Peak(s):  Crestone Peak  -  14,294 feet
Date Posted:  09/07/2009
Modified:  09/14/2010
Date Climbed:   09/03/2009
Author:  Bullwinkle

 Crestone Peak - via Red Couloir  

Getting there: The twin towns of Westcliffe/Silver Cliff are one of the customary jumping off points for the Sangres, 75 miles SW of Colorado Springs or 50 miles straight west of Pueblo. CO 69 bisects the Wet Mountain Valley NW to SE and CO 96 comes in from the east. It is an impressive valley and one of the few "real Colorado" mountain towns reasonably close to major front range cities. We liked it so much we bought a 35-acre ranch there north of town on Lake DeWeese. Plenty of good food options: Pizza Madness in Silver Cliff; Poag Mahones Irish Pub, Cel Dor Asado (outstanding wood-fired grilled meat), Sangrita (steaks), et al.

Though not particularly far in miles, it will take awhile (up to 90 minutes) to reach the upper TH from town. Head south from Westcliffe on CO 69 4 1/2 miles to Colfax Lane (the next right after Schoolfield/Rosita Road) and proceed straight for another 5 1/2 miles to the end of the road. Turn right (South Colony Road) and proceed up the hill. You will see a parking area on the right a half mile up the road (Low TH). It will be a very long day from there (8,800'). All 4WD and 2WD vehicles with good ground clearance (and dry conditions) may continue another (slow) 2.7 miles to the newly constructed mid TH at 9,950'. After the close of the 2009 season, that will be the end of the road. Until that time, true off-road vehicles may continue to the old upper TH at 11,050'. It will be very rough and slow going beyond the midpoint. Plenty of parking at either site.

Accommodations: A commonly used place for hikers and campers is the Westcliffe Inn on the south end of town. It is comfortable and more than adequate. There are 3 main B&Bs in town. The Mountain View Inn is a new place about a half mile north of town on CO 69 with very nice rooms. The Main Street B&B is an old Victorian place in town. The Courtyard B&B is very homey, friendly and right in the middle of town, but the rooms are less desirable. Golden Corner suites has kitchenettes. Yoders High Country Inn in Silver Cliff is a modest option. For campers, Grape Creek RV park a couple miles south of town has camper sites & facilities, plus some camping spots as well.

Hiking: Hiking Crestone Peak is a sizable commitment. It will require the endurance and commitment of experienced hikers. It will be 13 miles and 5,700' from the new mid TH. I would not bring a novice or a person of questionable physical capabilities on this one. With that said, though, anyone in excellent physical condition, properly acclimated, properly equipped, and with some rock climbing experience can do this. Late summer, in dry conditions, makes for an ideal ascent. All should be wearing helmets on this one. A predawn start is recommended. You will not want to be on the wrong side of Broken Hand Pass if/when bad weather blows in.

The first challenge will be Broken Hand Pass at 12,850' (+2,900' from the new mid TH). The final pitch on this is steep and loose, so be careful--and courteous to hikers below you. Descend 500' into the beautiful Cottonwood Lake basin and transit to the right of the lake to the base of Crestone Peak. The Red Couloir is the standard approach on this peak and it will be evident in summer. It appears much as a red lava flow coming down a trough. The rock is beautiful and exceptional for climbing when dry. In wet or icy conditions, risk and required skill go up considerably. We had perfect conditions, so the ascent went very well. The clean, dry slabs can be ascended directly. When encountering surface scree and loose talus, one can opt to ascend the solid ridges. It is really climbers choice as you ascend. This is a real energy burn, but great climbing in dry conditions, from the base of about 12,300' up to the top of the couloir at about 14,100'. From the top turn left and stay left of the ridge to reach the true (west) summit. The rock is good and exposure reasonable. Just take your time and enjoy these last 200' to the small, rugged summit block.

We summited on a perfect, windless day--which is rare. Views are astounding in all directions.

With the summit under our belts, we still had a long return to face. Take caution on descent of the Red Couloir and don't get sloppy. A slip here could be extremely painful or lethal. There is a nominal trail in some sections, but each climber will need to seek out his/her own comfort level.

At the bottom we ran across a large herd. Unfazed by our presence, we pretty much just walked right through the middle of the herd--and got some great shots.

Transit to the left of the lake on return and reascend the 500+ feet to Broken Hand Pass. Keep an eye on weather, because it would be unpleasant to be stuck on the Cottonwood side of the pass during an extended storm. If you need a break, try to hold off until you descend the steep sections on the other side of the pass. Once on trail during the descent, watch for the cairns. They are well-marked and will be apparent if you look for them. Once out of the rock, the trail will be readily evident all the way back to the TH.

Given the closure of the upper TH at the end of this season, the easiest way to do multiple peaks in the Crestone group would be to pack into the South Colony Lakes area off the trail, then do ascent trips from there. The Crestone Peak-to-Needle traverse is beyond the safe skill set of most, so a reascent of Broken Hand Pass will be required--but better than a backtrack between the lakes and the new mid TH.

Stats: 5 hours moving time from upper TH; 1.5 MPH moving average. Could have gone somewhat faster, but we had one member of the party fall ill enroute.

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):

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