Peak:  Crestone Peak (14er)
 Route:  South Face via Cottonwood Creek
 Range:  Sangre de Cristo
 Posted By:  supranihilest
 Date of Info:  01/13/2022
 Date Posted:  01/13/2022

Cottonwood Creek approach is arduous. There's not enough snow to warrant flotation but what snow there is is all sugar. Many downed trees across the trail. Four or so miles in is where the slabs begin. Route finding through them is devious, especially in the dark. They're covered in sugar snow and sometimes ice. To describe a route or show pictures through them would be almost impossible, just know that the difficulty of scrambling never rises above Class 2+. Descending them wasn't much fun: ice under the snow and water from today's melt caused several slips and slides above cliffs. Microspikes were very useful for the slabs, but not a guarantee against slipping.

To exit the slabs we climbed up a steep, grassy slope on the west side of the drainage that drains Cottonwood Lake (photo 1). This drainage is west of "Crestolita". Lots of downed trees on this section as well, which gave way to loose talus and boulders, then snowy willows (photos 2 and 3). We didn't find the trail in this section. We climbed to the upper basin through a break in the rock to climber's right of a frozen waterfall above treeline (photo 3). From there we sidehilled until we were west of the lake. The red gully looked intimidating from below (photo 4) but wasn't all that bad in reality (photo 5).

We took a snowy ramp into the bottom of the red gully (photos 6 through 13), which was largely melted out. As we climbed the gully held more and more snow. Down low there was plenty of Class 3 scrambling. Eventually we were able to stay purely on snow, which ranged from icy, to merely firm, to soft, slushy, and unsupportive. Stability was great. The few hundred feet below the saddle with "East Crestone" were the steepest, but nothing crazy - I'd say 40-something degrees. The Class 3 ledge scrambling to the summit was snowy and exposed, but the rock good quality (photos 13 through 15). Down climbing the red gully was much faster but by the time we descended the snow was becoming unsupportive and dangerous - every step was shin to knee deep slush. We therefore did not attempt the Needle, but overnight freezes should help shore up the wet snow problem.

Again, be very careful on the descent from treeline through the bottom of the slabs. This was probably the slowest part of our day. Route finding and commitment on this approach are very significant.

Flotation not needed (hopefully the inch or two of snow tomorrow will not change this). Ice axe mandatory. Traction mandatory - microspikes were useful for the slabs and crampons for the red gully. You can get by with just spikes but I recommend crampons for the extra security.

Photos (click for slideshow):
#1) Grassy slope to exit the slabs.#2) Just above treeline.#3) Looking down towards the waterfall. We went too high here.#4) Red gully from a distance.#5) Oblique view of the red gully. The bottom part is obviously drier and snow increases as elevation increases.#6) Start of the red gully.#7) Low in the red gully.#8) Low in the red gully.#9) Mid-way up the red gully.#10) Looking down the red gully.#11) From about halfway up the red gully it’s possible to stay on all snow to the saddle.#12) Looking down a long all-snow section.#13) Looking down from just below the saddle.#14) The Class 3 ledges to the summit.#15) Looking down the ledge scramble.

Comments or Questions
01/13/2022 22:21
Thanks for the update. Less snow down there than I expected. Awesome job

01/13/2022 22:39
Excellent work!

01/13/2022 22:52
Nice job but sounds positively painful...

01/13/2022 23:33
Been there, tried that (in Sep), get to try again. Great effort!

Edit - really good detail, Ben, on the slabs and needing to know how to navigate that area in dark. I wasn‘t willing to go down that in dark in Sep so hats off from my perspective, for what that‘s worth. BIG DAY you did!

Downed trees
01/14/2022 07:14
Hey, I‘m a Valley Local just curious on the number of downed trees and their location? This trail was cleared completely of trees in November, so the wind storm in December most likely knocked them down.

Cottonwood - Ugh.
01/14/2022 08:03
Nice work, Ben! I did it in 2018 and conditions looked similar. The downed trees were one of the worst parts of that route.

01/14/2022 08:52
It seems the distaste for Cottonwood is universal!

@kush: Thanks! There's very little snow in the Sangre in general right now. I've done a handful of peaks there since winter started and they've all been relatively snowless compared to my experience over past years.

@Will and David: Thanks! Yup, not my favorite approach. In fact, I disliked it so much I'm confident I'll do the Needle in winter via South Colony Lakes instead.

@Stu: Fortunately we went up it in the dark, not down. Not doing the Needle saved us that trouble. That said, even with tracks in the snow it was actually pretty hard to navigate going down, so we're super glad we had daylight for that. I think without our tracks - for example, doing it in summer - would actually be quite a bit more difficult. Add on a heavy pack and I can see the slabs being the worst part of the climb.

@Hjelmstadlt: Most of the trees were down between trailhead and slabs. I'd say 50 trees total in 20 spots. Sometimes the trees were by themselves, sometimes in large clusters. They ranged in size from about as big around as a human leg to several feet in diameter. Some old dead ones, some that were still alive at the time they fell. There wasn't much of a problem on the slabs - not sure if there's really a defined trail through there - but above the slabs there was plenty of downed timber to deal with too. Thanks for helping deal with that!

@Ryan: You feel my pain! It's a heck of a route no matter the conditions. I think it might actually be fun in ideal conditions - I'd check out the slabs more, personally - but in winter conditions it's especially rough.

Cottonwood approach
01/14/2022 12:25
I didn‘t even know of this alternative approach until recently. I thought S Colony was the only way to get there.

01/14/2022 13:47
It's a good alternative if you can't reach S Colony 4wd trailhead. It was only 12.5 yesterday.

01/14/2022 13:50
@Will: What Judd said. It's shorter than South Colony if you have to start at the 2WD trailhead and avoids the scrambling up and over Broken Hand Pass. But you pay for it with difficulty and steepness.

Access permits long gone?
01/14/2022 21:27
Funny to hear that Cottonwood is considered an exotic and harder alternative. Post-Roach days. When going up that way the first few times, it was the "normal" way, while east side access looked like a suburban longer alternative, extra dirt road driving included. Btw, what is the story with access permits along Cottonwood these days. It needed special requests in the past. Temple and all.

01/15/2022 04:31
Cottonwood no longer has permits, to my knowledge. The trailhead is still on private property but the sign didn't say anything about permits. Spanish Creek to the north still has permits since the trailhead is on developed private land. I added the URL to the online permit form yesterday to the Spanish Creek trailhead info page.

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