North Couloir - June 23, 2001
Three day weekend – sounded like it was time for the Crestones. Gary, Diana, and I headed south with a provisioning stop in Colorado Springs before continuing into the Wet Mountain Valley and an ascent up the Colony Lakes Road. We took two trucks, Gary’s full size and my Toyota, and the plan was to take the Toyota up the road. I had been to the lakes twice before, once in a marathon foot slog and once on a rained out Needle climb. For those who have not yet had the pleasure of driving this 4WD track, it really is not that bad if you have some driving skill, are willing to tear off a mud flap in the process, and truly believe that a truck was made to do this type of trip and not reserved for taking the rug rats to soccer on Saturday. Having abused my first Toyota for 242,000 miles before it gave up the ghost, I felt confident that I could navigate this road in my only means of transportation.
Seriously, the drive took about 70 minutes to cover a bit over 6 miles and you do have a few crux moves that you should scope out before attempting. That said, we shifted all the gear to the Toyota and placed Diana in the rear of the extended cab for what must have felt like an eternity. We camped a few hundred yards below the top of the road and were set for an early morning departure. We debated which peaks to climb in what order. I already had been up Humboldt but none of us had attempted either of the Crestones. We settled on Crestone Peak, then Crestone Needle, and then a half-day on Humboldt.
Since I had been to the Crestones before I led up through the woods on the trail toward Lower Colony Lake. We skirted the lower lake on the high side, passing the Humboldt trail juncture and then headed up the valley toward its head below Crestone Peak. We hit the snow just above the Upper Lake and then climbed one of the lesser-angled couloirs at the head of the valley, landing us on the Bear’s Playground. From this down sloping plateau, one heads toward the north face of Crestone, crossing over an obvious rib and then continuing to find the base of the North Couloir. We did not really see it until you turn the last corner and then the route up was obvious, obviously a bit of a challenge that is. We had been on low angle snow for most of the trip from the playground and but now donned the crampons to head up the mixed climb to the summit. The first couple of hundred feet were steep snow, then a rock pitch, then steeper snow complete with a lovely band of hard blue ice. We crossed the blue band and onto another rock pitch, composed of rock bedded in such a way as to deposit an errant climber in couloir center for the long ride down. We gave this route the degree of respect it demanded and Gary and Diana opted to descend while I continued on about 300 more feet to the red saddle and summit beyond. The remainder of the climb was mixed snow and rock with Class 4 climbing, equivalent to some of the pitches near the summit on Capital. I met some other folks on the summit but did not linger, as I wanted to catch up with the others by the time, they reached the Bear’s Playground.
The descent was uneventful but for the blue ice band which required a moment of care to negotiate. Then on down the snow climb and across the various snowfields between the base of the couloir and the Playground. I met up with Gary and Diana as they down climbed the couloir leading from the Playground to the small lakes that lie below the sheer face of Crestone Peak. We packed away the crampons at the base of the snowfield and hoofed our way back to camp and campfire dinner. The climb took from five a.m. until about three in the afternoon and we were beat but satisfied to have gotten in the experience of a challenging mixed climb. We felt the key to this couloir was an early start, early in the morning and early in the season. It is a long haul beyond the Humboldt cutoff to get to the start of the climb to the Playground and on to the North Couloir beyond. With regard to season, we feel we were two weeks late and that had we hit the peak earlier, the couloir would have been a snow climb and not mixed rock, snow, and ice. This would have put the entire party on top instead of a single member. Regardless, the North Couloir is not to be trifled with and demands that any party attempting the route have the requisite skills.
A later climb of the Needle . . .