Peak(s):  Crestone Needle  -  14,196 feet
Date Posted:  09/09/2009
Modified:  07/18/2016
Date Climbed:   09/06/2009
Author:  KeithK
 Trial, Tribulation and Achievement   

Crestone Needle (14,197')
September 06, 2009
South Face
Elevation Gain: 3,300'
Round Trip: 6 miles
Guide: KirkT
Descent Conversation: Kevin8020

"It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves." - Sir Edmund Hillary

Labor Day weekend: the traditional "last weekend of summer". I've been considering this last long weekend for many weeks, fully intending to make the absolute most of it. I was firmly convinced that the Wilson Group would be the destination, a rousing trifecta to put a cap on what has been an incredibly fulfilling, satisfying and borderline triumphant summer climbing season. Unfortunately, circumstance would dictate otherwise, as a deteriorating weather forecast discouraged a seven hour drive, coupled with a hefty chunk of monetary obligation. Or maybe I just didn't feel up to another marathon weekend, after the Sangre blitzkrieg of a week ago. A single peak would allow for some down time at home, an alluring concept to be sure. With options in the Elks, I was ready to point the truck due west, except for a pulling, tugging sensation that would just not release me from its grasp. There was unfinished business to the south, and the more I considered it, the more I needed to stake the proverbial claim to one last peak in the Sangre de Cristo range for 2009, the mighty and mystical Crestone Needle.

Kirk knocked on my door at 2 a.m. sharp, ready for the three-plus hour drive to South Colony Lakes. It was a rough morning for me, and I just did not feel great. Not that I ever feel great at two o'clock in the morning. Driving through the wee hours of the morning, we were on the dirt of Colfax Lane in short order, and I somehow managed to doze most if not all the way to the trailhead. It was nice to be a passenger for a change. The road was damp from overnight precipitation, and I wondered what we might be in for. Rumor had it that snow had fallen early in the weekend, as well. The chill of the morning set in quickly, and I added a layer before leaving the parking lot, a sure sign that summer is waning in the high country. We chose to use the pack trail directly from the "lower" four wheel drive lot, as my GPS track of a week before clearly indicated that it would be a shorter approach than the access road that is typically chosen. And we were right, arriving on the trail to Broken Hand Pass in about fifty minutes, at least ten minutes faster than the road the previous week.

Long exposure shot of the moon sharing the sky with Crestone Needle...

Within minutes, alpenglow soaks the fabled mountain...

We began the now familiar hike up to Broken Hand Pass, the trail consuming just as much energy as it did exactly one week before. I wasn't looking forward to climbing up to the pass, for the third time this summer, and just wanted to get the deed over with. With the moisture, I would hazard to say that the normally loose and slippery trail below the crux was actually better, almost tacky and sticky, not the mud that I was expecting. It was still a grunt. Kirk and I played leap frog with Michael and Carol, also aiming for the Needle. It was nice to have some trail chatter, making the rocks go by quickly. This would be Michael's eighth ascent, and Carol's second, proving that one does not "finish" the Fourteeners, they simply climb them all at least once. Glancing to the north, the white streaked Obstruction Peak showed obvious signs of the previous evening's storm, and yet another indicator that the glory of summer was beginning to dwindle into the demise that is fall. I sighed again with this realization.

September snow on Obstruction Peak...

Industrious pika were very evident, and bold, as this little guy nearly ran over my foot...

Looking down on the crux to Broken Hand Pass...

Above the crux, Kirk, Michael and Carol approach the windy pass...

Arriving at the pass, it was clear that Kirk was not in the mood to stop and absorb the freezing wind. It wasn't a gale, but definitely that crisp, biting wind that comes along at the end of summer in the mountains. We continued along the route, passing through the first two ribs on the ridge, then following the good trail towards the day's goal, one of the most intimidating mountains I've seen. Reminiscent of Pyramid Peak, in a way, I would draw comparisons with that spectre of my summer throughout the day. Both steep, exposed, and draining. My confidence was at war with my nerves, and I wasn't feeling great in general, either. I guess it was "one of those days".

Kirk waits at the first of the two rib crossings en route from Broken Hand Pass...

Confrontation awaits...

I was taken by surprise as I crested the last short rib along the ridge, only to find a bit of an exposed class three down climb onto a block below. This move actually caught my attention, and had me a bit shaky for a minute. I was not mentally prepared for this day, I concluded. Clumsily I jumped across from cliff to rock, and scrambled down to the saddle below. We would take one last quick break before the work was to begin, months of anticipation culminating in the brief few hours of exploring the Crestone Needle. It was exciting and unsettling all at once, each downward step towards the entrance to the east gully pulling me closer to the brink of trepidation. I knew this feeling from an earlier time in the summer, and was assured that I could beat it. Let's get after it!

Gazing down upon the east gully, climbers can be seen lower left...

The trail drops a few dozen feet before reaching the neck bending gully that the route follows for the first portion of the climb. A steady stream of water ran down the middle, remnants of the previous day's rains. This would add to the challenge, as there are places where avoiding the running water was difficult. Solid rock waits above, and Kirk led me up the first taste of class three conglomerate knob scrambling that makes this mountain so renowned. It is immediately steep, which makes for a productive and tiring ascent. At times we would just walk up the knobs and protrusions, until steeper walls forced the use of hands and demanded greater concentration. The climbing was fun, though, even for the cool, dim day, where the sun simply could not defeat the swirling, thick clouds. The potential for accidents on this mountain is readily apparent, as the terrain is confusing and abstract, almost featureless in a way. It would be very easy to become disoriented in poor conditions. Fortunately, we did not have to fight visibility, and could clearly see from cairn to cairn, working up, along and over the obstacles of the lower east gully. Peering ahead, I could see climbers crossing over the impending dihedral, on their way to the west gully crossover. Known to be the crux of the route, I couldn't help but feel some anxiety about what was to come. Curiosity and fear shared the stage for these next few minutes.

Kirk prepares to climb...

Looking back up at the ridge, an important sight to remember later...

Trying to stay on dry rock...

The dihedral begins to form as we approach the dreaded crossover...

We were fortunate to meet the first climbers of the day coming back down, as they would be able to show us the basic mechanics of crossing the gap. The first less than trivial detail would be getting into the alcove below the dihedral, a small bench above the steep and smooth run out of the gully. A fall here would most certainly entail pain, and probably misery. Kirk even scouted above for an alternative, but did not find anything to his liking. We watched a solo climber make the move, stretching awkwardly onto one small, smooth appearing step while searching for any sort of hand hold above. There aren't many options. With one decisive move, he stepped across, landing next to me and clear of the objective hazard. A couple would follow, clearing the way for Kirk and I to pass our own test. I went first, taking a moment to compose myself for the task. One tiny point of a rock sticks out of the cliff above, and this is the only place of use for the right hand. Placing my right foot on the only practical step, I built up my courage and pushed off with my left leg; swinging it over to the obvious landing spot and pulling my right foot alongside it. Phew! I was glad to be past that thing. Kirk finally monkeyed his way over, and we could begin to climb the steep line up to the rib, aiming for the well placed cairn perched high above. Another class four move is necessary here, and once again the run out is unfriendly. Holds are plentiful, however, and this was an easy obstacle to overcome. Under the watchful eye of a young bighorn sheep perched on the other side of the gully, the crossing between the two ribs and down into the west gully proper presented one more dose of exposure, a sort of knobby side-hill descending traverse. I could feel the air tugging at my left shoulder, but caught my breath, clung to each step and safely dropped into the gully.

Kirk eyes the crossover as a climber descends the rib...

A healthy move to gain the rib...

Crossing between ribs, the cairn marks the entrance to the west gully...

The dizzying look down into the west gully...

Kirk traverses into the gully...

I was surprised at how narrow the west gully actually is, but also happy to see that the route was very straight forward. You simply climb up the middle of the thing, without getting too wet if possible. At one point, it widens out and it's possible to veer to the right in the direction of the east gully, but the terrain is looser and there is no good reason to do so. We chose the solid route straight up, simple climbing, at times quite steep, and at other times just a matter of walking up the incredible rock. I can see why so many call this mountain their favorite Fourteener. I think with better weather, I would have felt much the same, but on this day, I was happy to keep my feet under me, and that intense concentration and sustained focus might have detracted from any euphoria I could have felt under bright sunshine. It also didn't help that I was still battling, not feeling perfect, in likely calorie deficit. As the summit grew closer, however, I definitely felt a surge of excitement and confidence, and knew that I was about to achieve something very important to me.

The watcher of the west gully...

A representation of the lower west gully, straight forward knob climbing...

Things widen above; staying left keeps you on solid rock...

Grunting my way up, up, up...

Topping out on the ridge, with the summit party just a short scramble away...

Shrouded completely in cloud for most of our stay, the summit was still alive with triumph, as a group of three, including a 1st 14er ascent, and one solo climber waited with Kirk to welcome me to the top of the Crestone Needle. I was feeling better now, as adrenaline, relief, elation and realization all converged to reinforce the day's accomplishment. I stood on my 39th Fourteener summit, and more importantly on a very personal level, my 20th of the summer, a goal I set in January, and began in June. Free from injury and feeling stronger with each and every climb, I couldn't have dreamed of a better year, and it's not over yet. On this summit, I relished the feeling of achievement more than any other I've been on, except for maybe my first, Mt. Bierstadt well over two years ago. This is why I climb, with or without the dramatic views that are normally enjoyed from this vantage, to be in the moment, enjoying the freedom of being so close to the sky, and so far away from the grind.

Essentially the only view to be had from 14,197'...

Kirk and I with the Peak behind us. Really. It is. Somewhere.

The solo climber greeted me by saying "Hey, thanks for the trip report on KC/Challenger", and I immediately knew that it was Kevin8020, whom I had exchanged PM's with earlier in the week. It was great to meet yet another denizen of, and we chatted about that amazing route across the Bear's Playground as we rested, ate and drank. It was chilly on the summit, the wind stiff at times, but free of moisture, an observation I was most thankful for. With some effort, we all carried ourselves to our feet and began the journey down, with Kirk leading us across the ridge and into the west gully. It was confusing, with cairns farther out on the ridge for some unknown reason, and once again I thought about the potential for disaster on this mountain. It is worth emphasizing that studying the terrain on the way up is a best practice on most peaks, but especially this one. Everything looks so similar.

Beginning the descent from the summit ridge...

Plentiful opportunities to tear the seat of your pants...

One at a time...

Our conga line made its way down the gully, taking care to not knock rocks onto one another. It is solid climbing, but there are still plenty of loose stones laying around, just waiting to be relocated. The down climb was slow and deliberate, yet seemed to go by quickly enough as we neared the exit point, and the spicy crossover to the east. Our spectator from earlier had invited a friend, and we were greeted and guided along the route by a very helpful bighorn. She certainly did not seem to fear us, if anything she was ambivalent to our presence. One by one the group climbed out of the gully, ready to tackle the steep down climb and subsequent test of gravity. Kirk decided that it wasn't that hard, and just jumped over to the ledge, while I took a moment to construct a plan of attack, jumping not being my favorite approach. Instead, I reversed the same moves that got me over here in the first place, and power stepped to safety. My feeling of relief was tangible as the others followed.

Psst, over here, it's this way...

Hugging the wall with plenty of air over there...

Our fearless guide(s)...

The class three scramble continued for another fifteen minutes or more, as we accidentally exited the gully too high, and had to retrace steps and resume down climbing the steep conglomerate. Negotiating one last interesting section near the bottom, the actual exit cairn greeted me, and I was excited to see the short climb up and onto the ridge, the one with the trail that lead back to the truck. The clouds were staying higher, just enough to marvel at the view of Lower South Colony Lake to the east, and Cottonwood Lake directly below. The San Luis Valley glowed in the sunlight off in the distance. What a spectacular place.

Leaving the climbing behind...

One marmot, two marmots, three marmots... we'll just call this Marmot Rock!

Cottonwood Lake draining west into the San Luis Valley...

Crossing the last rib before the pass, I yelled at Kirk "What a great day!!!" With the familiar aches and pains of the descent, we plodded down the trail, bidding good bye to the group of three as they slowed to a break on Broken Hand Pass, Kevin and I chatting about this and that, just passing the time. Descending from Broken Hand for the third time this summer, I was looking forward to taking those final steps away from it, having had my fill of this particular route. Pika chattered and skittered around the trail, working hard on their winter homes, as we marched on towards the lakes. We wished Kevin good luck, and continued onto the pack trail, bound for the simple pleasure of sandals waiting within the truck. Sore feet and knees fought for attention, but I chose to marvel at the surroundings for a last few moments. With the road closure coming next month, who knows when I'll be back to this magical place? It felt good to know that I will be back without anything resembling a list, just there to savor the splendor of the area. I think it's imperative to remember the importance of why I enjoy this hobby so much, even when it seems painful or inconvenient. Nothing else provides the indescribable, intangible and even transcendental experience, being absorbed by nature and captured within the moment high above and safely away from the concerns of everyday life. Challenging and conquering fear and doubt, and proving that achievement is entirely possible, a combination of attitude, capability and desire. There is no such thing as "finishing" the Fourteeners, I'm simply climbing them all for the first time.

A powerful reminder of the South Colony experience...

Comments or Questions
09/10/2009 02:21
So Keith, when are you going to rest? After you do Capital on Jan 20th?

Acecee 14
Ringside seat
09/10/2009 02:50
I did the easier Humboldt the same day. The plan was to do Crestone Needle but we were too intimidated by the dense clouds. Hope to get the Needle next summer - on a clear day! Good work!

Nice ...
09/10/2009 15:40
I‘ll tell ya one thing, Keith, your smile on that summit photo is truly infectious! Seeing all that conglomerate makes me want to do that mountain again. As always, thanks for posting. Happy trails!

Dry & Sunny...
09/10/2009 15:51
I also did this peak in the clouds, with some rain. I‘ll be itching to do it again, in more idyllic conditions... And like you say, we ”climb them all at least once”. Now if only we could plan for some good weather?

Great times!!
09/10/2009 16:18
Thanks for giving me some more great memories. You took some great pictures my friend. Only down side of the entire day was that mass of clouds hugging the summit all day! Thanks again!


GREAT job!
09/10/2009 21:05
Sorry I couldn‘t connect or try any peaks with you Keith. I made zero summits this time from the tennis injury- but that‘s OK it‘s impossible to come to your state and not enjoy the exquisite beauty and magnetic draw of the mountains!!
I had trouble when trying to solve this peak on the cross over as well, and just stayed in the east one both ways! Def one of my faves... Looking fwd to more of your write ups- you do a great job in your written expression!

09/11/2009 14:11
Dave, I rest from Monday through Friday.
Papillon, I wondered if that was you when I saw LoJ, and I saw you comment that you were up there at day break. Sorry we didn‘t get a chance to chat.
Terri, you‘re always too kind. Thank you.
Krazy, thanks for reading!
I‘m doing my sunny day dance right now, Otina, but I fear that it will be next summer before we have my kind of good weather. Now it‘s time for layers and pant legs. Ick.
Ben, we definitely considered a direct ascent of the east gully, but it does get loose above the crux, whereas the west is very solid.
Joey, sorry we couldn‘t work something out, but next time! Let me know when you‘re back this way.

Chicago Transplant
Another gem!
09/11/2009 16:35
Great climb and report (as always!). Glad you were able to ”sneak” it in this year, its a great peak. Seems the Crestones always get their fair share of foggy days, I did the Peak in the fog in ‘07 but luckily it cleared up while we did the traverse. Here‘s to many more ”first time” 14ers, and some repeats as well

09/12/2009 01:24
Great report Keith! Very well written and great pictures! I thoroughly enjoyed the climb myself. Thanks for the company on the descent. Looking forward to climbing with you again soon.

Another incredibly well-written TR!
11/30/2010 17:28
Way to get after it this year, KeithK! I really liked your ”there is no such thing as "finishing" the Fourteeners, I'm simply climbing them all for the first time” line. A very refreshing perspective.

East/West Crossover
11/30/2010 17:28
I've always thought that crossover to the West gully is at least as objectively dangerous as simply flashing the crux in the East Gully, always makes me wonder why people even bother crossing over...anyway congrads on your day and thanks for another well written TR!

The crux crossover...
02/05/2011 00:22
My girl and I passed you on our way down at the gully crossover - definitely the crux of the route. We dropped about 20 feet down and I told her I thought I recognized you from this site. I confirmed it when I checked LoJ that night. In retrospect, I should have introduced myself. All I can say is that was a Vincent Price type of fog up there in the morning. Glad you had a safe climb...

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