Sunrise from Crestone Needle
Sunrise from Crestone Needle, Sangre de Cristo Wilderness, Colorado
Crestone Needle is surely one of the most formidable Fourteeners in Colorado. Famed pioneer Colorado mountaineer Albert Ellingwood and his equally intrepid but less celebrated climbing companion, Eleanor Davis, made the first ascent of both neighboring Crestone Peak and Crestone Needle in one astonishingly successful day in 1916. After climbing the challenging north buttress of Crestone Peak, they pioneered the hair-raising traverse from Peak to Needle, which culminates in an exposed 4th-class arête, then found their way down the intricate maze of steep gullies and ribs on the south side of the Needle without ever having been on that side of the mountain before. Even today, mountaineers consider a repeat of their Grand Tour to be a significant accomplishment.
I first climbed Crestone Needle in April 1991 to photograph Lou Dawson making the second ski descent. (No, I did not ski it myself. I too had steel under my feet, but it was in the form of crampons, not ski edges.) Now, more than 20 years later, it was time to return to try to photograph sunrise from the summit. After a week of recovery from my first Sangres expedition of 2012, in which I had climbed Kit Carson, Blanca, Little Bear, and Ellingwood, I headed down the east side of the range to the South Colony Lakes trailhead and backpacked in several miles to a campsite just below the lake. It had been a low snow year, but I still brought crampons and an ice ax to deal with the snowfields below Broken Hand Pass. I intended to climb the south face route that Ellingwood and Davis had descended. Although I would be climbing at night, which would surely magnify the difficulty of the route-finding, I was armed with a device that would have astonished Ellingwood: a GPS receiver loaded with a route created by Bill Middlebrook of 14ers.com.
As usual for the harder peaks, I was on the trail a few minutes after midnight. The Rocky Mountain Field Institute had built a steep but solid trail to a point several hundred vertical feet below Broken Hand Pass. After a few awkward moves past a giant chockstone, with one foot on rock and one foot on snow and ice, I scrambled up the final grungy gully to the pass, then on up the narrow but well-defined trail leading to the beginning of the scrambling. So far, so good. With the GPS pointing me in the right direction, I found my way into the first of the two major gullies on the south face, known to climbers as the east gully. The route-finding crux, I knew, was finding the correct exit from the east gully and entrance into the west gully. If I missed that crucial traverse, the climbing would get much harder.
With the help of the GPS, I found the exit. The climbing was steep, sustained, and exposed, but the rock was solid, and I summited an hour before dawn. After photographing the spectacular view of Crestone Peak at sunrise, I turned my attention to the descent. Almost immediately I realized why so many mountaineers had reached the summit of Crestone Needle, then gotten lost on the descent. Nothing looked familiar. And why should it? It had been 20 years since I had seen it in daylight. Two sharp ridges, both with cairns, seemed to lead in the right direction. I started down the right-hand of the two, thinking it would lead to the west gully and immediately thought, "This is dangerous." I turned the GPS back on and pointed it toward the waypoint I'd created at the top of the west gully. Finally I spotted the gully entrance. I down-climbed a steep wall that I felt sure I hadn't climbed on the way up and reached the top of the gully. Surely everything would now be straightforward. I had set a second waypoint at the beginning of the traverse from the west gully into the east gully. But as I descended the west gully and got close to that waypoint I saw an easy side gully leading up to the crest of the rib between the two gullies. It didn't look familiar, but then again, nothing did. I climbed up to the crest of the rib and peered over. No cairns. I descended back into the west gully and tried a traverse line leading toward the east gully. It proved to be way too steep and difficult, and I retreated. Where was the traverse? The GPS told me it should be right there. Descending still further down the west gully looked nasty. Finally I climbed back up the easy side gully, crossed the rib and headed down the east gully.
Soon I realized that I had traversed too high. I was still above the crux headwall in the east gully - a crux which the crucial traverse would have allowed me to avoid. The gully narrowed and steepened into a chimney with gritty walls. Just as I was about to climb back up the east gully, traverse into the west gully and try for the third time to find the correct exit, I spotted a cairn leading me out of the throat of the east gully onto steep, smooth slabs studded with conglomerate stones the size of grapefruit. The climbing was fourth class but on solid rock. I picked my way down carefully and finally regained the standard route. After one more minor route-finding error I finally reached camp four hours after leaving the summit, deeply impressed and humbled by Ellingwood and Davis's accomplishment in 1916.