The Crestone Traverse

Follow our directions for this advanced scramble that connects two prized fourteeners.

Colorado claims four “Great Traverses:” the Maroon Bells, El Diente to Mount Wilson, Little Bear to Blanca and the spicy route linking 14,203-foot Crestone Needle and 14,295-foot Crestone Peak in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. If you’re seeking an adventure with a bit of pucker factor and you have the requisite skills to pull it off, the rewards on this last one are well worth the effort.

Scaling these jagged sentinels requires common sense, preparation and a healthy respect for risks associated with traveling on exposed terrain in the high peaks. To enjoy your trip and be safe, you must possess technical climbing and rappelling skills, plus solid route-finding chops and be comfortable moving through exposed terrain. You’ll down-climb sketchy couloirs, traverse steep rock and negotiate snowy sections, since the white stuff lingers into July. Though you can tackle the traverse from either direction, we describe the Peak to Needle route, since we prefer to climb the tougher section up the Needle, rather than rappelling it, which requires a rope. Here’s everything you need to know about this inspiring climb before setting out.

Trailhead: You can access this route from Cottonwood Creek, Spanish Creek or Willow Creek Trailheads, but the shortest approach (described here) starts at the South Colony Lakes Trailhead, 12 miles southwest of Westcliffe (75 miles from Colorado Springs). Four-wheel drive is highly recommended since it will cut out a 2.5-mile march down a rough road.

When to Go: Mid-week, mid-July through August. Skip weekends if possible. The word is out about this special spot (um, no thanks to us now, too) so don’t expect solitude, but off-peak times will at least bring more peace and ease finding a campsite.

When Not to Go: If the forecast calls for a high likelihood of thunderstorms or precip of any sort. Depending on how fast you move, the traverse is a one-to-four-hour commitment; the only options for safe escape are backtracking to Red Gully or finishing the traverse. Keep an eye on the sky and bail before proceeding. Exposed rock turns slick and scary in rain, and this is no place to ride out a lightning storm.

Gotta-have Gear: A helmet to protect your noggin. A small lightweight pack so you can remain nimble while scrambling and/or climbing. A camera to capture the stunning views. Depending on conditions, time of year, and experience level, your group might consider a rope, ice axes and crampons. 

The Climb

Day 1: Hike up to the lower South Colony lake area from South Colony Lakes Trailhead. Secure a campsite, rest up (tomorrow’s a big day!), and bask in the beauty of this stunning spot perched at 11,600 feet. Another fourteener, 14,065-foot Humboldt Peak looms to the north and Crestone Needle rises to the west.

Day 2: Depending on the forecast and your speed and group size, you’ll want to leave camp sometime between 2 and 4 a.m. so you can successfully climb the South Face of the Peak and cross over the Needle via the traverse well before thunderstorms even begin to threaten anytime from 11 a.m. on. Along the way, look for the following key benchmarks.

Broken hand pass: From South Colony Lake follow a well-worn trail that cuts up a rugged slope and finally climbs the narrow 400-foot couloir leading to Broken Hand Pass, a small notch that makes an ideal spot to watch sunrise. Take care. The terrain is rough (low Class 3 scrambling with fall potential on loose rock) and snow-covered well into July.

Red gully: From the narrow saddle, drop down toward Cottonwood Lake, meander through a verdant basin resting in the shadow of both the Needle and the Peak, and scramble up a stretch of solid rock before entering the Red Gully itself.

Red saddle: Enjoy ascending about 700 feet—some sections require hands and feet, but solid rock and a reasonable slope make it fun—to reach this 14,180-foot notch in the ridge. From here, a surprisingly simple 250-foot scramble carries you to the summit, and breathtaking views.

Find the traverse: Descend about 300 feet past the saddle to find the gully exit/traverse entrance. Scramble southeast, turn a corner, and hit a ledge system that skirts under steep buttresses.

Stay on Route: Keeping well below the ridge is key at this point. You will want to pass just below the saddle between the Needle and the Peak, follow an inviting ledge system down and around the foot of a sizeable peak (13,940 feet), and skirt three gendarme rock formations (taking care on exposed moves and loose rock) before climbing up to the ridge for the crux.

Crux: Climb an airy 100-foot pitch littered with strong holds to top out on the Needle. 

Deliberate Downclimb: Descend the Needle’s south face with care; these slick, exposed gullies have a huge fall potential and if you’re human, you’re tired from the exertion of climbing. From Broken Hand pass, descend the way you came. Pack up and head all the way back to the car, or enjoy another night under the stars.

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