Crestone Traverse: Peak to Needle
14,294 feet to 14,197 feet
Colorado has 4 so-called Great Traverses: Maroon Bells, Little Bear-Blanca, Crestone's and the ridge connecting El Diente to Mt. Wilson. I had climbed both Crestone Peak and Crestone Needle but my regular partner Robert had climbed neither. I joined him as he strove to get those peaks but I wanted to use the Traverse in mid July 2010.
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A gate had been installed blocking the road about 2.5 miles from the previous spot thus adding a bit of a walk to reach South Colony lake.
Honestly, I did not see any benefit to closing the road based on previous work making it much smoother than in prior years so that any vehicle could navigate it. Also, there were no solar toilets or other facilities that lessened the impact on the area so the net affect was adding more miles to the hike in without any environmental benefit. Also there were still almost 50 cars parked at the trailhead. There was a new footbridge that was more of a detour than a convienience I'm confused.
In any event, we reached the lower South Colony lake area, at 11,600', an absolutely stunning area with nearby Humboldt Peak looming to the north and Crestone Needle guarding the west. Unlike previous years, we easily found a campsite and the afternoon, while hot, was clear of the normal summer thunderstorms.
We left camp in the dark around 4:00AM Saturday morning with the plan to climb the Peak first and cross over to the Needle via the Traverse. The first step in the climb is to overcome Broken Hand Pass, a small notch at 12,500'. Huge cairns and an excellent trail made the dark journey manageable. The climb over the Pass is a low Class 3 and can be challenging for some. But we made it easily and were greeted by a nice sunrise.
A well trodden trail leads away from the Pass towards the Peak. We passed a few rouge tents along the way and reached the base of the Red Couloir as the sun began to reach the area.
The first goal for Crestone Peak 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 from camp.
We enjoyed the summit while casting an eye towards the Needle and wondering what was in store. While climbing the Red Couloir we looked for the exit to the start of the Traverse. We knew it was around 13, 200'; or was 13,800'? Different descriptions showed different entry points but also said it was 800; down from, well the summit or the saddle? The info we had was somewhat vague - a mistake in preparation on our part.
We started our descent from the Peak looking to the climbers' left for the traverse. We reached 13,200 and spotted a few cairns so went that way expecting a few more markers to validate the route. But we never saw them. Robert climbed higher onto the grassy ridge and I went straight towards some rock cliffs looking for signs of the route. All we really knew was the general direction and to aim for the Black Gendarme which was the troll to the Needle.
I soon found myself on class 4 terrain with lots of air under my feet as I was through enjoying being off-route and climbing up and down some gray rock cliffs and bands. Meanwhile, Robert, being much more sane had found the proper route high up on the ridge and described it as a quite manageable class 2 walk. Hmm. We rendezvoused at a high spot overlooking the last section to the gendarme At this point the route turned more serious.
Next up was a short climb in loose scree to the right of the gendarme. We made a u-turn to gain higher ground involving a high class 3 move reaching a narrow ledge. This was fun. As we spied the crux of the Traverse, the up climb to the summit of the Needle, we saw other climbers using a rope for the climb. It is fairly common to use a rope to rappel off the needle but many free climb this last section up. It as about 5.0 but does have significant exposure.
Robert, feeling more comfortable using a rope for the up climb called out to the other climbers to ask if he could use their rope. They readily agreed - if we hurried. And with that I picked up my pace and climbed to the Needle to secure Robert's place on their rope. Incredibly nice people, they threw an Alpine Bod harness attached to the rope down to Robert where he tied in and soon joined us on the summit of Crestone. It remained a beautiful day and we all enjoyed the triumph of a successful traverse.
We left the summit and carefully down climbed the dangerous gullies of Crestone Needle that have taken lives. Back at Brokenhand pass and then to camp we celebrated our accomplishment over dinner.
In an informal ranking of the most difficult Traverses, Crestone is low primarily due to lack of objective danger and easy route finding. I would agree for the route Robert took but mine was a bit extreme - my own choosing. Also the climb up to the Needle's summit was great fun but could be difficult for any climber not comfortable with exposure.
All in all, it was a lot of fun either way and one traverse I would suggest for every 14er Peak Bagger looking to step up their game.