Peak(s):  Crestone Peak  -  14,294 feet
Crestone Needle  -  14,197 feet
Date Posted:  09/19/2019
Date Climbed:   09/02/2019
Author:  glodder
Additional Members:   michaelj
 Crestone Traverse, Labor Day 2019   

Even after finishing the Colorado 14ers in 2015, I knew I wasn’t fully done with my quest yet. I wanted not only to climb all of the 14ers, but to also climb all four of the “Classic 14er Traverses”. 2013 was the Bells Traverse, 2014 was the Little Bear/Blanca Traverse, and 2015 was the El Diente/Wilson Traverse. But I had never been able to get to the Crestone Traverse. Mike and I decided we could finally tackle this over Labor Day weekend 2019... this would be Mike's 3rd time doing the Crestone Traverse. I drove to Colorado on Sunday, September 1, 2019, and met Mike at the 4WD South Colony Lakes Trailhead that evening, planning for a very early morning start on Monday. Here was a view of the Crestones from the east, and a pic of Mike and me at the trailhead on Sunday evening:

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The two mountains in the middle, Crestone Peak on the right and Crestone Needle on the left, with the jagged Crestone Ridge Traverse in between.


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Left = Todd; Right = Mike

We started out on Monday at 2:00 a.m., ready for an incredible and challenging day. We reached a fork in the trail at about 3:00, and we took the trail on the right. We believed this would be more of a direct route to Broken Hand Pass. It turns out this was accurate, but it was not without a little bit of trial and error once we reached the area of the Lower South Colony Lake. We kind of aimed for the shadow of Broken Hand Pass, made our way up the scree, and eventually came upon a reasonable trail up to the pass. I helmeted up somewhere in the area where we were climbing amidst large rock walls. We reached the pass at about 5:30. We took a bit of a break here and then descended to Cottonwood Lake. During our descent, light had come upon us, and so we were able to scope out some of our future sections of the Crestone Traverse Route. We were easily able to locate the major gendarme toward Crestone Needle, which is a significant marker on the Traverse. Some pics of this area, showing the view of the major gendarme from the Cottonwood Lake area (the route goes immediately to the right of the major gendarme, up through that very skinny looking V-gap between the gendarmes):

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As we passed by Cottonwood Lake and continued to descend, eventually we caught sight of our right turn toward the Red Gully, the major couloir which would lead us to the upper reaches of Crestone Peak. There was a good trail after our right turn, and the trail led to the bottom of the Red Gully. We entered the gully and started making our way up. Even though it was tiring, I enjoyed most of the climbing in the gully. There were some really great sections with solid rock. But, there was a lot of loose rock in there too, so we had to be careful in certain areas. Here are some pics from inside the Red Gully:

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The gully seemed to go on and on, and on. Finally, we reached the top of the gully, the saddle between Crestone Peak and its eastern sub-summit. I remember standing at the top of this couloir back in 2004 when I climbed Crestone Peak the first time, via the Northwest Couloir Route. Today, looking back down at the Northwest Couloir, I really questioned how in the hell I ever climbed that route… it looked absolutely treacherous. But I don’t remember the climbing in the NW Couloir being nearly as bad as it looks from above. Here is a pic of Mike and me at the top of the Red Gully, with the excellent view of Kit Carson Peak in the background:

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From the saddle, it took us 10 minutes to scamper up the ridgeline to the Crestone Peak summit, at about 9:00. It was an absolute rush to be standing on that summit, as it always is on a 14er summit. But there’s just something about the Peak’s summit that makes it extra special. I had similar feelings this time around as I did the first time summiting Crestone Peak in 2004. The smaller nature of the summit, the Peak’s stature in the history of the Colorado mountaineering community, and the incredible views of Crestone Needle, Kit Carson Peak, a sea of peaks to the north and south, the Great Sand Dunes, the Blanca group far in the distance, and the San Luis Plateau. I loved it, again.

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After lounging up there for about 20 minutes, Mike and I began our descent back into the Red Couloir. We had kind of scouted out the Traverse turn-off on the ascent, but had not quite made a final determination as to where we would exit the couloir toward Crestone Needle. On the descent, it became quite obvious, and there were cairns on the left side of the couloir guiding us to the exit point. We had to descend a total of about 700 feet in elevation before hitting the exit point, at about 13,600’. We then began an up-and-down traverse (mostly down, initially) significantly below the Peak/Needle ridgeline, again marked by cairns. This area of the hike was full of anticipation. We were able to rest a little bit by not having to make much elevation gain in this area, and the thought of the terrain ahead once we hit the major gendarme was very exciting. Mike and I constantly bantered about it. Finally, after turning a significant corner, we had a great view of the gendarme ahead of us. There is a narrow couloir to the right of the gendarme, and that is the route. So we aimed for the right side of the gendarme, but there were also relatively obvious cairns pointing the way in the same direction. Pics of the gendarme area:

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We reached a point where we began a significant ascent to the base of the right side of the gendarme, and made our way up to the obvious Class 5.2 bulge move which marks the beginning of the challenging terrain on the Crestone Traverse.

One thing I’d like to mention before describing the many challenging sections from here up to the Crestone Needle summit… I think it would help a climber significantly to have climbing shoes in this whole area. I felt like my Vasque boots were in a lot of situations too big for the foot-holds on the terrain. I managed, but it was not without some nervousness in a few areas.

The Class 5.2 move was tricky and should not be considered easy. On what we analyzed as the typical way to overcome it, you have to concoct your body in a spread-eagle position to manage the reasonable foot-holds on the move. After initial engagement, you step up to a foot-hold on the left, and then reach up and far to the right to place your right foot, resulting in a major spread-eagle. You then reach up to the top of the bulge with your hands, find two reasonable hand-holds, and pull your body up from the spread-eagle position. This requires a burst of strength and energy to overcome it. A fall here would not be good, as you would land anywhere from about 10-15 feet below the move, and probably tumble a bit uncontrollably. With all of this being said, it was not more than about 5-6 moves to overcome the bulge. Here is a pic of the Class 5.2 bulge from below:

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And here are some pictures of me, from above, overcoming the Class 5.2 section (they aren't the greatest pics but you can get some of an idea of what the area looks like):

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Once above the Class 5.2 bulge, it was an easy scramble to the top of the couloir. There is a major cliff at the top of the couloir, with a dramatic view of South Colony Lakes far below. I had not really scoped out the next section of the route before Mike went ahead and climbed up a tough-looking rock section leading to an incredibly exposed knife-edge. I guess I sat there briefly surprised that THAT was the route. Once up onto the knife-edge, Mike scampered across it to a safe area beyond. I followed him, and when I was on the knife-edge, I kind of scooted across it with my legs on either side of the edge. Scooting works too. This knife-edge was not overly difficult but it was somewhat nerveracking with the exposure. Here are some pics of me on the knife-edge:

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There was some intermediate climbing on the next section, a mix of Class 3 and Class 4 stuff, and it was great climbing. At a certain point, we aimed for a “white rock”, continued climbing on the great conglomerate rock, and reached the final Class 4 wall to the summit.

I have climbed Class 4 rock on many occasions in the past. It was never a problem for me. Take for example, the Class 4 ridgeline on Mt. Eolus, or the typical Class 4 sections on Capitol, Pyramid, North Maroon, and Mt. Wilson, or some of the off-route sections I encountered on mountains like Sunlight or Wetterhorn. Never a problem for me on those… I loved those sections and it was all extremely fun climbing. Even the Class 5 sections on the Bells Traverse and the Little Bear/Blanca Traverse did not bother me much at all.

But for some reason, the final 100-150 feet on the Crestone Traverse, technically considered Class 4 climbing, bothered me way more than the rest of them. The rock was great, but the hand- and foot-holds were relatively small, in my opinion. Here is where my bigger Vasque boots created a problem which probably wouldn’t have been evident if I was wearing climbing shoes. Being able to tip-toe up the smaller holds with smaller, more sensible shoes would have helped significantly.

But, it was an incredible section with great climbing and excellent, solid rock. And very nerve-racking for me. Mike climbed ahead of me, and he made it up the wall relatively quickly. I kind of followed Mike up on his route. But for me, about 30 feet up, I found myself on a section I thought was unreasonable, so I descended about 10 feet and moved far to the left, almost to the ridgeline. The whole final section was very exposed, but being close to the ridgeline felt absolutely and incredibly exposed, since it seemed like thousands of feet down to the South Colony Lakes. But it was the easiest rock, in my opinion. Here are some pics of Mike and me on the final section up to the Crestone Needle summit:

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I kept climbing with resolve, and after about 10 minutes, I reached the top of the section and easier ground. Mike and I started hooting and hollering as we made the final walk over to the incredible Crestone Needle summit.

Just as there is something about The Peak summit, there is just something about The Needle summit for all of the same reasons. There are outstanding views up there, and what an incredible sense of accomplishment, especially after completing the Crestone Traverse. I remember having a similar feeling of accomplishment back in 2002 on The Needle summit, but this time around it was definitely enhanced to a much higher degree due to the extraordinary route of choice for the day. Pics from The Needle summit:

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We reached The Needle summit at about 1:00. After hanging out there for about 10 minutes, two other guys showed up. They had climbed the Ellingwood Arete, which we were very impressed with. We all enjoyed the summit together for another 20 minutes or so, and then began our descent of The Needle’s standard route all together.

On the section on the descent where the standard route crosses from the western couloir to the eastern couloir, something has happened to make that area way more treacherous than it used to be. I don’t know if there has been erosion there or if the trail/cairn location has changed since what I remember from 2002. But that area was much tougher, that’s for sure. A few days before our climb, Mike and I had some friends who climbed the standard route on Crestone Needle, and on their descent, they found the crossover section to be very difficult. One of our friends took a fall there, due to the complicated nature of finding a halfway decent descent route. Our friend is OK, but it wasn’t without going to visit the doctor a few times and having to conduct some tests. So, be careful in that area, and maybe use climbing shoes there too.

It took us a long while to descend this route… it was constant steep rock-hopping and downclimbing utilizing the upper body on countless descending moves. There weren’t a lot of them, but a few of the moves were better completed facing in. It was tiring, for sure, and we finally reached Broken Hand Pass and continued the steep descent to Lower South Colony Lake. Around the Lake area, the rock-hopping finally relented and we reached reasonable trail which was a huge relief. Eventually, we made it back to our cars at the South Colony Lake Trailhead at 7:15, so our total time on our route this day was 17 hours, 15 minutes. It was definitely a brutal day, but so worth it.

This route completed my Colorado 14er quest. My original goal was to climb all 59 of the Colorado 14ers on my list (58 officially-named plus North Massive), but somewhere in the 2013-2014 timeframe, I decided that I also wanted to complete all 4 of the “Classic 14er Traverse” on Colorado’s 14ers. I will continue to climb Colorado’s 14ers as climbing partners continue to chip away at their 14er goals and I climb with them.

I have previously compared the “Classic 14er Traverses” to each other and provided my opinion on how they rank on favoritism, difficulty, danger level, and the difficulty of specific crux moves. Here are my opinions after doing the final of the 4 Classic 14er Traverses:


Favorite Ranking:

Maroon Bells Traverse

Little Bear/Blanca Traverse

Crestone Traverse

El Diente/Mt. Wilson Traverse


Difficulty Ranking:

Crestone Traverse (most difficult)

Maroon Bells Traverse

Little Bear/Blanca Traverse

El Diente/Mt. Wilson Traverse


Danger Level Ranking (No-Pro):

Crestone Traverse (most dangerous)

El Diente/Mt. Wilson Traverse

Little Bear/Blanca Traverse

Maroon Bells Traverse


Rationale:

The Maroon Bells Traverse is my favorite Colorado 14er route of all-time. I stood there and stared at the Maroon Bells one bluebird day when I was 12 years old, thinking it must be impossible to climb those absurdly remarkable-looking mountains. And then I climbed them 29 years later. This, along with the nature of the Bells Traverse climb, the outstanding scrambling/climbing on the Traverse ridge, the stature of North Maroon Peak as a “time-honored test-piece” for all mountaineers (as Roach called it), my bias toward the Elks and that whole area northwest of Aspen, the incredible views from those summits, along with other reasons, make it my all-time favorite. I absolutely love the Little Bear/Blanca Traverse route, due to the incredible positions encountered along that Traverse ridge, but the danger level of the ascent of Little Bear took away from the enjoyment a little bit, so it didn’t unseat the Bells as my favorite. The Crestone Traverse was outstanding, but I didn’t quite enjoy the challenging sections as much as I did on the Bells and LB/Blanca Traverses, and I thought the danger level was higher on the Crestone Traverse crux sections than on the Bells and LB/Blanca Traverse crux sections. The El Diente/Mt. Wilson Traverse is a great route, but the danger level of the “rock nets” along with the less exciting climbing put it at #4 for me.


Obviously, all 4 of these routes were very difficult. The Crestone Traverse was the biggest haul for me of the routes, and I thought the two main crux sections (the Class 5.2 bulge move and the final 100-150-foot Class 4 wall) were more difficult than any of the cruxes on the other 3 routes. The crux sections on the other 3 routes were all relatively short and sweet, and they all also had solid rock like the Crestone cruxes did. So, loose rock was not necessarily an issue in deciding difficulty, at least with regard to the crux moves. The Crestone Traverse took me 17+ hours round-trip, whereas the Bells Traverse was about 12 ½ hours, the LB/Blanca Traverse was 13 hours, and the El Diente/Mt. Wilson Traverse was about 9 ½ hours. I thought the non-traverse terrain was the hardest on the Crestone Traverse, with the arduous descent off of Crestone Needle being one of the hardest sections. The arduous descent off of North Maroon Peak along with the 2,800 feet of suck on the ascent to Maroon Peak put the Bells Traverse at #2 on difficulty. The LB/Blanca Traverse comes in at #3 with the tough ascent to the Little Bear summit along with the wild exposure all along the ridgeline to Blanca (which I loved and didn’t necessarily add to the difficulty of the route in my opinion). The El Diente/Mt. Wilson Traverse comes in at #4.


As far as danger level goes (from the standpoint of having no protection), I thought the Crestone Traverse’s 2 crux sections were the most dangerous climbing spots on any of the 4 Traverse routes, as far as the susceptibility to taking a fall goes. Rock fall danger was there on the Crestone Traverse, but not as much as it was on the El Diente/Mt. Wilson Traverse. I thought the rock fall danger on the Wilsons was somewhat inordinate, and that kind of proves itself out with some of the accidents that occurred back in the 2009-2010 timeframe on this Traverse route. I was not a fan of the few sections on the El Diente/Mt. Wilson Traverse which traversed below giant rock fields (or “rock nets”), which I felt at any given time could give way and bury a climber. Our climbing party had an extremely close call in a short couloir before the final ridge section on Mt. Wilson, where rocks gave way underneath one of our climbers and almost caused a major accident. Luckily, the rocks stopped sliding allowing the climber on top to also stop sliding. These rock fall dangers put the El Diente/Mt. Wilson Traverse at #2 on the danger list behind the Crestone Traverse. The Little Bear/Blanca Traverse is #3, due to the dangerous ascent in the Hourglass area on Little Bear Peak. I rank the Bells Traverse at #4, still having its own dangers but I didn’t think those dangers were as bad as on the other Traverse routes.


Climb them, and make your own decision!




Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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Comments or Questions
osprey
glodder
09/19/2019 10:47
Great TR!
I will be sure to bring my rock shoes for this one.


Michael J

The Classic 4
09/19/2019 20:37
Yet another great write up Todd! It's been a privilege and an honor to complete all 4 of the Classic traverses with you. This time around was physically more difficult for me as I was a bit out of shape and recovering from a cold. However, the conversation and the constant communication between you and I has always been one of my favorite parts about climbing with you. We seem to think alike.
I remember Pic 29 very clearly. I remember thinking "Stop looking down, not helping!" What a great day!


cnlevan

Awesome!
09/19/2019 20:48
Thanks for such an in depth report! This is the kind of thing I love to pour over when researching routes! Congrats on finishing the 4 traverses!


BillMiddlebrook

Thank you
09/20/2019 06:25
Great report!!


glodder

Thank you
09/20/2019 07:26
Thank you, cnlevan, I hope the report helps if you're pondering either of the Crestones or the Traverse! Thank you, Bill, and thank you for maintaining this great website and resource. Mike, yet another great trip as usual! There may not be a lot of climbing partner pairs out there who have climbed all 4 Classic 14er Traverses together... I am very lucky to have hooked up with you as a climbing partner over the years. I believe now we have stood on 16 14er summits together, beginning in 2013. Great climb!


glodder

Thank you
09/20/2019 07:27
And thank you too, osprey! I really think the climbing shoes would help a lot.


RichH

Great Report
09/20/2019 12:51
Great trip report. I also did the traverse Labor Day weekend (Sat).

It started drizzling and thundering on us during the final 150 foot section. Unfortunately this meant we basically ran up it and didn't get to take it in enough.


tygr
Congrats
09/22/2019 15:59
Appreciate your thoughtful insights and detailed descriptions...and pictures. Hoping to do that traverse some day. Been up Crestone Needle but wasn't thinking about the traverse. Hoping to do the Bells traverse in the coming years (I live back east so I'm only in CO once a year).



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