Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Peak of the Week: Crestone Peak (14,294 feet)

Crestone Peak and Crestone Needle
Late fall dusting of snow of Crestone Peak and
its neighbor Crestone Needle
Without question, Crestone Peak is one of Colorado's most spectacular mountains. It is the anchor of the Sangre De Cristo Range, and its crown jewel. It is rugged, picturesque and intimidating. In terms of mountaineering, climbers will find that "The Peak" is one of the most challenging and technically difficult of Colorado's 14ers. But for the advanced mountaineer, more options are available on the rugged peaks of this massif than almost anywhere else in the state.

Crestone Peak is a classic mountain, one that Colorado can be proud of. The Sangres in general leap from the surrounding valleys with abrupt and awe-inspiring sharpness. These mountains define what it means to be rugged. As Colorado's 7th highest peak, Crestone Peak is the tallest mountain in the state that requires class 3 scrambling to obtain its summit.

Composed of cobbled, conglomerate rock, Crestone Peak and its neighbors are unique to Colorado geology, and climbing them is an experience that no mountaineer, either native or visiting, could ever forget. It is a mountain and a range with a unique personality.

South Colony Lake Trailhead- South Colony Lake is the ideal and most popular base camp for the majority of Crestone Peak routes. It is a good base of operations, in fact, for most of the neighboring peaks as well, making multiple-summit trips logistically viable. From Westcliffe, follow Highway 69 for 4.5 miles south. Veer south (right) onto Colfax Lane (County Road 119). Follow this road straight until you reach a T-intersection with Country Road 120 (South Colony Road). Turn right and follow this road 1.5 miles to the trailhead. 4WD vehicles can continue for as many as four more miles to a high trailhead at 11,000 feet. This road is notoriously bad and sometimes a gate may block it off at 9,800 feet.

South Face (class 3, moderate snow)-
The South Face route on Crestone Peak is almost always the easiest route on the peak. However, this route is long, complicated and almost always entails ascending some moderate sections of snow. From South Colony Lakes, climb a couloir to Broken Hand Pass. Descend to Cottonwood Lake (accessible via a long trail through private property with permission) and climb a vague couloir up the south face to a notch between the main summit and a sub-summit. Scramble a couple hundred more feet to the top.

Northwest Couloir (class 3, steep snow/ice)-
Crestone Peak stands proud
This route is more straightforward and entails less elevation gain than the South Face route, but is generally more difficult and dangerous. Depending on conditions, the couloir with either be a steep but good snow climb, or a mess of icy, rubble-infested ledges. A helmet, crampons and ice axe are recommended in almost any season.

Peak to Needle Traverse (class 5.2, moderate snow)- This popular and challenging traverse is listed in Gerry Roach's guidebook Colorado's Fourteeners: From Hikes to Climbs as "one of Colorado's four great Fourteener traverses" and for good reason. This route is a spectacular way to visit both of these astounding Colorado peaks. Though originally listed as class 4, standard consensus these days is that there is some limited low class 5 terrain on this route. The most popular way to tackle this route is by climbing Crestone Peak's Northwest Couloir route first, traversing from Peak to Needle, and descending Crestone Needle's South Face. Arguments have been made for doing the traverse in the opposite direction of for starting on the Peak's South Face route instead. This all depends on your skill and mountain conditions. One thing is for sure that this route is long, committing and complicated so plan accordingly.

North Pillar (class 5.8)-
This is the premier technical route on Crestone Peak, and one of the harder alpine climbing in the Sangres. It is not as popular or well-known as the Ellingwood Arete (see a video of climbers on the Ellingwood Arete) on Crestone Needle but is still worth mentioning here. The North Pillar is a ten-pitch climb on the mountain's northeast face, with the crux 5.8 pitch coming about two-thirds of the way up. Be prepared for runouts, complicated route-finding, and some unforgettable knob-pulling on the famous Sangre conglomerate!

The South Colony Lakes are in the Sangre De Cristo Wilderness Area and special regulations apply. These mostly focus on the carryout of waste. Check out the fact sheet for the Sangre De Cristo Wilderness Area for more information.

Crestone Peak on

The Crestones on

Crestone Peak on

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