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At 14,204ft, Crestone Peak is the highest summit in the Sangre de Cristo Range, the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness and Saguache County, and the 7th highest in Colorado. This one was high on Eric's list of unclimbed CO 14ers but the descriptions of the standard route via the Red Gully on its south side had him concerned. Tom and I promised to guide him up the route safely, but we were more interested in the traverse to Crestone Needle afterwards, a classic class 4 route between the two major summits. Eric would need to get himself back down through the Red Gully, the thought of which probably cost him some sleep the night before. Like the previous day, we were up early around 4a, drove up to the 4WD TH and started on the old road before 5a. The weather today was outstanding, mostly blue skies with no real threat of thunderstorms or rain like we'd had the previous 4-5 days.
It took us an hour to make our way to the old TH about 2mi up the road where we turned right at a junction to follow the South Colony Trail up to the lakes. The first hour and a half of the day were a repeat of the previous day's outing to Kit Carson Mtn, so we were happy to finally get onto new territory when we turned off the trail to the southwest just below South Colony Lakes. A ducked trail leads to Broken Hand Pass, the saddle between Crestone Needle and Broken Hand Peak. Just above South Colony Lake we passed an organized youth group of about 12 taking a break along the trail. In COVID times, we didn't want to interact with them any more than needed, so we went by with a quick wave and greeting and continued up towards the pass. The other group, comprised of mostly teenage youths and a few young adult leaders, started off again right after we passed by. I kept up a pretty stiff pace to stay well ahead of them, but they seemed to enjoy being paced up the trail. Annoyed, Eric asked if they'd like to pass to which the lead guy replied, "No, we're good." That annoyed Eric further and he more forcefully asked them to keep their distance. The group leaders finally took charge, halted the group and reprimanded the lead guys for shadowing us. Really, I think they'd been chomping at the bit to climb something and probably tired of the group's slow pace, so I didn't really blame them. But I was happy to be able to settle into a more reasonable pace.
The trail to Broken Hand Pass goes through some boulder fields before starting some short, steep switchbacks just below the pass. Some class 2-3 scrambling leads through a mess of loose, broken rock as the chute narrows. The trail fades in the final stretch, but the way up is obvious. We reached the pass by 7:30a, taking a quick break. This is the starting point for the standard routes up Crestone Needle to the north and Broken Hand Peak to the south. Our route to Crestone Peak continues over the pass where the trail becomes well-defined once again, leading down into the pleasant, high alpine drainage of Cottonwood Creek. After descending to picturesque Cottonwood Lake, we continued past it for another quarter mile before turning north around the base of Crestone Needle's SW Ridge. We now had a full view of the south side of Crestone Peak and the Red Gully leading up it. We spied several climbing parties near the base of the gully or already in it - we would not be the first to the summit today. The ducked use trail leads 500ft up the drainage before a short jog to the left to get to the start of the Red Gully. The trail and ducks end here.
The Red Gully makes a fine route, class 3 as advertised with decent rock quality. It had little of the loose rocks we'd found on other gullies, so Tom and I went without helmets while Eric chose to don his. We caught up to the first group of three just past the start of the gully with a small trickle of water running down the right side. I watched two of the party attempt to climb the righthand side before pausing and backing down backing down. It was probably the easier line, but the water made them hesitant. I looked left and went up a steeper, slabbier route that worked well enough with dry rocks and boots. Eric and Tom followed after me and presumeably the other three did as well. We spent well over an hour climbing the chute, passing parties heading in both directions. As we neared the top of the chute we veered left, traversing up in that direction to head more directly to the summit, bypassing the saddle with the lower East Crestone.
Ahead of the others by a few minutes, I reached the summit just before 10a. There were five other climbers occupying the highpoint, so I simply went up to tag the point and retreated to a lower point to the south, having no interest in sharing space with COVID unknowns. When Tom and Eric came up to join me, the other climbers were getting ready to descend. So while my companions waited to occupy the summit in turn, I went over to ascend the class 4 NE Crestone, a nearby pinnacle that Tom had already told me he wasn't interested in. I descended to the saddle with East Crestone which also happens to be the top of the Northwest Couloir (which used to be the standard route to Crestone Peak), descended this for maybe 100ft before exiting northeast to the class 4 pinnacle. The scrambling was some of the best on the day, fairly solid rock, taking only a few minutes to complete. The summit has spectacular views of both Crestone Peak and East Crestone. Kit Carson, a peak we climbed the previous day but never saw, rises impressively to the northwest across the Spanish Creek drainage. There is also a fine view of Humboldt Peak to the east across the South Colony Creek drainage. Overall, I was surprised to find the views better than on the higher Crestone Peak. I returned back to the Crestone/East Crestone saddle where Tom, Eric and the earlier group of five others had all collected. Tom joined me for a quick ascent of East Crestone (the highpoint of Custer County), an easy class 3 scramble. Eric was collecting his thoughts for the descent of Red Gully and declined to join us.
After rejoining Eric at the saddle, we began the descent of the Red Gully, descending about 400ft before our routes would diverge. Eric's confidence was growing stronger and we left him in good spirits at the start of the traverse to Crestone Needle. I had a GPX track from Ben Brownlee that I'd gotten off PB, and combined with the ample ducks we found along the way, route-finding would be mostly a non-issue. The route traverses well below the crest of the range for almost the entire distance, and the first 80% is pretty standard class 2 with a good use trail. We spent 45min on this section and I found myself struggling to understand why the traverse gets such high marks. Tom assured me that the good stuff was still ahead, but I remained skeptical. As a matter of course, Tom did a far better job in researching all these routes ahead of time, studying reports, pictures and stats. My research typically consisted of finding a GPX track and calling it good. There were two other parties that we came across enroute, catching the second one in a gully where the fun stuff begins. The route characteristics change abruptly as the crux is encountered at the start this, a low-fifth class chockstone blocking the gully as in narrows. The male climber in the pair ahead of us took a first try at the chockstone before backing off. None of us were quite sure that the chockstone couldn't be bypassed on the left, so he went off to examine that possibility while I went up and over the chockstone with some struggle. The alternate route that we were eyeing looked less plausible from above and I reported that below. Tom followed up after me with the other couple doing likewise a few minutes later to give us time to avoid knocking rocks down on them. The upper part of the gully then leads to a sharp notch on the crest north of the summit. A narrow, rounded knife-edge leads to the right out of the notch and onto a nice ledge that leads further to the right. Here we stalled for a few minutes, finding our only route-finding issue. Eventually we figured out to ascend another gully that would lead to the class 4 headwall on the north side of Crestone Needle's summit. The headwall is alarmingly steep with dramatic views and exposure, but the holds are all as solid as they are large. In the opposite direction this headwall is most often rappelled, but in the direction we traveled it made for the most exciting segment of the whole traverse. At the top of the headwall and just below the summit, a sign is encountered to warn folks of the dangers. Tom and I topped out a few minutes after noon, just as a larger party was leaving the summit. We were happy to take a break with the summit all to ourselves, occupying it until the party behind us had caught up about 10min later.
I thought the descent off Crestone Needle was better than the traverse to reach it, even though it didn't have anything quite as dramatic as the headwall. The descent is a long one, with almost 1,000ft of class 3 scrambling. We had soon caught up with the party of five that had left the summit before us. Out in front of Tom, I was just following ducks I found along the way, ignoring the GPX track I had. As the group ahead of us favored the right (west) side of the main gully, I followed ducks closer to the crest that ended up taking us down a different route from the others. Tom identified this as the East Gully, a harder variation from the more standard West Gully. I shrugged it off and continued down, and it proved to be a fine route with plenty of class 3 scrambling. The East Gully eventually rejoins the West Gully route where the latter crosses over the former. We picked up a use trail on increasingly grassy slopes that led us down to Broken Hand Pass by 1p.
After a short break just above the pass, we headed off for the bonus Broken Hand Peak on the south side of the pass. A group of climbers were resting at the pass, the same group we had been with at the Crestone/East Crestone saddle. They reported that Eric had last been seen napping below at Cottonwood Lake. I joked with them that they ought to join us for a last summit, but they declined with a laugh. Broken Hand Peak turned out to have its own bit of fun scrambling, though not exactly intentionally. The easiest route descends some from the pass before traversing out to the west side and then class 2 to the summit. We stuck closer to the crest which offered some unexpected challenges. At a notch we found ourselves above a steep drop off to a lower saddle with Broken Hand Peak. Rather than retreat and take the easier way around, I found a class 4 ramp leading through the cliff and got Tom to do likewise. This worked surprisingly well, but when viewed from the south side it looked far more dangerous. We spent about 40min getting from the pass to the summit and about the same time for the return, though we took an easier line on the descent. We were surprised and happy to find Eric resting at the pass when we returned, and he felt likewise, not really having any idea where we were at the time.
It would take us another 2hrs to ply the various trails leading back to the trailhead. For a change of pace, we took the longer route that follows the old 4WD road through the upper basin between Broken Hand and Milwaukee Peaks. This gave us a chance to visit the old upper 4WD parking area and the road leading to it, but it offered no advantage over the shorter South Colony Trail. I got ahead of the others during the descent but had to wait only a short time at the TH for them to arrive. We then drove back down to our campsite, showered, and packed up for more driving. An hour of driving got us north to Westcliffe in the middle of Wet Mountain Valley at the junction of SRs 69 & 96. We had dinner in town, got gas and headed east into the Wet Mountains where we planned to hike the next day. We ended up at a saddle on the crest of the range at 10,700ft, a fine elevation for cool nighttime temps, and a decent place to spend the night...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Crestone Peak - Crestone Needle - Broken Hand Peak
This page last updated: Thu Sep 10 05:57:51 2020
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