| Crestone Needle
After many hours of driving, we rolled into Westcliffe in the hopes of having a big meal and a couple beers before heading into the rugged wilderness for a few days. Unfortunately, because it was a holiday, nothing was open, so our dinner consisted of string cheese and pretzels.
Under darkening skies, I navigated the Xterra up South Colony Lakes Road for the second time. The road was just as rugged as before (although the creeks were lower) but it seemed much easier on the second go-round.
At 5 p.m. we parked at the end of the road, threw on the heavy packs and started up toward the lower lake. As we hiked we heard thunder rumbling above us so we kicked it into high gear. Just as we found a good campsite it started to rain. I think we set up our tent in record time and jumped in just as it started to rain harder.
Time didn't fly by so fast. I started to think about Jon Krakauer's story, "On Being Tentbound," and I wondered how long we'd be cooped up in there. The rain just wouldn't let up. In fact, it just kept coming down heavier and heavier. And the thunder and lightning was loud and unrelenting.
At one point we thought it was going to hail, and Jen said, "Actually, hail might be better than this heavy rain." And that's about the time all hell unleashed from the sky. The pea-sized hail was coming down so hard I thought it was going to shred our poor little tent. As it rapped on the roof, sprays of mist permeated the material and rained down on us. It was so loud we could no longer hear the thunder.
Here's a pic from our tent:
About the time we didn't think it could get any worse, we noticed a pool of water collecting just outside. Even though we were in a flat area, the hail was collecting around the outside of the tent and damming up water underneath. The waterproof material was holding its ground, but when we patted the floor of the tent, it felt just like a waterbed. Now we were in dire straights.
As soon as the rain let up from "torrential downpour" to just "heavy rain," Jen ran to look for a better spot and I gathered up all our crap. Luckily, we found a good spot just 50 yards away. So I just unstaked that badboy, lifted it up whole and ran it up the hill. It was a much better spot but most of our stuff was still wet. Later in the evening I ran out into the rain to hang the bear/marmot/goat bag. It was a wet, miserable evening. While the thunder and lightning eventually subsided, the rain didn't let up until the middle of the night.
July 5, we stumbled out of our tent after a broken night of sleep. My boots were still a bit damp. After eating a quick and cold breakfast, we headed down to the creek to sterilize some water. The Steripen is a great little device, but it sucks when you have to submerge the bottle in icy water for twenty seconds to fill the bottle.
We started up the trail at 7 a.m. A few snowfields later ...
... and we were looking up at the gnarly Broken Hand Pass. There's really only one crux up to the pass, but it would've been easier had it been full of snow or completely free of snow and ice. Because there was some ice, we had to kind of skirt around and up a big boulder. Wasn't too bad, though.
Ascending the upper portion of Broken Hand Pass (looking back toward South Colony Lakes):
The trail on the back side of the pass was pretty easy to follow for a while. Once it got rocky, we somehow missed the upper cairn and ended up descending too early. We saw the base of the gully and we knew where we had to go, but we just made getting there a bit more difficult than we needed to.
The lower portion of the East Gully was steeper than I expected it to be, but most of the rock was solid. Water ran down its mid section so we scrambled from one side to another -- wherever the rock looked better.
Man, the views to the south were unbelievable:
Not wanting to miss the turnoff to the West Gully, I checked my GPS, hoping that it was around 13,600'. We had climbed at least a couple hundred feet, so I knew the turnoff was coming up. Oddly enough, my GPS read 13,900', and I knew it couldn't be right. This was about the time we met up with a friendly climber by the name of Rick.
Jen climbed up one crack toward the rib to check things out. It was a no go:
Then, Rick yelled up, "I think it's higher up."
I scrambled up to the rib on the next ledge up from us. Peering over the edge, I couldn't see anything below. It was just an abyss of air, and it made my stomach tighten. Another negativo.
After scrambling up a bit further, the three of us came to the consensus that we found the correct way over to the West Gully. Ice and snow covered a chockstone at the base of the obvious dihedral. But the route up to the rib looked kind of hairy. A small flag on top of the rib waved furiously in the wind above us. It had to be it, we agreed.
Rick, getting ready to climb across:
Getting across the chasm in the gully was awkward, to say the least. After stepping on the chockstone, it required a long, committing stretch toward some small holds. Little pincher hand holds and small nips in the rock for your feet. Then, just yards up, there was a near-vertical section to climb. With big air to my back, I chose my hand and foot holds very carefully. I made it up OK, but I was concerned about down climbing that section. That scary thought ate at me for a while, and I battled it, mentally, all the way to the summit.
As we moved over to the West Gully, I was surprised at how steep it was. While less steep than the upper portion of the East Gully, the upper portion of the West Gully is no walk in the park.
Then, at the end of the gully, there was still quite a bit of climbing to go.
Near the top, we must have scrambled up and over at least three more ribs before gaining the summit at 10 'til 11 a.m. After every rib I looked back and took mental notes for our return.
As I stepped on the summit of Colorado's last unclimbed 14er (1916), I didn't feel as though I "conquered" the mountain at all. It was more like a feeling of fear and deep respect, and I was glad the mountain allowed me to be there. Regardless, it was exhilarating.
As Gerry Roach so eloquently puts it, "Crestone Needle's summit will thrill all but the most dispassionate soul." Beyond words, this peak appears on the cover of his book, "Colorado's Fourteeners," so there's that, too.
The three of us didn't spend much time on the summit. I don't even think I signed the summit register. Clouds were building and we had a long way down. I was concerned about down climbing some sections.
Have to say, it was nice to have two other brains nearby to corroborate with while negotiating our way back down. And while I did OK on the down climbs that tried to nibble away at my confidence, it was really nice to hear Jen and Rick provide encouraging words and point out a few foot holds for me from below.
Here's a shot of the section over the rib and back to the East Gully:
I truly knew I had the physical skills, but I'm still working through some mental barriers. And just years ago I had a pretty strong fear of heights, believe it or not.
At 1 p.m. we finally rolled back into our campsite, which was overrun by a herd of scraggly goats. I coaxed them away from our tent, but they just circled back. Then I noticed they were loitering just below our bear bag. Must've smelled our yummy Mountain House dried food. After some stronger coaxing and a little "get the eff outta here," they left us to ourselves.
At about 2 p.m. it began to rain lightly. After eating some food that had a six-year shelf life, we napped, but we didn't really sleep.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):