Peak(s):  Crestone Peak  -  14,299 feet
Date Posted:  05/15/2022
Date Climbed:   05/16/2021
Author:  Hjelmstadlt
 Crestone Peak - West Face FA: Fish and Chips   

The Crestones are a prominent feature of the Sangre de Cristo mountains that, for most of the San Luis Valley community, dominates the eastern skyline. As seen from the Valley Floor, the West face of Crestone Peak, along with Challenger Points west face, consists of striking and jagged walls of the famed Crestone Conglomerate that have their own unique and imposing character compared to the rest of the Sangres. Living and climbing in the San Luis Valley for nearly 10 years, and after climbing all of the already established routes, my time and motivation that past few years has shifted to the possibility of new routes on these less traveled and stoic faces. Back in 2020, when staying in ones own backyard became a necessity, the Western basin of Crestone Peak, a small side drainage of Cottonwood Creek, began to attract my attention, as I had never been up there and I was enamored with the concept of getting up there to see Crestone Peaks gorgeous West face from it's base. Having summited Crestone Peak a dozen or so times in the past, the view to the West made it apparent that what lay below was something that couldn't be climbed safely without the aid of a rope. Looking down over the precipice the bottom of the wall was not visible and only the boulder fields thousands of feet down the basin could be seen as small figures dotting the ground.

View of the Crestones from directly west on HW 17
Outline of the "fish" for reference

During the winter of 2021, on a crystal clear day in March, I was driving up Highway 17 staring towards the Crestones and from the proper angle (from Alamosa to about Hooper) the snow fields and the couloir splitting the west face resembled a fish or a backwards "ichthys", which I thought was peculiar, but then it dawned on me. Why not go climb the face in spring when the consolidated snow provides a more simple route and when the freeze thaw cycle layers the wall with intricate veins of Ice that allowed access to less steep terrain. The only remaining problem was how to find a way into the basin. I had spoken to my climbing partner, Curt, that spring about the possibility of doing this snow and Ice climb I had dreamed up in march, and his hesitation was the same as mine - bushwhacking up into the basin seemed hellish and impossible, but if there was another way, he was in. Looking on a map it seemed feasible to climb up and over the shoulder of the ridge between the main cottonwood drainage and the west basin. It meant an extra 1300ft of climbing and the task of finding a safe descent off the ridge in unknown terrain, but knowing what we do about bushwhacking in the Sangres, it seemed like the better option. So that was it, there was a plan, an objective, and somehow I roped my climbing partner into trying to get it done with me. We had set the date for the 3rd weekend in May, as that was most often a good time for stable and safe conditions up high in the alpine.

Red: ideal route up, goes through old burn scar, Green: intended route/path of least resistance, Blue: actual route

The night before arrived and Curt had opted to hike up into the Cottonwood drainage that evening to bivy, in order to save his energy for the main objective tomorrow. I, who decided to sleep in my van at the TH, wanted to get a good night sleep and didn't mind the alpine start to meet him. The morning arrived and as I woke at 3:00 am, my worst nightmare had come true, it was raining outside, and hard. The anxiety of hiking in the rain wore on me as I got ready, but too much had already been set in motion to back down. And so, with much internal protest, I began my hike in the rain to go meet Curt at his most likely very cold and wet bivy site. We had met up approximately three hours later, both very cold and damp, and began our approach to the point where we would start our climb up an over the ridge. The morning storm had cleared and the rising sun was finally beaming on our shoulders as we climbed steeply out of the valley into unknown terrain. As the ridge line got ever closer, my mind began to race as I tried to imagine the view that was about to come upon me, but cresting the ridge and looking into the west basin was an image I couldn't imagine and one I will never forget. The West Face of Crestone Peak was directly in front of us and the scale of what we had left to do that day looked us straight in the face.

The Hike over the ridge.
The West Face and Fish Couloir Visible from our high point on the ridge.

Directly below us was a cliff, one that we definitely could not down climb, and further up canyon the cliffs only seemed to get more steep and taller, so our only option was to wander down the ridge to look for a weakness in the cliffs to get down into the basin. After a few failed attempts we settled for a 30 to 40 ft ramp of snow/ice that we had to down climb, probably the most difficult, and dangerous, thing we did the whole day. Once into the basin, the walk up to the base was a good change of pace and our focus could now turn to the West face as its features grew larger and more detailed the closer we came. Veins of Ice were becoming more obvious, and a continuous line through the first head wall to the couloir seemed possible. We finally arrived at the base of the wall, where we could clearly see our first pitch of beautiful blue ice and it was time to gear up and start the climb.

Great snow on the approach

After about 3 pitches of ice climbing, with a move here and there on rock, the angle began to ease and we climbed through the snow and rock to the horizontal snow ramp that split the face more or less in half. From there, it was a long slog up the couloir to the saddle where we were greeted with a steep exposed ridge guarding the summit only about 500 ft above. It was getting late in the day, but the weather was holding for us and we knew getting to the summit meant an easier descent down the main Cottonwood drainage. So Curt racked up with what little rock gear we brought and began the exposed moves up the ridge, leading in his ice boots, up what we later decided to be 5.9 climbing. Luckily it was only the first couple moves, and as we climbed further to the summit the angle eased and the last 100ft was some of the best 4th class ridge scrambling I'd ever done.

Curt leading the Ice flows on the lower headwall
Looking up the Couloir to the saddle
North Summit ridge
Leading the final 5.9 rock pitch.

The summit was fairly short lived, we were tired, hungry, and the altitude had definitely been wearing on me, so we started our decent into the red gulley and glissaded or more so wallowed our way down the south facing mash potato snow back to the trail. The rest of the day was quite a blur, as we attempted to race the daylight back to the car, but the rotten bottomless slush kept us moving very slowly and we had to hike by headlamp down the rest of the way. I had opted to hike ahead to get down to my car while Curt packed up his bivy camp, so when he arrived at the trailhead we briefly celebrated and went on our own ways.

After bouncing names for the route off each other most of the day, we never quite settled on something we both liked, but after a few days of reflection, we had decided the name "Fish and Chips" seemed fitting. Simple yet tasteful, straight forward yet difficult to do well. Goes well with a cold beer afterward.

The Route: "Fish and Chips" 5.9, AI3, 1,500ft, Grade III

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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Comments or Questions
Impressive Routes!
05/18/2022 13:25
Congrats on both routes on the west side of Crestone. I really enjoyed reading about these undertakings!

05/18/2022 19:30
nice work on both routes

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