February 3, 2023
The heart of winter is upon us. Short days, cold nights and low temps are bringing me back to my happy place. It’s been quiet on the blog for some time, but I’ve been secretly training hard since mid October for both winter mountaineering and mixed climbing. Life and conditions in Colorado have luckily blessed me with plentiful days of fantastic ice climbing since November. My once lofty goal of 100 pitches of ice this season is well on its way to becoming a reality even as early as March. However, I’ve still had my eyes on bagging at least one of the 14ers in the Crestone group this winter…
Humboldt was out (I didn’t really want to drive to the other side of the mountains to bag a mediocre peak). Challenger’s standard winter route has been in difficult avalanche conditions for the majority of the early season. The same goes for most of the good winter routes on Kit Carson, with the exception of the Cole Couloir. That left Crestone Peak or Crestone Needle. Both standard winter routes are south facing and seemed generally quite safe this early February. I ultimately decided on the Peak since I had already been up the Needle twice this summer/fall season. I had been up the Peak once before this trip last June and climbed the couloir very early in the morning after bivvying at Cottonwood Lake. The route was still mostly snowed in with ultra-consolidated late spring snow. I wasn’t expecting the snow to be THAT solid in the depth of winter, but was hoping for at least some solid wind-swept snow that would make for good front pointing. But instead of bivvying, this time I was planning on hitting the route all in one day, car to car: an ambitious goal for me.
A day before the trip and I had to decide: was I doing this one solo? Solo climbing is fun, but winter wallowing is always more fun with friends. I sent out text to climbing partner Oliver, not thinking anything would materialize, but the following conversation surprised and pleased me greatly:
8:30AM – Steve: I think I’ll make an attempt at the peak tomorrow. Any interest?
8:31AM – Oliver: I’m in
I love it when this happens! My friends are the best! Oliver and I had done a lot of sport climbing together, but never anything big like a winter ascent before. I was excited to get out there with his big smile and super positive attitude. That Thursday, I did some snack shopping, got the gear ready, and studied the conditions and route. The weather was looking perfect: warm temps, low wind, sunny all day, minimal avalanche danger on the approach and the route proper. It was going to be a good one; I knew it! Here’s my kit for the day for those gear nerds out there like me:
- 35L Backpack - Mountaineering Boots - Crampons - Microspikes - Helmet - Ice Axe - Snowshoes - Poles - Light Gloves - Water Proof Gloves - Cold Weather Gloves - Snow Pants - Gaiters - Puffy Jacket - Alpine Shell Jacket - Neck Buff - Beanie - Headlamp - Personal Locator Beacon - Digital Camera - Cell Phone with Downloaded Maps - Smart Watch with Compass, Altimeter, etc. - 1.5L of Water - .5L Hot Tea - Snacks - My "Oh Shit Kit" - med kit, water filter and cup, emergency bivvy, emergency blanket, toilet paper, firestarter, lighter, matches, candle, extra batteries
6:15AM rolled around and we found ourselves hiking up the Cottonwood Creek Trail in perfect moonlight; no headlamps necessary. With the exception of the absolutely astonishing alpenglow of morning light, the first 2.5 miles of the trail were relatively uneventful: solid bootpack had us moving at a great speed all the way up until the first small frozen waterfall. At this point, we were breaking trail. Microspikes came off, snowshoes went on.
This is where the suffering truly began.
We managed through about half of a mile of decent trailbreaking, but we eventually hit some steep slopes that were finally being hit my the intense morning sun. Well folks, we all know what comes next, that’s right: Mashed Potatoes. The following 2.5 miles was some of the worst snowshoeing I have ever experienced: wallowing through sun baked, post holey, south facing, steep snow slopes. We even managed to miss the trail for a decent half mile while climbing up Cottonwood Creek’s final headwall. Having to transition from snowshoes, back to boots for some steeper rock climbing, and back again to snowshoes had us exhausted and severely behind schedule. We rejoiced at the top of the headwall, but looked at our watches and immediately got our asses in gear.
Atop the headwall, the Peak and Needle finally came into view. We craned our necks up to the views of those treacherous, intimidating rocky winter peaks like two little country boys lost in New York City. We were awestruck and honestly feeling a little in over our heads, especially given the time: going on 12:30PM. We broke trail through another half mile to the base of the couloir and stopped for a little snack and chat on what the plan was. Oliver was feeling burnt: just a little earlier on the trail he had pointed up to the couloir and said to me:
“I can tell you one thing: I am NOT getting up that thing today.A Very Tired Oliver
My hips were killing me from the snowshoe sufferfest, but I had still had a lot of energy and was feeling like I could definitely summit today. The biggest problem was the time: it was late: 1:30PM. That only gave us about 4 hours of daylight to not only get up to the summit of the Peak, but also descend the entire trail as well. It had already taken us over 7 hours to get us to where we were currently standing. We decided on a 3:00PM hard turn around time, which we figured would be just enough time to get down the difficult off-trail section we had climbed just a bit earlier. This was the most treacherous part of the descent (mostly thanks to our bad route-finding) and we didn’t want to downclimb it in this dark. We had headlamps and weren’t overly concerned with hiking the final 3.5 miles in the dark as it was pretty tame.
We decided to give it a go. Another transition out of snowshoes and poles and into our crampons and axes and we were hiking up the base of couloir around 1:40PM. The climb was looking long and arduous, but doable. I was surprised Oliver wanted to give it a shot since he was feeling pretty beat. Normally the couloir is approached from higher up on the climber’s right for an easier start, but we decided to get off this horrible snow as fast as possible and started climbing right up the gut as soon as we could. The bottom of the couloir started with not the best snow, but certainly not as bad as what we had experienced all day so far. Not exactly solid, but not soft enough to sink far down. I still felt like I was trudging, so I tried to stay on rock as much as possible for the first few hundred feet of the climb. I have good bit of experience climbing rock with my crampons, but Oliver was struggling a little more with his aluminum crampons and started to fall behind. At a certain point, we had gotten far enough apart, we decided to split off: Oliver descended back to our packs and I continued on to the summit.
About halfway up the couloir, the snow switched from less-than-desirable to truly FANTASTIC! The snow was incredibly wind-swept and ultra consolidated: the kind of stuff dreams are made of, folks. I’m not sure exactly how much, but this perfect front-pointing snow probably went on for a solid 600 to 800 feet. I was getting exhausted, but I tried to get into a rhythm that I could sustain and just kept going.
Dagger, kick, kick, punch, dagger, kick, kick, punch, dagger, kick, kick, punch, dagger, kick, kick, punch, dagger, kick, kick, punch, dagger, kick, kick, punch.
Never has the phrase “One foot in front of the other” felt more relevant. I did my best to sustain my pace and just keep focused on having super solid feet all the way up. Calves burning. Best not to look down at this point. I’m usually pretty good with exposure, but looking down at the 1000+ foot runout on this crazy slick, steep snow had me super focused. I did my best to tap back into my ice climbing lead headspace of “NEVER EVER FALL.” Precision was the name of the game. I would have taken more pictures on the couloir itself, but it was a little too treacherous (and was extremely short on time). When I found a decent rest on some rocks about 200 feet below the saddle and happened looked down at my watch to check the time: 3:20PM. Fuck. I had left Oliver behind at the backpacks and missed my hard turn around time by a solid 20 minutes. I’m not proud to say it, but I still made the decision to push on. I was SO ridiculously close to the summit, I could not turn around at this point (well that’s what my ego was telling me at least).
I finally made it to the saddle that sits between East and West Crestone Peaks. The summit was only a few hundred feet away, but the ridge was covered in deep snow and heavily corniced over the north face. As if this ridge section of the climb was not exposed enough, climbing it with a massive wind cornice that concealed where the solid edge of the cliff actually ended had me climbing slowly, deliberately and as far away from the edge as possible. Just a few hairy minutes on the ridge and I carefully scrambled my way up the final cairn, finding myself standing upon the desolate summit of Crestone Peak in the dead of winter on a bluebird day. I was beyond exhausted and overjoyed to say the least. I uncovered the frozen summit log buried under the snow, snapped a few pictures, choked down a frozen granola bar, took a few seconds to take in the glorious summit views, then hesitantly looked down at my watch: 3:45PM. I got my ass in gear and started moving down that thing as fast as possible, without any time or energy to process what exactly I had just accomplished.
I tried to find a balance between descending quickly and safely. The sickening runout in front of me told my brain to move slow, but my I knew I had to get down to Oliver quickly. I moved deliberately down the slick section, then started moving faster when I got into the softer snow and rock. At this point, I could see Oliver down at the packs. I waved my arms and yahooed out to him in my most joyous “Woohoo!” He reciprocated and was jumping up and down. It was a big relief to me finally know he had made it down safely. We finally reunited at the packs and without pause, immediately started packing up and transitioning back to snowshoes. I apologized to Oliver for selfishly bagging the peak past our hard turn around time, but he was graciously understanding as he always is. More on this topic in the “final takeaways” section of this post.
At this point, we both knew we were out too late. It was 4:45PM and the sun was setting in 45 minutes. We booked it down our trench back to the headwall rather quickly. The combination of not breaking trail, descending instead of ascending, and the snow firming up with the colder night-time temps had us zooming down the descent trench at a great pace. We opted to downclimb our shitty line in favor of staying with our original trench. Neither of us were ready to break trail again and the possibility of finding our original path in the darkness seemed extremely difficult. At the bottom of our more technical downclimb, we strapped on the headlamps, transitioned for one last time to snowshoes and set off into the winter darkness for the final, cold and exhausted 3.5 mile push back to the trailhead. Luckily the rest of the descent was uneventful (just how I like it) and we found ourselves back at the car at 8:15PM feeling pretty dead.
As we were descending the Cottonwood Creek Trail in the dark, following our trench we had made previously in the day about 12 hours ago, Oliver and I reflected upon how much effort and energy went into breaking that trail on the ascent. We kept saying “I can’t believe we did this.” All we were hoping was that someone else got lucky enough to use our trench all the way up to the peak and funny enough, someone did! We saw a winter tent posted up below the main headwall on our way down so I knew someone else would be hitting the Peak or Needle tomorrow. Thanks to the internet and the great community on 14ers.com, user Chrisfish25 thanked us for the trench and had also had a successful ascent of both the Peak and the Needle the following day. Congrats, Chris!
Crestone Peak (14,266′)
South Face, Moderate Snow, 1400ft, Grade II
- ~12 miles round trip
- 9.5 hours car to summit
- 4.5 hours summit to car
- 14 hours round trip
- ~6,000 feet of elevation gain
- My first winter summit of Crestone Peak (14,266′)
And some final takeaways on this arduous day:
- 6:o0 AM start is not nearly good enough. Next time it will be 4:00AM. Maybe even 3:00AM .
- Snowshoeing sucks, but the pain makes it all worth it. Unfortunately at this point, I’m definitely not strong enough of a skier to hit this steep couloir.
- Summiting in the winter brings a whole new level of joy and satisfaction for me. Here’s to many more!
- Sometimes we break our own rules. I try my best to be a great climbing partner but sometimes the ego can get in the way. I don’t exactly condone my actions of selfishly summitting 45 minutes past my hard turn around time, splitting from my partner on a heady run-out climb, or descending the treacherous headwall in the darkness. The truth of the matter is, I am human and I am equally as susceptible to these kinds of heuristic traps as anyone else, regardless of your experience level. From an outside “keyboard warrior” perspective, it’s easy to criticize these kind of actions. I know I would. But these kinds of decisions are significantly tougher to negotiate in the field because our emotions become an integral part of the adventure that cannot be ignored. I’m more than willing to admit that I downright I fucked up on this one. The decisions I made at the top of climb were inconsiderate and outright dangerous to my climbing partner’s life. In the end, there were luckily zero consequences as the result of my actions and we managed to get off from this one alive and still amazing friends and partners. The most important part of having situations like this is to walk away with more wisdom than you started with and hopefully a little more awareness not to make the same mistake again: all in the name of being better mountaineers! Here’s to making better decisions in the future!
- Our trench is definitely still there… Go get it!