Peak(s):  San Luis Peak  -  14,014 feet
Kit Carson Peak  -  14,165 feet
"Prow, The"  -  13,980 feet
Columbia Point  -  13,980 feet
"Kitty Kat Carson"  -  13,980 feet
Crestone Peak  -  14,294 feet
Date Posted:  09/19/2021
Modified:  09/24/2021
Date Climbed:   09/17/2021
Author:  thurs
 Finishing in Style...and Stupidity   

Finishing the 14ers in Style...and Stupidity

This trip report covers a few things:

  • San Luis Peak, I guess
  • Spanish Creek approach/access
  • The Prow on Kit Carson (5.8 R/X) traverse to Columbia Pt.
  • Crestone Peak from Spanish Creek (N Buttress -> NW Couloir descent)
  • Some thoughts on the 14ers

Intro

I had been stalling a bit on finishing the 14ers (in 2021, I only had San Luis and Crestone Peak left) because I wanted to put a crew together to top out on San Luis in style -- I had imagined champagne, maybe a small grill, etc. All doable. But people are flaky and sometimes dreadfully slow, so when I had a week off between jobs I decided that it was time to be done with this checklist already, finishing the peaks on my terms and at my preferred pace. My partner (Carlyn) wanted to do a Grade III climb so after looking at the forecast we narrowly decided against a trip to the Grenadiers, opting instead to do San Luis, spend the night at some hot springs, and then pack into Spanish Creek to do The Prow, Columbia Pt., and Crestone Peak.

This was sure to be an interesting trip, as Crestone Peak is rarely climbed from Spanish Creek and the most appealing route looked to involve some low 5th class scrambling. I scrounged the web for as much beta as I could find, and tried to ease my mind by remembering that the drive out is still usually the most dangerous part. Sure enough, as we drove towards the La Garita Wilderness on Monday afternoon, a pickup truck in oncoming traffic made an aggressive pass on a two lane section of US-285 in South Park and I had to slam the brakes, swerve into the shoulder, and try not to send it into the grass in order to avoid a head on collision. This happened again an hour later on Monarch Pass, with a truck ahead of us attempting to pass an RV in a no pass zone and forcing someone in oncoming traffic off the road, who narrowly maintained control and avoided crossing the centerline to hit us head on. We would later pass the truck anyways. Come on, people...

San Luis Peak

Like most folks, I had been putting off San Luis Peak for quite some time due to its remoteness and apparent unappealing nature. Our plan was to sleep in the back of my van at the trailhead and run as much of the peak as possible. I was driving a long wheelbase, low clearance minivan, and despite some warnings about the creek crossings, we had no issue driving the dreaded 40 miles of dirt road to the trailhead. The creek crossings were fine, but there's not much flowing water in the opening weeks of fall.

In fact, the drive in was almost fun...My van is just a bloated Ford Focus, and we entertained ourselves with some light rallying (nothing crazy) as we entered an autumnal landscape of yellow aspens and golden hills. The approach was remote and beautiful, and I quickly realized this climb, despite the rather ugly appearance of the peak itself, was going to be a pretty wonderful experience. We were the only vehicle driving in, so we were truly able to drive through the extensive landscape how we wanted, while stopping a few times to honk at cows that stoically stared at us while standing in the middle of the road.

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A very remote area of Colorado, with the aspens just starting to pop. Interesting dichotomy between massive stands of almost entirely dead forest (beetle kill) next to vibrant stands of aspen.
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Wow San Luis, not bad. We put some rocks under the tires to provide a level sleeping surface.

The weather forecast was pretty good but not perfect, so I wanted to make sure we still summitted by noon. We crunched the numbers and decided to wake up around 8am. We ended up being slow and lazy, heading out 9:30am or so, with a solo climber arriving and setting off on the trail at some point much earlier in the morning.

We ran a 13:00/mile pace or so the first couple miles, slowing down by the third mile as the trail steepened. The last few miles were mostly speed walking uphill at a 2000ft/hour pace as most of the vert is compressed into that stretch. The clouds around us were a bit gloomy, with some hints of light precipitation, but we didn't see any worrying convection except far to the west over the southern Sawatch, which looked to be getting pounded by a 11am thunderstorm. San Luis Peak itself was as ugly as advertised -- but the approach and the views were wonderful, and we were enjoying our time out in Stewart Creek.

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I've seen better looking piles of dirt at construction sites.

The summit went easy, though the last mile was truly a grind. We topped out exactly 2.5 hours after leaving the car. The views!

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Beer is good food.
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The famous high points of the Cimarrons.
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Ton of light play on the mesas in the foreground, with the Grenadiers in the back. Check out Wham Ridge!!

I took these pictures with a little point and shoot camera that has massive optical zoom -- one of my favorite investments of the past few years.

We were treated to some grand colors on our way back to the car -- we ran the entire way back and settled into a 11:00/mile pace, not bad! The final time, with an extensive break at the summit, was 4hr11min.

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Nice.
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Leaving Stewart Creek.

Carlyn drove out at an equally spirited pace that I drove in at (I provided made-up rally co-driving -- 100 left long 2 into right 1! -- again, nothing crazy), and we made it to the hot springs in the San Luis Valley by 3:30pm. We relaxed and prepared for the more serious objectives ahead of us. Carlyn had slightly injured their IT band on the run which would end up being a bit of an issue for the upcoming days, but not insurmountable. We were treated to some nice cloud watching from our yurt.

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Remnants of angry convection over the Sangres.

Spanish Creek - Approach

On Wednesday we packed our backpacking packs, prepped food, and pieced together our rack (light alpine rack and 60m rope). We drove to Crestone just before 11am, upon which I realized I had forgotten to pack gloves, which I was worried about since we were likely to be doing technical climbing in the chilly morning hours. Unfortunately, the grocery store in Crestone had plenty of socks but no gloves, so my consolation prize was to buy a bunch of vegan jerky, which ended up being more useful than gloves. I ended up wearing big wool socks on my hands, haha.

For those not in the know, the entrance to Spanish Creek is on private property (the Crestone Mountain Zen Center). However, the monks have recently put up a system to automatically request and obtain a climbing permit from their website, which we did before the trip. All you need to do is fill out a web form 24 hours ahead of time and print out the permit they send you. We drove up to their upper parking lot, which was ironically a tougher dirt road approach than anything we encountered when getting to San Luis Peak, but still no real problem in a low clearance vehicle. Interestingly, there was only one narrow parking spot available on a mid-day Wednesday, but none of the other cars in the lot seemed to be there for Spanish Creek access.

We followed the instructions included in the permit email for actually getting to the trailhead from the upper parking lot -- it wasn't totally obvious. You get a view of The Prow and Kit Carson as soon as you hit the trail!

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Kit Carson and The Prow from the Spanish Creek trailhead.

The trail up Spanish Creek apparently has a reputation for being hard to follow and ridden with obstacles, but we didn't have much trouble staying the trail. The initial creek crossings were fine, though one of them was evidently washed out and some finesse was required to keep our approach shoes dry. The trail is not too overgrown, and there are orange ribbons and cairns every now and then. We got a bit off once or twice, but quickly stopped and backtracked to regain the trail. I would say the Mountain Project beta about not doing it in the dark is probably sensible, but it would likely be not too bad with a good headlamp and a proper GPS track.

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View of The Prow from just below 11,000ft.

After the creek crossings, the trail gets down to business and the grade becomes steep. Soon we entered the old burn area, which was not nearly as tedious as suggested. There is a massive amount of cairns here and it would be very hard to not take the most optimal path over all the deadfall (most of which just require a high step) -- keep your eyes out for rocks sitting on logs. Above 11,000ft. the trees begin to thin, in addition to the trail. The trail peters out entirely by around 11,300ft, with numerous weak social trails braiding through treeline beneath the base of The Prow. We traversed easy terrain up to about 11,900ft., at the base of the large talus slope to the southeast of The Prow, setting up a campsite at an obvious spot next to giant boulder with good water access. We found a fresh fire ring with burned out tins in it, and various bits of trash (like toilet paper) scattered around. We destroyed the fire ring, scattered the ashes and burnt wood, and packed out the trash. Come on, people...

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East side of the Prow from just above camp, with Kit Carson to the right.
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Views north from camp.

Upper Spanish Creek is truly a magical place. Having been to Chicago Basin, Blue Lakes, South Colony Lakes, Snowmass Lake, etc. this is in the running for one of the finest spots to camp. To the west, you can clearly see the San Luis Valley 4,000ft. below you, the San Juans in the distance, and the setting sun. To the north, The Prow, Kit Carson, and rugged south face of Columbia dominate the skyline. To the east, a small waterfall bisects massive conglomerate slabs and boulders as rolling, folding terrain and tundra pile up towards Bear's Playground. To the south, an obscure subsummit of Crestone Peak fills the viewshed with its dark cliffs and streaks of golden grass, and Crestone Peak itself is clearly visible (including the NE and E sub-summits), intimidatingly tall and bisected by the massive NW couloir which looks impossibly steep.

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From camp on Wednesday evening, we watched a weak storm over the San Juans sputter out a ton of virga with only a small rainshaft.

I'll refrain from posting pictures of the entire scene -- it is a truly special, grand place, and it's worth getting up there to see for yourself. Oh, and some more beta -- Verizon has decent 4G signal up there. This was helpful to check the forecast each morning and review some beta. As a bonus, it seemed pretty obvious to us that we weren't at significant risk of getting parasites from the trickling stream, so we decided to not filter the water.

Night came quickly on Wednesday and we settled in to our trekking pole supported tent and two person sleeping bag soon after sunset. Our plan for Thursday was to do The Prow, summit Kit Carson, go to Columbia, Kitty Kat, Obstruction, and then at Bear's Playground make a decision on whether we wanted to do Crestone Peak that same day or walk back to camp. On Friday, we would do Crestone Peak if we had not already done so, and then pack out.

The Prow

The Prow is a massive serrated fin of Crestone conglomerate that slices high into the sky. Its ridge crest starts at about 13,000ft. and traverses due north to meet "Kit Carson Avenue" about 200ft. beneath the 14,170ft. summit of Kit Carson Peak. This feature is pretty unapparent if you're climbing Kit Carson and Challenger from the standard Willow Lakes side -- from its connection with the Avenue, it just looks like a small rock formation jutting out to the south. From Spanish Creek however, it is one of the most prominent features of the entire massif. The route was first climbed in the early 1980s.

The Prow is rated 5.8 R Grade III, though many would give it an R/X rating as protection is extremely limited, with runouts of 40ft+. On our climb we had a few runouts of 50-60ft. and a fall would likely be fatal in some places, so we think a R/X danger rating is appropriate. There is one burly section near the start of the serious climbing that lends the route its 5.8 grade -- but most of the route goes at around 5.5/5.6, besides the first few pitches which are fairly sustained 5.6/5.7. Since you stay on the crest the entire climb, the exposure is intense and the route is very committing. Thankfully, the rock is mostly very solid and featured, which takes the edge off some of the huge runouts.

Anyways -- Thursday. My alarm went off at 5:30am and I hit snooze probably 20 times while Carlyn diligently prepared breakfast and coffee -- what a saint! Despite hauling backpacking gear, climbing gear, and food for three days, I still bring nice coffee stuff up, it's my luxury item, okay!? We got moving as the sun started to rise, after putting our harnesses on at camp as we only had tiny backpacks (in fact, Carlyn just had a running vest). The sun started to touch The Prow as we ascended 1000 vertical feet to the base.

For the climb we brought a 60m rope and a light alpine rack, mostly nuts, with a few cams up to #2. Carlyn thinks a few more pieces of gear would've been useful, but it got the job done.

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Lower pitches of The Prow.
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Upper pitches of The Prow.

We stuck to solid talus and contoured left to get to the base of the difficulties.

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Rough overview of the route. Green Xs = belay stations. Note we stayed on the top of the ridge, I didn't want to obscure it with the pink line.

Once you hit the ridge you face a giant, obvious weakness in the initial more solid section of rock, which I guess most people would describe as the first pitch. This goes at a mix of 3rd and 4th class if you start from high enough on the ridge -- nice warmup. If you decide to climb it before hitting the crest of the ridge, it's 5th class.

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First pitch. Nice warmup scramble.

After this pitch you hit a small grassy notch. The second pitch looks much more serious, but we ducked to the left and climbed its west side on some very featured rock. This was exposed low 5th class, but we didn't bust out the rope or climbing shoes. The west side was still in the shade and had a strong wind, which gave it a hefty and slightly spooky alpine flavor. My hands were cold and I wanted to get back into the sun, so no pictures. We hit another notch which was the base of the real climbing -- the notorious 5.8 start.

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Looking back southwest at Pitch 2. Carlyn has slung a feature to prevent me from falling in the event of some spirited belaying.

It was decided that Carlyn would be leading all of the pitches, as they kind of need to for the certification they are working on, plus my anchor building game is weak and this was not the sort of climb to try to hone those skills on, due to the lack of available protection. Also Carlyn is a stronger and more experienced leader than me so I was happy to kick back, take some photos, hit some things with the nut tool, and enjoy the ride. Thanks Carlyn! Before starting the crux 5.8 pitch we roped up and got our affairs in order. The weather forecast was about as good as you could ask for, though a bit windy, so we were ready to commit.

The 5.8 crux start was everything it was cracked up to be -- since it's an old school three move wonder it definitely feels harder than a 5.8, especially to lowly gym climbers such as myself -- a tricky bouldering problem for the grade. It took both of us 3-4 tries to commit to the move as the fall consequence was high and basically unprotectable. Starting on marginal feet, a good sidepull lets you get your right foot on top of the initial overhang to access a fairly obscure series of marginal, sloping handholds. These give you just enough leverage to stand on a higher ledge directly beneath you and move up towards more positive holds, where you can climb out onto easier terrain that has some gear placement opportunities.

Carlyn eventually cracked the case and ascended out of sight, but was pretty set on setting up an anchor ASAP so that we would be in earshot and have limited rope stretch for my attempts at the crux. With the icy wind blowing and limited sunshine, I got quite cold waiting for Carlyn to send the pitch. Finally, it was my turn -- being cold and yanking on some burly moves right off the ground meant that I strained my right shoulder pretty nicely, which resulted in strong shooting pains the rest of the climb. After a couple of miserable failures I actually felt a small amount of fear about what we were doing, which helped me find it in me to just yank myself up through the difficulties, eventually reaching the first piece of protection about 25ft. up which was no more than a sketchy nut. Carlyn had skipped an earlier gear placement to reduce the pendulum potential for me. I passed another piece of protection, and possibly even one more, before reaching an uncomfortable hanging belay.

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Hanging belay above the crux pitch. Nice nails!

This hanging belay was just to the left of the ridge crest. It was uncomfortable and hammered by the cold wind -- with a much nicer belay station maybe 20ft up and to the right. Take note... This was the worst part of the climb for me, just standing in the freezing wind trying to hammer a really well-lodged nut out of the anchor on the shadowy west side of the ridge on some marginal feet with the rope going well to the right -- okay, I'm not much of an alpine climber, I admit it. Some of you live for that stuff. I was so happy when I finally hit the nut squarely and it popped out of the crack.

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Rare view of Kit Carson's south face.

Soon we were back in the sun at a much better belay station, trying to avoid an overhang by going just to the right of it. This was the most vertical section of the climb and has extremely limited protection opportunities. Even Carlyn, who guides the Flatirons, was a little spooked by the terrain we had moved through so far, and ascended this pitch slowly and methodically, testing holds and looking around for gear placement opportunities. I was just happy to be seated and in the sun as they worked their way upwards and out of sight, placing only one piece of gear before they disappeared from view. The cold had done a number on us, further slowing our pace and increasing the mental fatigue.

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Pitch 4 or 5, I can't remember. Check out all those gear placements...

It had been several hours now and we were only a couple hundred feet off the deck, so I texted my friend and let her know our itinerary. At this point we were abandoning any idea of doing anything other than topping out on The Prow and immediately taking Cole's Couloir back down the south face of Kit Carson to camp. We passed a bail anchor which looked pretty tantalizing -- in hindsight I'm not sure why we were so demoralized. It was just a bit of a rough start.

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There are lots of these serrations/pillars to summit, with good belay stations on the other side.

However, the climbing was starting to ease, the sun was lofted high in the sky, and we were getting in the groove as the views opened up around us and we hit a number of luxurious belay stations.

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Hey, I think we're having fun now!

This ridge was beautiful and the rock is as good as it gets at this altitude in Colorado, aside the fact that it has very few cracks or pockets. Soon the climbing was very Flatirons in nature (the opening pitches were a bit more stout and runout than most of the typical Flatirons routes) and we were having a blast. The exposure! The cobbles! The views! Blue skies and big smiles. We were now moving quickly and banging out the pitches with good speed.

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That's the stuff!
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Surprisingly little progress above the 5.8 start.
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Note that there is one gear placement between me and the end of the rope.

My shoulder was really acting up and causing pain, but the climbing was pretty mellow and featured -- much like the Flatirons, after the first few pitches you could probably get up with just feet alone if you really had to, though it's a bit steeper and the features are a little smaller.

After the first two unroped pitches, we probably did 6-8 roped pitches, with each pitch using most of the 60m of rope that we had available, with good obvious belay stances for each pitch. Many pitches required communicating via rope pulls and later, sometimes just simuling if the rope ran out. The terrain continued to ease (though the exposure did not!), both in angle and in technical difficulty, and soon we were simulclimbing until I untied from the rope entirely to do the last 100-200ft of climbing on luxurious low 5th class terrain with heady exposure. Woo! The wind was still strong at times, which kept things a bit spicier.

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I think we were simuling at this point. Kit Carson looking close!
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Carlyn sets me free to scramble the last pitch or two.

I focused on enjoying the last bits of climbing but all too soon I stepped off the final rock feature, almost directly onto Kit Carson Avenue. There were no winds here, and I pulled my puffy off for the first time, enjoying the high altitude grass (complete with bumblebees) and lack of exposure. A pair of F-16 fighter jets buzzed Challenger Pt at a lower elevation than we were at. I texted my friend again that were off safely and we ate a sandwiches, tangerines, vegan jerky, and potato chips. It was 2:30pm -- the final pitch up Kit Carson looked AMAZING (5.5 or so, and way more protection options) but we didn't have too much time to screw around if we wanted to do anything other than descend Cole's Couloir, the prospect of which seemed unlikely as our spirits were high and the weather was great.

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Pano near the top of the Prow, simuling now.

Columbia Pt.

Since I had summitted Kit Carson before, we decided that even if the final pitch was truly spectacular, it may cost us too much time if we wanted to get all the way to Bear's Playground and back to camp at a reasonable hour. I had not done Columbia so we decided to put the climbing gear away and commit to a nice afternoon of scrambling. We headed down the Avenue to where it intersects with Cole's Couloir, which bisects Kit Carson and Columbia. The Avenue is a nice stroll and well cairned even past the entrance to the final pitch of the standard Kit Carson route.

As we headed down the Avenue we saw a dude slowly descending Columbia, and ran into him in Cole's Couloir. He was wearing trainers, a baseball cap, and a cotton tee and had traversed over Bear's Playground from S. Colony Lakes, headed towards Crestone via Willow Lake. What a character! It really was refreshing to encounter such a person who had not been fully indoctrinated by climbing culture (which, despite the warranted focus on safety, is heavily corporatized, gatekeeped, and concern trolled) just out there sending it hard -- SAR be damned. We told him we had just gotten off of The Prow and he was in awe, before helpfully letting us know about the Class 4 terrain ahead of us -- he became more floored when we told him The Prow was 5.8, so we weren't too worried about scrambling, haha. He wasn't quite sure how to summit Kit Carson and Challenger before descending to Willow Lake, so we pointed out the Avenue and the routes and soon parted ways. For the rest of the trip, we would reference that character -- "oh, he would totally send this." We also blamed any less-than-helpful cairn on him.

Anyways, I had studied the beta for Columbia pretty extensively (I was actually previously kind of worried about it -- I remembered from a previous summit of Kit Carson how intimidating it looked), but after the Prow the entire hulking face of the mountain looked like a stroll and we just scrambled straight up it, hitting the well-cairned standard ridge top. We followed it southeast and then doubled back northeast to the summit, with only a few middlingly-exposed Class 4 moves on the ridge.

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Scrambling is rad, Crestone conglomerate is rad.

We reached the summit of Columbia Pt. about 45 minutes after we had left the top of the Prow.

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Dunes and the Blanca Massif from Columbia Pt.
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Crestone Needle and Crestone Peak from Columbia Pt.

For some reason I felt compelled to actually look at the summit register (I hate those things, I think they are trash) which is not something I have done in years. Pretty standard stuff. Waterlogged names, dates, lots of references to deities and religious imagery. The plaque dedicated to the eponymous space shuttle disaster was neat, but it looks like someone had a go at it with a large rock.

We strolled over to "Kitty Kat" which takes but a few minutes. This provided a view of the rest of the route to Bear's Playground -- and oof, Obstruction Peak looked more prominent than I was hoping. At that point we realized we were both out of water. So of course, we made our first mistake of the trip and decided we were just going to try to bail before getting to Obstruction Peak (and I didn't bother to look at a topo despite having good cell service....and topo maps already saved on my phone). Now, we weren't entirely ignorant -- we were suspicious that we would get cliffed out and fully prepared to rappel if that was the case. In hindsight, we also could've easily returned to Cole's Couloir too, which is an easy descent.

Sure enough, though there are weaknesses on the southeast face of Columbia Pt. (good luck finding them from above), we got cliffed out just above the Spanish Creek basin.

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Should've used the map, in retrospect.

We found a dry gulley where the cliff looked short enough to get down in one rap. In a stroke of irony (is that the correct term?), Carlyn built an anchor using the two booty nuts we recovered from The Prow, so we were only out a length of cordelette and an old locking carabiner. However, it would've been quicker to summit Obstruction Peak and walk out than for us to try to deal with the logistics of getting down the cliff and the complex terrain above and below it.

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Well look at Mr. Bigshot-Too-Lazy-To-Glance-At-A-Topo-Forgot-To-Put-His-Hair-Up-So-It-Could-Get-Sucked-Into-The-ATC

We were highly entertained by an old piece of tat at the bottom of the rap -- someone had clearly made the same mistake as us in the past. Anyways, if you want a couple of offset nuts that have changed hands at least twice, they're waiting for you in some gulley on the west side of the slope between Columbia and Obstruction.

The rest of the walkout was uneventful and we got to camp before dark. We were both pretty worked, my shoulder hurt pretty bad and Carlyn was also hurting from their IT band issues, in addition to being drained from expending a ton of adrenaline on the climb. At this point I didn't know if I *really* wanted to attempt Crestone Peak, it looked intimidating as hell and I was just drained mentally and physically. I drank my summit beer in camp and succumbed to using my phone to check the weather and social media for awhile. Ten hours of sleep would do wonders.

Crestone Peak - N Buttress and NW Couloir Descent from Spanish Creek

We awoke on Friday at 6:30am, with our summit packs loaded and our bodies feeling fresh. My shoulder seemed to be fine and Carlyn's strain was much reduced, though we were still a little low on adrenaline reserves (this would come into play later). We had another great weather day, with less wind than Thursday. We headed up the rolling tundra to Bear's Playground, which is truly an astounding area, and got our first dose of sunlight about an hour after leaving camp.

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Bear's Playground in the morning. Views of Humboldt, Marble, Crestone Needle, and Crestone Peak.

A weak, cairned trail at the crest of the Playground provides access to the north side of Crestone Peak. Here was our plan:

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The longer red line was our crucial mistake at the top of the N Buttress route.

We had gotten a good view of the NW Couloir from Columbia the previous day and saw that it looked clear of ice, so we were planning on descending it and then traversing back over to Bear's Playground before it cliffs out. Unlike the day before, we didn't have any climbing gear with us, just approach shoes and helmets, so we had to be more intelligent with our routefinding.

After contouring around to the northern flanks of Crestone Peak, we scrambled up a prominent rock feature in a red gulley (not to be confused with the other large red gulleys bisecting the center of the peak). I had very little beta on this route, I just knew the real problems were at the very top and especially in regards to "NE Crestone" which is a highly sought-after subsummit. After yesterday's bout of technical climbing, we weren't worried, despite the route still looking intimidating even as we got close to it. It became pretty clear where the easiest route was, at least until the last few hundred feet of vert.

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My stab at N Buttress beta. We stuck to the climber's left in the obvious weaknesses that cut across the eastern side of the buttress. Most of that was 3rd class climbing with limited exposure, though there were a few airy moves. To the right definitely looked like more sustained Class 4, which I further confirmed when watching another group climb it via a telephoto lens.

We had heard this was one of the finest scrambles in the Crestones so it was a little disappointing to follow obvious weaknesses up the climber's left (east side) of the buttress and mostly be confined to unexposed, simple gulleys that zigzagged up this huge face, minus a few harder, more exposed moves here and there. We were within 200-300 feet of the NE Crestone summit and still hadn't done anything with sustained exposure or Class 4 movement, so I'm not sure the glowing reputation of the route is warranted unless you move climber's right much earlier and take a more directly vertical, steeper line, but it felt a little contrived to do that when the path of least resistance was obvious.

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Some ways up the buttress, just zigzagging the obvious ledges that have some short, more difficult moves between them.

Just as we got complacent, we were immediately slapped in the face with a highly exposed Class 4 pitch to reach the crest of the buttress. At the top of the route I realized I had some serious exposure fatigue and I was really not willing or prepared to deal with the terrain I found myself in. Ahead of us was what I thought was the false summit before NE Crestone.

This is where I made one of the dumbest mistakes of my mountaineering career -- I didn't want to bother with going over a tiny false summit with maximum exposure on both sides, and I remembered some sketchy beta about a bypass of sorts. Turns out the bump ahead of us *was* NE Crestone and its short low 5th class crux, and we were already on the false summit. I'm not exactly sure the details of our discussion, or what I saw, or how we decided on this, and why we committed to it, but I saw the world's most pathetic handrail/ledge going around the point and decided that was the bypass (and maybe it was, but I was under the assumption it was 4th class at worst) and we downclimbed to it.

And then everything was terrible. Two people on the summit of Crestone Peak watched us slowly traverse into more and more exposed terrain on thinner and thinner holds. I have no idea what they were thinking but I can imagine the sight of us traversing across the NE Crestone peak was one that was accompanied with some level of dread. I mean, in retrospect, look how simple it could've been. Up and over. Major exposure but it's all there. Blue line is the correct route, pink line is our route.

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Pink line: Idiot's Traverse. Blue line: Correct route.

ENHANCE:

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What the two climbers on Crestone Peak witnessed.

The already pathetic rail/ledge soon just turned into the idea of a rail/ledge. Kind of like sparkling water with a rail/ledge flavor -- you get the idea of a rail/ledge, but it's not actually really there. I looked up some trip reports and the beta on this "bypass" is ambiguous and it seems to assume it's a Class 4. It's really not. There were sections of straight up 5.5, requiring the use of thrilling climbing techniques such as foot swaps/matches on teeny tiny holds, awkward reaches on small features, and small toes / edging, with 800 feet of full on death exposure directly beneath your butthole. It was literally no different than the pitches of 5.5 we had done on The Prow the day before, with only a few sections of more prominent Class 4ish ledge to break up the not-quite-low 5th class traversing.

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You can see some ledgy Class 4 stuff with some hardy 5th class terrain in between. A partially-obscured Carlyn is just above the end of the pink line.

The real problem now was we had limited adrenaline from the day before (which is partly why we were in this mess), and this sucked us absolutely dry. We slowly moved over dizzying exposure (it felt like my heels were literally directly above the NW Couloir which was far below us) on tiny holds, testing each one meticulously, and despite attention to three points of contact, there was a real risk of falling if any of the holds broke. The Crestone conglomerate held true though -- there was a solid cobble where you needed one, a little edge in the substrate where you needed a foot, and slowly, slowly, methodically, with measured breathing, kicking and punching every life-affirming hold on that cursed face, not knowing if we were traversing into a dead end, we contoured around the peak and finally reached some easier terrain which provided access to the NW couloir.

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EXPOSURE. MAXIMUM FOCUS.

Now, don't get me wrong, this was a huge mistake and an unnecessary risk but not something that was beyond our experience level as boneheaded flatiron free soloers. It was dumb, and I feel dumb for doing it, but we were far enough in our comfort zone that we didn't consider climbing back out in reverse (which would've been easier), and I was committed -- not out of total compulsion and fear to get down -- but because I thought it might actually connect to the couloir at a "reasonable" grade (it did). The real dumb thing was that to "briefly" avoid a small pitch of exposed low 5th class terrain, we faced even more sustained exposure on more difficult terrain and didn't even hit the subpeak!

There's a trip report on a certain website with beta showing this exact bypass. The beta simply states "most folks opt to descending along this line." Do they? According to who? Apparently Brian C has done it -- I'd be interested in hearing his thoughts on the difficulty of the route (and it's quite possible we're also slightly not on the bypass). Either way, we definitely think there were some strings of 5.5 moves, I'm not trying to blow my ego up here, it is what it is and maybe if you were really careful you could mostly keep it to Class 4...we couldn't. Probably best to stick to the ridgeline. That's what most folks opt to do ;)

Anyways, we made it into the NW Couloir without consequence. We had been in a state of mind where time had no meaning, so I'm not really sure how long those shenanigans took. I distinctly remember a scene from the much-maligned cartoon "Rick and Morty" -- they go for "a quick 30 minute adventure, in and out" and the scene cuts to them arriving back at the spaceship, looking absolutely haggard, before descending into a fit of bawling of screaming about how f---ed up everything was that just happened. It really was an apt descriptor for how we felt when we got into the NW Couloir, especially because I knew I was only minutes away from finishing the 14ers after eight years. Hurdling my way up the loose Class 3 to the huge red saddle almost unleashed a volley of tears.

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Carlyn in the NW couloir, at the end of the bypass.

From the saddle, the rest of the route might as well have been a freight elevator. It was sunny, there was no wind, the terrain was easy and not that exposed, and we basically floated to the top of Crestone Peak. After eight years I was finally done with this stupid checklist, one that I had been putting off for the past few years as there was just much more fun things to do (Wham Ridge anyone? Skiing the Coinslot?) than running around on piles of rubble that just happen to be a little higher than the other piles of rubble around them. But I had put so much time and energy into doing this, and gotten so much out of it in how it shaped my life and interests over the past decade or so. Summitting was both emotional and somewhat empty, knowing that my priorities no longer really call for the completion of a peak checklist and I was mostly just standing on top of a neat summit that required some wacky hijinks and years of experience (that the 14ers, for their credit, did push upon me) to arrive upon.

21385_64
It's over! Or actually, it's just begun...

Whatever I was feeling or not feeling, I guess it's a lot cooler to be a 14er finisher than "some dude who did 56/58 of the 14ers but San Luis looked too boring." Importantly, I finished on my own terms, at my own pace, with a very capable partner on an obscure route that really put the true spirit of adventure...and mortality...into me. Summitting in this fashion -- considering the previous two days of activity -- did require a decent amount of experience that I gained through years of rock climbing, scrambling, ski mountaineering, backpacking, trail running, ice climbing, and ultrarunning. I got into all of those sports thanks to initial "bug" and buzz of the 14ers, starting with a snowy summit of Quandary Peak in October 2013, as a person who otherwise thought hiking was kind of boring and really only got exercise by resort skiing and bike commuting.

21385_65
What were we thinking? I could've chipped my nail polish!!!

We were alone for a bit and enjoyed the summit. I popped a flask of whiskey out of my backpack -- delicious. The views were a bit hazy thanks to some distant wildfire smoke. I screwed around with my camera and another party arrived at the summit, keeping to themselves. There was no big celebration, no whooping or hollering. I just sat on the rock, sipped on some whiskey, and Carlyn recorded a short celebratory video of me. Mostly, we looked across to NE Crestone and tried to pick out our exact line and figure out how we screwed it up so bad. All we could do was laugh about it. Pretty burly stuff.

I had fretted before the trip about descending the NW Couloir due to rockfall hazard (which definitely existed -- what a cleft!) but after getting good eyes on it, it was obvious that it was a pretty decent descent route. We left the summit after about 20 minutes and quickly progressed to the eastern most access point to the couloir (it's higher than the low point of the saddle, on the NE Crestone side). We descended class 3 terrain on the skiers right side (not directly down the red dirt, but on the cobbles to the side of it) and then made our way back to the fractured red stone on easy but very dirty Class 3 ledges. Yeah, I would not want to be in this couloir with anyone above me. We stayed very close to each other to minimize rockfall exposure.

21385_66
I may be done with the 14ers, but I AM NOT ABOVE A GOOD BUTT SCOOT!

We came across some fresh ice which gave the couloir a nice "facon and ice" kind of aesthetic...whatever that means.

21385_68
Justin Simoni warned me about this!

We knew that when the couloir takes a significant turn to skier's left that we needed to exit to skier's right, and that the exit was cairned. But about halfway down we saw a large cairn, which obviously marked the exit. Obviously. This spat us out on this:

21385_67
This was legitimately super fun, like scrambling the Second Flatiron.

We did a class 4 traverse across a huge slope of cobbles to another cairn, which led us through a choke to another cairned choke that just...totally cliffed out. Wtf? The cairn was literally at the edge of the void, and this was clearly not the exit from the couloir. We were thinking it may have provided a doable way to get up and down on exposed class 4 terrain next to the couloir, if it was filled with ice, which I guess makes sense, but this terrain was more consequential and exposed than the couloir, so back into the fridge we went... (That said, despite the false lead, we genuinely enjoyed scrambling across that terrain. The rock is just so amazing, we focused on our movement and how wonderful the sun felt.)

21385_69
Less steep than it looks, but still a bit of a tricky downclimb in places thanks to the ice.

We descended all the way to the big skier's left turn of the couloir, but not before passing several more cairns that seemed to be placed in increasingly more preposterous locations (I swear, one was on top of this giant spire next to the couloir that was guarded by a fifth class cliff -- someone's just showing off!). Finally, as we got to the big left turn, we came across a large cairn to our right next to some actually grassy terrain with a social trail. A line of cairns led us east across a ledge system with a few class 3 moves up and down here and there. Soon we were approaching the initial red gulley for the N Buttress route, with four climbers heading up it at the ripe afternoon hour! We chatted with them -- they had come from Willow Lake and were going to ascend the route, traverse to Crestone Needle, and go down to their car shuttle at the Cottonwood Creek trailhead, with one of their party finishing their 14er list with the Peak and the Needle! Huge, extravagant day -- major props, and cheers!

Carlyn and I descended into Bear's Playground on the social trail and got legitimately kind of drunk on the rest of the whiskey. We ambled back to camp in increasingly warmer temperatures, talking about incontinence, girls, big rocks, and the increasingly extravagant marmot mansions were were coming across (completely with tiny, marmot-sized trails to other dens and water sources). Real classy stuff. We got back to camp, packed up, and hustled out of there on tired legs, reaching the car at 6:30pm.

Overall, our jaunt to upper Spanish Creek and back, with all the summits, was about 13.5 miles and 6500 vertical feet, which really isn't that much for three days.

Some Thoughts on the 14ers

Here are a bunch of scattered thoughts on the 14ers.

First, Bill Middlebrook has provided such an excellent resource with this website. In all my multitude of hobbies, it is rare to find such a wonderful source of information as this. The community is great too -- particularly the friendly elite athletes like Justin Simoni. And they come down hard when they need to. Sometimes you need a harsh talking to...

The 14ers got me interesting in actually going outside. I think if I was already into ski mountaineering, trail running, and rock climbing, I would never bother slogging up and down the Collegiates (my partner Carlyn has zero interest in ever doing those). Instead, I started going up just for the views and solitude, doing it at weird seasons (oh, now I need an avalanche education -- oh, now I'm a backcountry skier), on harder terrain (oh, scrambling is fun, I guess I can practice rock movement at the gym -- oh, now I'm a climber), and doing it as fast as possible (oh, I guess I should practice doing long runs -- oh, I'm an ultrarunner now).

Some very close calls with lightning storms on a couple peaks, along with chasing me pow, gave me a passion for meteorology which is something I now do professionally.

I made so many friends, including on the mountain itself -- a solo snowboarder joined us on a ski ascent of Quandary one winter, and left his email on my windshield -- we've been good friends ever since then.

Doing this dumb checklist has touched my life in just about every way, and provided me a stepping stone for a rich array of experiences, memories, and skills. The things that the 14ers got me into almost kept me from finishing the list -- there are just so many cool ski descents, alpine climbs, races, backpacking loops, and lower elevation mountains that it was really hard to muster up the desire to "tick" a peak like San Luis.

My favorite 14er was probably Kit Carson, due to the North Ridge and the Prow and the density of what looks to be other awesome climbs on it. I love that knobby conglomerate rock, and the Willow Lake and Spanish Creek basins are truly beautiful. I've never been out there during mosquito season though...

Another favorite is the SW Ridge on Sneffels. Blue Lakes are spectacular and the route is interesting and gives you a good look at some very cool rock.

Closer to home, I have a soft spot for Torreys. It's so close, yet has so many cool lines (especially skiing). If I'm in a pinch I know I can always go up there and run to Kelso Ridge and suddenly find myself on some big terrain.

My summary of every 14er:

Elbert - Boring. Did it calendar winter. Thinking about mountain biking it...

Massive - I probably summited this, I hit like 5 of the subpeaks. Cooler than Elbert.

Harvard - Horn Fork basin is cool. I summitted this during the remnants of a tropical storm and it was completely socked in, visibility like 20ft. the entire time. My partner and I made really good pace, and another crazy pair of climbers arrived at the summit soon after us. Upon hearing our pace, they said I should try running a marathon. I hated running though, and marathons were far too long. A few months later, I completed my first marathon with a time of 4:20 and bib #69 (no lie). Not sure what happened in my brain there...

Blanca - Merely the destination of the Little Bear - Blanca traverse. My partner and I did the traverse car-to-car in a huge day, with Ellingwood Pt. That ridge was pretty legendary.

La Plata - Ellingwood Ridge sucks, just long and tedious with less scrambling and exposure than you'd think. Unless you like sidehilling or doing some really contrived nonsense. What a letdown.

Uncompahgre Peak - Well, my pictures are absolutely beautiful, and I have a picture of me at the summit. Unfortunately, one of my partners had some homemade edibles with them that I gladly scarfed down after summiting Wetterhorn. I guess they were strong, and I don't really remember Uncompahgre Peak at all, except for noticing a fox den above 13,000ft. That means I get to experience it all over again, right!?

Crestone Peak - Yeah it was pretty cool.

Mt. Lincoln - This was a bit of a thorn in the side as I had done Decalibron a number of times but had always gotten stormed off before getting to Lincoln. I finally got Lincoln, and then got immediately stormed off, one of the worst lightning storms I've been in.

Grays Peak - Ugh, that annoying bump that connects to Torreys.

Mt. Antero - All I remember is a ridiculous amount of massive bumblebees and dwarf sunflowers. Idyllic.

Torreys Peak - Torreys Peak is bae.

Castle Peak - Looks cool, kind of boring though. Good views. The glissade down to the lake from the Conundrum saddle was awesome though.

Quandary Peak - Quandary Peak is winter bae...though I guess not after the new permit system.

Mt. Evans - Biked up it in 2020 when the road was permaclosed, was truly a wonderful experience.

Longs Peak - Will get on the Diamond at some point, maybe cables...lots of alpine rock to explore. Did it as part of an Iron Gates / Meeker / Loft / Keyhole traverse, which was neat.

Mt. Wilson - Cool move guarding the summit. Had no idea how to descend (we did the traverse from El Diente) and got hella lost following some useless cairns for awhile in pretty consequential terrain.

Mt. Cameron - Haha, it thinks it's a mountain

Mt. Shavano - Skied the Angel from the summit on a fine June day. Super cool.

Mt. Princeton - Terrible

Mt. Belford - Terrible

Crestone Needle - Did Ellingwood Arete, it was pretty cool but the best climbing is only the last few hundred feet. Did most of the traverse to the Peak but got explosive diarrhea, we bailed and somehow got down without cliffing out.

Mt. Yale - Terrible

Mt. Bross - Absolutely wonderful, incredible mountain with no access issues. One time I skied Dolly Varden gulch solo on Thanksgiving, and I got so excited to switch into downhill mode that I got to the bottom and went to grab my backpack to get a picture of my line, and realized I had no backpack on. I squinted and saw a tiny dot on the ridge 1500ft. above me with my phone, keys, water, skins, etc. No bootpacking pace quite like being desperate and also late for Thanksgiving dinner.

Kit Carson Peak - North Ridge though. Ungh.

El Diente Peak - The N Slopes in summer is actually a death trap, I can't believe I didn't see anyone die in it. I remember throwing myself onto a big rolling stone and yelling for someone to come help me so I could place it somewhere it wouldn't roll onto the dozen of climbers below. N Buttress was much better. The traverse is great.

Maroon Peak - An annoying bump in the way of the awesome Bells Traverse, which is one of my favorite routes of all time and not nearly as sketchy as advertised. We did it in 90 minutes, while a pair of French climbers followed and smoked a few cigarettes before every crux, haha.

Tabeguache Peak - An annoying detour from Shavano

Mt. Oxford - Terrible

Mt. Sneffels - Did this in calendar winter once on a terrible snow year. We hotboxed my four season tent and I almost had to cut my way out of it. I can just imagine SAR searching for two overdue climbers, coming across our tent, and unzipping it, with a dense cloud of smoke immediately pouring out of the opening and two very relaxed and very asphyxiated climbers splayed out. For better or worse, I no longer have that proclivity. Also some gem of a human with a snowmobile shaved off a good amount of our approach!

Mt. Democrat - The coolest of the Decalibron bunch. I want to ski the north face.

Capitol Peak - Fun mountain, knife edge isn't that hard, partner had a scary experience on the upper reaches of the peak after an entire ledge broke on her and she fell straight down to another ledge, with a clean landing.

Pikes Peak - I'd like to do the marathon some day.

Snowmass Mountain - Tried to ski this like 3 times, but got denied due to avalanche danger or weather. Finally, in 2020, got onto the ridge with skis, but was suffering from altitude sickness really badly (rare for me) and didn't feel well enough to get across the technical terrain to the true summit. I knocked my sunglasses off a cliff and my partner bravely retrieved them. Who cares though -- it was one of the most amazing skiing experiences of my life. We put down turns on beautiful corn for like an hour! Then came back a month or two later to actually summit on the S ridge.

Windom Peak - I liked the big rectangular blocks at the top, I guess.

Mt. Eolus - We were goofin' and tried to stay on the ridge the whole time, which was difficult and exposed Class 4. Some folks tried to follow us and got really scared, and were not pleased when we told them that the easier standard route was over the other way.

Challenger Point - Ball bearings on slabs! What a cool and enjoyable concept, especially walking downhill!

Mt. Columbia - Did it before the new CFI trail and it really did suck.

Missouri Mountain - Lame, with a weirdly exposed section near the top that had completely shut down a climbing party we passed.

Humboldt Peak - Great views.

Mt. Bierstadt - For when you want to trail run at 14,000ft. after work...

Conundrum Peak - The couloir is on the shortlist to ski.

Sunlight Peak - I'll be honest, the block at the top scared me. I just couldn't commit to the friction slab that day. I did a spread eagle on the top of the summit block and then begged for a spot to get back down, not my finest moment.

Handies Peak - In and out, quick 30 minute adventure.

Culebra Peak - Sucked and was expensive. Also really short, like less than two hours to summit. I hope you like cow pastures.

Mt. Lindsey - Lame, but the approach has a great view of Blanca.

Ellingwood Point - I guess that's a thing that I had to summit in order to complete this list. Good show.

North Eolus - Probably the most inconsequential bump on the whole list. It's like a 10 minute detour or less. Pretty cool rock though!

Little Bear - Did the NW face to avoid rockfall shenanigans in the hourglass. Steep but 4th class. Heard a strange buzzing sound that suddenly got louder -- a rock blasted by my head by a couple feet moving at a hundred miles per hour -- it was knocked off by people starting the traverse.

Mt. Sherman - Someone needs to drive an excavator up there and put it out of its misery.

Redcloud Peak - Desperately ran to and from this one with deteriorating weather because I didn't want to have to come back to this area ever again.

Pyramid Peak - Cool mountain, fun climb.

Wilson Peak - Last little bit is fun!

Wetterhorn Peak - Nice compact bit of fun. Our climbing party backpacked in one of those massive 12 person tents that you can stand up in. Party tent. It leaked really badly when it rained for a couple days straight, our friend who we convinced to not bring their own tent and hang out in the party tent was less than thrilled.

San Luis Peak - Nice trail run, underrated.

North Maroon Peak - After completing the traverse, a party on the summit of North Maroon gave us some beer and passed around a joint. Then we followed them down the correct way as a goat tried its hardest to knock as many rocks down on us as possible. Good stuff!

Mt. of the Holy Cross - Halo Ridge was pretty scenic.

Huron Peak - Lulu Gulch was a nice way to do it. Summit was ridiculously crowded, I think the secret is out.

Sunshine Peak - Terrible. On the last set of switchbacks, someone was blaring Linking Park / Evanescence / that sort of crap out of a portable speaker, and I could not move fast enough to put enough switchbacks between me and him.




Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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Comments or Questions
Wentzl
User
NE Crestone
09/18/2021 20:26
I made the same mistake on NE Crestone and it was the most sketched out I have been on any 14er by far. Nice write up and thanks for the occasional weather forecast.


Corey17
User
Congrats
09/19/2021 08:29
Congrats on finishing!! What an excellent writeup for a more obscure route.

My party was the group of 4 you met at the base of the N Buttress, so it was fun to see this report. I think we ended up on some solid class 4 up the Buttress by taking some climbers right options - we were definitely looking for fun scrambles rather than easiest way. I'm not entirely sure our route though - I couldn't draw it out!

Follow up on your cotton tee and ball cap guy- he was a total badass! We met him camping at Willow Lake. He had somehow gotten there after summitting KC but not Challenger, and wanted to go up Challenger that morning. He described getting off route and doing some super sketchy stuff on his way down KC - but he sure as heck sent it. I don't think he descended the N Ridge, so I'm really at a loss to how he got where he did.

Congrats again, and it was nice to meet you!


daway8
User
Congrats!
09/19/2021 09:09
Nice way to finish in style (and glad you lived to tell the tale...)


yaktoleft13
User
Nice work!
09/19/2021 09:52
That is a phenomenal weekend to wrap up the 14ers! Great work on the prow and all 58!


Jorts
User
YEEEEWWWW!!
09/20/2021 10:46
Meticulous write up and forthright summary of each 14er. Congrats on knocking all of them off.


justiner
User
Chapeau
09/20/2021 13:02
Nice work you too. I ran into your partner at the sports recycler today, which reminded me to check out your TR. Amazing job with the trip as well as the report. Hope to see more of that, and maybe bump into both of you out there! Chapeau!


JChitwood
User
Lots of Fun
09/23/2021 23:02
Fantastic trip report and great14ers summary. Would have to agree on almost all of them. Way to get it done.


tygr
Much Gratitude
09/25/2021 08:34
As someone who is slowly climbing all 14ers, I really appreciate your list and comments. I also really appreciate the details and pictures you put into your report. I'm planning to do the Crestone Traverse next year (Labor Day) and will come back to this report again and again. Thank you!



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