• Dennis O'Heney

Crestone Traverse - Mid Winter Attempt

Team: Dennis, Ryan, Cody, and Taylor

Objective: Hike from the 2WD South Colony Lake trailhead and complete the Crestone Traverse using mixed rock, ice, and snow climbing techniques.

Dates: Thursday 2/14/19 to Monday 2/18/19


It was about time for another big road trip, having been about five months since the three of us had driven across the country to climb the Grand Teton in a day. There was much deliberation in the preceding months regarding what objective we were going to go after. A ski descent of the Middle Teton via the East Face and Glacier Route was, and is still, pretty high on the to-do list. After some investigation though, we decided that another season or two of backcountry ski training on steep slopes would be extremely beneficial, as much of the East Face is regarded as no-fall territory.

With the Middle Teton out as a possibility, we turned our search toward other high-intensity, infrequently completed winter alpine ascents. Having climbed the Crestone Needle several years prior, I proposed the option of attempting the Crestone Traverse. This would involve summitting Crestone Peak first, at 14,294 ft, and then traversing along the ridge line for about a half mile to summit the Crestone Needle, at 14,197 ft. The Traverse is most commonly done on either end of the summer months, when temperatures are moderate and days are longer, but we were pretty psyched on the idea of turning this generally 4th class traverse into a mixed route with some bonus adventure points. During the search, we were also able to peak the interest of our friend Taylor, who lives out in Idaho. Hard to say no to another competent friend coming along, especially when they're already acclimated to about 9,000 ft!

With the destination settled, we got to work preparing and training for what we expected to be a 20+ mile day with about 9,000 ft of elevation gain (14,294 feet of prominence if you consider we were driving from sea level...). We took our AIARE I avalanche course in early January to learn how to identify potential avalanche conditions to inform our decisions, as well as practice some avalanche rescue (check out my other post on this course for more information).

Having learned a few lessons from our Grand Teton trip, a heavy focus of the trip prep this time was memorizing the route that we would be taking, along with potential pitfalls along the way. Using 14ers.com as a reference, Ryan printed out reference cards with photos and route descriptions for the most difficult portion of the day - the traverse. I made a pretty ridiculous spreadsheet to assist in estimating our trail time using munter rates and topographic info, also creating GPS track information that we would be able to download into our Garmin watches for reference on the trail.

Daily messages sent back and forth within our group chat kept the psyche high all the way up to the start of the trip. There was also plenty of geeking out over gear options, as everyone except Cody are relatively new to alpine objectives and are still building our gear collection. And plus, who doesn't love debating the merits of 10-point vs 12-point crampons and the applicability of front-pointing capabilities to glacial travel...

Anyway, weeks turned into days, and days into hours, as our departure time came upon us. We were stoked. I left my office at 2 pm sharp, giving myself time to stop by my parent's house en route to pick up Ryan. We planned to officially hit the road from Ryan's by 3:30, and almost hit that target, with an actual start time of 3:40 pm. This time, instead of meeting Cody in Harrisburg, we were to meet him in Washington, PA, at a public parking garage that he had scoped out ahead of time. Having just moved to an area outside of Baltimore, MD, it made a little more sense for him to meet us a little further west this time. We all arrived at the garage around 9:15 pm, within minutes of each other, and about 8 minutes later were back on the road.

We hit a snow storm while driving through Kansas. All Terrain Tires to the rescue though!

Having fine tuned our driving strategy over two weekend-warrior style trips across the country, we've really got these kind of trips down to a "t". We work in four hour shifts, rotating driver to co-pilot, co-pilot to sleeping/resting, and sleeper to driver. This way, after eight hours of being awake, you get to crash for a bit and rest up. We were also pretty excited about this trip for another reason; it was only going to be about 26 hours of driving! That's a whole six hours shorter than both the Grand and Indian Creek trips. It also meant that we'd cycle through the rotation exactly twice, which was a cool bonus.

Flash forward a few hours and we're well on our way, keeping up with our estimated driving times despite some slower rest stops. Pretty sure we were averaging about 12-15 minutes at each rest stop, which you might think is pretty good, but the goal was eight minutes per stop. Despite this, I had reduced our estimated driving speed in the planning stages to an average of 70 mph on the highway, and as a result, driving a little faster kept us on track. Our initial ETA to the trailhead was 6:30 pm on Friday evening, and after excruciating hours through Missouri, Kansas, and the infamously deceitful eastern Colorado, we drove through Westcliffe, CO and pulled into the trailhead parking area at 6:15 pm. Not too bad.

Pretty incredible views of the Sangre de Cristo range driving to our trailhead

Full house in the van as we were getting set to hit the trail.

Along the way, we had been in touch with Taylor, who had started his 13 hour trip from Idaho at around 6:30 Friday morning. He arrived slightly ahead of schedule, just after 7 pm, while Ryan, Cody, and I were finalizing our packs for the morning. We offered him a spot to sleep in the van (it was freezing outside and the van has a heater), but Taylor was pretty psyched to try out his new -20 degree bivy setup. So Taylor set himself up in the bed of his truck and the three of us crashed in the van, finally getting to sleep around 8 pm with our alarms set for 1:30 Saturday morning.

I make it a point to set the most obnoxious alarm possible. For any iPhone users, I'm a big fan of the "Summit" alarm to really get the blood pumping in the early mornings. From our previous experience with alpine starts on big trips, we placed the alarms just about as far away from Ryan as possible, as he offers a 10 second or less money-back guarantee on snoozing alarms. Not this time, buddy. Taylor was up and about right on time too, and we all packed ourselves into the van to don our final layers and eat some breakfast. Key point here for alpine starts, your stomach might protest to food, but your body will thank you in the long run for the calories.

Making the final additions to the packs before hitting the trail.

With packs set, breakfast eaten, and layering over-analyzed, we hit the trail at about 2:10 am, just missing our 2 am goal. Not too bad though. The trail up the old access road was generally frozen snow for the first half mile or so, making for an OK start to warm up the legs. We performed a function check on the avalanche beacons once we were away from the van, making sure we could all find and be found by each other's equipment, and then went to work on the long approach.

The frozen snow on the approach really didn't last too long, and we were soon post-holing through knee-deep crusted powder. We made the switch early to snowshoes in the effort to conserve energy and stay on stop of the snowpack, with Taylor breaking trail as the most acclimated of the group. Keep in mind, the 2WD trailhead is at about 8,600 ft elevation. While not too bad on its own, Cody, Ryan, and I were coming from just about sea level, so we had started ourselves on a diomox regiment during our drive out on Friday. Even with the altitude medication though, I was definitely riding the struggle bus that morning and take credit for the significantly slower-than-planned pace we were averaging.

We arrived at the 4WD trailhead in 1 hour and 41 minutes, just 10 minutes behind our planned pace. Not too bad considering the altitude was hitting me hard, and we (Taylor) were breaking trail the entire way. After a brief break for snacks, breathing, and diomox, we continued up the old Jeep road on our way to South Colony Lake. Now, I really have no idea what happened, but when we arrived at the trail split where a spur trail cuts off of CR120 towards Humboldt, I was slapped in the face with a second wind like I've never felt before. The sun was coming up, headlamps were coming off, and the psyche was high. Here, at just over 11,000 ft, we were catching a first real glimpse of the terrain we'd be covering for the rest of the day; and man was it looking good.

Sun coming out and psyche levels rising!

Now, nothing can ever REALLY go 100% according to plan, right? Well, after continuing along CR120 and taking a break in the shadows of Milwaukee and Broken Hand Peaks, we decided that the Northeast aspects below Broken Hand Peak, where the actual trail ran, posed a slightly higher avalanche risk than we were willing to assume. Generally speaking, for better or worse, we tend to have a slightly higher risk tolerance, and typically decide to continue cautiously and re-evaluate often rather than turn back. In this scenario, we looked towards the trees around which the established trail - still completely unbroken - would have taken us, and elected to cut the corner and bushwhack our way around the potential slide danger.

Approaching the bowl created by Milwaukee and Broken Hand Peaks

Serious bushwhacking in deep powder in the trees on our "shortcut"

While this got us out of the immediate path of a potential slide, the snow in the trees was DEEP and completely unconsolidated. We were working hard at this point to break trail through soft powder while continuing to climb in elevation. A pretty steady rotation from the font of the line to the back was put into place to attempt to keep everyone as fresh as possible, though somehow Taylor still managed to take on the bulk of the trailblazing. Though we were getting tired, and certainly behind schedule, spirits were high and we were still relatively unaffected by the altitude. Thinking about the timing though, the idea that we likely wouldn't have the opportunity to complete the full traverse was starting to sink in.

Time flew by and we arrived at South Colony Lake at just around 9:30 am, definitely way behind schedule at this point. Conditions were also starting to deteriorate, with wind speeds increasing and visibility dropping pretty steadily. The weather forecast had called for strong winds in the morning, but easing in the late morning/early afternoon with clouds fading away. Unfortunately for us, as we were ascending Broken Hand Pass in whiteout conditions, the winds were holding strong.

About halfway up Broken Hand Pass with the snow and wind still going strong!

Pushing through snow and wind, switchbacking our way up Broken Hand Pass

The ascent up Broken Hand Pass was pretty brutal, as we broke switchbacks into the steep snow, assessing slope and snowpack conditions along the way, checking intermittent hand shear tests to evaluate our avalanche danger. The primary avalanche danger for the day was persistent slabs on Northwest to Southern aspects, with our path ascending a 40-degree slope east-northeast aspect. We spaced ourselves out on some of the more exposed gully traverses as we approached the main ascent, but once we were into the meat of it, it was just switchback after switchback for about 2,000 vertical feet. Heinous, painful, exhausting, and yet for some reason, totally awesome.

Breaking near the top of the pass, we found shelter in some rock outcroppings. There, we made the difficult decision that the traverse was not going to happen that day, and we would instead push to attempt a summit of just the Crestone Needle.

With that in mind, we dropped a little bit of extra weight in the 7.7 mm 70 meter rope we'd brought, and pushed on for the remaining 400 feet or so of the ascent.

Taking a breather about 400 feet shy of the top of the pass in a rock outcropping

When we got to the top of the pass, we were really discouraged by what we were greeted with. We estimated 50 mph sustained winds, gusting to maybe the 70 mph mark, and a total whiteout. Having climbed the needle, I was pretty familiar with the 3rd class scrambling to get up the gullies, and some of the more technical portions. Knowing that route finding would be key, and that we would need at least a few hours to make the trip up and start our descent, we arrived at the group consensus that the smart decision was to soak in our ascent to 13,600 ft atop the pass, and turn back to get out of avalanche territory before dark. A pleasant surprise though, while I was beginning to feel the onset of altitude sickness symptoms, we were overall, in relatively good condition. Had the weather been better, we would have pushed on without issue. Unfortunately, though, terrible weather conditions and even mild altitude sickness really don't mesh.

At the top of Broken Hand Pass, looking up at the trail to the Crestone Needle Summit. Strong winds and zero visibility mean time to turn around!

Looking out over Broken Hand Pass towards Cottonwood Lake. This would be the route taken to summit Crestone Peak and continue the traverse.

Starting the descent from Broken Hand Pass

Cody hanging out near the top of Broken Hand Pass

Taking a couple of high-point photos, we switched from snowshoes to crampons and ice axes for the way down, hoping to be able to slide a bit here and there. Departing the summit at around 12:30 pm, we had about four and a half hours of sunlight left to get ourselves back onto our broken trail. We made pretty good time though, descending the pass in under two hours, over an hour faster than our ascent. The winds were only getting worse though, and we felt like we were in a wind tunnel until we were back into the trees after South Colony Lake. The combination of wind and snow had us covering every possible part of our faces to combat pelting, ice accumulation, and frost bite. Taylor's nose actually built up a solid coating of ice, luckily though, he runs hot enough that there was a thin film of water between his skin and the ice, so it was easily dealt with.

Once at the bottom of the pass, we were tired of post-holing and switched back from crampons to snowshoes, grabbed a quick water break, and kept on pushing. We elected to at least start out on the established trail this time, coming closer to the eastern face of Broken Hand Peak, but again, ducked back in to the trees to get out of the immediate runout zone for any potential slides. Bushwhacking our way downhill this time, even through fresh powder, was much easier than the way up. We ended up taking the path of least resistance back towards our tracks, and rejoining the established trail near where we previously rested at the foot of Milwaukee and Broken Hand Peaks. At this point, the weather was actually starting to ease up, and it was turning in to a pretty great day. Bummer, right?

Marble Mountain as seen from the trail, en route back to the 4WD trailhead

Blue skis after bailing at Broken Hand Pass. Big-time bummer

Anyone, the rest of the day was pretty straightforward, in large part due to the fact that we could just retrace our previously broken trail. We made pretty great time overall in getting from South Colony Lake back to the van. Making the trek in just over four and a half hours, shaving about three full hours off of the approach in. With the sun now out and the mountains posing for us, we had mixed emotions of disappointment in having to bail, but also just general happiness at being able to spend a day chasing a crazy objective in the mountains.

We finally got back to the van at around 6:30; hungry, tired, and wondering when we'd be able to get back to give it another shot. All in all, it was really an incredible day, and being able to get out there with three of my best friends, getting after a big-time, seldom done winter traverse is always a welcome adventure.

I'm going to write about the importance of decision making in the backcountry some other time, but I just want to say now that it is beyond important to take a beat and really think about what you're getting yourself into when you decide to push through adverse conditions. Be it weather, physical fitness, gear malfunctions, or something else, the goal should always be to be able to get back out there another day.

Making some protein vancakes the morning after the attempt.

Anyway, we all crashed pretty hard after this, hitting the hay at around 8 pm again, this time falling asleep much easier than the forced early bedtime the night before. Taylor also took us up on the spot in the van too, helping me to hit a new record of sleeping four people in the van at once! We slept until about 5-6 am, slowly waking up and putzing around on phones or just hanging out. Protein pancakes (vancakes) were made and stoke was spread over potential future trips, and then Taylor was the first to hit the road to head back home.

Ryan, Cody, and I eventually hit the road around 9:45 am (Sunday), and pointed ourselves North towards Denver. We had called a few of our friends in the area to meet up for lunch and peruse the REI flagship store (how could you not?) before hitting the road for our roughly 24 hour drive back home.

There's not much to say about the trip back, everything went smoothly and there was much talk about future objectives and tiny houses (as happens when Cody and I are together). I broke a personal driving record in Kansas, the details of which I'll keep to myself, and we somehow escaped the snow storms until hitting central PA. We dropped Cody back off at his truck around 3:30 pm (now Monday), and made great time in getting back to Ryan's by about 8:30 pm. It was definitely awesome to get back from a trip like this with enough time to crack a beer and relax for a bit before having to get to bed and mentally prepare for work the next day.

Some may say that the trip was unsuccessful because we didn't even get on to the Traverse. I would argue differently. We drove about 3,400 miles safely without incurring any moving violations in a total of about 56 hours on the road; brought Taylor to a new personal highest elevation; got out into the mountains and put our minds and bodies to the test in pursuit of a seriously ambitious goal; and proved to ourselves (and my mother) that we can make the tough call when the time comes. We may not have summitted anything, really, but we'll definitely be back for more.

Check out the gallery below for a bunch of shots from the trip!

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