Peak(s):  Crestone Peak  -  14,299 feet
Date Posted:  05/15/2022
Date Climbed:   04/30/2022
Author:  Hjelmstadlt
 Crestone Peak - West Face FA Part 2: Fish in a Barrel   

Back in 2021 my climbing partner and I made the first ascent of the West Face of Crestone Peak, via the couloir now known as the "Fish" and the Peaks North Ridge. I knew the moment we had left that day that I had to go back and after climbing the surprisingly solid rock on the north ridge I knew a route straight up the west face was possible, but I knew to get the route done in a day the approach had to be made from the bottom, rather than up and over the southern shoulder of the basin, like last time. So after the notorious mosquito season, and the torrential monsoons the Sangres received that fall, I began my scouting of the creek drainage of the North Fork of Cottonwood Creek.

At first it was a lot of aimless wandering around in the forest looking for weakness in the steep hill sides and hidden cliff bands in order to find the easiest way to the lower angle terrain above. After about five or so trips up there I was confident I had found the easiest route through and moved onto moving or cutting old downed trees to clear a corridor pushing further up into the drainage. Winter had come at this point, and work slowed considerably as the days grew shorter and snow slowly covered the ground, I had only made it a little less than half a mile at this point and my confidence in this approach was quickly waining. Fast forward to January and the massive warm spell that hit the State gave me a window to go back up and continue to work, as much of the snow had melted away and it was warm enough to be up high in the mountains for most of the day. I only had a good two day window, so I opted to focus more on getting up into the basin rather than continuing to clear the path from where I had stopped in December. Luckily much of what I had cleared was free of snow and relatively quick to get through, but the last mile up to treeline was a battle. The route itself was a straight forward shallow ridge that paralleled the creek and although the amount of downed trees gradually began to lessen, the sizes grew larger as I was forced closer and closer to the creek bottom. The last push out of the trees took me into a narrow gulley filled with snow, which made progress terribly slow, but I knew that if it were snow free, passage would be much easier. Finally, after a couple hours my efforts had paid off and for the first time I saw Crestone Peak from the bottom of the basin.

I ventured back up into the basin from my corridor paralleling the North Fork three more times in the early spring, to continue monitoring the West face for any new Ice growth and to simply stare at it and dream of climbing it once it warmed up. At this point I had my approach into the basin from the trailhead to about 3 hours on foot, skis and unfortunately on snowshoes, so I knew my work was worth while, shaving over 2 hours off our time into the basin from last year. After sharing the knowledge of all of my work over the winter with my climbing partner Curt, he was elated to hear we had a direct approach to the west face and our gears began to turn. An early spring attempt didn't seem ideal, as snowy/icy conditions may make some of the wall difficult to climb, but each time we discussed making big plans for the spring climbing season, the idea of the west face kept creeping in.

The West face in March 2022
The West Face in April 2022

Once April hit, the snow stopped, and the wind started, stripping every bit of soft fluffy skiable snow out of the Sangres and quickly brought a stop to any ski mountaineering plans I had in the works for the spring season. This meant an early start to alpine climbing season and the hopes of a melted out and dry West face were no longer a far fetched idea. The final push over the edge to go climb it was our friend and journalist Maddy Ahlborn, she had been working on an article about alpinists and Ice Climbers in the San Luis Valley and caught wind of our ambitions, she was hesitant to join due to her lack of experience, but Curt and I saw an opportunity to get her out to do some field photography and reporting for her article.

The day we picked was one that had to work well for all of us, and when that is the case you are usually stuck at the whim of the weather that day, which worried me because the wind had consistently been blowing at 20-30 mph every day the weeks in Alamosa (40-50 mph in the Crestones).The thought of trad climbing at 13,000 ft with wind that strong and cold was terrifying to me, but fortunate for us as the day approached the weather improved and the wind speed slowly dropped to a comfortable 15 mph. We were all amazed, thinking that the forecast was a fluke, that when the day arrived the weather was bluebird gorgeous out. We rolled up to the Trailhead at 6:15 and the early dawn air was already 40 degrees. Still, with the slightest bit of disbelief of the forecast, I still packed my puffy, and Curt brought his emergency bivy. We finished the rest of our packing and set off down the trail at 6:30, anxious for the day ahead.

The first few miles of the approach felt like muscle memory to me and having done this hike so many times, I simply tuned it all out - the small talk, the temperature, the mileage, the snack breaks, everything. I suddenly came back too, when we were tanking up on water to bring with us for the climb and the first bit of direct sunlight was kissing the ridge tops of Crestone Peak. We were there and our objective, the west face, was slowly rolling into the daylight, with the details of its dry exposed rock face coming into view. It was hard to believe that we were about to be on it, actually climbing it, touching rock that no-one had ever touched before. We scoped it out with the monocular for a few minutes and discussed our potential line through the intricate and difficult to follow crack systems, that barely suggested that protection would not be a problem. As we got closer, the upper headwall slowly began to shrink into the distance as our first obstacle of the lower headwall towered over us. We arrived at our intended first pitch, roped up, and began our endeavor.

Approaching the wall
Curt scoping out the route

It was almost noon when we started the climb. Curt lead the first pitch, and after reaching him at the belay we were both in agreement that what we were climbing was 5.8, and again for the second pitch, super great 5.8 climbing. Aside from a collection of a few obvious loose blocks the rock was incredibly solid and there were always jugs when we needed them. The angle eased after about 4 100ft pitches and we were able to do some short roping to get up to the snow ramp splitting the face. From here, we walked across and snow and set up another belay to start the main headwall, it was a little past 3:00pm at this point. Curt and I both expressed our concern with the time, but the weather was surprisingly good and there was no sign of it getting worse, so we decided to press on.

The first belay of the first pitch
Starting up pitch 2

The main headwall went faster than we expected, most pitches were on the easier side, with only a 5.8 move here and there, and all but a few belays were on natural benches and ledges. The best pitch of the whole upper headwall was a chimney feature about 3 pitches from the top. Though mostly stemming, the chimney slowly widened near the top, at which point we climbed out via a couple steep and awkward 5.8 moves on its left side - the agreed upon crux of the whole route. From here, our summit was in view and it finally became apparent that we were going to get this done. I lead the last few pitches to the summit block, then only a few hundred feet of short roping on low angle slabs, and we finally topped out. It was 7:00pm.

Curt on Lead
The final pitch
The Summit!!!
Maddy, Curt, and I all stoked on our summit!

Celebrations were short, as the sun dipped behind some clouds on the horizon, and we all felt the urgency to start, making our way down. We only had about 2 hours left of daylight to get off the summit and back to our gear at the bottom of the west face. We down climbed off the north ridge towards a massive horn that we knew we could sling and then rappel off of. We had two 40m ropes that got us halfway down, before putting in a few pitons for an anchor to make our second rappel into the saddle at the top of the Fish Couloir. If we had a full 70m and a tagline we would have easily made it with one rappel. Once in the couloir, we rambled down the slushy mashed potato snow and got to the base of the upper headwall right around dark. The decent from here was unknown to us, and doing it in the dark provided us with a little more challenge than we were hoping, as we knew near the bottom the snow ramp would end and we would have to pick our way down though a collection of cliffs on the climbers right side of the wall. As we got closer to the bottom we were pushed into a constriction between two massive boulders that was filled with ice and we had to use our ice axes to down climb through it to the snow field below. Once there, we had to traverse along the base of the wall, back to our packs, through another few ice ramps and slippery rock. We reached our packs just after 9:00pm.

After that, the night was kind of a blur, postholing down through the rotten snow to treeline, wandering through the forest searching for our faint trail up the North Fork of Cottonwood Creek, and around midnight we hit the trail again thankful we had a clear line back to the car. Although we were all exhausted, once we got moving down the trail, our spirits were high as we discussed how successful the day was and how excited we all were to go to sleep. We arrived back at the car at 1:30am, took off our boots, loaded up the car and headed back home. At 19 hours, this was the longest day I had ever done in the Sangres, but it ended up also being one of the nicest.

During our hike out, Curt and I were discussing the route, specific pitches, notable moves, and such, when we both came to the conclusion that this was some of the finest Crestone Conglomerate we had ever climbed on, and we were so amazed of the ease it took to find a line straight up the face. The route was so obvious, and the climbing was so good that we could almost say it was like "shooting fish in a barrel."

Route Topo

Fish in a Barrel: 5.8, 1500ft, Grade IV

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

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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Comments or Questions
Awesome report
05/17/2022 14:44
Congrats on the FA!

05/19/2022 14:51
Well done on the FA. Crestone Conglomerate makes it great

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