Peak(s):  Crestone Peak  -  14,294 feet
"Northeast Crestone"  -  14,250 feet
"East Crestone"  -  14,260 feet
Crestone Needle  -  14,197 feet
Humboldt Peak  -  14,064 feet
Date Posted:  09/20/2021
Date Climbed:   09/08/2021
Author:  JaredJohnson
 Crestone North Buttress + Traverse, Freestyle   

I've never thought of the Crestones as my favorite peaks, but over the years I've managed to go back there about 8 times, far more than any other area. I've made various attempts on humboldt, the peak, the needle, and the traverse, with varying degrees of success. On my second completion of the traverse in July, I got my eye on the North Buttress route and became obsessed. I hit the climbing gym quite a bit working to drop some weight to help avoid asthma issues, and did a lot of 5.6-ish downclimbing in the gym to prepare myself mentally for the downclimb I kept reading so much about. Now that I've completed the route, along with a third variation of the traverse, a couple of weeks later I'm still reeling from what an amazing time I had in the mountains.

The whole of my labor-day-week trip to the area was fun and successful, but if it's boring, it could be useful to skip to the parts with lines in them, which I feel is semi-valuable beta... to be used AT YOUR OWN RISK by folks who are super comfortable with unroped class 5 etc and enjoy a thrill. Some who have seen my previous reports and posts would probably take issue with some of my decisions (:

Coming from Kansas, it's pretty difficult to do routes like this without some acclimatization, so I made a plan to bring my 10-year-old son on his first backpacking trip. We would hit South Colony Lakes, attempt Humboldt, then bring him back and return for 3 more days with my climbing partner. This would provide ~ 5 days of acclimatization for me and ~ 3 days for my partner, who is also from Kansas but is in better shape than me. It would also allow us to leave most of our kit on the first trip, making the second trip up extra chill.

I arrived with my son on Friday, he absolutely loved the area and was able to make it to camp at SCL on day 1.

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He was super exhausted once we hit the camp and the altitude bugged him some, I figured he might not make a serious attempt on the peak; but the next morning he was chomping at the bit asking when we would climb it.

We started around 10am and summited at 2pm. It was a bit chilly but he was in good spirits the entire time and justifiably impressed with himself for summiting his first 14er at 10 years old.

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We reached the car at 5 PM and drove 9 hours back to Wichita. Then a few hours later my frequent climbing partner Peter and I returned, picking up our old co-worker Oli from Colorado Springs. He hadn't done any 14ers either and wanted to hang for the first 1-2 days of our 3-day trip; it was labor day so all the car rental agencies were closed, so he wound up renting a moving van and dropping it at the 2WD trailhead as his ride back to Denver.

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We started up from the 4WD trailhead at 11am and arrived at our camp at 1pm. Peter and Oli continued up toward Humboldt. I was sore from my previous adventures, so I decided to hang back and explore the upper lake.

As I circled behind the upper lake, there were some nice views of the peak and needle, and the ridge connecting them from the opposite side of the traverse. I continued up the SCL drainage to get a better look.

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It was a fascinating place to be at the time, it was dry but clearly not an environment that is used to being dry.

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At some point I realized that my legs were far less cramped, and also notice that there might be a weakness in the ridge ahead which would lead up to the bear's playground. I hadn't guessed this, as all my research indicated that the best and seemingly only way up to the bear's playground from SCL was to traverse the ridge from the humboldt saddle. Nevertheless I continued up pretty solid grassy/rocky slopes and found myself climbing up 100-200 feet of loose-ish class 4 and coming out above the bear's playground.

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I arrived at this route on a super dry day in a super dry week in early September; at other times, this route might be looser, or impassable due to flowing water, or carry greater danger of natural rockfall and/or flash floods... I have to guess that there are reasons it's not really mentioned anywhere as an alternative means to reach the bear's playground. Nevertheless if anybody's curious, I put together a very rough GPX based on the exif data from my photos

I was super enthused to wind up here, with some awesome views and having accomplished something I'd assumed was not doable. This also allowed for a much more interesting return route than I'd expected. I traversed from the bear's playground to the humboldt saddle and back down to camp. My companions who had last heard I was too tired to do much hiking had just begun to worry a bit, but all was well and Oli had summited Humboldt, his first 14er.

The next day we had a luxurious salmon breakfast, then took Oli up to the bear's playground via the humboldt saddle; he had a blast on the class 3 connecting ridge and enjoyed the fantastic views at the playground.

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He sprinted ahead of us on the return so he could reach the 2WD trailhead with plenty of daylight left. We reached camp around 2pm, napped for a couple of hours, had some dinner, and then went back to bed intent on resting up for the main event.

5am next morning we got up and started back up toward humboldt saddle before sunrise. It was chilly and windy on the way to the base of the north buttress, we took a break in a sheltered spot to get some sun as the cold had been sapping my energy. We followed the faint trail and cairns toward the northwest gully; we probably would have gone too far but the GPX clued us in when it was time to stop and look for a way up. The GPX track wasn't super useful after that because it followed the easiest possible way up, but there was a ton of really enjoyable and solid class 3/4 knob climbing to be had by simply heading straight up toward the highest point that could be seen. A previous report suggested the direct route is a bit contrived when there's an easier way, but I respectfully disagree, I think it's both quicker and vastly more fun.

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Eventually we arrived at the false summit below Northeast Crestone. The GREEN LINE below marks the line we took on NE Crestone. This photo was was originally posted to SP by metal4lyf:

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Like others, I had been super nervous about this part of the route. I did a bunch of research beforehand and it left me a bit confused, but AFAICT everyone that has posted beta before has taken either the red or yellow line above. Roach mentions climbing down from the summit of NE Crestone, but it's clear to me now that he's most likely describing the yellow line:

"The crux of this route is climbing from the summit of 'Northeast Crestone' to the red notch at the top of the Northwest Couloir between the east and main summits. Do a tricky Class 5.0 downclimb on the tower's west side, then do a complicated, exposed Class 4 traverse across unprotected slabs to reach the red notch. From the notch, scramble 250 feet to the summit."

We explored this area a bunch trying to work ourselves up to choosing a line. The dotted red line to finish summiting NE Crestone is an alternative to the traverse, but the holds were surprisingly scarce on the steepest section of this and we were not confident we could do it safely. We started down the yellow line; the initial downclimb from the notch before the summit of NE Crestone felt tricky, we began the traverse and it was clear this would become really hairy - like others, I don't think I agree with Roach's class 4 designation. However as we began the initial tame portion of the traverse, we found it was possible to turn aside back toward the summit of NE crestone and ascend one of two big cracks leading straight up. Once on the summit it's a pretty straightforward class 4 downclimb directly to the red notch - a big nothing burger compared to the other lines. Ours was a pretty convoluted line, but I honestly think we wound up finding the easiest and safest way to finish out the north buttress, tagging the trust summit of NE crestone along the way.

Peter captured video of me ascending our novel line to achieve the NE summit (the upper portion of the solid green line in the photo above):

And I captured Peter on the no-big-deal final downclimb to the notch:

... and one more photo with just our route, also lifted from summitpost (Peter took the dotted line which was pretty similar to my crack):

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From the red notch it was a simple scramble to the summit; we also visited the east summit and got some photos of a fellow climber who ascended via the standard south face route.

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We then descended the south gully to find the traverse. I had already completed the traverse twice before, but notably this was the first time I actually had the motivation to tag Crestone Peak proper before beginning the traverse, so one might say this is the first one that counts.

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On my previous visit, when it came time to do the infamous headwall, I unintentionally went way over to climber's right of "real" route, and this wound up being a really great adventure. It was super steep, exposed, and had some difficult class 4 and perhaps a little easy class 5.

On this my third traverse, when we arrived at the headwall I sent Peter up ahead of me on what I believed was the extra-fun line. He said it felt quite steep, I followed him up and it was even better than I remembered. Then we looked up and realized we were at the bottom of the real headwall. We had just completed a BONUS HEADWALL and it was even better than the variation on the upper headwall, as captured by Peter. But not for everyone...

At this point Peter chose to get back on route, while I tried another line once again way off from the standard route. This time it was a delightfully varied line; there was some steep knobby climbing, a bit of ledge work, and then I found my way into a large tapering crack with a rap station halfway up it (not "the" rap station, just some old worn webbing). It was a fantastic finish to the traverse, and I was surprised and pleased to find myself still prepared to take on spicy climbing after so much previous excitement.

The two alternate headwalls are approximated with the blue line below (standard route is in red):

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Standard traverse finish in red, alternate spicy headwall fun (APPROXIMATE) in blue.

Here it is zoomed in, with some climber dots on the summit for scale:

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Spicy alternative lines (APPROXIMATE), zoomed in. Three climbers can be seen on the summit.

The lines are very roughly approximated; if you feel the need to find and follow them exactly then you might be better off not attempting it. These are serious mountains and someone fell to their death around this part of the mountain, just 3 days after we were there. But... if you're pretty experienced and pretty bold, when you get past the mini knife edge and arrive on the ledges that eventually lead to the headwall... look straight up, and if you feel that it goes - it probably does and it's a blast. There were maybe some harder moves on Little Bear's Northwest Face or the traverse to Blanca, but nothing with such sustained difficulty and exposure. Perhaps the next time I go back there or to KC's north ridge, with my newfound chutzpah I'll choose a crazier line and the fun I had on the needle won't compare. But for now, I don't think I've ever had more fun in the mountains than on NE crestone and these two final walls on the traverse. Sadly the walls eventually ended and we topped out.

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On my previous traverse as well as this one, we took the east gully exclusively on the way down the needle. Even with a descent in the pouring rain on the previous trip, I found this was a far better choice over trying to find the west gully and the subsequent cross-over to the east gully. Photo #27 from the Needle South Face route description is super helpful in locating the entrance to the east gully:

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Entrance to the east gully taken from Needle South Face route description

Once the obvious "shark fin" formation in the middle of that photo is identified, it's super easy to confidently enter the east gully and follow cairns for the easiest route down. There we met some fellow climbers who had completed the traverse and gotten themselves into the east gully successfully, but they were exhausted and nervous about their route finding. They were very appreciative to have us just ahead of them picking out the easiest / safest lines down. They really were fine on their own but we were more than happy to be a reassuring presence (:

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We descended to broken hand pass and then to our camp near SCL, where we spent about 1.5 hours packing. My asthma started to kick in shortly before camp, so the rest of the way down was a bit difficult, but it only took a couple of hours and I was glad to only be dealing with it on the tail end of the trip when we knew we were quite safe. We arrived at the car around 10 PM and immediately drove 9 hours back to Wichita with two 30-minute safety naps.

I knew I loved that Crestone conglomerate and that this area had some great climbing and views, but even so I just can't get over the quality of this trip and the incredible climbing on the buttress, NE Crestone, and this particular variation of the traverse. This experience will be hard to top. I'm open to ideas from anyone who has managed to read this far!




Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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Comments or Questions
tygr
This is gold!
09/20/2021 08:33
Congrats and thank you for this report. I'm hoping to do the Crestone traverse over labor day next year. I've climbed the Needle, but need to do the Peak. This report gives me great visuals and insights. Thanks! Congrats to your son on his 1st 14er summit! That's really awesome. Super impressed.


JaredJohnson
User
peak
09/20/2021 09:19
I've done the standard route up the peak too.. if you've got the moxy, the north buttress is definitely the best way to experience the peak, and start the traverse (:

although if you're slow like me, the best way to make sure you have a successful summit and/or traverse day is to backpack into cottonwood lake and start right at the base of CP the next day. everyone should experience that approach once, it's a fun day on its own.

enjoy your send!



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