Monday, July 8, 2013

Saturday Crestone Needle Almost-Summit

This turned out to be a story of two cruxes*.

I encountered the first crux move when I took my car up the South Colony Lakes Road again for some running in the Crestones.

To my surprise, I couldn't make it up the hardest spot on the road, which is about 1.5 miles shy of the upper lot, where it does a sharp uphill over some large embedded rocks. I made it last year in the same vehicle, but this year the tires just spun on the sandy dirt, no matter what line I tried. Conditions? Different tires? Me? No idea.

But since this only meant a little extra running -- about 3 miles round trip -- after a couple of tries I backed down over the rough rocks and parked it.

This time in this valley, I would be taking what is probably a legendary trail: the climbing access trail to Crestone Needle and Peak.

This area may not be Yosemite, but I still wondered how many hikers and climbers had passed this way over the years, of what ability levels, and what else they had done in their climbing careers.

The objective is below. The trail goes over the ridge on the left (off screen) and then ascends the more moderately-sloped southwest face on the other side.

The ascent to the pass gets steep, so I didn't mind stopping to admire the flora.

This slope is one you really would rather not have to ascend. The rock was loose and steep, and risk of rockfall high. I would rename it "Nasty-Ass Pass".

The Needle is in the center. The standard class 3 route runs up two gullies that go more or less right up the middle, then you cross up to the summit ridge. Being a first-time visitor, the topography was not at all clear, even after having studied photographs.

Looking back at Broken Hand Peak:

The trail is partly through tundra, partly over rock. A couple of times I backtracked to find an easier route across the ridge, when I found myself looking over a 10 or 15-foot drop. In each case, I had missed the path of least resistance.

There is a spot very much like one on some rocks at Three Sisters in Evergreen, where a large rock has wedged itself into a crevasse, and you have to haul yourself over it. Only this time, there were decent footholds.

So, below I am looking up at the ascent route. Ha. And even now, I have no idea what in this photograph is part of the route. The rock is so bumpy and full of spires and outcroppings that it almost camouflages itself.

I flew up the east gully, in spite of the ominous onset of afternoon gray skies. Things were moving along great, and I was halfway to the top.

However, I got to the crux of the route (the second crux of the day) and I was stumped. I simply could not figure out how to (safely) get from the east gully onto the rock rib that is supposed to lead up and over to the west gully. Imagine a tilted "V", almost an "L", where the task was to climb the vertical part of the "L". In reality, the angles were much more mild, but the problem was that there was a snow-filled groove in between, and the rib became convex at the bottom, meaning there was nowhere I could see to place my feet, and my shoes would be wet from the snow. Nobody was around, sky conditions were unknown, the downclimb would be slow and dangerous in a storm, so I bailed.

[Edit] Here is the move I am talking about. I imagined myself slipping off down onto the snow and zig-zagging down the snow-covered groove like a pinball.

By the way, within 30 minutes skies were turning blue again.

I passed a bunch of the hikers on the way down, and mentioned my troubles, and a girl said there was a rock in the gap that allowed her to step across and up onto the rib, but that it had fallen while they were up there. D'oh!

Bighorn Sheep were wandering around near the lake and across the trail. This one was skulking about as I went by:

The summit that beat me -- this time:

In a case of perfect timing, as I was sorting my stuff out at the car, the skies finally broke and a light rain fell. On the highway, I could see it was getting pretty heavy up in the mountains, maybe even where I had been.

So, no summit this time, but I've lost plenty of times to the mountains, and I will lose again. I don't even think twice about it. There are a lot worse things than having to run around in the Colorado wilderness again.

However, I may break down and develop some camping skills, and camp on the west side, which has better trails to the pass*. The approach is pretty long otherwise.

Regardless, this was a fun day out.

Distance was 15.39 miles, time 6:50 (moving 4:17), elevation gain/loss 4,427 feet, avg. pace 26:41 (moving 16:43), and best pace roughly 8:30.

*Just at the beginning of July, the Cottonwood Creek trail was officially taken over by the Forest Service. It used to be no access, on private property, and has only recently developed into something the public could legally use.

*Crux: The most difficult portion of a climb


  1. 1. "two cruxes" It works, but it would be fun (and legit) to say "cruces"
    2. The mental image is that of parking on top of a field of Columbines. Juxtaposition!
    3. The climbing crux sounds interesting (dihedral between the gullies?), and I'm glad that, on a page known for fantastic photos, you went with a vague text description instead.
    Kidding, and I bet pictures don't show the contours well.

    We should hike/climb and camp sometime, as you're hitting stuff that I want to check out, except all my summer weekends are taken up already...maybe in Fall?

  2. Good call bailing if you were not comfortable. I am pretty sure I know where you are talking about and it can be a bit of a leap of faith depending on conditions (especially if there is snow complicating matters). It is possible to take the East gully all the way to the summit, people do it all the time either wittingly or unwittingly, though I have always crossed over and stuck to the route exactly as Roach describes.

    Cottonwood is a great way to access both peaks also and there are some very nice campsites just below treeline, or even in the meadows near the lake above treeline (though I am uneasy about camping above treeline and carrying a loaded pack up the headwall into the upper valley would be a grunt).

    Nice to hear access to Cottonwood has been opened up. When we were there, it was signed as private, as you have to cross a very small patch of land that was (is?) owned by a nearby Ashram Bashram something or other.

  3. Mike - I'm up for that, although I haven't camped in decades. But a day climb at least. Running has made me lazy in expanding my skills since I can speed up the approach. However, if I ever plan to get into the Weminuche -- for example -- I've got to camp.

    Jeff - Good to know a bit about Cottonwood. I considered going that way this weekend, but thought it might be longer and less developed, i.e. bushwhacky. Given the crummy road on the east I think I may have been wrong.