Sunday, September 21, 2008

It's Getting Late

Crestone Needle dominated the landscape from every direction; it's steep and imposing and reminds me a bit of the Trango Towers in Pakistan.

On Thursday night, Greg, Dusty and I left Denver for the South Colony Lakes, nestled high in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, to set up base camp and do some hiking over the weekend. Dusty's Jeep carried us up a challenging 5.5 miles of rocky road, saving us a ton of time and allowing us to pack "heavy" for the weekend. We arrived at the upper parking lot around 2am on Friday, and hiked into the South Colony Lakes area, setting up base camp in the dark around 3:15. We left camp at 4:20 to begin our hike up Humboldt Peak, which seemed like a straightforward first ascent for the weekend. Fresh snow kept the 2.4 mile hike interesting, and the wind kept it cold. But it was all worth the effort when we summited just before the sun rose over the Wet Mountains to the east.

Greg on Humboldt signing the register just after sunrise.

Looking north through the Sangre de Cristo range from Humboldt Peak.

After fielding the most ridiculous question I've heard since living in Alaska, we returned to a sunny camp at 8:30 to cook breakfast and drink PBR in celebration of a successful hike. I passed out moments later, waking at 1pm to eat again before falling asleep again. I woke at 3:30 to a blast of winter in the valley (see video).

Enjoying "blue ribbon" beer in base camp at 9am after our first summit.

We slept most of the remainder of the afternoon recovering, and after dinner, we slept all night preparing for the next day's hike. We decided to attempt Crestone Peak and Needle via the northwest couloir, but changed plans after reaching Bear's Playground, a high saddle with descending views to the San Luis Valley to the west and the Wet mountains to the east. It's a unique position as it's a simple saddle dividing the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and it's windy as hell. Instead of hiking the Crestones, we hiked northwest, gaining Challenger Point and Kit Carson Peak. It ended up being a long day, but we were rewarded with great weather during our hike back to camp (followed by more PBR).

Greg pauses on the way back to camp.

Crestone Needle (left) and Crestone Peak during our descent from Humboldt.

That night, the weather turned again bad and it rained and snowed heavily for nearly 3 hours. We were holed up in our tents for most of the afternoon and early evening as water accumulated around us. In the dark and cold confusion of our base-camp setup, we didn't do a very good job of determining low points in our camp site. The water pointed out our mistakes. After dinner, though, we sat outside in the wind as the skies cleared and watched shooting stars before heading to bed. It seemed like the previous two nights - clear and cold.

Crestone Needle (left) and Peak from Bear's Playground.

When I woke at 1am, the wind was howling loudly, but I could still see the light from the moon. By 3:30, the moon's light had gone for good, and when we woke at 5 to begin our final day, it was cold, windy and beginning to precipitate. We decided to go back to bed for an hour and re-evaluate before calling the whole thing off, but when we crawled back out of our tents at 6:15, the clouds were actually lower against the mountain, and we could no longer see the tops of Crestone Needle or Peak. It simply wasn't safe to try to hike either peak without good visibility, so we packed up our wet camp and hiked back to the truck. But the day wasn't a total loss. There was a break between the clouds to the east and the horizon, so when the sun finally rose around 6:55, we witnessed an amazing alpen glow against the Crestones. We drank the last of the PBR watching the sun's rays magically ignite the cold granite before all the color was again lost. It was stunning.

Morning alpine glow; beautiful, but the clouds shut us down.

The view back into the Sangres on our way home confirmed we'd made the right decision to not climb on our final day.

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