Crestone Peak attempt (July 3, 2010)
Climbers: Alan, Nick
Route: Red Gully (standard), class 3
Max Elevation: 13,800 feet (where we turned around due to dense fog)
Elevation Gain: 5,200 feet
Round-trip Mileage: 12 miles
For several weeks, I had been longing to make a trip down to the Sangre de Christos. I only had one day available, so I decided to go for the 13 mile, 5,700 vertical foot climb of Crestone Peak in one push. For most of the preceding week, I had trouble finding a partner for this climb, but at the last minute, I was able to get my friend and co-worker, Nick, to join me. I headed straight home after work on Friday to quickly pack, and after picking up burritos for the road at Chipotle, we were on our way from Denver shortly before 8 p.m.
We arrived at the South Colony Lakes Trailhead late, and went to sleep in my 4-Runner around midnight. Our alarms went off at 3 a.m., and after eating some breakfast and drinking Monster Energy drinks, we were on the trail by 3:40. The hike through the dark was peaceful, but it wasn’t without a little excitement, such as when we had to crawl over a log to cross a stream.
As we made our way up to the South Colony Lakes, we were treated to an incredible sunrise over the Wet Mountain Valley to the east as the clouds and fog began to break up a little bit.
After stopping to take pictures and admire the awesome sunrise, we finished the rest of the easy hike up to the South Colony Lakes, where we were treated to more incredible views of the Crestone Needle, a peak I had climbed the previous summer, right in front of us. The surroundings reinforced my belief that this is one of the best areas in Colorado (which is saying a lot!).
Once we passed Lower South Colony Lake, the hike quickly became more challenging as we made our way up to Broken Hand Pass. The trail went from mostly dirt to all rocks rather quickly, and we later crossed about four snowfields before reaching the pass. The first three were easy traverses, while the last one involved a short climb. There were good steps kicked in, so we didn’t use our ice axes on the way up, but we did on the way down that afternoon once the snow was a slushy mess and keeping our balance was more difficult. Around this section, we saw several bighorn sheep running around. Those are some pretty cool animals! We donned our climbing helmets for the last section up to the pass, since it was loose and steep. Towards the top of the pass, there were a few fun class 3 moves we had to make, which was just a preview of what was to come.
Upon reaching the pass, it got very windy and cold. Luckily, we had thrown on some more layers just before the pass so we were ready. There was another big group headed for the Needle that made it up there about the same time we did. We talked for a few minutes and took some pictures, then decided to head down to Cottonwood Lake, from which point we would start climbing the Red Gully on Crestone Peak. I remember both of us thinking on the way down to the lake, “Man, this is going to suck having to hike back up here on the way back!”.
Upon reaching Cottonwood Lake, it became obvious that we were going to have some fog to deal with. On our way up to Broken Hand Pass, it seemed as if it were clearing off, but clouds just kept rolling in, and Crestone Peak was completely socked in. On the bright side, none of the clouds were showing signs of turning into thunderheads, so we decided to hike up through the fog since it was still early, and keep an eye out for growing thunderheads. Amazingly enough, I had climbed the Crestone Needle in very similar conditions last summer, except I was able to summit then. Maybe one of these days I’ll catch the Crestones on a clear day!
The route from Cottonwood Lake continues for a little ways below the lake, before turning to the right and heading up Crestone Peak’s lower slopes. The terrain gradually becomes steeper and rockier before reaching the gully, from which point the route turns into an extended class 3 climb.
The route up the Red Gully was pretty awesome. It was an extended class 3 scramble with some challenging, but fun moves. The entire middle of the gully was wet from snow melt, and some parts were still covered in snow, but we actually deviated off the main route (we didn’t realized this until we were going back down), instead climbing up just to the right of the gully. There were cairns marking this route, though, and I found it to be a lot of fun and not really any more difficult than the main gully itself. I wish I could give a better description of the way we took, but it was kind of confusing in the foggy conditions. I do know we weren’t far off from the main gully, though.
As we made our way up, the fog only got worse. The routefinding (on the side route we took) was pretty straight forward for most of the way up, until we hit about 13,800 feet. Then, things got very tricky in the dense fog. There were a couple of other climbing parties up there, but we all lost each other in the fog, and nobody really knew where they were going. It was pretty much just mass confusion. There was a big snowfield just to the left of us, that a climber on the way back down said we were supposed to take. However, neither one of us wanted to kick steps into the hard snow without crampons, and not knowing where it would lead us (we could not see very far at all in the fog). So instead, we continued following cairns to the right of the snowfield, and eventually the cairns led us horizontally across the mountain.
From here, we knew we had to gain a ridge, which we couldn’t see above us. All we could see above us was a long snowfield, and there were no obvious ways to avoid it in the low visibility. The fog really was getting nasty at this point, and we were starting to lose track of where we actually were. So almost simultaneously, we came to the realization that we would probably be better off turning around, even as close as we were. It was definitely a disappointing feeling at first, but after resting for a few minutes and looking around us, we really had no other safe option. The route was anything but obvious in the dense fog, and it would have been very easy for us to get off route and potentially get stuck in some dangerous terrain.
So after sitting on it for a few minutes, we put our disappointment behind us and decided that we should view our decision in a positive respect – knowing that we used good judgment and knew when conditions warranted us to turn around. My theory is that the mountains aren’t going anywhere, and besides, the Crestones are such an awesome area that I would have no problem coming back. Really, what Nick and I had wanted to do was the Crestone Traverse, from the Peak to the Needle. So plans are in the works for us to head back in late August or early September, and hopefully catch a good weather window.
We decided to take the gully the entire way down (which is when we realized that we had taken a slightly different route up), and did have one snow crossing, so it was good that we had ice axes with us. The rest of the way down was fairly slow, but uneventful as we gradually left the dense fog behind.
We chilled out near Cottonwood Lake for a few minutes, then made the push back up to Broken Hand Pass as thunderheads began to build. Right as we started to hike back up to the pass, fatigue hit us hard for the first time all day, and hiking back up the steep trail to 12,850 feet was not easy. We kept on pushing, though, because we knew we had to hit the top of the pass and start to go down before the weather turned stormy.
Hiking down to Lower South Colony Lake from Broken Hand Pass probably took longer than it did going up, since our legs were pretty much toast at this point. Surprisingly, the weather held out for us, though, and we didn’t stop walking, except to briefly chat with other hikers, until we got back to the car.
Shortly after we passed the South Colony Lakes, we saw a large herd of bighorn sheep running around the backcountry campsites! We kept looking for clearings so we could get some pictures. At one point we had an awesome view of most of the herd, including several rams. Right as we were snapping some pictures, I noticed a couple of the rams did not look very happy to have us taking pictures of them. “Oh well”, I thought, “We’ll get a quick shot of them, and then roll out”. As soon as I looked at my camera’s screen to see if one of the pictures turned out, one of the rams charged at us, stopped halfway, then turned around. “Holy s***, that ram just bluff-charged us! Lets get the hell out of here!” We quickly retreated down the trail, but still were able to get a couple of good looks at the herd. We were fortunate to see such cool animals in the backcountry.
The rest of the hike out on the old and rocky four-wheel drive road was tiring, as is usually the case on days like this, but I’ve had much worse. We made it back to the car at 4:30, making a 13 hour day – long, but very satisfying. I’ve never had so much fun on a day in which we didn’t make the summit, but we still completed most of the climb and spent a full day in a beautiful area, so it was a success in our point of view. Plus, I can’t wait to come back to the area on a clear day to attempt the traverse between Crestone Peak and the Crestone Needle.
Thanks for reading, and of course feel free to contact me for additional beta!