Crestone Peak to Needle Traverse Trip Report

Trip 1, July 2005

Trail: UP-South Face on the Peak, OVER-The Traverse, DOWN-South Face on the Needle, Class 4 , ~ 8.9 miles, ~4900 ft elevation gain

This trip almost happened, then almost didn't then finally did.  I was initially supposed to meet up with Julian (one of the guys I climbed El Diente with) on Thursday, july 22nd, 2005 and head out to the Cottonwood Creek approach to the Crestones.  As luck would have it the code I was working on altering for my current research was giving me problems and there was no way I could take the time off.  Sadly, I called Julian and canceled my plans.  I didn't really think of going for just a day as the drive up to South Colony Lake requires 5.5 miles on a horrendous 4WD road.  Since I was planning to go to the Crestones for a shot at the Ellingwood Arete in two weeks there was no way I was going to make the awful drive twice.  Yea right.  Anyone who knows me will know the wheels in my head kept turning all week.   

Come Friday morning I skipped through the forum on and noticed Ryan Mishmash mentioning that he was driving out and meeting Julian Saturday morning in  an attempt to do the traverse between the Peak and Needle.  Anyone familiar with the 14er climbs in Colorado will also recognize this as one of the 'Four great 14re traverses'.  I had already done two, been shot off of El Diente-Wilson by weather, and badly wanted to add this trip to my resume.  I contacted Ryan said I wanted to go, thought the better of it, contacted him again saying forget it, and thought thewhole thing was done with.  He emailed me his number and told me to call if I changed my mind.  As luck would have it Jen said she would MUCH rather climb Humboldt than do the Harvard-Columbia double i had planned for the next day. I happily called Ryan, made plans to meet him at 3:00 at the trailhead, and forgot all about the hours of driving, the awful 4WD road, and the lack of sleep my change in plans was bringing me.

Jen got home around 3:00 on Friday, July 22nd, 2005 and for whatever reason we didn't manage to get moving until around 5:00.  The traffic down I-25 was just horrendous but we were soon on back roads heading for the town of West cliff.  We arrived at the 4WD road around 9:00 and for some reason it was much easier than I remembered.  We made our way to the top in just under an hour (of course I knocked my rear bumper clear out of alignment but isn't that why we own trucks?).

Jen and I pulled out our electric mattress and set it down to sleep.  The wind was howling really badly and kept me from getting much more than 2 hours of sleep but at least it wasn't some drunk fool like the one at Sunshine/Redcloud two weeks before.  Ryan and his Father pulled in around 3:15.  They to had done a little number on there truck but once again this is the price of climbing the Crestones without a backpack.  Ryan is a 20 year old Physics student at the school of mines and has already finished all 59 of the 14ers in Colorado along with some 30 or 40 other peaks so I knew I was in good company.  It turns out he and his father started doing the 14hers together when he was 9 (10?) and his father has done 47 of them.  This is an opportunity I wished I could have had  but better late than never.

I left a walkie-talkie with Jen and the plan was that she and Ryan's father, Vic, would walk to the lake together where Vic would fish and Jen would set of on her first solo of a 14er (Humboldt).  As we started moving (around 3:40) I thought Ryan was going to kill me with his pace, I realized I was climbing with a 20 year old and, when we met Julian, a marathon runner.  This thought wasn't overly comforting as I kept thinking the day would end with me passed out somewhere near 14000 feet.  Fortunately I was able to walk into the pace and did OK once we were on the Traverse.  We were aiming to meet up with Julian at Cottonwood Lake around 5:30 in the morning since he was camped near it but we got to the top of Broken Hand pass in 1 hour and ten minutes and decided to keep walking past the lake since he was camped below it.  We kept going and eventually Ryan spotted Julian's headlight and waved him over.  As luck would have it he joined us right at the base of the Red Couloir.  Julian was surprised to see me  and I joked a bit about how it wasn't really possible for me to stay away from climbs like these.

After our reunion we all set out up the Red Couloir.   I had read reports describing the Peak as the harder of the 2 Crestones.  Now I backed off of the NW Couloir last year due to ice and my lack of desire to descend it back to a partner waiting near the Bear's Playground but if only the easiest routes are considered I think the Peak is MUCH easier than the needle.  The holds, while not the nice conglomerate of the Needle are much larger on the Peak's Red Couloir.  We made quick time up the peak and enjoyed scrambling on solid 3rd class terrain.  We inly had to pull our axes out for one 100 foot section of snow that we could have avoided.

At the snow we noticed a large cairn that we thought marked the beginning of the traverse.  We noted its position and headed up to the saddle between the west and east Crestone Peaks.  Just to be safe we summited both of them.  The views were pretty cool and we hung out a bit.  The picture below is of Kit Carson.  At this point it was still before 8:00 in the morning and the weather looked good so we decided to go on with the traverse as planned. Right before descending I looked down the NW Couloir to spot where I had turned back the year before. It turned out I was within about 150 feet of the saddle, oh well.  I would have never climbed back down it with the ice anyways and I had had a friend waiting near the bottom.

I was happy to have gotten to the summit of the peak as I missed it in a prior attempt.  This peak also meant I now only have one of the 'hard' 14hers to finish.  We descended back to 13,800 feet and traversed over some snow to the start of a gully system.  It was here we briefly spoke with Greg Helmerick of 14erworld who was trying for both peaks that day.  Ryan, Julian and I frequently referred to Dave Cooper's book 'Colorado Scrambles' for beta on the traverse.  Unfortunately it seemed that the traverse required an elevation loss of near to 800 feet to complete.  We made our way up the gully and descended to a saddle which was clearly illustrated in Dave's book.  I quickly called Jen here to let her know we were OK and we continued on.  As a quick aside Dave's book is quite good, we frequently used the pictures to ensure we were on route.  I can't speak for the veracity of the GPS coordinates but Dave is apparently planning a website to list any mistakes.

From the saddle pictured above we descended right quite a ways into a second gully before coming to a point where a large cairn sat.  To the left of this cairn we were able to ascend a series of ledges until another short, traversing, descent faced us.  From this vantage we saw the large flake Dave reccomends climbing up and behind.  We descended to a saddle then slightly into this next gully  stopping right near the side of the flake we were supposed to climb. After some searching we found what seemed to be a reasonable way to get onto the flake.  Up until this point the climbing had been class 2 punctuated by short sections of class 3.  The exact line in Dave's book was not available to us as it's start was steep and covered by snow.  Now I'm never sure I rate things well when there is a good fall below me but the scramble across the face of the rock at this point (which was required to gain the other side of the flake), seemed like the hardest part of the day.  It was nearly vertical, required great care, and had a good chance of being fatal if we slipped. In any event we made our across and up this flake climbing to the rear of it.

After descending the flake we looked around for a way to enter a gully farther to the right.  We managed to scramble into it over some conglomerate and headed up towards the Black Gendarme.  From this point on the climb went up the gully for away until a traverse to the right became obvious just a few hundred feet from the top.  For people doing this the traverse out of this last gully is a pretty obvious line.  If you see steep conglomerate that looks at all harder than 3rd class then you are not at the exit yet.  We headed right, just below the last two towers, and then when a line appeared, turned left and headed to a point between them.  Just below the ridge another line appeared that (once again an obvious 3rd class line about 30-50 feet below the ridge) which lead us to the last headwall.  This headwall was pretty fun, it was about 75 feet of class 4 climbing but with bomber holds and feet.  We all scampered up quickly and easily.  I had brought climbing shoes but since neither Julian or Ryan had I decided we'd all do it the same way, if they were in boots I would have felt like I was cheating.  I would probably not downclimb this as it is better to be safe but I think it would be pretty easy to.  We arrived at the summit by 10:30 and lounged around.  I called Jen to let her know we were there and took pictures of ...Marmots.

I would have to rate this traverse as more difficult than the Bells or the Little Bear/Blanca traverses.  While the climbing was easier than that on my prior two traverses this traverse certainly had the most difficult route finding.  I would certainly not recommend soloing this the first time as it would be easy to get lost and wear yourself out trying to find the exit.  It is certainly doable for two or more people who work well as a team and route finding together and having solid experienced partners made it fun for me.  Some of my thoughts on the traverse - It is easy to get lost if you aren't careful (and I would not want to get lost there), we didn't but we spent allot of time making sure we didn't.  If you get lost expect allot tougher climbing.  There is more elevation loss on this traverse than is intuitive, I think we dropped and regained some where near 750-1000 feet.  Finally, obviously, be comfortable climbing at the low 5th class level, you shouldn't run into it but it will make you allot calmer on the 4th class you do run into. 

Unlike my previous descent of the Needle  (where I stupidly went down the 'Epic Couloir') this one went smoothly.  We simply went over to the last gully as marked by summit cairns and headed down.  There is an easier descent gully  slightly closer to the summit which eventually crosses into the one we took and ours required a bit more steep down climbing but all in all it was fast and quite pleasant.  At the base of the Needle I snapped a shot of Ryan and Julian.  We all headed back to the pass where Julian said goodbye and Ryan and I headed down to South Colony Lakes. 

The descent from Broken hand Pass was miserable as usual and I kept in touch with Jen the whole way down.  We got back to the lower lake where Jen and Vic were waiting for us by 12:30, Jen had woken up around 6:30 and ascended Humboldt within 2.5 hours.  Jen and I said goodbye to Ryan and Vic and set down to the car. On the way back Jen told me she had met a fellow from the CMC on Humboldt.  Now I generally find two categories of CMC trip leaders, one are knowledgeable, decent, safety concerned people and the other are the obnoxious, arrogant, over confident, self appointed guardians of all that is acceptable in Colorado mountaineering .   Unfortunately for Jen this guy was type two.  Apparently this man spent the better part of a half an hour using his omniscience to question the ability, intelligence, safety, and the likelihood our groups survival and the whole thing really irritated Jen.  Now I would hope if this guy reads this he keeps his mouth shut in future and not try to scare people's wives by making spurious predictions about people he has never met.  It is down right absurd to question the abilities of people you have never met and the presumptuousness behind it is monumental. 

Enough of my tirade, I snapped a quick picture of the Needle and headed out.  For my friends/family not in Colorado the right line up the peak constitutes the Ellingwood Arete route, I will be tackling that one soon :)

I made the drive down the road and handed the wheel off to Jen.  The drive back was slow and the traffic was high but I wasn't awake enough to notice.  We got back to our home around 7:30 and had some KFC for dinner before turning in at 9:30.  Next week it is Culebra, Kit Carson, and Challenger.  All in all it was a great trip, both guys were great, solid partners and I'd climb with them any time.

Trip 2, August 3rd 2009, with Jen, Brian Hynek, and Lisa

Jen, my friend Brian, and his girlfriend Lisa went up and did the Peak to Needle traverse on Monday, August 3rd, 2009.  It had been four years since I last did it and I guess experience and time change things.  This time around it felt very straightforward and easy to follow.  We met up with a grad student from the University of California at Santa Cruz on top of the Peak and he joined us for the rest of the day.  We skipped the very sketchy traverse over slabs that I did the first time and found a sort of mantle/stem move to gain the last bit of scrambling.  The final push to the summit was every bit as exposed (but still easy) 4th to 5.0 class climbing that I remember from before.  The descent off of the Needle was tricker than I remembered but then again the last time I did it I was in climbing shoes and had just done the Ellingwood Arete.  All in all it was a fun day in the high country.  It was Lisa's 3rd scramble and Jen's 35th and 36th 14er.  I'm thinking we might go do a couple more and then go back and do the Lincoln, Democrat, Cameron, and Bross group since they were the first 14ers I did and Jen has yet to do three of them.  In six years I have come full circle with my goals because now I think it might be fun to redo the 14ers that Jen hasn't done.  I like the technical peaks but since my elbow still hurts from tendinitis I'm not sure if I will be getting back to stuff much harder than 5.4ish any time soon.

Red Couloir

Jen In The Red Couloir

Brian, Lisa, And Jen Navigating Snow And Ice

Kit Carson And Challenger

The Prow On Kit Carson

Group Summit Shot On Crestone Peak

Crossing Into A Gully To Start The Traverse

Hiking Up Towards The Needle, Alex In The Lead

The Last Bit Of The Traverse And The Black Gendarme

A 5.5(ish) Move

Scrambling Past The Black Gendarme

Alex, Jen, Lisa, And Brian On The End Of The Traverse

Ledges Leading To The Crux

Lisa, Brian, And Alex, After The Crux

Downclimbing The Needle

Jen Exiting The Needle

At The Base Of The Needle

Lisa And Brian

A Fat Marmot

Crestone Needle

Bighorn Sheep

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