Descent Route: South Couloir
Crestone Peak Trip report
April 9-10, 2006
Fresh off great success in the Sangre De Cristo Range at Culebra Peak and Mt. Lindsey, Jon Hagman and I headed north to the town of Westcliffe and the Crestone group of peaks. (Crestone Peak, Crestone Needle, Humboldt Peak, Kit Carson Mountain, Challenger Point). Because we arrived in Westcliffe rather late after exiting the Huerfano River drainage from Lindsey, we got a hotel and planned on approaching the Crestones on Sunday.
Sunday morning dawned clear and beautiful in the Wet Mountain Valley. This broad, sweeping valley lies on the east side of the Sangres and is home to some gorgeous ranchlands and small communities. Now that I have been here, I can?t believe I had never visited before. The area is simply breath taking and the access to the mountains makes it even more alluring. So after a breakfast fit for mountain climbers at the Hungry Mountain Caf?, we headed down the road to the South Colony Lakes road and trailhead. I was hoping to be able to snowmobile up this road to the summer parking zone, but the road had melted out just high enough that we could not pull the snowmobile trailer up the 4X4 road. So we dropped the trailer and sleds, and drove another mile up the road to a big snow patch that was not navigate able. By noon we were skinning up the road, five miles of easy cruising, albeit with very heavy packs. Our plan was to establish camp at South Colony Lake, and then maybe go for an evening ascent of Humboldt Peak, an easy fourteeners right above the lake. Well, when we got to the lake and had a close look at Humboldt various slopes, we realized we would have to scrap that plan. Humboldt is totally devoid of snow, worse off than the Front Range Peaks and the Southern Sawatch. So our attention shifted to Crestone Peak, and we made plans to approach it early the next morning.
That night in the tent was hell. A major wind event preceding a low-pressure system moved in, and we spent most of the night listening to unbelievably strong winds and trying to keep the tent in place. The wind was so strong it actually blew the tent half way flat several times, bending tent poles and almost ripping the vestibule from the frame. At one point I had to put my clothes on and go outside in the maelstrom to secure some stakes and poles, and got blown to my knees. We were fed and in bed, ready to sleep, at 8:30 p.m., but didn?t end up falling asleep until close to 3 a.m. Needless to say we were wiped out and fully slept through our 4 a.m. alarm. By the time we woke it was 6:30 and I was concerned that we had missed our window of opportunity on Crestone. Because we wanted to ski the South Couloir, and the sun hits it an hour after sunrise, we wanted to be climbing the route early to have good, firm snow to climb and nice, safe corn to ski. As it turns out, the same Mother Nature that blasted us all night also did us a favor. High clouds moved in as we clipped stepped into our skis for the approach at 7:30 a.m. and this layer protected the snow from the sun and kept things cool. So we climbed up over Broken Hand Pass (12,900?) skied down to Cottonwood Lake (12,400?), and stared up at the looming South Couloir.
I had taken some photos of Crestone Peak from Mt. Lindsey, forty miles to the south, and knew that the line was in. We began cramponing up the route on frozen snow, often punching through to our shins. After an hour and a half of putting one foot in front of the other, and negotiating a cliff band low down on the route, we hit the summit ridge. This ridge is narrow and very exposed, dropping away almost vertically on the north side. With our axes gripped firm we negotiated the final few feet to the summit. The summit of Crestone is tight and blocky. I was able to put on my skis on top, but there was little room to move around. I actually uncovered the summit register while stepping into my bindings, which is always kind of fun to find. Because there were a few small drops or ?airs? to ski off the summit, Jon chose to down climb the upper 200? of the line after filming me skiing off the top. I waited for him to get into position in the couloir, and then I skied the upper face. The snow here was hard and slippery, and my first turn had me holding on tight. A fall in this area would be serious, so I took it one turn at a time, not committing to my next turn until I was totally balanced and ready. I skied for about 800? vertical before stopping on the side of the couloir and waiting for Jon to come down to me. Being on telemark skis can be particularly tough in these condition as they have less edge control on hard snow, but Jon handled it well, skiing smart and in control at all times. We regrouped at the top of the cliff band, which was about 300? feet from the bottom, and slowly down climbed through the rocks. At the bottom we looked each other in the eyes and shook hands, faces beaming with a successful descent of a serious line.
We climbed back up over Broken Hand Pass, packed up the tents and gear, and skied our way out the remaining five miles to the truck. After dinner at Rosie?s Brewpub in Leadville, I was back home in my own bed for the first time in a week by midnight. As I sit here and write this, I?m reflecting on the ups and downs of the week. Our great success on five peaks has been totally overshadowed by the death of Doug Coombs. And then yesterday, one of my ski partners and filmers, Mike Cuseo, was severely injured at Snowmass, and is out for the season. Safety on this project is paramount, and although it often appears as if we are taking risks to do what we do, managing those risks to avoid potentialy tragic outcomes is part of being a responsible skier.
Two days off here at home, and then I will attempt some of our ?local? fourteeners, Pyramid and Capitol Peak.
Thanks for stopping by.
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