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Sunrise from Crestone Peak

Sunrise from Crestone Peak, Sangre de Cristo Wilderness, Colorado

Sunrise from Crestone Peak, Sangre de Cristo Wilderness, Colorado

There is no easy approach to Crestone Peak. Approaching from South Colony Lake requires climbing to Broken Hand Pass at nearly 13,000 feet, then descending 600 vertical feet to Cottonwood Lake. From there the route climbs a steep gully called the Red Couloir that splits the south face of Crestone Peak. Finding the entrance to the gully, which begins just above a cliff, sounded like the only route-finding challenge. I would need to find my way around that cliff to the right in the dark, then find the entrance to a narrow bench that would lead me back to the base of the Red Couloir. If I missed that entrance I would be confronted with impassable cliffs.

I planned to start the day after climbing Crestone Needle with a sunrise shoot at South Colony Lake, then move camp over Broken Hand Pass to Cottonwood Lake. When I got up at 4:30 a.m. I could tell immediately there was much more moisture in the air than there had been when I went to bed. The sky was overcast as I hiked by headlamp up to the edge of South Colony Lake. As the gloom lightened, I could see that the tip of Crestone Needle was shrouded in mist. Catching up on lost sleep suddenly seemed like a much better idea than wasting time standing around on a sodden gray morning. I resisted the urge to hurry back to my warm sleeping bag and waited. Then, to my surprise, the rising sun found a hole in the mist and cast a band of warm light across the dramatic cliffs of Crestone Needle, which was reflected in South Colony Lake. I held my breath and started shooting, praying the wind would stay calm to preserve the reflection. When the light show faded, I returned to camp, packed up, and headed up Broken Hand Pass. By the time I arrived at Cottonwood Lake, all traces of mist had vanished and the day had become sunny and hot. I turned in early, expecting a clear sunrise the next day.

The Rocky Mountain Field Institute has built a solid trail to the base of the Red Couloir. I had hiked far enough up the trail the previous day to get a look at what I needed to do, and I thought the route-finding would be straightforward. But I lost the trail in the dark in a big talus field. The GPS route I had downloaded from wasn't helpful; it kept pointing me straight up a cliff band. If I was below the entrance to the bench, I should go up and right; if I was already above it, I should go down and left. After wasting several precious minutes wandering around in the dark, I finally tackled the cliff band head on and soon got back on route.

From there the route-finding was straightforward. After dealing with the crux ‒ some steep slabs near the bottom of the couloir ‒ the difficulty eased. I was already a thousand feet up the gully when the stars suddenly vanished. Mist welled up from the abyss below and swallowed me. My headlamp had been throwing a usable shaft of light for nearly 100 yards. Now it began reflecting off the mist. It was like driving on a foggy night with your high beams on. Suddenly I could barely see twenty feet.

I debated descending but remembered how quickly the fog had dissipated yesterday morning after the sun rose. I continued upward, cautiously, as the fog ebbed and flowed. A fantastic scene greeted me on the summit as the sun rose. Waves of fog were rolling up the valleys to the west, cresting the jagged ridges all around me, then breaking like waves. Warm light from the rising sun shone through the fog and kissed the crests of the waves. I photographed in every direction until the light grew harsh and the fog dissipated, then headed down. After breaking camp, I hiked energetically back to Broken Hand Pass, fueled by the excitement of the unique scenes I'd just witnessed. A strong west wind was building as I crested the pass and headed down the east side. By the time I reached a campsite below South Colony Lake, the wind was screaming even down in the trees. After a restless night spent lying awake wondering if the tent poles would break in the next gust, I packed up and headed for Mt. Lindsey. I had one more Fourteener to climb before heading home.

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