Crestone Peak via the Cottonwood Creek Approach

I have three words for you……  don’t. wear. shorts.

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Crestone Peak (14,294’)

East Crestone Peak (14,260’)

12.8 miles

6,110 feet of vertical gain

Solo/8 hours (with breaks and getting gnarled up 8.5494584 billion times)

I want to say I took the non standard Cottonwood Creek approach to test my mountain woman skills but I decided to snag Crestone Peak from the Crestone side because it appeared shorter and easier and I wanted in and out.  Let me stop right there.  This approach is anything but easy.  Gerry Roach describes it as “rugged” and “arduous” and that my friends is an understatement.

A little back story.  Crestone Peak is located in the beautiful and complex Sangre de Cristo mountain range in south central Colorado near Great Sand Dunes National Park.  It is beautifully photographed but only few venture in to snag what are considered some of the more difficult 14ers in the quest to finish all 58.  Crestone Peak makes up a group of 5 (Kit Carson, Challenger, Crestone Needle and Humboldt).  Most climb the Peak, Needle, and Humboldt in one backpacking trip and Kit Carson and Challenger in another.  But, I am not like most people.  I uneventfully climbed Kit Carson and Challenger years ago but had only climbed Crestone Needle and Humboldt in the dead of winter.

Want to read my most epic adventure of all times ever?  I highly recommend clicking here.


Crestone Needle 1/16/14

Never having seen the Crestones sans snow I knew I wanted to climb Crestone Peak before my return to school days.  And having already completed the Cottonwood Creek approach in the winter I thought to myself, it couldn’t possibly be as hard in the summer, right?  WRONG.

Sit back, relax, and get ready for a few good laughs as I relive the pain, agony, slight terror, raw beauty, and sheer excitement of 8 hours spent alone summiting Crestone Peak from the Cottonwood Creek “trail”head.

I am writing this report slightly (way) out of order.  This is actually the most recent mountain I climbed.  So keep in mind I did this on Thursday (8/20).  On 8/19 I solo summited Mount Huron (last Sawatcher!) and ran out her north ridge snagging four 13ers, and on 8/18 I did Tour de Abyss with a good friend, so my legs were far from rested.  I will eventually cover all summer adventures but wanted to write about this experience while it is still fresh.

Here we go……

I arrived at the trailhead around 6 p.m. on Wednesday night.  There have been issues with private property in the past but currently, all is good.  I made friends with several home owners in the area, they all think I’m nuts.  I prepared my running vest (which held my helmet) for the next day, made some soup for dinner, and watched a beautiful albeit hazy sunset.

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camera settings on point

I initially intended on starting in the dark but changed my mind.  The isolation of this approach gave me the mountain lion heebeegeebeez so I started at 6:30 a.m.  This decision turned out to be genius because A) I didn’t get eaten by a lion and B) this route is impossible to navigate in the dark.  Now I can say this because I have experienced it in both winter and summer, the summer approach is harder.  I know, you’re thinking to yourself, “she’s fing insane!”  Perhaps.  I may be desensitized because it’s been a while since January of 2014, but with snow so much is covered up and filled in.  There are no cairns to follow, there are no bushes to whack.  We walked in the general direction and eventually found our way to Cottonwood Lake.  Was it easy? Hell no.  But in the summer when things grow, sting, bite, prick, and cut it’s a tangled web of suck.

However, for the first two miles I was running on a decent (slightly overgrown trail) basking in the glow of my brilliant decision to cut down on mileage while maximizing vertical gain.  Cottonwood Creek ran just south of me for my entire journey.  My adventure was green and full of moss covered rocks, beautiful cascading waterfalls, and colorful wildflowers.  As terrorizing as this route may be it makes up for it in pristine beauty.  There is no trash to pick up.  There is no sign of human life.

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Just as I was wondering why Abe and I had such a hard time in the winter, BOOM….no more trail.  I came to the first steep slab section.  Gerry Roach calls this boiler plate rock.  I got a nice running start at it and then used a little crack to make my way up.

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At this point locate a small cairn hidden under a pine tree leading back into the dense forest.  If not, good luck.  That one cairn leads to many others which leads to the second set of boiler plate rock.  This section is longer and had water running all over it.  Water on this type of rock = deadly.  Here I burned 15 minutes heading north to inhospitable terrain.  Every time I realized I was in crazy town I headed back to the last place I felt somewhat sane and tried something new.  Mountaineering 201, if at first you do not succeed try try again and again and again and again and again.

After negotiating the second set of slabs I weaved straight up the forest, through cracks, pulling some climby moves, crossing the raging creek on an unstable log that sat five feet above (there’s no fancy bridges round these parts), and generally wondering if I could pull this off.  I wasn’t even at tree line yet.

And then all hell broke loose.  At (37.94930N 105.58870W) the west flank of “Crestolita” splits the non existent trail.  I knew I had to head north but a faint trail was luring me southeast and I knew damn well that would dump me in the wrong basin.  Abe and I had made the same mistake in winter even though I am convinced we took a more westerly approach.  The direction I needed to go was a steep deep gully full of downed trees.  So onward I marched in to the wrong basin fighting the battle within until finally I held my breath and made a sharp cut northwest.  Immediately I tripped, fell into a giant mud pit, and started crying.  No, no, I didn’t cry but the rest happened.  After 15 minutes of intense bushwhacking I stumbled across a cairn that led me to a large waterfall where I stopped to gather my thoughts.

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you’ll never find me falls

I sat on a rock for a bit and enjoyed this place because when your only 3.5 miles in and already having an epic you need to appreciate waterfalls and creeks and rocks and stuff. And then out of the corner of my eye I spotted a cairn.  I ran to it and spotted another cairn.  I ran to it, slipped, and fell on my ass.  What was this curious substance beneath my feet?  In all my time spent climbing Colorado mountains I never experienced anything like it.  But tiny dry pine needles of course!  And gazillions of them.  With the grade of the slope being 90 degrees upward I clung to trunks, branches, rocks, anything grounded as I literally clawed my way towards tree line.  I looked down and my hands were bleeding.  Blood, sweat, but this mountain was not getting my tears.

I recognized where I popped out.  Since I was in go mode I took zero photos, put my head down and crossed a large blocky talus slope, whacked through some shoulder deep willows and ended up at the base of the 23 tiered waterfall that tumbled down the center of the basin.  In the winter this was a suspect slope that Abe and I crossed high.  In the middle of it we heard a whomp and a crack shot out.

winter 2

still smiling

I located a doable overhung crack next to the waterfall and made my way up the slick rock to the top of the first head wall.  In the winter this is filled in and we used the snow to easily negotiate the steep slabs.

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I can’t believe you made it this far falls

If the last two miles hadn’t sucked the life out of me, this vantage point did.  Ahead lay a tangled web of scattered pines, deep willow, gnarled up rock, the waterfall that just wouldn’t quit, and the second head wall.

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After a bit of ducking and weaving a very brief moment of reprieve came in the form of a faint trail across an open meadow.  I still had to get down to it but I was so happy.

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climbed through the willows (stage center) and cut right to the slabs

I joyfully skipped through the meadow and then all hell broke loose.  The next twenty to thirty minutes I spent entombed in willows taller then me.  These willows put the Gomer Gulch willows off of Mount Evans to shame.  They were little shop of horror willows and they were eating my soul piece by piece.  I could not see where I was stepping.  I was falling in holes, tripping face first into the 18th dimension of hell.  I had no idea which way was up and which way was down.

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And then like a newborn emerging into this big beautiful world I popped out of the willow vagina on to some more steep wet rock.  I was starting to get the hang of this.  I climbed up more slabby cliffs to another discouraging vantage point.

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looking forward

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looking back

There were hints of a trail here, a cairn there, and then all hell broke loose.  The last bit before entering the final open meadow below Crestone Peak was by far the worst.  I did not have to go east to Cottonwood lake but instead needed to angle north west around Crestone Needle’s south flank toward the base of Crestone Peak.  I found myself climbing up ginormous rock only to look around with no viable route and down climb back into willows.  At one point, I am fairly certain I stumbled across the mecca of poison ivy, although I don’t know if it grows at 12,200 feet.  I crossed Cottonwood Creek only to fall into a deep pool of rock and water.  Go back, retrace your steps, find the way.  To no avail I tried to locate the standard Peak trail or remember something from winter but it was like a completely different place.

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at least it is beautiful

For a brief moment in time I considered turning back but then I saw a rut in the wildflowers and boom, the trail.  I didn’t even think, I set my eyes on the famous Red Gully and started running.  I made it to a large cairn where I sat down and had my first food break and donned my helmet.  I was at 12,600 feet and had to scramble the remaining 1,700 feet if I wanted my summit.  But what happens if it feels like you already climbed four mountains?

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the face of a survivor

So began the easiest part of the day.  Some maneuvering and paying attention to detail is required to enter the gully.  There is a good amount of water running down the center so I crossed back and forth a few times before settling on some left side scrambling.

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In my opinion the most difficult and committing set of moves came in the beginning.

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Right after this I hung a sharp left, crossed the river, and scrambled the rest of the way on the far left.  I have no idea if I was “on route.”  The middle of the gully next to the water looked like a rubble strewn pile of shit.  I never felt like the route I chose exceeded class four and it was solid and fun.  If you’re comfortable and feeling randy, explore a bit.  I probably should not say that when talking about Crestone Peak but after experiencing an Oregon “class 4” back in July, I realize how soft Colorado ranks.

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a small sample

I was having a grand time.  I kept catching myself smiling from ear to ear.  The views were unreal.

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Her siren kept calling me higher and higher.

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Crestone Peak

Eventually the left side terrain turned extra gnar and I angled right towards a window in the final ridge line.  The wind was seriously whipping.

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The last 150 feet was simple and solid.

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the final countdown

I popped over the summit crest and boom there were two gentlemen, David and Dale.

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Dale is into taking photos, as am I, so a well deserved photo shoot we had.

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one small torn up piece of paper inside


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it’s all mine

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look at me, living and shit

I descended back to the actual saddle between Crestone Peak and East Crestone Peak.  I knew I was going to scramble up East Crestone because I want all the sub-summits.  Gerry Roach describes this scramble as a little more difficult then Crestone Peak.  I disagree.  I followed a direct rock rib up the ridge crest and found it an easy scamper.  While I was summiting East Crestone, a couple had finished the traverse between the Needle and Peak and headed for the summit of Crestone Peak.  The wind was absolutely brutal a top East Crestone so I fired off a few photos and jetted down.

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I was able to get a shot of him (can’t remember his name, I believe hers is Beth) on top of Crestone Peak.  Both are members.  They said the Crestone traverse was the last of the four for them.  Their rope was bright orange.  If anyone recognizes them from this absolutely horrible description, let him know I took this.  And congrats you two, it was a pleasure meeting you!

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come forth dear stranger

I descended rapidly and without issue.  I am a far better down climber than I am up climber.  Any moves that gave me pause on the ups were a non issue on the down.  Before I knew it I was headed back to the large cairn to de-helmetize myself.  And then all hell broke loose.

I zigged where I should have zagged and ended up in some cliffed out, wet rocked, gnarled up terrain.  How could this happen!?  I don’t know, but it sure is easy to get lost in the complexity of the Sangres.  I forced a hard left (east) and stemmed my way down a crack in a large cliff band into a gully that led to the freedom cairn.  Here I ate for the second time as the wind whipped me in the face.

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I don’t know how anyone could ever get lost in this

For a brief moment in time I forgot what I had to go through to get to my freedom car.  That’s a total lie.  It was in the back of my head through the entire climb.  Before I knew it I was back in wildflower hell.

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I followed a narrow trail for about 0.2 miles until it petered into nothingness.  I hit dead end after dead end.  Every time I cliffed out or found myself neck deep in willows I would climb as high as possible and locate a cairn or a viable route out.  It worked and before I knew it I was in the open meadow.

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And of course the endless slabs.

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Over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house I went until I reached pine needle way.  I basically crouched down, held my knees, and skied to the bottom.  My hands were bleeding again.  This is how I knew I was going the right way.

I had the same issue with navigation at the split and the cairns were harder to see on the descent but my photographic memory kicked in.  Being in school for three years I know I am a visual learner.  I can take a snap shot of an equation sheet with my brain and then pull it up as an invisible cheat sheet on an exam.  The same goes for mountainous terrain.  I am very good at memorizing….. anything and everything.

Once I crossed the sketchy log I knew I could start running and my only concern was tripping or rolling an ankle.  I did neither and sprinted out feeling exceptionally good.

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When I got back to my car there was a man riding his bike.  He noticed the helmet on my pack and asked me what I was doing.  I told him and he said, “you made it up, up all the way to the summit, through all of that, by yourself?” Why yes sir, I did.

Something happened out there between that dirt road and that mountain summit.  I realized how comfortable with myself I have become.  I have learned to trust my decision making process and have confidence in myself without becoming cocky (which I believe can get the best of the best).  I have solo climbed around one hundred mountains but this one in particular tainted me with accomplishment.  I have never felt so rewarded in executing and completing a plan.

This my friends is not an easy day, but I held strong.

In conclusion, I would NOT recommend the Cottonwood Creek approach to climb the Crestone group, especially solo, unless you love pain, enjoy route finding, like steep wet rock, and mammoth willows get you off.  But if you do find yourself following in my footsteps and those of the many before me, it’s a drop dead gorgeous basin and one of the most rewarding days you’ll ever have.

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"The way to heaven leads right through the depths of hell."


Crestone Peak via the Cottonwood Creek Approach — 9 Comments

  1. Great trip report! I was the guy with the rope, and that was Beth with me. Great pix as well! It was good meeting you.
    Kurt T

  2. Whoa girl, you rock!
    This is totally inspiring!
    Thanks and Congratulations on all your efforts.


    jwendling on

    • Kevin,
      I just read your blog. If you click on the link in the beginning of this write up you will be directed to my report on climbing the Needle in the winter and going down the wrong gully.
      It is so easy to get lost in this terrain and end up on some really gnarly stuff!
      And thank you, I was able to run 4 miles of it total, the rest was well….you know….you went through it too.

  3. Loved reading your report…. just getting into mountaineering myself and can only imagine how grueling that was…. but sounds equally rewarding. Thanks for posting!!!

  4. You are a great writer. Your report and photos take me back to this “trail”. It was 6 years ago but I still have a scar on my arm from the tree branch that stabbed me during this approach. It is a beast! And yes, the climb of Crestone and the red gully is the easy part!

  5. Thank you for making me laugh. Your sense of humor is my favorite part of your adventure.
    What was your total time rt?

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