Saturday saw us doing a leisurely 13 hour day going to Crestone Peak and back via Eye of the Needle Pass & under perfect skies. There are trails going up to the Pass, but either you start at the lower lake on a vague trail going up the gully, or you bushwhack thru some willows on the bench south of the lower lake to pick up another trail. The approach to the Pass is generally loose scree with a short 3rd class chute. The Forest Service plans to put switchbacks on this approach in next year or two. The work is overdue as there is severe erosion on both sides of the "Eye" Pass.
Descent from the Pass is easy enough with a good trail taking one past Cottonwood Lake and into the basin at the base of the Peak's South, or "Red", Couloir. For me, this col is one of the best rock scrambling routes on any 14er, with 2,000' of varying types of rock; enough exposure to excite, but not scare the s....t out of you like Capitol or Eolus; and a little rock fall danger, but nothing like Bear or the Bells.
On the descent, we avoided the water polished rock and the "stepladder" in the lower col by getting up on the east side and following part of the "Roach route." There is a small cairn of almost whitish rock marking where to come out of the col. This leads one down to a grassy bench and an easy descent to the east, then south into the basin. As an aside, there were about twenty big horn sheep in this basin when we were there.
I had to beg off the Needle on Sunday and Humboldt yesterday due to bad blisters. Thanks to John Mill for subbing for me. He reported a fun climb of the Needle, and followed the usual Roach route, including the changeover into the west col part way up the Needle's south face. Humboldt was uneventful. They did avoid following some cairns on Humboldt's west ridge. The cairns were followed in '96 and our group found ourselves doing 3rd class scrambling and at least one exposed 4th class move on Humboldt's north face before we "wised up" and got back on the easy ridge crest.
Scott Bonowski adds:
Kevin Craig's summary of the west side approach to the Crestones up Cottonwood Creek is pretty accurate. I've backpacked it three times: in '95, '96, '99. In '00, I did the Peak again from the S. Colony Lakes side. It was a long day, but I would recommend it in lieu of the west side backpack.
Couple additions to Kevin's thoughtline. The Roach guide says the route stays on the north side of the stream the entire way. This isn't entirely correct as Kevin said. There is one place where the stream forks, creating an "island" in the middle. It's necessary to cross this little side stream onto the "island"; continue upstream a couple hundred feet; and then return to the north side. I should note this was in Gerry's 1st edition; haven't checked my copy of the 2nd to see if he made any changes.
There is a way around the "boiler plate" at 11,000' that Gerry describes. Going in, stay at the bottom of the rock face and continue east to its end, then go up. There is a "bushwhackers" trail of sorts here. If the plate is dry, I recommend going up the plate to avoid causing damage to vegetation around the boiler plate. The one time I didn't do the plate was coming out in '99 when it was wet, and quite slippery. The "bushwhack" around was almost as bad, but at least there was no exposure & danger of serious injury.
Regarding access, the west side approach is on the Baca Ranch, which is currently on the wish list of Congress & the feds for purchase and addition to Great Sand Dunes N.M. The Ranch allows open access up the drainage from the parking area described by Kevin. Current thinking among the feds is that if the purchase happens, the n.e. part of the Ranch, which contains this approach as well as Kit Carson & Challenger, will be assigned to the Forest Service.
P.S. The Forest Service is planning some major trail re- building on the S. Colony Lakes approach to the Needle. They may also tackle the west side trail too, since it's getting as bad in places as the old "trench" on Humboldt. As the summer gets closer, CMC will be in touch with the FS to see what the access situation will be.
Jon Henderson adds:
Thanks to all for the advice on Crestone peak. I'd like to have a little idea as to the exposure in the south coulior. I did Kit Carson last summer as well as Sneffels (standard routes), and didn't think either one was bad at all. I've also done the north face of Lindsey with no problem. However, I could not make myself go all the way up Wetterhorn's final pitch. It was just too scary. How does Crestone Peak and Crestone Needle compare to Wetterhorn as far as exposure goes?
Steve Bonowski replies:
Kevin did a pretty good route description of the south couloir on Crestone Peak. I'd add that the cairned trail does not go directly into the base of the couloir; rather, it goes to the right as one looks at the south face, traverses left on a wide bench & then drops into the couloir. One then gets almost immediately to the crux of the route; at least what I consider as the crux.
This is some smooth, water polished rock that is dangerous for footing when it's wet. If it's snow covered, no problem with crampons. If it's dry, goes pretty well too. It's not a steep grade, and takes you to the base of a short cliff; like 8-10'. To the right of the cliffy area is a short & steep chute that goes up & around the cliff, like a small stepladder. There are ample hand & foot holds in this chute and it goes well if dry. Caution is still indicated as the fall wouldn't be pleasant. From there, it's not overly steep or hazardous altho there is some scree & rockfall danger. I'd wear a helmet if I was to do the route a 4th time.
Coming back down, one will see a couple of cairns on the now left side above this cliff area. This takes one onto the rock scrambling route described by Gerry and avoids the "stepladder." There is one gap that requires an upclimb to the left and then descent down the gully above the gap. You'll know it when you see it. Then it's an easy Class 2 descent back down to the bench. This alternate also is best when dry, as there is some friction climbing involved. Overall. I really like this route. It presents enough "risk" in terms of exposure and rock fall to whet one's appetite, but doesn't scare the "...." out of one like Capitol or Eolus (exposure) or Little Bear (rock fall danger).
I've done the Needle only once, in 1995. I plan to do it again in September; I had it on my plans for last year, but severe blisters kept me in camp that day. Again, I think Kevin gave a pretty accurate description. I would add that I consider the Needle to be harder than the Peak's south couloir due to being a little steeper & more exposed. Again, wear a helmet and do test the conglomerate knobs as they can come out in your hand. I wouldn't recommend doing the Needle's couloirs when snow covered unless one is pretty proficient in snow climbing & front pointing.
I think the Peak's south couloir is less exposed than either Crestone Needle or Wetterhorn's summit couloir, which I've done twice. I didn't consider W. to be extremely exposed; I just used the step ladder comparison.
Lee Hendrick (email@example.com) adds:
I led a trip up the south couloir in '99. We backpacked in from the west side. There were no property restrictions at that time. It was just a little difficult to find the trailhead because of road construction in the residential development to the north of the trailhead.
It's one tough backpack in, but I consider it a lot more enjoyable and in the long run, easier than the Colony Lakes approach.
I wish I had followed the route up that I discovered on the way down. It would have been a much easier climb but the base of the peak was shrouded in fog when we started up. The base of the couloir is steep and has water in it a lot of the time. This can be avoided by staying pretty far to the right and then coming back toward the couloir by following a system of grassy benchs. These should be well marked by cairns. My mistake was to head right up the couloir from the base. There is a bench that comes into the couloir above the hard slickrock area. To get onto this bench requires a pretty good step up, but it's only about 8 feet to scramble. From the point this puts you into the red couloir it's a fairly steep loose rock scramble up to the saddle between the east and west peaks. I think it's a good idea to wear a helmet because of the rock fall potenetial from other climbers. From the saddle follow a well cairned route on a system of ledges to the summit.
Any further questions send me an e-mail or call at 303-794-8250
Mary Gilbert adds:
I agree with Steve Bonowski about the exposure comparisons among Wetterhorn, Crestone Peak, and Crestone Needle.
I've done the Needle once, and even though it's more exposed than the Red Gully on the Peak, I thought it was fun. Not much loose rock hazard but more friction stuff--the conglomerate rock makes good holds. (Test them before you use them.) Also, make sure you don't get off on the cairned route on the Needle. Yup, use a helmet.
If you have extra time in the area do Broken Hand Peak, a walkup. Crestone Needle's a neat sight from it. I did Broken Hand by accident, thinking it was the Needle--because we had come in from the west. There was low fog shrouding the Colony Lakes and Cottonwood Lake basins, but the Needle sliced up above it like a spade. Spectacular!! You can still get treats even when things go wrong.