After climbing Humboldt peak on Monday in cloudy conditions we were given good weather on Tuesday to climb the traverse. We left camp at 2:15 on the trail in moments and started the ascent up broken hand pass. After entering the gully the trail became very indistinct and washed out some route finding required. In no time we were up and over passing by Cottenwood lake the moonless night made the lake's rock islands and the night's stars stunning. We started the actual climbing in the Red Gully at 5:00, the trail leads directly to it and we rested for a while before entering.
Morning light from the red gully
The views the Sangre De Cristones were unmatched that morning.
First light on Crestone!
These two pics were taken most of the way up the red gully where it splits and another way opened up to me.
I was a bit ahead of Tom and C so I climbed out of the red gully to scout the traverse. I found a class 4 rib that clearly lead up to East Crestone.
Early morning view of Crestone Peak from E. Crestone
2nd Time on East Crestone
A few years ago I summited East Crestone from the NW couloir and then realized that Crestone Peak was behind me. The area was familiar so the climb up was straightforward and I soon found myself taking the same picture of Crestone Peak that I adore so much.
Crestone Needle from East Crestone
Satisfied with my views of the Traverse I rejoined Tom and C at the top of the Red Gully and we gained Crestone Peak's Summit at 6:50
This being Tom's 4th try to collect Crestone Peak we let him have first summit glory.
Tom crushed it!
This route is truly spectacular as an early morning climb, as it turned out we needed all that time plus some.
The Mighty Crestone Shadow
As I jumped around Tom and C quickly tagged East Crestone.
C on East Crestone
Tom on East Crestone
We met back at the saddle and descended the red gully to the start of the traverse.
View back from the start of the traverse
There are a few good cairns but route finding skills are needed, to keep it safe we moved carefully across checking constantly.
A good look near the center of the Traverse
If you're able to watch the cairns and if you look carefully the route is fairly simple leading up to the Gendarmes.
Here a shot back from all the nice grassy ledges
Climb over this rib and up the small chute
A few class 3 moves
We cleared most of the Traverse and were left following scarce cairns to the base of what we now know as the Black gendarme. We spent over an hour looking for the route described by Gerry Roach. I even climbed up the chute next to the Black gendarme and saw the drop to S. Colony lakes. I was rewarded with a great morning view of the gendarme, climbed down to it's base and continued the search.
View of the Black gendarme from its se base
After all that time looking far too high for the standard route we made what could have been a fatal decision. We had followed a trail and cairns up to the Black gendarme so it seemed like the route went over the ridge and up a gully to the final pitches of Crestone Needle. We rationalized that the Black gendarme was the center on described by roach and I saw a narrow chimney leading to the Needle's ridge.
After this climb I threw down the rope
I thought the climb would be no problem and we were looking for class 3 and 4 chutes to make it to the ridge. But after a scary exposed pitch I threw down the rope and realized that we had gotten ourselves into a bad situation.
C at the base of the 3rd pitch
The exposure was mind numbing, everywhere there were fatal drops it was no fall zone for sure. Luckily we had carried two 8mm ropes, one long sling, a few regular slings and 6 cams. Not that any of the placements were good they were not, mostly I feel like the ropes were a psychological help and not much real protection.
Shortly after Tom lead a few exposed class 4 pitches we gained the ridge and were confronted with a knobby wall.
The headwall, centeral gendarme?
I believe it's actually the central gendarme but we made ourselves believe that it was the final pitch described by Roach. Convinced I could one shot the pitch and set up a belay on top I started up the conglomerate perfection. About 60% up the face I was running out of rope and had no places for protection. I found a very small crack in the conglomerate face and was able to get two bomber cams in quickly. Standing on small knobs I put my face in the rock and waited for Tom to climb up to me. From there I belayed him up and after being on the face for so long I was terrified, we agreed that Tom would climb past me and up to the top of the face. He was confronted with class 5.5-5.8 moves with no protection but one more small cam he was able to place. Hats off to Tom for his ability to conquer fear and crush the pitch.
When he pulled the rope through and called on belay it's the most relieved I've ever been. Then I belayed C to the cams had him lock in, and then I hurriedly climbed the rest of the pitch. The exposure was daunting, the protection was barely there and I truly don't feel like we would have survived a serious fall.
What I believe to be our route.
It goes to show that careful route finding and diligence are always needed on these serious climbs. After the nightmare on the head-wall nothing seemed hard, the class 4 final pitch was cake compared to the fear I faced on that climb.
View of the class 4 final pitch described by Roach
Tom on Crestone Needle
C Summiting Crestone Needle
So relieved, we made our way down the gully route with ease. After all the time wasted, mishaps of route finding and 6 pitches of belaying with 3 people, we got back to camp at 4:45.
We had perfect weather no thunderheads and very little wind, the Gods of the Crestones let us live that day. I vow to Never Ever Ever get off route on a difficult mountain again they are deadly and we were very lucky we didn't end up facing 5.10 or harder terrain going blindly up an unknown route.
Please be safe out there.