| Crestone Peak to Needle Traverse
Start time 5am. Prior to our start: We drove down from Denver late afternoon on Friday. No traffic after the Springs. We had dinner in Westcliffe and car camped at the NEW upper "rough 2WD" trailhead. Starting Notes: (1) West Cliffe is a great little mountain town to explore, dine, stay and it offers fantastic views of the eastern slope of the Sangres. Skip the Springs and spend your $$ in Westcliffe. (2) As always, I did not get a lot of sleep on my first night of travel but at least it was a good night of rest, which was important even though noisy cars/hikers arrived throughout the wee hours. Parking at the upper trail head did fill up so cars were circling for other options. (3) Rough 2WD is a stretch... I would recommend at least a small size crossover SUV or sport-utility-car.
The hike in from the upper TH was long. Use the link below to view my TR on the "shortcut" up to the South Colony Lakes.
We started at 5AM but I would recommend an earlier start in the summer. Why? You will need the extra time to complete the traverse. You will also arrive at the South Colony Lakes just in time for Alpenglow. This is a classic picture moment for the Needle. Yes, this is the setting for the cover photo of Roach's "Colorado 14ers" book.
The steep ascent of Broken Hand Pass (BHP) will start soon after you bypass the South Colony Lakes to the southwest. The views of the Needle, Humboldt and South Colony Lakes are superb. We also encountered lots of wildlife on our ascent of BHP and the mountain goats were incredibly curious of our intentions!
BHP is not a difficult climb but you might change your mind on the descent... At least the "Peak2Needle Great Traverse" eliminates having to reclimb BHP from the west (Cottonwood Lakes). Although the tougher of the 2 sides is the east side due to the conditions of the route. BHP's east side is eroded, loose and filled with ball bearing sized rocks. The picture was taken during our final descent.
The crux of the climb on the east side of Broken Hand Pass is just before you get to the top of it. We stayed climber's left (south) of the dividing rock feature as we climbed up the crux to avoid the bad combination of snow and loose rock on the right (north) side. Remembering to climb along the south side of the dividing rock will be more important on the descent since you will not be able to scope out conditions from above. The picture was taken during our final descent.
The down climb on the West side of BHP is beautiful, easy and steep and follows a well defined trail. It's nothing like the east side of BHP.
It takes a while to descend and clear the Cottonwood Lakes before you reach the start of the ascent for the red gully. The western slope is MOSQUITOVILLE. Be prepared, have repellent and/or Hike fast. Here's a photo looking at the south face of "East Crestone" and the Crestone Needle from Cottonwood Lakes.
The trail leading up to the red gully is obvious and solid. The trail initially zigzags to the southeast to avoid the cliffs at the bottom of the red gully. You will cross a waterfall as you enter the red gully. You also start to lose the bugs and mosquitoes once you get near the start of the red gully.
The next few photos reflect the conditions of the red gully. The climb up the red gully will have you changing from side to side if you want to find the easiest climbing to avoid steep, loose or smooth rock. Use your instincts here. There are various cairns to point out options but the best route is the one you feel is right. Just be careful climbing near or when crossing the water running down due to the smooth rock. Here are a few photos from the red gully.
Don't underestimate the time it will take to climb the red gully. It is long, steep and it will tap you of energy if you have the sun on your back. I also strongly recommend a helmet. This route has more loose rock fall than other TR's state. You will encounter several bouncing and spinning head-hunter rocks even with just a few climbers in front of you. Also, there are several TR's that discuss a short-cut at the "black rock." Honestly, I don't see the point. The terrain is steep, rugged and you will not save much time. Besides, the view from the saddle of the red gully is sweet. Here's my Peak summit photo. Theme: War Games: "Flush the bombers. Get the subs in launch mode. We are at DEFCON 1." We passed NORAD (home of the WOPR) on our way to Westcliffe so this movie was stuck in my head.
During the down climb of red gully, I was looking for cairns to signal the start of the traverse but they did not exist. The next 2 photos show what you should see to the west and the east during your down climb of the red gully before you enter the traverse. There were no cairns/route markers as of 7/17/10. Roach says you descend the red gully about 300 ft from the saddle before the start the traverse. I did not have GPS but this seems accurate.
Notice the grass ledges to the southeast (left) in the picture above that initiate the traverse. I'm sure there are other places to start the traverse but this is where we started and it worked great. The start of the traverse is difficult to identify as cairns and a good line of sight are not available. We traversed out on the grass ledges and easily picked our own route to cross this broken and unmarked terrain. There were a few up and downs to clear and some narrow gullies to cross. Much of the traverse below east Crestone Peak is hard to spot as you are continually rounding a corner. There were no cairns but it was still easy class 2/3 terrain.
You eventually get a good view of the remaining route to the Needle summit. By this time you also start to pick up cairns/route markers which will help guide you through the remaining ups and downs to reach the base of the black gendarme. I added a RED LINE to show the approximate route we took starting from the base of the black gendarme. This photo is key although the entire route cannot be seen as many of the ledges and narrow gullies are hidden in the complexity of this face.
At this point you are standing on top of a large ridge and must cross another gully. The picture below shows the gully and the obvious route back up to the next ridge. Cairns clearly mark the grassy slope and rock in the center of the photo that you must climb. This pitch is short, solid and fun to climb. You can also see the summit of the Crestone Needle peering from behind the next ridge in this photo.
The photo below is a look back across this gully and the traverse route. It will give you a good idea of the terrain below East Crestone and the initial part of the traverse over from Crestone Peak.
Make your ascent to the top of this ridge. You are getting closer and will have a great view of the Needle's southwest face.
Here's the view from the top of the ridge before crossing a wide gully at the base of the black gendarme.
Here's a picture of the view looking back across the wide gully at the base of the black gendarme.
Note: The final 500 ft of climbing from here gets difficult and lives up to the challenge of a great traverse. Everything to this point has been easy all though at times blind or unmarked. I've seen many TR's that continue up to the saddle of the black gendarme and the central gendarme. I refused to take this route and was determined to find the route outlined by Gerry Roach. I climbed up on the grassy ledges below the black gendarme and traversed southeast in hopes to find a shortcut. However, these ledges will eventually cliff out. The best route, as Roach describes, is to descend the wide gully in the photo and look for the cairns that initiate a climb back up towards the Needle. You can see the cairn that clearly marks Roach's description in the center of the photo below. This will be against your instincts. Down climb the wide gully at the base of the black gendarme and find this cairn. Turn northeast and start a short climb up a narrow gully.
This is where the route finding gets tough. There is a maze of couloirs, gullies and gendarmes. The picture below is the climb up to the first ledge after leaving the wide gully below the black gendarme. My climbing partner is heading southeast along this ledge, which will lead you in-between the main face of the Needle and another rock tower to the southwest. There are some technical pitches that continue up after this move but you will want to traverse southeast along the ledge, which is well marked. The unexposed move to gain this first ledge will be the toughest move you make until you reach the final class 4 crux.
After this point, there is no more down climbing until you hit the summit of the Needle. You will encounter a steep narrow couloir after a short traverse along the first ledge. The next 2 photos show the view up and the view down at the narrow couloir.
This is a KEY POINT in route finding. Do not waste time on climbing or descending this couloir. Grab on to the solid and knobby conglomerate rock, cross the narrow couloir and make the short traverse around a dividing rock face to find an easier gully leading up. You will not be able to see this easier gully until you make the move across the dividing rock feature. If you do not want to make the climb across, there is an option to climb down the first gully and then climb up from where the 2 gullies join. However, it is easier and quicker to avoid the loose down climb and to just climb around the rock that divides the two gullies.
The route will now begin to climb steeply up solid class 3 rock in narrow couloirs and it will zigzag across a few ledges before it reaches the ridge proper just in time for the final crux wall. Look for cairns. This part of the route is fun and well marked. The photo below is a good example of the class 3 climbing it will require at this stage of the traverse.
DON'T get mislead to climb towards the saddle of one of the gendarmes. Keep looking for the zig-zag on ledges like the one in the photo below.
Here's the photo again with a red line showing the climbing route and zig-zags.
Finally, you will see the last gendarme to the climbers left. Climb up to this saddle as seen in the photo below. The final class 4 crux wall is on the right of the photo below. The route to this point would be fast if it were easy to spot and find. Don't give up. Look for the non-technical route. You can really waste time, hike in circles, cliff out or find trouble in this last 500 ft. The key to finding this route was to climb around the knobby rock wall when the route seemed to "dead end" and only offer options to go up or down a narrow couloir. The next key was to remember the zigzag. Don't climb for a saddle along the ridge until you're at the last gendarme near the summit.
The final pitch is steep and exposed. It's everything you've been waiting for on the "great traverse." You have also been quietly observing this pitch all day from a distance and it's a rush to finally arrive at the crux that will get you to the top of the Needle. This climb starts out mellow and gets steeper as you go. The rock is mostly solid but some stuff can pull out or feel loose… even large size holds. Be careful if you're the one climbing below or standing on the saddle. Roach describes this as "Crestone Knob Climbing at its best." Perhaps this is true but more than a little pink knob will pull out on you. The scramble gets steeper as you go up. The crux wall will want to lead you to the right but this gets steeper and more exposed. As you get closer to the top, you will need to aim and stay more to the climbers left which is also the ridge proper. This climb goes fast. It is airy and beautiful. It was the most exhilarating climb I've done > 14000 ft and it offers a big reward. A few photos of my climbing partner as he topped on the crux just shy of the Needle summit.
Summit photo. "Take a Knee."
Notes on the Needle down climb…
The Needle is much more exposed than the Peak. Follow cairns along the narrow ridge. Refer to the description and photos on this site and find the west couloir. Yes, you can descend the east couloir the entire way and its start is easier and quick to find. However, we took the west couloir as outlined on this site. The west couloir is the standard route and bypasses the difficulty of climbing down the steep dihedral in the east couloir. Make sure you know how to find the start of the west couloir if you want the easier route down.
The crux of the down climb on the west couloir is the transfer over to the east couloir. As you are descending, locate the saddle for the crossover, which is marked and easy to find, but could be missed. Climb down from the saddle and transfer into the east couloir on an angle as you traverse towards the base of the dihedral.
Following the transfer to the east couloir, you will continue to make your descent towards the top of Broken Hand Pass. This part of the route is steep and will test your endurance as it takes awhile to descend. A better trail is formed and is well marked as you get lower but it is badly eroded in some areas. It's a strong reminder that the climb back down BHP will be on loose rock too. And then there's the nearly 4 mile road walk to get back to the rough 2WD trail head.
Vehicle2Peak2Needle2Vehicle is a long day. Expect it. Poach it on a great weather window and be physically and mentally prepared. This route will easily take you 12-15 hrs if you start from the rough 2WD parking lot and keep a moderate pace. Excellent route finding will make a big difference in shortening the time requirement. The entire route was uncrowded (outside of the camping at the lakes) for a Saturday in July on a Colorado 14er. We crossed paths with about 8 people climbing the Peak. We saw only 4 other people making the traverse (2 of which were going Needle to Peak). It's now my favorite hike. It's a great challenge, unmatched beauty and very unique area to Colorado.
Start at upper TH/Parking: 5:00 AM
Top of Broken Hand Pass: 7:21 AM (Fast pace to this point)
Base of the Red Gully: 8:21 AM (Moderate pace)
Peak Summit: 10:25 AM (Moderate pace)
Start of the Traverse from the Peak Summit: 11:15 AM
Base of the Black Gendarme: 12:20 PM (Moderate pace)
Needle Summit: 2:00 PM (Experienced delays with route finding and waiting for other climbers to clear the crux)
Top of Broken Hand Pass: 4:00 PM (Moderate pace)
Finish at upper TH/Parking: 7:00 PM (Experienced delays due to SAR events)
Notes on time: Fast pace at the start. Followed by a moderate pace with many small breaks as the weather warmed with the sun coming up. Top of broken hand pass is a great place to rest and fuel up. You will NOT want to stop or rest at the Cottonwood Lakes due to bugs. I also took over 200 photos during the trip. We by no means crushed the route but we kept a solid moderate pace but experienced some big delays. We spent a considerable amount of time route finding along the traverse. We also took a long break on one of the ledges at the base of the black gendarme to watch a group rappel down the final crux wall of the Needle. We also had a few long stops on our final descent to talk with SAR and other hiking parties. There were 2 groups of 2 that were reported lost or cliff'd out and the search was on.
Yes, you can definitely improve on our time. The key to our success was the great weather window we had. We enjoyed the entire day free of storms, precipitation, high winds or cool temps. You will have an excellent view from the top of the Peak and will be able to make an assessment of the weather prior to making a game time decision on the "great traverse." If you plan to do this as a day trip from the upper 2WD trailhead, I highly recommend an earlier start time and to keep this traverse on deck until you have a great weather forecast.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):