Peak(s):  Crestone Peak  -  14,299 feet
Crestone Needle  -  14,196 feet
"East Crestone"  -  14,298 feet
Little Bear Peak  -  14,041 feet
Blanca Peak  -  14,350 feet
Ellingwood Point  -  14,057 feet
Date Posted:  09/11/2020
Modified:  01/06/2021
Date Climbed:   09/05/2020
Author:  ellenmseb
 Finishing the Great Traverses with much love for Cottonwood approach.   

I took advantage of this Labor Day weekend's great weather to finish the Great Traverses! This was a great capstone for this season's challenging climbs, which appear to be ending early with heavy snow outside my window as I type.

My brutally honest splits:

9/5 2am Depart home
9/5 5:30am Cottonwood Creek trailhead 8400'
9/5 9:30am Cottonwood basin 12k'
9/5 12pm-12:30pm Crestone Peak 14.3k'
9/5 12:50pm-1:00pm "East Crestone Peak"
9/5 2:40pm Bottom of Crestones Traverse 13.4k'
9/5 3:50pm-4:30pm Crestone Needle
9/5 6:00pm Cottonwood Lake 12.3k'
9/5 9:15pm Cottonwood Creek Trailhead
9/6 1:00am Home
9/6 4:00am-4:00pm Sleep
9/6 9:00pm Depart home
9/7 12:30am Retrieve forgotten poles from Cottonwood Creek TH
9/7 2:00am Start hiking from 8040' on Lake Como Road
9/7 5:40am Meet partner at Lake como 11.8k'
9/7 6:40am Base of Little Bear NW face scree field 12.2k'
9/7 9:40am-10:10am Little Bear
9/7 1:30pm Catwalk (2nd tower)
9/7 2:00pm-2:20pm Blanca
9/7 3:40pm-3:50pm Ellingwood
9/7 9:00pm Car (8k on Lake Como Road)
9/7 2:00am Home

I am a slow hiker. Normally I would say "moderately slow", but these 2 days can be characterized as "extremely slow" because I was often solo (except for the sections uphill of Lake Como) and needed to conserve energy on these long days. You can use these for extreme upper-bounds for predicted climb times!

Traverse times:

  • Crestones Traverse: 3.5 hours. Especially slow due to exhaustion. I hit the wall at the bottom and could only continue extremely slowly and with long rests. I would be shocked if anyone went slower than this.
    • Total 12mi, 6800' gain
  • Little Bear - Blanca traverse: 4 hours. Feeling fine and moving about as fast as I ever would. This may be on the slower end of average times. People for whom this is a challenging scramble may take similar time. This is a LONG scramble.
    • Total 17mi, 7300' gain

Crestones Traverse via Cottonwood Creek

The biggest beta in this trip report is:

Cottonwood Creek approach has been unfairly maligned as a miserable, deadfallen, scrambly bushwhack! In fact, there is only a short bushwhack, deadfall has been mostly cut through, and slabby sections are shockingly well-cairned!

Cottonwood Creek approach is quite pleasant! It was certainly the right choice for my itinerary (day-hiking, traverse, and already did South Colony Lakes).

I can recommend Cottonwood Creek only in the following circumstances:

  • You're doing the traverse, Crestone Peak, and/or other peaks west of Broken Hand Pass, not just Needle or Humboldt
  • You can't drive to South Colony Lakes 4wd TH.
  • You've already done or will do the South Colony Lakes approach, which is more beautiful than Cottonwood, although both are pretty.
  • You're day-hiking. Although the approach is pleasant, it's still steep and scrambly enough to be unpleasant with heavy packs. In contrast, South Colony Lakes saves several flat miles with a backpack. I did see several badasses backpacking up though! Backpacking this approach sounds reasonable if you're doing several peaks, not just the traverse.

First of all, Cottonwood Creek is 2wd accessible. I know this because I first drove an Outback, which magically showed every warning light on returning (turns out this was because I didn't tighten the gas cap??) then drove an Accord back to retrieve my forgotten hiking poles.

I still don't know what the "stupa" is.

I can't explain exactly why I love the Cottonwood Creek approach so much. It just seems so natural and a different kind of woods than I normally walk through on the way to 14ers. in contrast, the South Colony Lakes approach is a 4wd road, even past the 4wd parking lot. Cottonwood seems like a nature walk somewhere exotic like the East Coast or Texas. I saw 2 female sage grouse, or the same grouse twice. I passed by 3 waterfalls.

sage grouse
Oh no, the notorious Cottonwood Creek deadfall! the horror! I negotiated ~20 trees fallen across the trail. Many more trees had been cut across. You can see both types in this picture.

One tip about the approach: On slabby sections, the areas where water sometimes flows (even if it is not flowing now) have been polished and are slippery. Avoid these sections and go to the side instead.

Counterintuitively, the worst bushwhacking is above 12k. Bushwhacking through willows (not forest), and not the worst willow-whacking I've done. This is where the real "scrambly" part of the approach starts.


Summiting Crestone Peak went uneventfully. We're so pampered by the water available at 13.3k in September!

I had wondered about Northeast Crestone and East Crestone. A trip report claimed that NE crestone was 3rd or 4th class. An experienced traverser I chatted with said it was exposed 5th class. From looking at it, the line up to NE crestone didn't look bad. But, how to get to the base of NE crestone? The trip report's route was to traverse horizontally over from the Crestone-E Crestone saddle to the E Crestone-NE Crestone saddle. But this looked too steep, exposed and without-holds for my taste. So I instead started downclimbing from E crestone. However, this downclimb soon became too smooth, also lacking holds. Furthermore, even if I successfully summited NE crestone, I might get stuck and unable to downclimb. So I gave up, and very easily upclimbed the route from E crestone that I had downclimbed only with extreme difficulty. I guess this counts as my first failed 14er summit.

The downclimb from Crestone Peak seemed to go on forever. Somehow without noticing, I apparently gained 200ft. The first 4 ways I tried to get back down to route, cliffed out. The 5th way worked. But the adrenaline rush from being cliffed out wore off, combined with lack of food, I hit the wall hard! I could barely put 1 foot in front of the other. The universe toyed with me when I accidentally kicked my helmet down a gully! mercifully, it only tumbled 100ft. This happened at the worst possible time, before the 1st of 3 cruxes, the 5.2 bulge. But after an hour of moving extremely slowly & long breaks, I felt better. Even at the end of the day and an even longer day on Blanca, I never felt that exhausted.


Among the 3 cruxes:

  • the 5.2 bulge is overhyped. I can see why it's class 5 because my body ended up sideways to reach footholds on the right side and handholds on the left. But it's very un-exposed and does not require much physical strength or technical rock climbing knowledge (which I have none).
  • The knife-edge is under-hyped. It is extremely sharp, exposed, and does not have such great holds as most of the crestones. I felt real fear here and wished I wasn't solo.
  • The class 4 exposed headwall is slightly overhyped. It is indeed class 4 and exposed, but holds are so good and plentiful that I felt secure the entire time. Most fun pitch on the route! I wished I wasn't solo just so that someone could take a badass photo.

From Crestone Needle, I could see the traverse that awaited me 2 days later:

I think the red line is Little Bear - Blanca - Ellingwood. taken from Crestone Needle.

Shout-out to the absolute beast who learned where the traverse route was upon seeing me come up it; heard me opine that a reverse-traverse requires a rappel; and then casually down-scrambled the crux and continued on to Crestone Peak at 4pm.

After lounging on Crestone Needle until 4:30pm, I suddenly remembered that my headlamp had been dim even that morning! I didn't charge it because I was only starting at 5am, but didn't consider that it would take me until after dark to return! September problems. I rushed down as fast as possible while making sure to descend the correct gully.

The headlamp indeed became useless with 3 miles of shaded, moonless hiking remaining. I was on the verge of panic because I didn't know how long my 3 backup light sources would last. I could see literally nothing without a light source. I would've been reduced to crawling. I always pack to survive an emergency bivy, but the prospect didn't seem appealing. My small pen light burnt out. Thankfully, my battery pack is terrible as a battery pack, but great as a flashlight! I invented the pantslamp in order to keep both hands free for poles.

the pantslamp.

Little Bear NW Face --> Blanca --> Ellingwood

The Little Bear-Blanca traverse is indeed by far the most difficult of the traverses! But it's an enjoyable scramble, a great test piece, and for those of us who can either endure extremely long days or drive to 10k, it can ensure you only have to walk up Lake Como Road once, even without a heavy pack. Managed to keep this day in the domain of type 1 fun!

Adrienne Jacobi, met on Colorado 14er Ladies, was an AMAZING partner on this route & deserves all the credit for its success and waiting for me to bumble about on the scrambles!

Little Bear NW Face

Unlike smarter individuals who can sleep in tents, I day-hiked this from 8k. (I think the Outback could've made it to 8800', but drove the Accord instead in fear of Outback's aforementioned warning lights.)

But, the slog up Lake Como Road was almost pleasant because of the cool temperature and bright moon reflecting off white rocks! I went headlampless half the time. It felt like experiencing the desert night the way it was meant to be seen. I recommend doing this approach pre-dawn because I didn't even need a jacket at 2am in September. it must be sweltering during the day.

Sunrise before heading up Little Bear.

We chose to take Little Bear's NW face based on advice in this thread. After doing it, I have no particularly strong feelings about NW face, it's a perfectly fine way to get up Little Bear. I referred to this trip report for the NW face route. Some of the moves were pretty tough, but could've been easier if I picked a better line and stayed better on-route.

NW face route stolen from this trip report

My original motivation to take NW face is that I was scared of the initial downclimb from Little Bear, which had been described as "the first crux" or even "the crux" of the traverse. That downclimb would be easier after having upclimbed it from NW face. However, the downclimb is in fact not very difficult compared to the rest of the traverse (stay far right as ascending/left as descending). So, don't choose NW face for this reason. Hourglass is probably the easiest option, but common sense says to avoid it on holiday weekends. For us, on Labor Day, Hourglass didn't seem that crowded; we only saw Scott P's party come up from Hourglass. Insanely, Little Bear counts among only 4 14ers that I want to repeat, so that I can experience the infamous Hourglass. (the other 3 are Longs via Loft, Torreys via Kelso, and Sneffels with better weather). SW ridge sounds terrible, pushes your last water source earlier, and adds extra elevation gain to the day. So tl;dr Hourglass and NW ridge both look like reasonable ways to start your traverse day.

Last pitch of NW face, which is the same as the initial downclimb of the traverse
Still fresh-faced!

Little Bear-Blanca Traverse

Traverse route, stolen from this trip report and more annotations added.

Don't underestimate the length and commitment of this traverse, especially if your experience is similar to mine (i.e., haven't done any harder climbing than the 14er standard routes & traverses). It is indeed extremely long, contains a huge number of C4-5.0 moves, and there is no escape from the ridge. On the plus side, the moves are no harder than the other traverses, and routefinding is relatively easy. And it is rewarding.

For the traverse, I can't hope to provide as good route descriptions as these trip reports that I relied on:

These resources are helpful, but I was confused about where the various sections are in relation to each other. Here is the order.

  1. Initial downclimb to the notch where NW face reaches Little Bear's summit ridge.
  2. More downclimb with difficult scrambling. Many small towers. These small towers are not the 1st-3rd towers that you read about later. There are too many to specify the strategy for each. Just evaluate bypassing on the left or right, or summit if neither looks feasible. It was incredible how little horizontal progress we made in so much time on this section. This is the slowest going on the entire route.
  3. Captain bivwacko. It's more of a landmark than a challenge. Don't summit it, which is obviously the right choice from looking at it. You're not out of the woods yet!
  4. Easy scrambling & cairned walking, including the Highway and walking along the right side of the ridge. Fast progress here. Finally Blanca looks closer than Little Bear!
  5. Section of BIG towers
    1. 1st big tower: bypass right, following cairns. Loose but doable.
    2. 2nd big tower: Summit. No bypass available.
      1. The Catwalk is the last part of the upclimb of the 2nd big tower.
      2. After crossing the Catwalk, you are finally out of the woods of difficult scrambling.
    3. 3rd tower: Easy talus-hopping. Bypass left or summit, it doesn't really matter.
  6. Final easy talus-hop to the summit.

The Catwalk is very exposed and marks the end of difficult scrambling. If you made it here, you're finally home free!
Unfortunately, despite its extreme exposure, it's not as photogenic as Capitol's knife-edge apparently. It is about a foot wide, which is wide enough to make me feel secure.
Smoke blew in somewhere around the Catwalk as well. incredible how it was completely clear in the morning and completely smoke-shrouded by 1pm.

Heading down from Little Bear and "considering my future". This is the
best picture of me ever taken on a 14er, because you can't see my face.
Catwalk (2nd tower)

Ellingwood Point

climb up Ellingwood Point looks like more than 500ft and more than class 3. It really is 500ft though, and easy for class 3.

Actually the most physical exertion of the day was those 500ft up to Ellingwood Point. There was no difficult scrambling to slow us down, and the late hour pushed us to summit as fast as possible (which was still very slow). Huffing and puffing thick smoke.

On the descent, we couldn't find a trail for a long time and hopped on small talus. so don't treat the GPX as gospel. Felt kind of depressed at this point because of the smoke and late hour.

smokey blue lakes.

After doing the three 5.easy traverses, I've reached the limit of what I should safely free solo. I got inspired by several partners who actually started from technical climbing and then added scrambling to their repertoire. Plus, I normally live in California, which has few C3-4 scrambles (mostly 8 hours away from home in the eastern sierra), but many world-class technical climbs, even close to home. Therefore, I've decided to learn how to climb with ropes in the gym over the winter. Maybe when I come back to visit Colorado next I can do some more cool 5.medium routes like Longs Cables, Vestal Wham Ridge, or simply the Flatirons :)

My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
1 2 4 5 6 7 8 9 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 19 20 22

Comments or Questions
Excellent resource here
09/12/2020 08:06
What an excellent resource you have given here for these two traverses including Cottonwood creek approach. And what super adventures these are. Consider yourself one of the badasses you mentioned! GREAT jobs on these!

09/13/2020 20:28
Thatâs a great couple of days! Nice work!

09/14/2020 07:18
Cottonwood creek approach is a super cool approach. Great work this summer!

Beautiful report
09/14/2020 16:54
Thanks for such a highly detailed report. Wonderful photographs.
A stupa is: a dome-shaped structure erected as a Buddhist shrine.

09/16/2020 21:34
glad you found it useful

Amazing confidence and grit!
09/21/2020 10:36
This is impressive! Love so many things about how you did these two. E.g., the âday trip from homeâ hiking/climbing approach, the single-push for each from the bottom, and the NW Face instead of the hourglass. Way to go, and far more impressive than how most people approach these, IMO.

Saw you on the ridge
09/30/2020 09:22
My friend and I hiked into Lilly Lake that afternoon and the smoke blew in while we were there. We saw two people on the Blanca - Ellingwood traverse with binocs and I think it had to be you all. Congratulations! Sadly, I learned that my father died in a fall after summiting Crestone Needle just two weeks later on 9/25. He was an experienced climber and only needed maybe 7 more 'teeners to get them all. There can be a razor edge up there between success and tragedy and I won't ever think of 14ers or life the same way again.

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