|Downclimbing off Crestone Needle on "no fall" terrain|
Derek has been close to finishing the Colorado 14ers for a couple of years. With Sheri and I both done, he’s had to look to other partners a bit. He traveled down to the Wilson group a month ago with his friend Greg (his cousin’s boyfriend) and got those three over two days. He only had two to go: San Luis and Crestone Peak.
He didn’t just want Crestone Peak. He wanted to do the classic traverse between Crestone Needle and Crestone Peak. But even that wasn’t enough. He wanted to climb the Needle via the 5.7 “50 Classic Climb” of Ellingwood Ledges. This combination raises the minimum qualifications for prospective partners. Greg didn’t have the skills. I did.
I’d done this exact outing before, with Homie. Only then we descended into the Bear’s Lair and did the complete Prow to the summit of Kit Carson, bagging Challenger Peak along the way. It was a massive 15-hour day, but we got four 14ers. Thankfully, Derek didn’t want to do that. I don’t think I can do that any longer.
We drove down Saturday night because the forecast called for calmer weather on Sunday. If it was calmer on Sunday, I’m sure glad we didn’t go on Saturday. We slept at the 2WD parking and neither of us got much rest. We just slept in the back of our Grand Cherokee and it was a bit slanted. We lolly gagged in the morning, but our late start didn’t hurt us and might of helped us, as it was cold. After some breakfast (french fries for Derek), we drove up the 4WD road. It was the first test of our new vehicle and it handled it nicely. A high clearance vehicle is mandatory on this road now and there were a number of crux sections. Nothing too concerning for the experienced 4WD driver. I’ve driven a few 4WD roads, but I am decidedly not a 4-wheeler.
We didn’t start hiking until 7:40 a.m. It took us a little over 50 minutes to get to the end of the road and start up the single-track trail. We were hearing the wind the entire way and knew what awaited us. Once above treeline, it was cold but our movement kept us from pulling on our shells. Derek led the way up to the Upper Colony Lake and then across and up the lower part of the east buttress on Crestone Needle.
We zigzagged back and forth up the grassy ledges and climbing the conglomerate rock bands. The exposure increases continually until you are acutely aware that a fall or a slip would be a very bad mistake. Some of these rock bands were certainly 4th class and maybe a move or two of 5th class. We continued unroped in our scrambling shoes. Before hitting the final rock buttress we took a short break to eat and drink. I wasn’t able to keep up with Derek, but I was feeling fine. I just can’t go that fast uphill these days.
At around 13,600 feet, the buttress gets quite steep. The grassy ledges are gone and we decided to rope up here. Roach’s guide book talks about climbing a 200-foot chimney around to the north. In fact, he implies there are at least three chimneys. I can assure you there are none. Gerry’s guidebooks are great. They are so well done and I love his prose. But they are not mistake free.
You might wonder why I even looked at the guidebook, having climbed this route before. I didn’t need it. I remembered where to go, though it really just seems like the obvious route. I pointed Derek in the right direction and he led the entire route. We’d brought a single rack and a 30-meter rope with two Microtraxions for simul-climbing. Derek led a 250-foot section using both Micros and I followed with frozen hands. At the belay, my hands weren’t very functional, but Derek wanted to lead the whole route, so I had time to thaw them.
Above was the crux and Derek cruised up it nicely. Previously I had stayed in the small corner and climbed the crack there. Derek wisely broke out to the left at a key point. Watching from below, I was nervous for him. The crack offered protection opportunities. I called up to him to make sure he was making the right choice and just as I did, he clipped a pin. There were a couple of pins out on the arete to the left. Sweet.
Derek led clear to the summit, using the Micros again and I followed. We were both feeling the altitude a bit, but Derek was excited to have led the entire route. The grade (5.7) is easy for him, but it was quite cold (some snow on the route) and he climbed some of it in gloves. We hit the summit about 4.5 hours after leaving the car.
We didn’t linger long and started for the traverse. I edged out along the ridge to find the rappel anchors and didn’t find them. I guess I didn’t go far enough. Instead, I headed down a steep groove and a ways down from some slings attached to a single piton. I threaded the rope here and put myself on rappel, but ended up down climbing it. Derek didn’t even bother with the rappel line and I pulled it down.
We followed cairns for most of the way across the traverse, though they were occasionally hard to find. The terrain is mostly 3rd class or easier, but there are some steep, exposed 4th class down climbing that had our full attention (mostly at the start of the traverse).
We hit the summit of Crestone Peak tired, but satisfied that things were going well. It had taken us two hours for the traverse. I was concerned about the descent, as I know it had been an area of stress for Homie and I. Before descending we scrambled to the top of Crestone Peak’s East Summit. Homie would be so proud of us.
The descent across the face and then up to the summit of the 14,200-foot gendarme went well, though very exposed and serious. The rock was solid and we moved very cautiously. But we still had to descend further and Derek found some rappel slings. We figured a quick rappel was the best choice and elected to use our Escaper. Derek set it up and apparently did it wrong. I looked at it and it seemed fine to me and, of course it held me as I rappelled last (Derek went down off a clove hitch to the anchor). But we couldn’t get it to release. I scrambled up higher to get a better angle and I could see that I was not making any progress. Derek found a way to climb back up to the anchor and then did a normal rappel, which just made it down with about six inches to spare (knotted ends, of course).
We continued down on mostly 3rd class terrain from there, but it was loose. Derek slipped and fell back on his butt. I slipped and hurt my shoulder and my right knee. Further down I stepped on a rock and it flipped up and bashed my foot so hard that I thought I might have broken something. It would hurt me the rest of the way down and all the way home. Thankfully, the next morning it felt a lot better.
Once down the steep section, we had to traverse the horrible ridge back to the Humboldt Trail. This ridge had at least ten micro-summits. We went up and down, up and down, up and down, on rocky terrain that had me moving slower and slower. I was bonking hard and falling well behind Derek. We stopped before the final descent and I got to eat and drink something. Once down to the trail, I ate and drank again and was feeling better the further we went.
When we got back to the road, it looked like we could break 11 hours for the trip and we pushed the pace. Derek’s stride is so long and his cadence so high, that I’d continually fall behind and have to trot/shuffle a bit to close the gap. We didn’t make it. We could have run, but it wasn’t worth it. I figured I’d just injure myself further. We finished in 11:01, though.
We just were able to reverse the 4WD in the light. Derek handled the long drive home and we got there just after 10:30 p.m. This adventure turned out to be a lot harder than I expected, mainly because of the long, dangerous descent. It is a lot of work to get from the summit of Crestone Peak back to your vehicle.
One to go for Derek…
Long and tough day out there! We got a pretty lazy start to the day, before driving up the 3mi of 4WD road and starting hiking by 7:40. It took us around 2 hours to the base of the steep stuff, where we scrambled to about 13,600. The area was quite windy and cold but we began to be sheltered from it the closer to the wall we got. We also stayed left (south) as much as possible for wind shielding. In the sun and away from the wind, conditions were very pleasant.
Here we roped up and simul'd Ellingwood Ledges as two pitches (we had two micros). It was quite cold in the shade still, and I climbed most of the route in light gloves. The crux section I took my gloves off since I needed the extra feel. The route was great and deposited us directly on the summit of the Needle.
The traverse turned out to be very involved, loose, and long. The ridge is much too jagged to stay on, unlike the Blanca-Little Bear, of Wilson-El Diente traverses, and we ended up dropping 800ft to the low point of the traverse - ouch! I fell once here too: my foot slipped, I immediately dropped to my butt, and then flipped over because of the steepness of the slope, sliding head first downwards. I came to a stop with some help from Pops, who was below me at the time, and really only suffered a sore bum, a bruised knee, and a couple rips in my gloves. That was a bummer.
The climb up to the Peak went well enough, though we were both feeling the altitude. We even tagged the East summit because it looked like practically the same height. What really got to us was the descent. It was heinous.
We first needed to do some very exposed 4th class traversing, then scrambled up a little tower in the hopes of finding 3rd class descending - no luck. We had to descend into another notch, but downclimbing prospects looked sketchy, so we rapped, using the Escaper. I set it up, and I'm sure I messed something up, because when we tried to pull the rope down, it wasn't loosening. I had to scramble back up to the anchor (easier going up; I wouldn't want to downclimb this), and set up a normal rappel. This 15m rappel bareely reached where we needed to go, so it worked out, but that was annoying.
From here, we climbed up the tower we should've traversed around to in the first place, and then over the other side was still pretty loose, steep, and unpleasant. I even yelled up to Pops at one point: "We must be off route!" It wasn't until we descended a trough and passed through yet another notch that the going got easier, and we knew we were going the right way. Mind you, the going was not easy at all. It was still very loose and steep, but 2nd class and walking now.
This deposited us on the longgg ridge that leads back to the Humboldt saddle. We had to walk over an interminably rolling ridge, going up and down constantly. Eventually we got down to the Humboldt trail and rejoiced a bit. I finally took my shell off here, but kept my gloves on for the rest of the day.
We trudged down, pretty beaten down. Pops had squashed his foot with a piece of talus, and was moving in pain, but still pretty quick. We calculated we'd be close to the 11-hour mark at the end, but we had no desire to run it in under that mark. So 11:01:21 was the total time. We got down in time to get down the 4WD road in the light, and then it only took us like 3 hours to get all the way home, which was cool.
Quite the adventure! Interestingly, this took almost the exact same amount of time as the LPD last weekend. On both occasions, I was too wasted to break 11 hours.
Overall, the 50 Classic Climb was the highlight, and the Crestone Ridge Traverse can hardly be called such. You spend very close to 0% of the traverse on the ridge. The terrain here is so awesome though, so jagged. Makes for some great photos in some great positions. Of the peaks in this area, the Peak is by far the loosest/crappiest. Need to go back to KC and Challenger for the Prow. Looked pretty cool from our vantage point.
Also, this was my 57th (as I count) 14er! I only have one left, and it's the best of all: San Luis Peak!! I assume most people save this one for last, so it should be a great time.