| Peak and Needle via Cottonwood Trail
I debated whether to write a trip report on these peaks, when so many more useful reports are already out there. But why not? There is some useful information in here for people researching the Needle climb, but sadly without very many photos as we were fogged in that day.
Anyway, Scott (gopilot) called me Tuesday and asked if I wanted to camp for two nights and climb Peak and Needle. Out of the blue I agreed. The Wednesday departure was delayed a day due to a massive thunderstorm, though it ended up mostly being off to the north of KC.
Day 1: 6-8 miles, 4000-4500' gain
Day 2: Crestone Peak 14294', ~2500' gain
Day 3: Crestone Needle 14197', ~2500' gain, plus 6-8 miles descent
For those looking for beta on the Cottonwood Trail: the trailhead is not publicly usable, and has no parking. It's also both long and strenuous - probably a longer hike to Cottonwood Lake than simply hiking in from South Colony TH over BHP (see day 1 above). Cottonwood Lake does make an excellent base camp for both mountains however; it is well above tree line and overrun with marmots and chipmunks but sheltered from the weather.
Our trek began at the Cottonwood Creek trailhead, circa 8400', at 3PM on Thursday. Plan was to head straight up to the lake and make camp, for which we'd figured about 4 hours, knowing the difficulty of the trail. Another impending thunderstorm was threatening and we were prepared for rain, but it ended up blowing right past us. The trail turned out to be in pretty solid shape but was really, really long - well over 4000' elevation gain up to the lake at 12300'. The first couple miles were in good shape as the trail gained elevation steadily, but then we came into a densely wooded area with a lot of downed trees and it became intermittent. With two sets of eyes we did not find it hard to pick up again each time though. After another mile or two it began climbing steeply, and here someone had gone to tremendous effort to put up hundreds and hundreds of cairns marking the trail. I tried to use GPS to track our progress but the steep cliffs to the south blocked any signal until we got pretty high up. My GPS map is old and still has the trail on it, but it is not in at all the same place as the current trail and would only have lead us astray. Carefully following the cairns was quite effective though and brought us past the creek split (which was right by the creek crossing as the Milwaukee fork crossed over and continued straight) and past the boilerplate slabs that make this trail infamous. The trail we followed stayed on the left side of the creek all the way up to the waterfall. Right below the waterfall though we completely lost the trail, bushwhacked around the cliff to the right of the waterfall, and made our own way up from there.
The "red gully" from right above the waterfall
From right above the waterfall the red gully became visible. Normally they say the picture makes it look steeper than it is, but from this vantage it looked downright vertical. I had previously thought the waterfall was right below the lake, but it turned out to be another hour or so over rough terrain and we almost stopped to set camp short of the lake. We toughed it out though and made the lake around 8 PM, getting camp up just before dark.
This camp site proved to be an excellent location to start both climbs. At 12,300' it was almost too easy really. The only down side was that being well above the tree line there was not much to do with our food to hide it from bears and marmots. We decided the marmots were the greater threat and just kept it inside our tents. This turned out to be the lucky decision.
The lake was very pretty, but camp sites were limited
Cottonwood Lake with Broken Hand Peak/Pass in the background
Looking up at "Crestolita"
South face of Crestone Needle
After a 4:30 wakeup we got on the trail around 6:15. Where did the time go??? Crossing the lake we followed the excellent trail down toward Crestone Peak's red gully. The trail loops all the way around to the right of the gully to enter a few hundred feet up, just as shown in the route description. We followed a pretty sedate pace right up the would-be class 3 gully all the way to the top. For all that it had looked vertical from the head-on shot the day before, the grade wasn't particularly challenging and there was no real exposure at any point; I'd say the vast majority of the gully was more of a 2+. Leaving the gully at the top, we followed the well-cairned route along a ledge, up a bit, then along another ledge to the summit; again quite easy though there was a bit of exposure here. This brought us to the summit at 9AM. A group of 4 or so appeared to summit Crestone Needle a few minutes later.
"Small version" panorama from Crestone Peak
Needle seen from Crestone Peak, around 9:10AM July 23
With clouds coming in and the fear of upcoming rain, we only stuck around about 30 minutes and skipped the east peak. The descent was just shallow enough to be easy and fun. Clouds started coming in though and we missed the cutoff for the trail to lead us around the lower portion of the gully, which was a bit tedious. We didn't expect trouble with that or we would have marked it better.
Descending the upper stretch of the red gully
Descending the red gully with fog rolling in
After an afternoon nap and a few hours of rain it was time for an early bed. I'd had hopes of climbing Crestolita or Broken Hand that day but the weather put an end to that.
An earlier 3:30 wakeup lead to a much earlier start for the Needle, which turned out to work well to our favor. Going up Broken Hand pass we passed the group from the big Crestones bash on their way to the peak; apparently Sean and two others attempted the traverse while we ran into (I believe) Mike later on our way back down, but I don't know if they succeeded. It certainly wasn't a very good day for traversing. (EDIT: they did succeed; Sean's trip report covers a portion of it.)
There were two easy class 3 pitches right on the trail to the east gully, the second one rather exposed. If this is a way to weed out inexperienced climbers before they can get themselves killed, I approve! Either way though, Scott and I agreed this was already more exposure and "harder" scrambling than we'd done the entire way up to the peak. Many people have spoken about comparisons of Peak and Needle, but I didn't really see any similarity at all. The needle was constant and exposed class 3 practically from start to finish, and the Crestone conglomerate was nothing like the red rock we hiked on the peak. I will say that the Needle was a lot more fun going up, while the Peak (red gully) was simple going down, so from that point of view the Needle->Peak traverse might have some advantage.
Right at the bottom of the east gully things got interesting. A fair bit of the gully was wet, and getting around it on the right was a bit tricky. Not far up we found the cutoff to get across to the west gully, and marked it with a bit of orange cloth. We'd been expecting this to be a bit harder, and consequently had no trouble with it at all; we just looked for the unique overhanging rock shown in Photo #13 of the 14ers.com route description, looked for the last possible place to cross over the gully to get to it, and ended up crossing at what looked like the only possible location to keep things at a (difficult) class 3. Any lower down and it was a pretty vertical climb to get up to the rib, and any higher up you'd have to cross over the dihedral portion of the gully. Still, we both agreed this was the crux of the climb, with the steepest and most exposed portions.
Over in the west gully we again marked our spot with orange cloth, and continued up. We may have been overconfident at this point, and content to follow cairns up the gully. As we ascended the climbing became a lot easier as we went up a cairned-out scree slope. We came out on a ridge and began traversing across a southeast-facing slope (still following cairns), then came up against another gully...and realized we had no idea where we were. To make matters worse, fog (or rather, a cloud) began sweeping over us right at that moment. On careful examination of all our route materials we realized we had somehow left the west gully, headed up to the right, and cut back across to the east gully.
We'd come up right below the circled rock feature, then cut across the slope following the red path, bringing us right up against the east gully. We debated scrambling straight up from our current position or entering the east gully and scrambling up that, but eventually decided to retrace our steps and get back into the west gully. Having done so, we followed it straight up to the top, through some very steep but really quite easy and fun scrambling. The west gully is really narrow along the upper portion, and sneaks through some otherwise quite gnarly terrain.
On coming out at the top, fog covered everything and we had no idea where to go. A cairn lead us at a 45 degree angle to the right and over another rib, but from here the "trail" appeared to lead back down a class-4-ish slope. Not being able to see anything, we were about to turn around but decided to try to work our way around some ledges to the right, along the ridge. This got us around to the next rib, which turned out to be the summit. Not much could be seen and after checking out the register and snapping a few pictures we decided to turn around real quick before we could get rained on.
Humboldt (from Crestone Needle)
Looking toward Crestone Peak from the Needle...I believe this may be the sub-peak on the traverse
Heading back down, at the bottom of the first pitch of the west gully we found ourselves right above two other hikers. These guys were in the exact same spot we'd been in less than an hour before, apparently having likewise gotten off course of the west gully. After some quick discussion, they made the easy scramble up to our position and then we climbed down to where they had been - basically following the green route in the picture above. From here it was an easy class 2 hike down to the west gully right above the cut-over point. They asked us to leave our orange cloth markers in place, and hopefully they picked em up on the way out. The rest of the way back to the lake was straightforward and full of other hikers.
Climbing down the bottom of the east gully
Looking down at the lake/camp from the bottom of the east gully
Cottonwood on the way back out proved to be quite the adversary. Once we found the trail, following the cairns down was easy and fun. But the area with the downed trees was far trickier in the downward direction. The path kept splitting, and by taking the wrong turn we found ourselves repeatedly having to bushwhack through some seriously hefty tree trunks. We made it back to the trailhead and our waiting ride around 3:30, concluding a successful and extremely beautiful 48 hours in the Sangre de Cristo mountains.
Very approximate topographic route
* LINK DISPLAY TEXTBill Middlebrook's route descriptions on 14ers.com
* A few random trip reports on Crestone Peak
* Numerous trip reports on Crestone Needle
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):