With a difficult 14 mile hike in front of me, I met up with some other hikers at 5am in order to hike together as a group. I snagged my trail map selfie the previous afternoon so light wasn’t an issue since as we started the trail, the sky was pitch black lighted only by thousands of tiny stars overhead. As we stared up the dark 4.5 mile trail to the ridge saddle, we passed along the icy “Broken Hand Pass” which challenged our route requiring us to find our balancing skills on the icy snow. As we made it to the ridge saddle, the sun was just peaking over the mountain line. This was just a tease because as we hiked down behind the mountain to Cottonwood Lake and into the shadows.
After the group stopped for a short snack break and spent some time skipping rocks on the iced-over lake, we pushed on to one of the more difficult sections of the Crestone Peak: the class 3 scramble up the 2,000 foot red gully. This part of the climb required us to climb on all fours, being extremely careful with each step. With fatigue setting in, it was important to focus and not slip on a rock. Sending a falling rock down the gully at my new friends or even slipping myself would start a dangerous slide. This part challenged my physical ability as well as my mental patience. It seemed like every time I looked up, I was not getting any closer to the top, yet every time I looked down, I was getting higher and higher. Finally, after all of the hard work, we all made it safely the to top of the gully and made a short ascent to the top of the mountain. The view was spectacularly gratifying and humbling at the same time. We just finished the class 3 climb of 7 miles to make it to the top of the first peak and we all showed serious signs of fatigue as we sat and refueled for the next part of the journey. In the background of our rest, the steep spike of the Crestone Needle loomed. Our next step was to traverse the ridge and free climb to the peak with no rope, no harness, and 2,000 foot falls on either side. There is a reason this is one of the hardest traverses possible and that it is not recommended if there is wind of any kind. We, however, had perfect weather as well as an encouraging and safe group to make the attempt. We set out and started our descent along the ridge and around the south face between the two mountains. As we hiked along narrow routes of the mountain, jumping from gully to gully, and slowly made our way over to Crestone Peak, it was difficult not to look around and appreciate the sheer wonderment of nature and how these wonderful structures were created. After assisting a fellow hiker who was lost, we regrouped and the five of us continued on the traverse approaching the Needle. Talking each other through some of the climbing sections and scrambling up the gully we found ourself at the base of the 100 or so foot free climb. This was just as intimidating as I imagined. It mimicked a slightly slanted wall that one would find at a local climbing gym, this rock face was littered with hand holds but lo ledges or reprieve until you reached the top. As I contemplated the climb, I volunteered to go first. Focusing on each point of contact, I slowly made my way up the wall and I instantly understood why this would be nearly impossible with any wind. One slip meant I was in for a very long fall. I fought through the fatigue and mental exhaustion, making it to the top.
I dropped my bag and went back to the edge to help out the rest of my group get to the top, each of us fighting the real and natural fears of slipping. One at a time, all five of us made it to the top and officially completed the Crestone Traverse. Proud and feeling like a large burden was off our backs, we rested and enjoyed the view all around from the Crestone Needle. Being able to look back and see the entire trail and path we had taken to get there gave us a lot of pride and encouragement as we ate and refueled for the descent back to the car. I want to especially thank Sean, Joel, and Brendan for hiking with me and accomplishing this great task with me. You were so great to get to know, trust, and enjoy an amazing day at 14,000 feet. As for Sara, I am very glad we found you and were able to help you complete the Crestone Needle. I think you taught us all a lesson that hopefully we will not have to learn firsthand ourselves.