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Crestone Peak-to-Needle Traverse

July 24, 2005

Crestone Peak-to-Needle Traverse
Crestone Peak (14,294'), Crestone Needle (14,197')
Round-trip distance: 7.5 miles
Elevation gain: 4,500 feet

Day 1: Drenched and Dispirited

My main mountaineering goal since living in Colorado is to complete the “Four Great Colorado Fourteener Traverses.” Now nearing the end of July of my second year here, I was yet to do one of them. So, when Casey (Summitpost: bc44caesar) expressed interest in joining me on the Crestones traverse this weekend, I could not refuse.

He had planned to summit Humboldt Peak on Saturday, while I would park at the trailhead midday and hike the road up to meet him at camp. Two miles into my hiking, I was surprised to see Casey driving up the road. He had not been able to climb Humboldt Peak and was getting a later start. However, by the time we reached the trailhead, the weather was hot and the sun was still shining, so we decided to go for Humboldt Peak after all.

At three in the afternoon we headed upward, and an hour later we were at the 12,850-foot saddle next to Humboldt Peak. In that time, however, the skies had darkened, lightning and thunder entered the surrounding valleys, and, as we stood at the saddle, hail began to pelt us.

We were hoping this was just a passing shower, but as we turned around and ran back down the trail, the precipitation only got heavier. Back at Casey’s SUV, we were both drenched and very cold. Casey put the heater on full-blast and we sat there warming up and drying off for quite some time. Finally, after about three hours, the heavy rain stopped falling. We set up camp, a little dispirited from getting soaked, but looking forward to tomorrow's climb.

Day 2: The Traverse

The previous night’s hail and other frozen precipitation had left the mountaintops covered, and everything was wet. So, Casey and I decided to start out a little later than usual, in hopes the sun would dry out the difficult sections of climbing before we would get to them. Unfortunately, we could not have anticipated how slow and involved our climbing would be.

Previewing the Route

Previewing the route: major features noted

The sun was shining when we woke up, and we didn’t start up the trail until 6:45. The sun would be out only for a short time before clouds would fill the sky. The weather proceeded to keep us guessing the remainder of the day, and would play some cruel mental games with us later on.

Yesterday we had hiked the trail up to Humboldt Peak’s saddle in just over an hour. This morning, for some reason, I got off to a very slow start. My legs and lungs tired quickly, and I knew I was somewhat out of shape. Before long I began to have doubts of my ability to complete the traverse. Casey saw me lagging and was wondering the same thing, while both of us kept a close eye on the confusing weather.

When we finally did make it to the saddle, we had to climb some more to stay on the rocky ridge leading to “Bear’s Playground,” a huge flat and grassy saddle. This ridge was ridiculously long and more involved than we had expected, even requiring some sections of scrambling. By the time we reached Bear’s Playground, my doubts had only increased.

From there, we traversed around the North Buttress and across several small gullies, following ledges and cairns to the Northwest Couloir of Crestone Peak. We could see it was devoid of snow except for patches, and there was water running down the couloir in more than one place. Still, we decided to go for it and see how it looked as we went.

Climbing the Northwest Couloir

Me, climbing the Northwest Couloir, photo by Casey

Much of the lower sections involved third class scrambling up questionable rock. Our intermission was a steep 400-foot slope of snow and ice, for which we donned our crampons and ice axes. By this time I was getting pretty tired and moving slowly, but the upper part of the couloir only got more complicated. The steepness increased, while we continued to encounter loose and wet rock, including some 4th class moves. Never did the terrain get too bad that we feared falling, but it was not a lot of fun. And had we fallen, it would have been a long fall.

I was surprised when we made it to the Red Notch. With the false eastern summit to our left, we looked up and saw the true summit of Crestone Peak easily within reach. A short, fun scramble up some rock ledges put us on the summit at 11:40, much later than what we had planned. We were excited to have at least made it to one summit, and as Casey began previewing the prospects of our traverse, I checked out the summit register. While thirty people had signed the log the previous day (Saturday), we were the first to sign on this day.

Previewing the Route

From near the Peak's summit, Casey previews the traverse to the Needle

The sky still looked neither good nor bad as Casey and I started down the rubble-filled, but not-as-steep South Couloir. Two climbers passed us on their way to summit The Peak, while we dropped down 300 feet to scout out the ledges we would need.

Sure enough, some grassy ledges appeared and we followed them across some steep, but not unmanageable terrain. In fact, the first half of the traverse was not very difficult at all. Only about a half hour into the traverse, we met up with two guys coming from the other direction. They told us they had rappelled the crux just below the summit of Crestone Needle, and actually had to jump down at a point below the Black Gendarme. They sounded skeptical of our ability to up-climb both of those sections, especially without climbing gear. We exchanged some route beta and continued on our respective paths.

Since this morning when things had not been going as planned, I had been doubtful about completing the traverse. Now, nearing the point-of-no-return, we were both becoming concerned about the weather and our lack of possible escape routes. After talking to the other climbers, I was even more concerned about even having the ability to complete the crux sections of the traverse, especially with as crappy as I had been feeling most of the day.

But, very shortly, the time did come where turning back was not practical, and we had to attack the difficulties head-on. We also had to climb as fast as we could, because the skies were becoming more ominous. Thunderheads were building and dark skies were looming above us.

Traverse Crux

Nearing the Needle's summit, all the cruxes of the route are hidden in this rock maze

The route we took involved a lot of ups and downs across ribs and draws. We kept our eyes open for cairns to mark the route, and for the most part we were not disappointed. They kept us on track, and after a long uphill toward a snow patch and across one final rib, we found ourselves in the large gully below the Black Gendarme. This is an impressively vertical tower that really stands out along the ridge below Crestone Needle. There are several gendarmes above it as well, but the “Black Gendarme” stands out most prominently. This is where we ran into our biggest route-finding difficulty of the day.

So far, the cairns had been well-placed and offered us good passage to where we needed to go. In this gully, we found several cairns leading to ledge systems and cliffs where passage was not possible. Furthermore, Gerry Roach misleadingly states that you are to cross the gully below the Black Gendarme 200 feet below its base. This resulted in a good bit of 4th class ups and downs for us, trying to find the correct route.

Steep climbing near the summit

Casey looks for holds: steep climbing near the summit of Crestone Needle

The correct route led us directly up to the base of the Black Gendarme, and we entered a steep and narrow passage immediately to the gendarme’s right. Right away we came to the point where the two others had apparently had to jump down. Casey and I both considered this overhang to be a 5th class move, but we did make it. This gully led us up to another surprising ledge running the other way. Climbing up to the top of this, I was surprised to be looking down into a chasm on the other side. This “ledge” was actually a ten-foot long knife edge which was an interesting and airy climb.

We followed a class 3 ledge upward and around the corner, where we could see the route leading us up and beyond the rest of the gendarmes toward the crux pitch.

On the Needle

On the summit of Crestone Needle, with Peak in the background, photo by Casey

Then, suddenly, we were there. Nothing but a single wall of rock separated us from the final scramble to Crestone Needle’s summit. This 100-foot pitch of solid 4th class climbing would prove to be everything it was cracked up to be, with incredible conglomerate knob climbing all the way. It started out at a pretty steep angle, and only got steeper near the top. It is not vertical, but it is pretty close. As Casey put it after the climb, “I could really feel the air under my feet.” Looking down, we could see directly down to the South Colony Lakes. During those moments everything was forgotten: the fatigue, the weather, what lay below. I was completely focused on grabbing good holds, positioning my feet, all the way up the wall.

Before long Casey announced he had arrived at the rappel sling, and I showed up right behind him. We both high-fived and were super relieved to have the crux behind us, with no water yet spilling from the sky. That climb had indeed been a blast!

Beginning the descent

Beginning the descent of the Needle. This picture makes the route look deceptively simple, but it became steeper and more complex below this point.

After a short scramble, we reached the summit of Crestone Needle (time: 2:15–we had completed the traverse in two hours and fifteen minutes). We only spent five minutes there, and I was unable to find the summit register. The weather was still iffy at best, as dark clouds continued to build all around us.

So, we headed down the South Couloirs of Crestone Needle. We followed cairns most of the way, but either I had read underrated reports of these couloirs or we were following false markers, because we ended up in some dicey 4th class down-climbing terrain. What’s worse, raindrops did begin to fall. And before long, they began to pour.

We had to take our time the whole way down the couloirs, and by the time we reached the trail leading over to Broken Hand Pass, hail was pelting us and lightning and thunder were crashing all around us: de ja vu!

Nearing Broken Hand Pass

Nearing Broken Hand Pass in the rain. Note Casey in bottom-center of photo.

Our descent from Broken Hand Pass was filled with mud, and we found ourselves joined by torrents of water rushing down the trail and all around. This brought with it some flying rocks, and we were very expeditious in our movement down these slopes.

Eventually the rain stopped, about the time we reached some of the larger cairns near the bottom of the trail, where we completed our loop for the day. So, ten hours after we had set out on this crazy journey, completing the traverse of the Crestones in less-than-ideal weather conditions, we arrived back at the four-wheel drive parking area, drenched and triumphant.

Storm descends on the Needle

Storm descends on the Needle