutha' from anotha' mutha'.
As I navigated Lil' Pepe back down the 4x4 road, we seemed to be making pretty good time. The real challenge was keeping the descent speed to a minimum while crawling down the large rocks. Momentum and gravity were working against the truck, though, and we hit metal to rock a few times. On one occasion, while descending one of the cruxes and focusing my attention on protecting the undercarriage vitals, my right-front tire slipped off a rock and the forward/downward momentum dropped the suspension enough to smack my right rocker panel on a boulder. Thus, my Xterra now has a small scar from the South Colony Lakes road. Instead of being pissed, I was kind of happy for the truck, as this was its first badge of honor after driving on 4x4 roads for six years.
Made it down the road in 45 minutes, much quicker than the way up. Passed by the lower parking area, which was packed with cars, ATVs and dirt bikes, and continued on home.
Speaking of the road, it's a pretty serious 4x4 road for any stock SUV or truck. Water flows down many sections of the road, washing the dirt away from rocks and deepening ruts. I have a good 15 years of off-roading experience and this is about as rough as I'll go in a stock truck. In 1999, Gerry Roach described it as one of Colorado's roughest roads, and he said it gets worse every year. Even though improvements have been made to the lower half of the road, the upper half is still quite "interesting." And while other 4x4 roads tend to only have a few "rough" sections, this road has non-stop roughness from the first creek crossing to the end. Driver beware.
For anyone interested in current conditions up to Broken Hand Pass:
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):