Crestone Peak
Colorado 14er
14,294 feet, 4357 meter
Rocky Mountain National Park |
Anatomy of a Storm
14ers FAQ|New Climber FAQ

Gerry RoachCreston Peak (middle) from Cottonwood Lake says in his Colorado's Fourteens Bible that Crestone Peak "... is one of Colorado's hardest --some people proclaim it the hardest." Well I have not climbed them all but it certainly ranks up there in my experience. It was an extremely long and physical day. Patrick and I intended on tagging the Peak then traversing over to the Needle for a double bagger on Sunday, August 21, 2005.

I picked Patrick up at his home on Saturday in a drenching downpour that had city storm drains maxed out and two inches of hail on the ground. Undaunted, we made the final drive to Silver Cliff then turned south on highway 69, found Colfax Lane and eventually, at the end of the last smooth road for two days, a parking lot full of otherwise good cars and trucks. We planned on camping at the South Colony Lakes that night. We took my Jeep Wrangler on this trip since we knew the infamous "worst 4WD road in Colorado" would test our city vehicles yet save us 5.7 miles of humping our backpacks to the lake. The reputation of this "road" is alive and well.

I'll get to the climbing in a moment but this road. Ah, this road. It is not a road. A road has lanes. It has sides. It has lines. It allows a vehicle to move faster than a person can walk. That is a road. But noooo, this road has trees with overhanging branches for sides. It has small, medium, large and ridiculous rocks laid out in a random pattern that would have frustrated Gallelo. It has rushing streams that looked like car washes. It had bottomless puddles. It had Pamela Anderson sized banks which tilted the Jeep at 45 degree angles. Oh, did I say it had rocks? See the video.

It took us 1.5 hours to go 5.7 miles. A turtle passed us.sunrise on the Crestone Needle
Kissing the ground like Pope Paul, we staggered out of the jeep at 11,000'. We had arrived later than we had planned but the sight of Humboldt was impressive looking to our south in the late day sun. We had hoped all the heavy weather had stayed north but clouds were forming a thick layer over the Needle so we picked up our pace on the 1.5 mile hike to South Colony Lakes at 11,660' for the night. Just as we arrived, it was "Hell Storm" part Dux. If it had not been for another party camping nearby with a tarp, I would be an inch shorter and severely bruised from the golf ball size hail that pummeled us. We decided to take advantage of our new friend's tarp to cook dinner while we watched the hail switch to rain and next anticipated seeing locusts start falling from the sky.South Colony Lakes from Brokenhand Pass

Finally we got our tents pitched as the weather calmed and soon we were in our bags hoping to get a few naps before the early morning call. The night passed uneventful as we awoke to a clear and chilly morning. We loaded small day packs with food, water and an extra layer and began the gentle climb to Brokenhand Pass at 12,900'. It was easy class 2 on a well worn trail marked with six foot cairns. The crux of this section was the top of the 400' couloir which required some easy class 3 moves to reach to top of the pass. Our work was rewarded with great views of Colony Lakes to the east and Cottonwood Lake to the west. And of course there was Crestone Needle proudly strutting herself to our north. The only thing ruining the view was the fact we had to descend 800' to begin the climb of the Peak!

Patrick climbing Brokenhand passCottonwood LakeWe spotted the "correct" couloir to descend the Needle and
began the easy descent to Cottonwood Lake. Soon we could see the Peak for the first time. The summit played hide and seek in the clouds 2100' above us. It was in the middle of the high ridge that started at the Needle and gently sloped westward down from the Peak. The Cottonwood Lake area was pristine, secluded and quiet on the Sunday morning. A few other climbers were in the area but it was the marmots and birds that provided the entertainment.

As we took a break to put on helmets, gobble some Cliff Bars and take a long drink, we sighted the "red couloir" that would serve as our route to the summit. It was easy to see given the reddish color as was the stream of water pouring through the center! It had take two hours to reach this point and we were starting to get concerned about the swirling clouds that were forming now around the traverse and the Needle. We knew we would not attempt it if the visibility was poor given the notoriously difficult route hidden below the ridge skyline.

Red CouloirThe route from the west end of Cottonwood Lake's tundra makes a lazy reverse C sweep around an outcropping to a grassy ramp at the base of the couloir. The goal is a notch, called the Red Saddle, in the ridge at the top of the couloir, 700' directly above our heads. While the climbing is not difficult it is tedious and long. There are a few short sections of hands and feet climbing but nothing too hard. After a while we attained the ridge and made the final, surprisingly simple, 250' to the summit. A four hour one way trip.
Patrick climbing the Red Couloir
Once on top of the summit, we watched as cloud moved over us and obscured the views in every direction. These were not storm clouds per se but condensation created by the sun on the damp rocks. Crestone Peak has one of the smallest summit area I had seen. But we had it all to ourselves for a while until a lone climber joined us. We discussed the traverse and decided against it. First was the poor visibility, second it was 10:30 and that would put us on the Needle after noon (should have started earlier) and third, the 2000' climb up the red couloir was tougher than we thought. So, another day!

Crestone Needle in the clouds
With that out out the way, we enjoyed the summit for forty-five minutes took a few pictures and videos. The down-climb of the couloir was as tedious as the up-climb and not a lot faster. But it was the sight of Brokenhand pass that kept our attention. We soon climbed back over the pass and back down to our tents near Colony Lakes arriving around 3:00. As we broke camp, we laughed that the easy section was over and the only thing between us and a greasy burger in Silver Cliff was 5.7 miles of "road"

So, is Crestone "the hardest" 14er out there? I don't think so. It is a long day that will tax you physically. The route finding is straightforward. The red couloir is long but manageable. I actually think the Trough on Longs is more bothersome with it's constant loose scree. It was disappointing not to have made the traverse if only for knowing we will have to take that road again! But as always in climbing you use your best judgement so no regrets.