Peak(s):  Crestone Peak  -  14,299 feet
Kit Carson Peak  -  14,167 feet
Challenger Point  -  14,086 feet
Humboldt Peak  -  14,068 feet
"Kitty Kat Carson"  -  13,980 feet
Columbia Point  -  13,980 feet
"East Crestone"  -  14,298 feet
"Northeast Crestone"  -  14,251 feet
"Obstruction Pk"  -  13,799 feet
Date Posted:  12/15/2020
Date Climbed:   07/15/2020
Author:  hogantheepic
Additional Members:   gfwarlock
 Weather ain't always Nice   

Weather ain't always Nice

35/58 in 2020

All the trip reports I am writing for the summer is simply a byproduct of my thoughts, reactions, and experiences from my summer mountaineering project of climbing the 58 CO 14ers before I head back to CU in August. I hope that these trip reports help me to learn from mistakes, to document my experiences as beta for others, and to help me to think and become a better person and mountaineer. Thank you for reading and for your support!

After a successful first week of my Traverse Month, my dad and I were once again headed out for more 14ers. This time, the Crestone traverse was next on our list. We planned on knocking out all 5 14ers in the area in one go. My dad had already summited Humboldt before and didn't feel a need to go climb it again, but I had never even been to the Sangres before and needed to do all of them.

We drove down to the upper South Colony Lakes trailhead using our friend's awesome lifted manual truck. The thing is a beast, and made it up the road without any problems. It was around 4 in the afternoon when we rolled up to the trailhead, leaving us plenty of time to have a leisurely backpack up the 3-ish miles to Lower South Colony lake, where we would establish a basecamp for the next 3 days. Our plan was to do the traverse on one day, and on another to do Kit Carson and Challenger and I would also tag Humboldt somewhere in there. We got there on Sunday and had to be back home by Wednesday night, so we had a bonus weather day. This basin doesn't have cell reception and we didn't have any way of checking the weather forecast while we were out there, so we had to be flexible with our plans in order to work around the weather.

We rolled up to the upper trailhead around 4 pm, and started the hike in. We managed to find a good spot just as the sun was setting, enough light for us to pitch camp and awe at the spectacular views of Ellingwood Arete.

Crestone Needle with Ellingwood Arete cutting the skyline.

We were planning on doing the traverse on Monday, the first day we were in place for an attempt. We woke up at 4 am and was shocked. It was a full moon, and we could see some big storm clouds coming in. The weather forecast had said there would be a chance of thunderstorms rolling in after about 11 am, but from the look of the clouds that were already hovering over the Needle, we realized that today was probably not the day for an attempt on the traverse for folks of our speed. We went back to sleep.

We got up around 8 am, sun shining, not a single cloud in the sky. We were pretty frustrated. We decided to at least try to just summit the Needle, but I wasn't really sure what our chances would be. We left camp around 8:45 and set off for Broken Hand Pass.

Just past the crux of the climb up Broken Hand Pass
The moon visible just above the top of Broken Hand Pass
Storm on the horizon

After we made it up to Broken Hand Pass and had our first view across the San Luis Valley at any potential incoming weather. Knowing what the forecast said for today combined with the monster black thunderstorm that was still over the San Juans, I realized that we would not be able to safely summit Crestone Needle today. We probably would've had enough time if we actually set out from camp after we first woke up at 4 am, but now we were on the pass at almost 10 am with a killer storm on the way. I said that perhaps we could try, and we continued on the path towards Crestone Needle, all the while knowing that the storm was on the horizon, coming straight for us.

We made it to the base of the gulley that begins ascending straight up the mountain and I decided to call it. We turned back, frustrated at ourselves for our poor decision-making that morning. However, in retrospect, it probably wasn't wise for folks like us to even be considering trying the traverse with a forecast like that. We probably should have changed our plans around a little bit, or atleast have gotten up and started hiking with our 4 am wakeup rather than 8 am. We would've summited Crestone Needle had we had that extra time.

The storm is here

Sure enough, like clock-work, rain ended up dumping and lightning cracked not too long after 11 am. We ended up chilling in the tent for practically the entire day, with nothing to do.

Some bighorn sheep near our camp

On Tuesday, we tried again. This time, we actually woke up and got moving at 4 am. We were ascending Broken Hand pass by 4:45, on top of the pass around 5:30-40 ish, right as the sun was cresting (no pun intended) and were descending down into the valley on the other side, heading for Crestone Peak.

Morning light

This valley is one of the most peaceful, pretty, and pristine valleys I've seen. The only trail here is the one that we were on. No other signs of humans were present. Someday, I want to come back and do the traverse starting from the town of Crestone, because this approach (which is probably a bit of a bushwack) seems like it would be a gorgeous hike.

The red gully is a remarkable feature, leading up for around a 1000 ft, with gorgeous red stone and super neat geology to observe to your front with an ever-enlarging view of the Sand Dunes and Sierra Blanca Massif behind you. The mountain dwarfs us, and the Red Gully is our highway to the (near) top.

Climbing the Red Gully with the Sierra Blanca coming into view
Beautiful red stone that looks like bacon

Once we reached the saddle at the top of the Red Gully, I finally got a lay of what was what. The main summit was to the left, East Crestone (and Crestone Needle hiding behind it) to the right, and not too far off was Northeast Crestone, a loose, intimidating, jagged, and oh-so-close spire that counts as one of the unranked-unnamed 14ers. I decided right then that I was going to climb it.

East Crestone in the middle and Northeast Crestone on the left
Crestone Needle in the middle of the picture
Looking North
Looking West

We tagged the summit of Crestone Peak, and I was glad to have finally reached the summit of my first Sangre 14er. It's a famous peak, as well as a pretty one. We took our pictures and set out back down. I ran up and took a quick picture at the top of East Crestone, just to check it. It seemed to me like it was actually higher in elevation than actual Crestone Peak, but its really hard to tell. I told my dad that I was going to go climb Northeast Crestone and that he should start down, as I would catch up with him pretty quickly. I then proceeded to try to climb the sketchiest summit I did all summer.

At the top of East Crestone

I feel that I should preface this next section with a warning. If you have looked at enough, you have probably noticed that there is actually 74 14ers in Colorado, in which 58 (I would argue 59, actually, including Sunlight Spire, matter) are named peaks. The extra peaks beyond these 58 are unnamed and unranked 14ers that don't really have enough importance (prominence) to be considered its own peak. One of these is Northeast Crestone. If you are even thinking about considering the possibility of completing this list of 74, you need to take time to SERIOUSLY ask yourself what the reason is for doing this list. It is honestly not that much more impressive, a lot more effort goes into it without too much reward (outside of summiting Sunlight Spire), and you will have to climb Northeast Crestone. This spire is literally a pile of microwave-sized rocks stacked on top of each other in a very precarious way. The gully leading down to a connecting saddle to climb up it is just as loose, with the added factors of being steeper and having rock that tends to shatter with the slightest touch. I repeat, do not attempt to go down this gully if it has no snow and you have not much experience with extremely loose, steep rock.

Not knowing all this, I proceeded down the extremely loose, steep gully. It kept getting steeper and steeper, until I was doing hard 4th class moves on super brittle rock. I found myself in a near-vertical chimney about 25 ft high, which I stemmed my way down in order to press the rock into itself rather than standing on the edges of the rock which had no intention of staying intact. Eventually, I reached the bottom of the chimney, which had a relatively flat ledge that I could walk along towards the notch by Northeast Crestone. I felt extreme relief at making it down this chimney without eating it hard, because had I fallen, I would have tumbled down the gully for who-knows-how-far. Alas, I was at the bottom of Northeast Crestone.

This next section was not quite as intense as the preceding gully, but it was about as steep as what I had just down climbed. The rocks didn't want to shatter as easy as the gully, but they still weren't connected to the mountain, so I had to concentrate hard on using a push down/in technique rather than a pull-out technique. About 40 ft of climbing later and I was atop Northeast Crestone. I got some dramatic, hard earned pictures here.

Luckily, after downclimbing the gully, the downclimb off of Northeast Crestone wasn't too challenging and I made it down with no problems. I took a second here to look up at the gully again to see if there was a better option. I decided to try ascending it on the climber's right side of a spine to bisects the gully. This proved to be a good decision, as it didn't contain a vertical chimney, was a little less steep, and seems that the rock was a little more solid, possibly because it might be the more trafficked way people go up and down this gulley when it doesn't have any snow. I made it back up to the saddle and a huge weight of stress was lifted off my shoulders. I hope to never again deal with rock as loose and sketchy as that.

Worlds Loosest Gully can be seen here
Viewing Crestone Needle (left of picture) from top of Northeast Crestone

I continued down to my dad, where I caught up with him. We had decided earlier that morning to not do the traverse as my dad wasn't really prepared yet to climb something like the final crux wall of the traverse, so we continued back on down to the valley. We were hoping to still just climb Crestone Needle the standard way now. I had been keeping an eye on the horizon for weather systems forming the most of the hike. When we reached Broken Hand Pass again and I looked back at the horizon, my heart sank. A massive thunderstorm had once again formed and wasn't too far off; it was already over the San Luis valley. I knew it was futile to even attempt Crestone Needle now, with the failure yesterday providing a reference point now. That dang summer monsoon, causing problems like usual! We headed down Broken Hand Pass yet again. The full weight of our failure would be felt when we would once again have to make the drive up the treacherous road/hike up the treacherous road, a full approach, and then once again climb up Broken Hand Pass, and, if we were to do the traverse, summit Crestone Peak again. This was a lot more effort just to climb Crestone Needle. Disappointed, we made it back to the tent and napped through the afternoon thunderstorms again.

Wednesday was our last day to summit peaks in this group. I needed to climb all 5 14ers in the group during our 3/4 day, 3 night trip out here: Crestone Peak, Crestone Needle, Kit Carson, Challenger Point, and Humboldt Peak. We were going to do Kit Carson and Challenger from the South Colony Lakes approach, which involves summiting a few 13ers along the way, including a centennial, as we make our way over to the 2 14ers. I would then run out ahead and summit Humboldt while my dad enjoyed the fine walk through Bears Playground, a gorgeous, glorious, above-treeline, nearly-flat meadow with spectacular views of many peaks and basins around it.

We woke up at 3:30 and started hiking at 4:15. The switchbacks up to the Humboldt saddle were all spent in darkness. As we picked our way up from the saddle towards pt 13290, the sun's first rays began showing, and we stopped for a small water break to watch the sun rise. The stark morning air of Colorado's alpine environment woke us up as we found ourselves at peace watching nature's beauty unfold before us.

A Brilliant Sunrise

Once we reached Bears Playground, I began to feel nauseous. The night before, we had a revelation. Our backpacking food that we brought with us was not nearly enough calories to even reach break-even with the amount of calories we were burning each day with many hours of hiking at elevation. Our 4th day being at or above 11800 ft without much food was beginning to be felt. I took another water break and ate some snacks I brought with me. I figured that it would take a few minutes for the food to kick in and relieve the nausea of hunger, so I started to hike again, and sure enough, the hunger and nausea disappeared without me noticing until I was on top of Obstruction Peak.

Down again, up again. That's how this route goes. Up the Humboldt saddle, up to pt 13290, down to Bears Playground, up to Obstruction peak, down to another saddle, then up to Kitty Kat Carson, then down and up again to Columbia Point, then down again. This down after Columbia Point is VERY tricky, navigation-wise. It has a lot of room for improvement on the route description and photo galley. I won't try to describe it because I am writing this trip report about 6 months after doing this hike and I don't want to mess up any details and cause someone to get themselves into a dangerous situation. Just know that you need to know the overall ideas of what the route description wants and use your best judgement to decide where the route goes.

And, one more up. Going up the Kit Carson headwall took forever. Seemingly forever, anyways, because we were so ready to be on the summit of Kit Carson after all that traverse and up and down just to get over here. Luckily, climbing up this last headwall wasn't hard at all, and we made it to the ridge and then to the summit. Snack time was in order.

The face of Kitty Kat Carson
Summit of Kit Carson

We began back down the headwall and cut right onto Kit Carson Avenue, a pretty interesting natural feature. It's a wide ledge that is about the width of a one lane dirt road that runs diagonally across the dramatic west face of Kit Carson. It almost looks like it was made for a 4x4 to drive on it.

Up the avenue, down to the Challenger Saddle, then up to the summit of Challenger Point. At this point, we were pretty tired, and I ate my last snack I had with me. We relaxed on top of Challenger for a bit, read the Challenger Point plaque that was on the summit, and headed back down. The weather was still relatively stable, but clouds were gathering across the valley yet again over the San Juans and we had a long way back to get to treeline. I stayed with my dad until we were back at Kitty Kat Carson, from which point I took off down the face as fast as I could for Humboldt.

Challenger Peak plaque
Seen near the Challenger-Kit Carson Saddle
The legendary Crestone Peak massif seen from the corner of Kit Carson Avenue

The route goes up and over Obstruction Peak at this point, but being rushed for time, I decided to take a more direct route towards Humboldt by cutting around right on Obstruction at about the same contour elevation. The route description here states that it is easier to go up and over Obstruction rather than around because of the small technical challenges that arise on the side of the hill. I did not really find this to be the case. I took the path of least resistance, walking on the rocks rather than the grasses as much as possible, moving at almost a running pace across this tricky terrain. I found myself around the corner soon, and I was off running across the pleasant 13000+ ft alpine meadow of Bears Playground.

From the side of Obstruction Peak
Humboldt seen rising above Bears Playground as I ran across the meadow

I passed a number of people making their way back across pt 13290 as I was running/parkouring across the ridgeline. I finally began the short descent down to the saddle when I noticed the weather was possibly taking a turn for the worse. Good thing I was hustling because there wasn't time to lose. I set off up Humboldt, just over a 1000 ft of gain to grab, and started off good. About halfway up, the exhaustion from the last few days of hard hiking caught up with me and I began to slow down. I found myself brutally hungry and quite thirsty, so I sat down and ate my last snack I had with me as well as drank some water (which was also running pretty low). I hoped that this small bit of rest and food would cause the slight nausea to go away soon, so I began climbing again. By the time I reached the summit it was gone. I was super sore, though, from running so fast and from the many thousands of ft of climbing I had done the last few days, and walking up to the false summit only to see that I still had to walk the last little section to reach the true summit was pretty relieving to know that the elevation gain for the trip was practically done.

I took a couple pictures at the summit, then turned back and started heading back down again.

Humboldt summit pic

Rain was falling to the north of Humboldt while I was at the summit
Kit Carson on the left
The Crestones

I think I climbed this 1000 ft section in around 40 minutes after running about a mile and a half from kitty kat carson to the saddle pretty quick. I am going to begin investing in trail running equipment because trailrunning is super fun.

I got back to camp where I found my dad. He had only been there for like 10 minutes, which was pretty convenient. We agreed that we should probably wait for the small storm to blow over real quick and have a short rest before we packed up camp and headed back down to the car.

30 minutes later, after a light shower passed over, the sun was back out, and we broke down camp. We made good time heading down from Lower South Colony Lake. I stopped again to read the sign about mountaineering and such at the old upper trailhead, just because it has a quote from Ed Viesturs, my personal hero, on it: "Getting up is optional; getting down is mandatory." This quote rang true for this entire trip. We would live to come back and give the traverse an attempt another time.

After getting back to the car, we drove back down the rough road, heading home. We were extremely calorie deprived, so we stopped at Freddy's on the way back and both got double cheeseburgers and milkshakes and all was well. We both knew that next time we came out here, we would bring mountain bikes for the dirt road in order to make the escape back to civilization quicker and easier.

Some pretty wildflowers on the hike back
Big ol' buck

As always,

Risk is for managing, not for chance.

~Hogan Warlock~

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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Comments or Questions
12/16/2020 09:37
...effort, photos, and write-up! Enjoyed this!

12/16/2020 16:58
@greenonion @ltlFish99

Nice report
12/16/2020 12:50
This was a great report with wonderful photographs.
Thanks for posting this.

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