RT Length: 13 miles
Elevation Gain: 4400’
The decision to hike Crestone Needle today didn’t come until late yesterday. I’d had this day on the calendar for this particular hike for over a month, but the fires in the area had me hesitant. I did a lot of online research and was 80% sure the road to the trailhead I needed to take was open. That was a chance I was willing to take. What I wasn’t thrilled with was the possibility of inhaling smoke for the entire hike. The weather looked good, and in the end I chose to take the hike because it’s my last 14er I need to complete the Crestones and I was afraid if I waited too long the fire would expand and I’d miss my opportunity to hike.
I woke up at 12:15am and drove to the trailhead. All roads were open from Colorado Springs South, but there were more deer on the roads than I’ve ever seen. I’m assuming they were displaced because of the fires. Most deer I see when driving at night are female, but these were mainly male deer in the velvet. I was just glad I was the only one on the road so I could drive cautiously and stop when needed.
I turned South on Colorado 69 and saw a flashing sign indicating the highway was closed ahead and only open to residents. I crossed my fingers and drove on. I was able to make it to the turnoff (Colfax) before the road closed. The drive in past the 2WD trailhead was worse than I remember it being back in April (but not worse than last year at this time). The drainpipe was a bit steep.
When I arrived at the trailhead at 3am the parking lot was almost full, which I’d expected even though it was a Wednesday morning. After all, it was the 4th of July! There was a lot of activity in the parking lot as people were getting ready for their respective hikes. I hate leapfrogging people, so to get a head start I jumped out of my truck and hit the trail, grabbing a bagel to eat on the way. There was no smell of fire in the air and I hadn’t been able to see flames the entire drive.
At 3:15am I signed the trail register and was on my way. BTW, the trail log book is in serious need of repair/updating. The pages are mostly loose, and there’s no clear order to signing it. I found a blank page and signed in, but if there was an emergency (say, a fire) and they needed to know who was hiking in the area it would take them a very long time to figure it out.
This is my third time this year hiking in through the South Colony Lakes trailhead. I have to say, it’s much easier and faster without snow to navigate through! It’s amazing how easy the trail was to follow without snow, and how difficult it is to navigate when snow is present. The hike in didn’t take me long at all. I was way ahead of schedule. Last time I was here the creek was frozen over and there was snow up to the footbridge. Today there was no snow to be seen.
I made it to the South Colony Lakes and saw many tents lit up as people were preparing for their hikes today. It looked like there were dozens of people camping by the lake. I made it up Broken Hand Pass around 5:30am and looked behind me at the trail of lights from hikers taking the pass as well.
The only other time I’ve hiked Broken Hand Pass it was filled with snow and there was no clear path to follow, so I crossed the slope wearing snowshoes. Today the path was clearly visible, yet harder to hike without traction. I kind of missed the snow here! As I looked around me at the slope I realized back in April I must have been hiking on over 10 feet of snow! What a difference the snow made!
The trail up and through Broken Hand Pass is very well cairned. I now know why those cairns are so big! They looked small (or were non-existent) under the snow.
Last time I did this hike I forgot to put on my helmet until it was too late and I was in a position where it was too dangerous for me to take my helmet out of my pack to put it on, so this time I put it on before it was needed. Here are the first class 3 moves up the pass.
I made it to the saddle just as the sun was coming up, and when I looked over to my left I saw a skull that wasn’t there last time, placed on a large stick. Of course I went over to investigate. As the sun rose I made friends with Skully and got a few selfies with my new pal. He seemed to be keeping sentinel over the area.
I was way ahead of schedule at this point, but decided to keep hiking so I wouldn’t get cold. I followed the ridge and went to the heavily traveled trail to the right, and realized it cliffed out, so I turned left and encountered more class 3 moves.
The trail was well marked, although sometimes it split into two parallel trails. They both followed the South side of the mountain and ended in the same place. Here’s a look back at the trails and Broken Hand pass.
After hiking the slope the trail abruptly stops. I knew this was going to happen, but was surprised at how abruptly it did just… stop. I mean, it just ended at a rock.
I looked up and down and then got out my directions. I needed to hike down about 75 feet, then over to the east gully. Here’s a picture of the route before me.
This is where the fun began! Climbing the gullies is a lot of fun! There was exposure, sure, but plenty of hand and foot holds available. I once again praised myself for joining a rock climbing gym and going weekly. This was child’s play! While this class 3 scrambling should have been challenging, for me it was really just fun.
The route wasn’t heavily cairned, but there were enough cairns in just the right areas so you knew you were on the right path (which I prefer to multiple cairned paths). For me the crux of the climb came at the dihedral, where you switch from the east to the west gully. The dihedral was obvious to find but difficult to cross. It’s much larger in width and depth than this picture suggests, and my task was to climb on top of it, locate a cairn, and cross the rib. There was a trickle of water running down its base, just enough to make climbing up slippery with wet soles.
I’m not a large lady, and while I’m pretty flexible, here my 5’4” height was a hindrance and flexibility wasn’t much help. There were hand and foot holds all over this mountain, except in the dihedral. The rock here was smooth and there weren’t many places to grip. The width was just far enough apart where I couldn’t stretch across (although I’m assuming it wouldn’t be much difficulty for someone over 5’10” to navigate). So I was stuck: I couldn’t climb up the dihedral to cross over, and I couldn’t climb across the gap either. I searched and located the cairn on the rib above me and to the left. I knew that’s where I needed to be, but getting there seemed impossible! (The cairn is in the red circle)
I took a deep breath. This had to be traversable. There had to be a way across, I just wasn’t seeing it yet. I went back to where the dihedral was narrowest and tried again. There were a few stretch moves, but I was able to successfully climb up the wall and back over to the left where the cairn was located. Woot! I’d made it!!!
This is where the real climbing began! I climbed up the ridge and aimed for a notch. Here’s a picture from my way back down when I passed three male climbers heading up (who’d had trouble with the dihedral too, so it wasn’t just me!).
The exposure here was real! One of the other hikers told me this part almost made him lose his breakfast. Personally, I loved it! Yes, the exposure was extreme, but there wasn’t much danger from loose rock and there were plenty of hand and foot holds, so as long as you didn’t slip and fall you were fine.
I couldn’t help but thinking how awful this route would be with snow, and once again praised myself for not trying this peak after completing Crestone Peak last April and the waterfalls that were present then. It wouldn’t have ended well.
There were several large gullies to climb, all with the same secure rock and lots of holds.
At 7:20am I summited! I had a great view of Crestone Peak
As you’ll notice from the video, there isn’t evidence of a fire anywhere
For the first time while hiking a 14er I was able to see the Sand Dunes in the distance
I took a summit selfie to prove I’d summited
And while it was still early I headed back down because I was only half way through with this hike. It was too early to celebrate yet.
Remember all those steep gullies I’d climbed up? Well, now it was time to climb back down them. They were pretty steep, so I turned and faced the wall and began climbing down, once again grateful for all the holds.
Thankfully the dihedral was much easier to navigate heading down than up. I just pressed my stomach on the wall and slid off and down into the open space below, using friction for balance, knowing I didn’t have far to fall if I did.
I have to pause for a second here to talk about down climbing. I may not know a lot about rock climbing, but I do know I have better balance when I’m facing the wall on the way down. I passed a hiker who was heading down these gullies feet first. He was continually off balance and honestly scaring me.
So I engaged him in conversation: “Have you tried turning and facing the wall when you down climb? You’ll thank yourself for it!”
I got no response, so I figured he must not have heard me. We parted but caught up to each other once again in another gully, where he was once again tip toeing down and sliding feet first.
I tried again: “Do you rock climb?”
Me: “Oh, well if you turn and face the wall you’ll find your center of gravity isn’t off and the gully will be easier to navigate”
Once again, no response and he continued doing what he was doing. All I could think was “He’s going to fall and I’m the only one anywhere near him. He’s going to slip and tumble headfirst down one of these gullies and I’m going to have to rescue him because I’m the only other person out here”. I’d already warned him twice and he hadn’t listened. I decided to just sit and take a break for a while and let him get far enough ahead of me where we wouldn’t pass each other again. This way I wouldn’t have to watch him scare me half to death. I’d just keep an ear out for him falling. (Luckily he never did)
I made it back to Broken Hand Pass at 8:40am. The sun still hadn’t made it over the ridge
I waved to Skully and got a picture of him with the Crestone Needle in the background
Ahead of me were Humboldt and Broken Hand Pass. I was completely ready for the class 3 moves back down and got to it.
About 1/3 of the way down I heard a very loud and deep chirp, looked up, and saw a rather large marmot ahead of me skid to a stop on top of a pile of rocks. The rocks then went tumbling down the pass, making quite a racket and causing a rockslide. Wow! That marmot was a jerk! He’d just put about 4 people in danger of getting brained by rocks the size of my fist. I called down to the hikers below me, made sure they were ok, and blamed it (rightly so) on the marmot. See people? Wear your helmet, even if you’re the only person on that mountain!
I passed quite a few hikers on the way out. South Colony Lakes is a trailhead for multiple 14ers, as well as a great place to backpack and fish. Most people I passed who’d been there for a few days had no idea there was a fire or that the roads were closed.
As I hiked the last few miles out I marveled at what an awesome day it was. The weather was gorgeous, the wildflowers were just starting to bloom, the trail was in full summer conditions, and I’d made a quick and successful summit of what’s considered the 6th most difficult 14er in Colorado. So why wasn’t I jump up and down happy? Well, I kind of was. I took a few celebratory photos once I was back near the lakes.
But I wasn’t euphoric as I had been for many other hikes. No fist-bump, high five kind of feeling. This hike had been too easy. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not an easy hike, but it wasn’t as difficult as I’d anticipated and been looking forward to. Yes, there was exposure. Yes, there was climbing involved. Yes, it was a long hike with elevation gain, but it wasn’t as technical as I’d anticipated and everything I did was well within my abilities. There wasn’t even any snow to navigate!!! I wasn’t tired at all and even considered hiking up Humboldt to make the day a little more aggressive. Maybe I wasn’t tired because I wasn’t carrying all the stuff I’ve needed lately (crampons, ice axe, snowshoes, extra jacket, etc)?
I know the conditions were awful when I hiked Crestone Peak last April, but that seemed much more difficult than today’s climb of the Crestone Needle, and this was supposed to be harder. I didn’t feel challenged. Hmmmm… So I came to the conclusion these hikes are indeed tough, I’m just advancing in my skills. What scares me is I enjoy a challenge. I enjoy being tested and learning new skills. That’s something I’ll seriously need to spend some time considering.
I made it back to my truck at 11am, making this a 13 mile hike/climb in 8 hours. This also means I was home by 1:30pm, in plenty of time to wake up my kids (yes, they’re teenagers, with nothing scheduled for today they were still sleeping when I got home) and grill some steaks for the 4th of July!