Descent Route: South Couloir
January 11, 2007
Ski Descent #51
Well, the last of the super-scary ski descents is now history. Crestone Needle has lurked in the depths of my mind ever since I decided to attempt this project. Could I ski it? Would I ski it? The answer is obviously yes, and with great and safe conditions to boot! This descent is dedicated to my wife, Jesse, who has all along been my number one motivator, kicking me in the ass when I needed it and forcing me to stay on the road, skiing peaks, when I really wanted to come home. Yesterday, we left Alamosa late, allowing Christian some time to recover from his beating the day before. Thinking we were to late to go to Crestone Needle, we instead headed north to Shavano, just to have a look, and hoping it was in condition. When I got to Poncha Springs and called Jesse to tell her my plans, she flat out told me that was a ?lame? idea and to turn around and get my butt to Crestone Needle. We immediately turned the truck around and headed through Salida and up into the Wet Mountain Valley and the winter trailhead for the Crestones. Thanks Jesse, without you I?d probably be on peak #30 or so.
Now, I told you I thought we were late leaving Alamosa. We arrived at the South Colony Lakes Road at noon, and decided to snowmobile up the road and skin up to Broken Hand Pass to check out the Needle. This is what we would all call a late start! We parked the sleds at the summer parking lot and began skinning up to the lake at 12:40 p.m. The weather was perfect and we all felt strong. (John Hagman, Danny Brown, Christian Pondella, and myself) In only an hour and a half we had climbed all the way to Broken Hand Pass at 12,900?. The time was 2:10 p.m. and the weather was stable. I looked at my team and asked them, ?Do you have it in you to go for it?? Everyone nodded and we continued pushing the route across the ridge on great snow to the base of the couloir. Arriving at a rock step, we stopped to put on crampons and begin the very steep climb directly up to the summit. John elected to stay below and do some filming. Danny thought the better of skiing the line and just alpine climbed with Christian and myself. Danny must have had snuck some extra food in his pack because he flew up the couloir, leading the entire route, and leaving huge steps for Christian and I to follow. For Christian, a guy who has ski mountaineered all over the world, and on some very difficult peaks, this climb was pushing his envelope. I stopped to motivate him and he got a second wind and continued putting one foot in front of the other up and up. (remember he took a huge fall just the day before and was fairly battered, physically and mentally) I joined Danny on the graceful summit at 4:00 p.m. just 3:20 after leaving the summer parking lot. Christian joined us a few minutes later, exhausted but focused for the task at hand.
Most mountain climbers understand that getting to the top is just half the battle, and this concept was definitely not lost on me atop the Needle. The sun was very low on the horizon as I stepped into my skis. I was nervous but confident. At this time of day errors and mistakes are just not acceptable. I knew the snow was good for skiing, grippy and supportive, and not breakable. After Danny began his downclimb, Christian and I dropped in off the summit down a line that is one of the greatest ski lines in the Rockies. Direct and very steep (over 50 degrees for the majority), the South Couloir literally takes your breath away. We made our way one turn at a time, and very deliberately. I kept telling myself, ?This is what it is all about, just stay focused?, a mantra I learned from my late climbing partner Dave Bridges, who had a way of getting stronger the harder things got. As we neared the crux of the line, a narrow section just wide enough for our 180 cm skis, I glanced up a Christian, and he smiled. At that point I knew we had it. Our heads were in the game, and the mountain was allowing us safe passage down its flanks. Near the bottom of the couloir the angle eases to 45 degrees and our turns became longer and faster. We angled left across the ridge, now out of the couloir. At one point I stopped and bear hugged a big hunk of Crestone conglomerate, thanking the mountain for being so generous and seeing us down safely. We were able to ski all the way back to Broken Hand Pass by the last flicker of daylight, and then had to put on our headlamps for the long ski down to South Colony Lake and the parking lot below.
When I set out to scout Crestone Needle this day, I didn?t know what the outcome would be. But I have learned many things on this project, and one of them is; ?Never expect too much, just put one foot in front of the other and see what happens?. This ideal certainly held true on Crestone Needle, as it has on so many other fourteeners. Now, with only three more peaks left to go to accomplish my task, I only wait for Mother Nature to be as kind as all of her mountains have been to me. Shavano, Blanca, and Longs, wind, windy, and windiest! I am closely watching this approaching storm in hopes it will allow me to ski these three peaks, which all lack enough snow.
Thanks for all of your support, we are coming down to the wire!
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