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Peak(s):  Crestone Needle  -  14,196 feet
Crestone Peak  -  14,299 feet
Little Bear Peak  -  14,041 feet
Date Posted:  11/03/2023
Date Climbed:   07/28/2023
Author:  Alpine Addict
 Little Bear Crestone Finishers 58/58   

Little Bear and Crestones Traverse to Finish the 14ers

The Beginning
Before diving into the Crestones and Little Bear, I'd first like to give a little background on my 14er journey as a whole. I climbed my first 14er, Mt Bierstadt with my Dad, when I was 11 years old at a time where I couldn't imagine the possibility of climbing bigger mountains. I remember looking up at Bierstadt in the early morning light, fearful of climbing what I perceived to be such a big mountain. Once I made it to the summit and back to the trailhead that day, I was surprised by the fact that what my mind perceived to be impossible was in fact possible by just putting one foot in front of the other. I learned a valuable lesson that day - big goals when viewed as a whole seem impossible, but when taken step by step you will be surprised what is possible.

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First 14er!

After finishing Bierstadt, my dad took me to climb other Front Range and Sawatch 14ers like Quandary, Sherman, Grays, Torreys, Massive, Elbert. We then climbed Castle Peak, which had a feeling of remoteness and ruggedness that I hadn't experienced before. While I was initially fearful, I would soon come to appreciate the feeling of being immersed in nature apart from society. The Front Range 14ers certainly gave me a chance to appreciate nature, but they also feel closer to civilization with a feeling of safety and comfort in numbers that is absent on more remote peaks. Next, when I was 17, I climbed Mt of the Holy Cross and Longs Peak, which gave me experience on longer and more technical peaks. By the time I finished high school I had 16 14ers under my belt, but I still didn't have a goal of finishing them all. At the time I didn't think peaks like the Maroon Bells or Capitol were possible for me, but that would soon change.

More Than a Checklist
Once I started college at the Colorado School of Mines, I developed a passion for climbing peaks. While 14ers get all of the attention, I was just as happy to climb 13ers as well, especially as I kept having to drive further and further to get to new 14ers. Nevertheless, I continued ticking away new 14ers, first focusing on finishing the Sawatch Range. One notable climb included an unintentional traverse of the East Ridge of Missouri Peak on a day where a surprise snowstorm delivered a foot of fresh snow to the area. I had climbed Belford and Oxford previously and heard a guy say he had come from Missouri, so I assumed he took the ridge between Missouri and Belford since it didn't look all that challenging from far away. I told my friends that we could climb both Belford and Missouri that day by just taking the ridge. I soon realized that there was no obvious route along the East Ridge and I became worried that we would get cliffed out. Slowly and carefully we worked our way down loose class 3 and 4 terrain, aiming for the easier terrain towards Belford. While we had no idea what we were doing that day, I'm happy in a way that I experienced what it's like to pioneer a technical route with no information beforehand since it gives me a lot more appreciation for the art of mountaineering. The majority of peaks are climbed today by researching an existing route and following it, but I feel that we often take for granted how pioneers have made the mountains far easier to climb today than during the first ascents.

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Missouri East Ridge with Snow


Got Exposure?
In August of 2021, me and my Dad set out to climb the hardest 14er in the state - Capitol Peak. We backpacked into the lake the night before and were greeted with impressive views of the peak, but when we woke up the next morning the valley was filled with wildfire smoke and I realized my experience on Capitol wasn't exactly going to be scenic. I had watched plenty of videos of the knife edge, so I knew what to expect, but I wasn't sure how I was going to feel with massive exposure all around me. With all the hype of Capitol being the hardest 14er, I figured the knife edge would be the scariest thing I had been on, but honestly it didn't really scare me. Maybe I was just too disappointed about the smoke to appreciate the exposure, or maybe the route was just too predictable based on having already seen videos of the cruxes. Don't get me wrong, Capitol still demanded many hours of focus and isn't a peak to mess around on, but I just didn't feel like I was on "Colorado's hardest 14er." For what it's worth, my Dad would disagree as he was on the edge of his seat the whole time. Looking back after having finished the 14ers, I think Capitol Peak is fairly ranked as the hardest 14er based on the technicality of the route, but I think it's important to note that there are many factors that make a 14er experience more or less difficult. For instance, the presence of snow in difficult sections will significantly increase the difficulty as we experienced on North Maroon Peak.

Closing in on the Finish
At the start of Spring in 2023, I had climbed 44/58 14ers, leaving me with 14 left. I then made it my goal to finish all the 14ers over the summer since I would have lots of time having just graduated college. The logistically challenging peaks would be the Bells, Pyramid, and Culebra due to reservations. In May I realized that all the reservations were booked over the summer for Culebra, so I headed South with significant snow still on the peak to ensure I wouldn't have to wait until next year. The skies were clear that day, but the winds were heinous with gusts up to 70mph forecasted. After fighting my way to the summit, I looked over at Red Peak and couldn't imagine having to brave the winds to get over there. But I thought about wanting to finish the centennial 13ers one day and I didn't want to have to make another reservation and pay another $150 to come back, so I marched onward in the wind and accomplished my mission that day. I next climbed Humboldt and San Luis in early June, but the rest of the technical peaks I had left were still under significant snow, so I had to be patient until July. Before resuming Colorado 14ers, I climbed Mt Rainier and Mt Baker as part of a mountaineering skills seminar to learn how to navigate glacial terrain with crevasses, with the goal of eventually climbing Denali.

After wrapping up the San Juans with the Chicago Basin on my way back from Washington, I set out with my dad to the Maroon Bells with reservations for camping at Crater Lake in mid-July. Our first day, we setup camp and then decided to climb Pyramid Peak, which still had a considerable amount of snow. We had already decided to climb the Bells separately after I talked with another man on a ski lift who said his son died from falling rock while they were climbing the Bells traverse. North Maroon was a true test as we had dangerous snow conditions from the crux chimney onward, forcing us to navigate our own route based on snow. South Maroon was a relief with far less snow, but plenty of loose rock to make up for it. Once I finished the Bells, Pyramid, and Conundrum, I was left with only the Crestones and Little Bear to finish, which brings me to the main focus of this report.

Total Stats (2.5 Days):
Distance: 38.06 miles
Elevation Gain: 13,887 ft

What's an Hourglass?
With only a week before I was scheduled for my start date of a new job, I figured that I better take advantage of the opportunity of climbing Little Bear during a weekday instead of risking crowds on the weekends. When researching Little Bear, I came across varying perspectives and the consensus I came out with is that it's best not to have people above you kicking down rocks. I considered other routes like the Southwest Ridge and the West Ridge Direct, but I decided that the hourglass would be the best option and help me appreciate the infamous route that the majority of climbers have endured to finish the 14ers.

I arrived at the bottom of the Lake Como Road on a Wednesday afternoon with my car reading close to 90 degrees. I drove maybe half a mile up the road from the start, and figured that was enough abuse to put my car through. After getting my pack ready and preparing for a scorching climb in the direct afternoon sun, a storm quickly blew in and instead of worrying about overheating, I was worried about getting poured on. While the rain seemed to fall all around me in the San Luis Valley and the surrounding peaks, I stayed dry with a nice cool breeze and cloud cover, which provided relief for the grind up the steep, rocky road. At one point during the hike up a Toyota 4Runner passed me, but it wasn't long before I caught up and passed as the road is so rough that it's faster to hike than drive. Upon arriving at Lake Como, I was greeted with a view of Little Bear towering over the lake. I had seen Little Bear before when climbing Blanca and Ellingwood, but I viewed the mountain differently this time knowing I would be climbing it the next day.

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Little Bear from Lake Como

There were scattered clouds in the area, and I was just hoping that no rain would fall on Little Bear that night since I heard that the hourglass stays wet in the morning due to facing West. I woke up to the sound of light rain on my tent that night, but the rain didn't seem heavy enough to make the hourglass a slip n' slide.

Morning came quickly and I headed up towards the nasty, loose gully that marks the start of the West Ridge. The gully up from Lake Como is nothing but a large pile of choss. Solid rock is seldom encountered in the gully, meaning that you are going to move rocks, but the goal is to be careful enough that the rocks don't start accelerating down towards potential climbers below. Most falling rocks would likely come to rest before traveling too far since the gully is not nearly as steep as the hourglass and there's no solid rock to bounce from. As I proceeded upwards, I found one climber ahead of me, but I quickly passed him with the goal of having the hourglass to myself. The first gully is steep, but it's relatively short and soon enough you're on the West Ridge with a view of the remaining ridge to the hourglass. The climbing on the West Ridge is tedious with a lot of ups and downs on sometimes loose rock, but the climbing doesn't really exceed class 2+.

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On the West Ridge

Once I arrived at the base of the hourglass, I could tell that lots of rocks had fallen down the steep gully over time. The base of the hourglass is littered with rocks, most of which probably fall during seasonal snowmelt. The terrain gets steeper here, and feels similar to the loose gully at the start of the climb to gain the West Ridge. My hope was that no one was above me, which appeared to be the case, yet I kept hearing faint voices in the distance.

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Loose Rock at the start of the Hourglass

After navigating through the loose rock, the hourglass becomes distinct where the gully narrows significantly and the rock becomes very steep and polished smooth. There's a cool section of banded orange rock around the crux of the hourglass and that's where the sketchy rope that is left up there reaches. I noticed some water flowing down the middle of the hourglass from the light rain last night, which didn't impede my progress too much, but kept me from choosing any of the routes in the middle of the gully.

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Approaching the crux
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Crux Section

The crux section where the rope starts definitely made me pause to figure out how the heck I was going to proceed from here. Given the rock in the middle was wet, I opted to stay climbers left of the rope, which was very steep, but manageable. My experience is that the handholds here were more challenging to find because the rock is so smooth. The smoothness of the rock paired with the steepness already had me thinking about how it was going to feel coming down, but that was a problem for later. As I continued up, the gully widened and the rock became loose again with piles of rock serving as ammunition to fire on anyone down below. I opted to stay climbers left where I found more solid rock, but the climbing got progressively steeper as I got closer to the West Ridge Direct. Once I felt that I was reaching 5th class, I started moving right again back on the path of the hourglass. The rock just beneath the summit felt more solid and I then found myself standing on the summit staring at the Little Bear - Blanca Traverse.

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Me and The Infamous Traverse

Honestly I was tempted to do the traverse since I had already made it this far, but I hadn't researched the route well enough and planned to be heading over to the Crestones tonight. So I ruled out doing the traverse, but I decided to explore the start beneath the summit of Little Bear where the first downclimb begins. I was surprised to find that the rock on the traverse wasn't exactly solid, which is just one more factor that makes this traverse so demanding. I reasoned that I would be back at some point to do the traverse and I returned to the summit of Little Bear. Instead of focusing on the journey down, I kept looking over at South Little Bear, which looked like the same height as the true summit. It seemed like a bit of a journey to get over there, but after going back and fourth in my mind, I decided it would be a fun way to explore a little more of Little Bear.

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South Little Bear

The climb over to South Little Bear was a mix of solid and loose class 3-4 climbing. The rocks on the ridge crest appeared solid, but a lot of them would move when I pulled on them, which is something to look out for. I stayed on the ridge proper until the saddle, then I started moving below the saddle on the West Side where I found better, less exposed rock. Eventually, I found myself on the summit of South Little Bear looking back at where I'd come from. I then saw some climbers summit Little Bear from what appeared to be the West Ridge Direct and they continued onto the traverse. So it turned out I wasn't just crazy hearing voices earlier.

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Summit of South Little Bear

Now it was time for the fun part - heading down the hourglass. I made it my goal to avoid kicking any rocks down the hourglass as I downclimbed to prove to myself that its possible by just staying cautious. There is a sea of loose rocks most of the way down until reaching the smooth, narrow section again, so I did my best to focus on every step.

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Couple of Loose Rocks Here...

The crux of the downclimb is getting back through the narrow, smooth rock section of the hourglass. Once again, it's harder to find handholds here because the rock is so polished and smooth.

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Smooth Rock Section

After descending the hourglass safely, the main challenge remaining was descending the pile of choss from the West Ridge down to Lake Como. I passed 2 climbers on my way back on the West Ridge, but overall it was a great day to be on Little Bear. The hourglass lived up to my expectations in terms of steepness and technicality, but thankfully I don't have too much to say about falling rocks. I was able to make it down the whole hourglass without knocking any rocks down the gully, so it can be done.

Tour de Sangres
Once I got back to Lake Como, I quickly packed up camp and started descending with the goal of starting the pack up into South Colony Basin around 4 PM. It's definitely easier going down Lake Como Road than up, and I quickly made it down in 1.5 hours. I threw my pack in the car, grabbed some food, and set out to drive around the Sangres towards the South Colony Lakes trailhead. The fastest route was driving South through Fort Garland and then taking a dirt road for many miles heading North. I arrived at the South Colony 2WD trailhead around 4:30 PM and was greeted by blasting winds from a storm moving through. Nevertheless, I proceeded uphill directly into the wind and soon reached shelter in the trees. The pack up to South Colony Lake from the 2WD trailhead was 8 miles and 3k vert, which factors in looking around for a camp site and going to the river to filter water. The view of the Crestone Needle dominates the sky as you get closer to the lake.

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There's the Needle

The Final Objective
I woke up in the morning ready to climb up to Broken Hand Pass with the goal of completing the Crestone's Traverse to finish all 58 14ers. I researched the route, so I wasn't too nervous about being able to do the traverse, but I was certainly thinking about the exposure on the crux headwall at the end of the traverse. The start up to Broken Hand pass was nice with rock stairs placed during trail maintenance. I also got a great view of the sun starting to shine on the face of the Needle.

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The Needle soaking up the sun

While the trail was nicely defined at the beginning of the climb, it soon faded into a series of alternate routes through fields of loose rock. I knew the objective was to reach the pillars up on the ridge, but the paths through the rock field continually started and then ended, forcing me to find another path each time.

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Loose rocks up to Broken Hand

Eventually I made it through the maze to the class 3 section where the climbing gets steeper, but also more obvious. Finally I topped out on the pass and started back down towards Cottonwood Lake on the other side. From the lake there is a view of the traverse, but it rises so steeply above that it's hard to make out any notable features.

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Traverse is up there somewhere

The walk through the valley is brief before starting uphill again towards Crestone Peak. It's tough to figure out which of the rock faces towering above is Crestone Peak during the climb up. I couldn't tell if it was to the right or left, but I just kept on following the cairns. Eventually, I noticed a distinct change in the color of the rock to red and I thought, hmm... must be the red gully. The red gully is pretty straightforward... unless there is snow in the gully. Despite it being the end of July, there was still a snowfield spanning the width of the gully at around 13,000 ft. Rather than being nice soft snow, the snow was hardened and icy, making it more difficult to get through. On the way up, I was able to veer towards the far left and climb over some rocks to avoid most of the snow.

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The Artifacts of a big snow year

At the top of the gully, I was honestly confused which peak is considered the official top. The one to the left and right both looked like a good candidate, so I cheated and pulled out my phone to determine that the one to my left was the official summit. The last bit of climbing to the summit is more technical than the rest of the red gully, but fairly straightforward class 3. The views from the summit of Crestone Peak are impressive with a good perspective of East Crestone and the Needle. The more I looked at East Crestone the more I kept thinking that it looks like the same height, so I decided to head over and climb it too.

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East Crestone and the Needle
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Crestone Peak Summit

In my opinion, climbing East Crestone is easier than it looks and makes for a nice 10 minute class 3 scramble. Coming down from East Crestone, I kept looking for the cairns that mark the start of the traverse, but each time I realized that I needed to keep heading lower. The start of the traverse was significantly lower than I expected, which was partly due to my desire to avoid going down the snowfield. Since I found myself on the opposite side of the snowfield as I had coming up, I had 2 options - downclimb the snow or go up another 100 -200 feet and go all the way around the snowfield. I decided to downclimb the snow, which probably wasn't the best option since it was still pretty icy and I didn't have microspikes. I just used kicksteps and my hands to go down slowly but surely. Thankful to be off the snow, I saw the big cairn that marks the start of the traverse and I began the journey towards my last unclimbed 14er.

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On the Traverse

The traverse has lots of ups and downs until the final ascent, so I just followed the cairns to stay on track. The Black Gendarme was my target destination where the real climbing begins, but I had to make sure not to stay too high on the traverse since the climbing gets way harder. Arriving at the Black Gendarme is like arriving at a gate, since everything past that point is a different level of climbing. The key to the gate is getting over the class 5.2 bulge that sits in the crack to the right of the pillar.

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Black Gendarme is Cool

The class 5.2 bulge doesn't look like anything impressive, but I found it surprisingly difficult to get over on the right side. The key was to go to the left side to avoid being in an unbalanced position to get over the bulge. The left side is definitely easier, but it still felt more like something that I would normally have rope for, so just had to keep the mentality of commitment to the route and putting fear aside. The knife edge section after the bulge wasn't a big deal to me, but I could see the crux headwall looming above, waiting for me to get there. There are a series of rock ramps that make getting up to the final pitch fairly straightfoward, but there's no avoiding the class 4 climbing and exposure at the end. While all the pictures I had seen make the crux wall look pretty insane, I actually felt pretty confident in this section and enjoyed the challenge. One piece that helps is that the rock here is pretty solid and had large, knobby sections to use as handholds to make up for the steepness and exposure. I even got comfortable enough to take some pictures and a nice selfie while on the wall.

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Pretty Steep Stuff
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Trying to Capture the Climbing

In what seemed like a very short amount of time, the steepness mellowed out and I found myself looking at summit of the Needle. In a matter of minutes I made it to the summit, trying to wrap my mind around what I had accomplished. After 11 years of climbing 14ers, I was now standing on top of my 58th peak with stunning views all around. I could also see Little Bear off in the distance where I had just been standing on top of yesterday, which was crazy to think about. While initially I was full of excitement on the summit, I began to feel a sense of sadness that this was the last time I would have the experience of exploring a new 14er in Colorado. I knew I would certainly continue to climb 14ers, but any future summits would be familiar summits. There's only a first time for everything and that feeling began to sink in. Despite the mix of emotions, I was still very happy to be standing on top of one of the most unique 14ers in Colorado. The Sangre de Cristo range is very unique in the sense that it's very long spanning from below the Sawatch all the way into New Mexico, yet it's narrow enough to see the valleys on each side of the range while standing on the summit.

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Me towards the Blanca Group
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Crestone Peak, Kit Carson, and Challenger

After spending a while soaking in the views, some others came up to the summit from the standard route on the Crestone Needle. I hadn't paid much thought to descending the Needle, figuring that it would be somewhat straightforward, so I asked the other climbers on the summit about the route down. They said to just follow the cairns and avoid dropping down too early, so I started along the ridge, gazing over the massive exposure on the face of the Needle. I tend to appreciate exposure and huge cliffs so I slowly moved over towards the edge to see how serious the cliff was. I was amazed at how sheer the Crestone Needle rises above South Colony Lake. It's practically straight down for 2,000 feet, which is one of the largest cliffs I recall on all the 14ers. Certainly Capitol Peak has massive exposure that's unavoidable, but the Crestone Needle has some pretty extreme exposure just steps away from the main route. I've read reports of the Ellingwood Arete and I definitely respect the climbers that are able to make it up such an imposing face.

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It's a Long Way Down

Once I had my fill of looking over a cliff, I shifted my focus back to descending the standard route of the Needle. The rating used to be class 3, but at some point 14ers.com changed it to class 4, which seemed appropriate as I was downclimbing. I felt that the Needle sustained class 3 for the majority of the climb until getting closer to Broken Hand Pass, so for that reason I think the Needle would be ranked tougher than most of the other class 3 14ers. Going down the Needle was harder than I expected, but the rock is quite solid, which made the climbing pretty enjoyable.

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Solid Climbing on the Needle

Once I approached Broken Hand Pass, I remembered what a loose choss pile it is back down to the lake. I worked my way down until I ran into a crew working on the trail. They were making some nice improvements to the confusing rockfield I had jumbled around on my way up, so I thanked them and continued onward. Once I finally reached the end of the trail, I turned around an marveled at the sheer rock face of the Needle that I had just been standing on top of.

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What a mountain!

With the main objective for the day accomplished, I packed up camp and started the journey back to the 2WD trailhead in the valley below. While hiking down, I saw groups of climbers heading up for the weekend and I thought about myself just a day prior on a journey to explore new peaks and cross a challenging traverse. Just as I thought about on the summit, there's only a first time for everything and no way to replace the excitement of heading out to explore mountains for the first time. As I approached the car at the end of my journey, I looked off into the distance and took in the moment that would mark the completion of my 14er journey. As I began to drive away, I found myself satisfied with everything I had accomplished and rather than viewing it as the end of a journey climbing 14ers, I thought about it as merely first encounters with each mountain.

The Aftermath
As I shared my experience and pictures with my family, my Dad became convinced that he could also finish climbing the 14ers. He is a Colorado Native who had finished 41 14ers so far, which included all of the hardest peaks except the Crestones and the Chicago Basin. We had done the Wilson - El Diente Traverse, Capitol, the Bells, and Pyramid together, but I wasn't sure how he would feel on the Crestones traverse. Once I had finished the traverse on my own, I felt confident that it was within his ability, especially since I already knew the route. And so I returned to climb the Crestones traverse once again only a month later. We also climbed Challenger and attempted Kit Carson after a heavy September snowstorm, but the Avenue filled with ice prevented us from summiting Kit Carson. I've also climbed a number of 13ers and even 12ers this Fall, which has proved to me that climbing peaks isn't about merely finishing a checklist, but about finding adventure and being immersed in nature. I also appreciate the challenge of climbing mountains, and challenges are best taken on by first setting a goal. I have goals to finish climbing the centennial 13ers, start climbing 14ers in the Winter, learn about ski mountaineering, and possibly even attempt Denali in Alaska. Regardless of where I find myself in all of those goals, I know that the journey and experiences are what I will appreciate, not the fleeting excitement of crossing the finish line.




Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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Comments or Questions
HikesInGeologicTime
User
Nice work!
11/4/2023 11:25am
And good call on East Crestone. I went into it knowing I had to tag that when I did Peak because LiDAR says its summit is within 1 foot of the summit elevation for Peak, and as I was dead-set against going up Red Gully more than once even before I confirmed how much I disliked it, I felt it necessary to tag both just in case.

Congrats on finishing with the Traverse, and enjoy the thirteeners (or maybe CA fourteeners?) that are doubtlessly in your future!



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