Jodi looking back at Crestone Needle (14,197 ft.) at sunrise
When I climbed Crestone Needle last summer, I knew it wasn’t going to be the last time I’d climb it. Of all of Colorado’s 14ers that I’ve hike/climbed thus far, it is my favorite scramble. There’s something about the distinctive rocky, multi-colored knobs that are a part of the conglomerate rock that makes up much of the Crestone Group so much fun! Before I had a number of Class 3 and Class 4 climbs under my belt, I was very intimidated by the Needle. Now that I consider myself a bit more experienced, I figured that it would be nice to see how much my scrambling skills and confidence had improved.
The first time I met Jodi was back in April at the 14ers.com Spring Gathering. A few weeks later, we made plans with another member, Sandy, and hiked up Humboldt Peak as a snow ascent. Since then, Jodi and I have kept in touch and met-up a couple of times for drinks and/or meals. Once, she drove up to Colorado Springs for a meeting and I took her downtown to a Mexican restaurant. A week later, after my failed attempt at climbing Kit Carson Peak’s north ridge (I was spooked off by the weather), I stopped through Cañon City and had lunch with her. Needless to say, Jodi’s one of the coolest women that I know. When I decided early in the week that I wanted to climb Crestone Needle again, I looked to her as a climbing partner. I knew she was capable; she had climbed Crestone Peak earlier in the summer. My choice of peaks provided me an opportunity to enjoy her company once again.
I picked Jodi up at her house at 2:30 AM and we drove through Westcliffe to the South Colony Lakes trailhead. We were on the trail at 4:00. I had originally wanted to start out a little earlier, but came to a painful realization that the sun is rising later in the morning as we approach Autumn. I didn’t want to have us climbing up Broken Hand Pass in the dark, so told Jodi we should probably leave a little later. The South Colony Lakes trailhead used to be a couple of miles further up the road, but the Forest Service closed that trailhead and moved it to its new location due to damage being done to the road by vehicles. When I summited Humboldt Peak for the first time, I started my hike from that old trailhead and it made the trip a lot shorter. Adding another five miles to the round-trip total was going to be interesting.
With our headlamps blaring, Jodi and I crossed a very new log bridge, signed-in at the register, and began making our way up the dark road. Hiking on it wasn’t difficult; it was just long and tedious. We enjoyed our conversation which helped pass the time. It seemed like it took us a little over an hour to reach the old trailhead at our leisurely pace. We crossed another bridge over a creek and found our way to a familiar gate. Above us, we could see the outline of Crestone Needle and Broken Hand Peak. The road continued past the gate, but eventually turned into more of a trail. I remembered from my last trip to this area that the campsites near the South Colony Lakes was not too far away. We entered the tree canopy and gained a little bit of elevation before encountering campsites. Coming to a wooden sign that read “Crestone Needle Standard Route”, we turned left and began our ascent of Broken Hand Pass.
From the trail turn-off, we began to gain elevation pretty quickly. As the eastern horizon was lightening, I saw lower South Colony Lake below us to the right. When we were high enough on the trail, we stopped to watch the sun rise over the Wet Mountains to the east. Our view of sunrise was unobstructed and beautiful. Having experienced sunrise in this area a few years ago, I knew that the Needle was soon going to be bathed in a rich, red hue. We marveled at the changing color of light as the sun rose for a few minutes before continuing on. I had never been up Broken Hand Pass from this side; when Matt and I climbed the Crestones last year, we did it from the other side via the Cottonwood Creek trailhead (with permission from the Manitou Foundation). I heard that it contained a lot of loose soil and rocks and was generally not enjoyable to climb (it has a few short Class 3 sections). I wasn’t looking forward to it — and neither was Jodi.
a few weeks prior to our climb, a couple from Texas died while trying to climb the Ellingwood Arête on Crestone Needle. They were caught in a torrential downpour and were washed right off the side of the mountain. It was another sad tragedy in what has been a deadly summer in the mountaineering community. The same storm damaged the trail up Broken Hand Pass, washing out a portion of it. As we started getting higher and approaching sketchy rock, we stopped to don our helmets. I gave Jodi my compact camera and asked her to take some photos for me. The trail damage from the rainstorm that killed the two climbers was deep and very obvious; it looked like a couple of huge boulders slid right down the mountain. Jodi and I gingerly crossed the damaged portion of the trail before scrambling up some pretty solid rock. On top of the pass, I counted at least five people that I could see. I had no idea of how many people were truly up there. Above the short scramble, we found the trail again and found our way up to the top of Broken Hand Pass.
Looking back down Broken Hand Pass. Lower South Colony Lake is visible (photo courtesy of Jodi)
The wind was blowing pretty strongly at the top of the pass. Jodi decided to put on her fleece before we continued on. From there, the trail was familiar to me having climbed the Needle last summer. We needed to traverse to the northwest toward the base of the East Gully and then ascend it. To keep the climb at Class 3, we then needed to traverse over to the West Gully and climb to the summit from there.
Crestone Needle seen from the approach to the East Gully
Jodi and Humboldt Peak on our way to the base of the East Gully
A photo of me on the approach to the East Gully
Looking up Crestone Needle’s East Gully
Jodi and I made short work of the traverse from Broken Hand Pass to the base of the East Gully. There were a couple of short Class 3 scrambles along the way, but nothing major. When we reached the base of the East Gully, we stopped for a short rest before beginning our ascent of the Needle. Once rested, I took the lead and started climbing the knobby conglomerate rock. Not to be outdone, Jodi ascended quickly behind me and looked like a pro! I thoroughly enjoyed that portion of the climb. The tricky part was going to be finding the crossover point to the West Gully. If I had been with Jerry or Brian, I probably would have wanted to ascend the entire East Gully, but past the crossover area it forms a Class 4 dihedral which I didn’t think Jodi would be comfortable climbing, so I wanted to keep our climb at Class 3.
Jodi and I reached the crossover point and traversed into the West Gully. Upon entering it, I spotted something peculiar. Someone had placed a white trash bag under a rock. I thought this sort of odd, but we paid scant attention to it and moved on. The climb up the West Gully was a little bit steeper than what we had encountered on the east side, but all of the rock was solid and fun to scramble up. All along the way, we heard voices — loud voices — but couldn’t figure out how many people were ahead of us. Jodi heard someone exclaim, “God, this sucks!” at one point when we were in the East Gully. Apparently, someone not too experienced among them.
A few shots looking up the West Gully during our ascent
When we were getting pretty close to the top of the West Gully, a few climbers began their descent. We were immediately informed that there were about twenty Texans on the summit. Great. Not only were we going to have to share the summit with all of those people, but the group was mostly inexperienced. I told Jodi that we were going to be spending at least an hour on the summit after they left it to allow them enough time to get down. When we reached the top of the gully, I found another white trash bag under a rock. Really? This one annoyed me because if I attempted to take a summit panorama while the Texans were on top, it would be a part of it. Grrr. Behind us was another couple who were about to summit as well. I gave them a heads-up about what we were about to encounter. Jodi and I walked over to the summit past the Texans and went to the far west side of it to find a place to rest. Fortunately, the Texans were about to start their descent. We only ended up sharing the summit with them for five minutes or so. Thank goodness. They were being pretty loud.
Once the crowd was dispatched, Jodi and I settled down with the other two climbers and enjoyed the summit to ourselves. I looked over at Crestone Peak; Jerry was supposed to be attempting the Peak-to-Needle traverse, but I didn’t know how long it was going to take him to complete it. He invited me to join him, but I didn’t think that Jodi was going to be up to attempting something that technical. When I mentioned Jerry’s intent to Jodi, she commented that she would like to meet him sometime. To my surprise, one of the two people we were sharing the summit asked, “Oh, do you know Jerry?” When I told him that Jerry has been my climbing partner for most of the summer, he asked, “Are you Terry Mathews? You did that northwest ridge route on Little Bear, didn’t you?” It was a bit of a shock to me that someone knew who I was. Apparently, the climbers (a man and his wife) had met Jerry at the campground near lower South Colony Lake.
The couple also informed Jodi and me that there were about fifty-five Texans altogether that were camped down there. They drove up and hiked to the campground on Thursday, then hiked up Humboldt Peak on Saturday. They were apparently on some kind of endurance trip or something. A bunch of them vomited on the way up Humboldt; there was a little bit of vomit on the summit of the Needle with us as well. It was not the most intelligent thing that I’ve ever seen done. The woman also said that they were up all night yelling across the campground to each other and that she caught a lot of them cutting down live trees to use as firewood. It’s people like this who end up giving people from their state a bad reputation up here. They just don’t have any respect for other campers or leaving the environment in the same condition it was in when they arrived.
Panorama taken from the summit of Crestone Needle
While we all sat and refueled for about fifteen minutes, I saw someone scrambling up the west side of the summit. It was Jerry! He was with another climber, Mark, whom he had met on the way up the Peak. We all greeted Jerry and I introduced him to Jodi. When I told him who he just missed, Jerry confirmed that they, indeed, kept him up into the night as well. Our summit mates left after about twenty minutes or so and bade us a fond farewell. The rest of us must’ve talked for an additional twenty minutes or so before deciding that we had allowed the Texans enough time to get far ahead of us. Before departing, though, I wanted a couple summit shots.
Jodi on the summit of Crestone Needle
Here I am holding my copy of Albert Ellingwood: Scholar of Summits by Jeff Arnold. Earlier this year, Jeff contacted me and asked permission to use one of my photos of Ellingwood Point in his book. My photo is on page 22 of his book!
Mark, Jerry, Jodi, and I began our descent of the Needle down the West Gully. We didn’t descend down quite far enough and traversed over into the East Gully too soon. Rather than crossing back over to the West Gully again, we decided to down climb the Class 4 rock. I didn’t know how much Class 4 experience Jodi had, but she handled it quite admirably. She asked me to stay close to her so I could spot her foot placements, which I gladly did. There was a fun dihedral that we had to stem our legs across to climb down. It was a blast! Jodi looked like she was having a lot of fun. I certainly did! I caught quite a few photos of her down climbing.
We eventually got back down to the Class 3 portion of the East Gully. Instead of down climbing back to the trail, we decided to traverse over to the east a little further and climbed down. It was an unfamiliar route to me, but we had all of the same kind of knobs and rocks to descend on, so it ended up being a lot of fun. Right at the end, there was a bit of a gap to leap over. I stood on the edge of the rock and leaped over the gap onto the rock below me. Jodi was uncomfortable doing the same and managed to climb down and jumping over the gap from a lower angle. Upon doing so, she hopped once and threw her hands up in the air. “I give that dismount an 8,” I said.
“Yeah, there was a bit of a hop right there at the end, wasn’t there?” she replied. We laughed and continued to descend to Broken Hand Pass.
The wind was still whipping at Broken Hand Pass. When we started descending down toward lower South Colony Lake, they dissipated a bit. Jerry and Mark went ahead of us. At one point, Jerry climbed atop a small spire and I took a photo of him with Humboldt Peak in the background. Once we were all past the Class 3 climbing the trail deteriorated, so we had to take it a little slower to avoid slipping or sending a rock slide down below us. Finally, we got onto more-stable rock and I stopped to take off my helmet. While I did, I looked down and saw some sort of fossilized plant. It was pretty cool, so I took a photo of it. Jodi joined me soon afterward and I pointed it out to her. It was a day of discovery!
Jerry and Mark had pulled way ahead of Jodi and me. By the time we reached Jerry’s campsite, Mark had already left for the trailhead. Jerry asked if we were going to wait for him or head back. We weren’t in a hurry, so we helped Jerry pack up a little and together we headed back to the trailhead. Jerry just completed seven 14ers after being on vacation for seven days, so he was tired and ready to get back home. The hike back to the trailhead was long, hot, and arduous. We passed several backpackers on the way down and warned them of the fifty-five Texans at the lake, but Jerry thought they were going to be on their way out that day, too. We arrived back at the trailhead and Jerry gave another hiker a ride down to the lower trailhead while Jodi and I unwound for a few minutes. Before long, we were back on the road, ourselves. We met Jerry at the lower trailhead and decided to head into Westcliffe together for a bite to eat.
Westcliffe had some sort of celebration going on. We asked about the big tent on the west side of town, but after talking to a couple of locals, we found out that they would charge us $15 to get in. I asked if there was a place to get pizza at and was told of a geodesic dome in Silver Cliff that served good pizza. Jodi, Jerry, and I went there and ordered a few personal-sized pizzas, enjoyed some drinks, and good conversation. After dinner, we bade Jerry a fond farewell and I took Jodi home to Cañon City before heading home, myself. I hope I get to climb with her again in the near future!
GPS stats taken from our climb up Crestone Needle
Google Earth .KML file of my route (right-click and “save target as” to save the file). NOTE: For some reason, if you’re using Internet Explorer, when you “save target as”, it changes the file extension to .XML. This is incorrect. To be able to view this in Google Earth, change the file extension to .KML before saving the file. It downloads correctly in Firefox.