At least once a year, some unfortunate climber sends the local search & rescue office into full gear. It is actually crazy to see the data! Luckily, fate was kind to me as I embarked across climbing from Crestone Peak to Crestone Needle, otherwise known as one of the four Great Traverses in Colorado.
Backpacking into South Colony lakes was unreal. It felt like the world was closing in on me and I was safely protected within the bosom of this range. The Sangre de Cristos, and specifically Crestone mountains, have been very influential in my climbing experience. They have left me battered, afraid, hopeful, satisfied and all emotions in-between. The evening light rain showers welcomed me, refreshing me for the night ahead.
Awoke at 2am with more eager anticipation than usual, after-all, today I would climb my last first Colorado 14er. There was something bittersweet about knowing this will be the end of an era. However there was equally something comforting in the perspective of how far I’ve come throughout this journey.
Found company around 3am in the darkness of moonlight. The headlamps of two older men would shine yards away, and I knew we were both chasing the same thrill. We sling shot on the switch-backs, exchanging awkward hello again’s, and eventually resolved to just climb together as we were clearly able to keep up with each other.
Chris and Wade surprised me when they took out their ropes and harnesses going up the first summit, Crestone Peak. While I confidently hung behind, without a rope or care in the world, I found it useful to pick up some basic partner ropes skills while watching them climb the loose terrain. One does not simply climb these mountains.
The sun was breaking across the mountain range, and each peak greeted us with a soft, yellow smile. I was in awe of the rays of sun striking the side of the red gully. It was so inspiring that I needed to feel it. I spontaneously removed my approach shoes and climbed into the light. The rock was smooth and numbing, swallowing my stomach while I basked in the sun. I only recently starting removing my shoes at random points along the 14er hikes, simply to feel the earth, or rock, beneath me. Feels silly, but don’t knock it until you try it.
After the endless scramble of the red gully, we made the summit, just in time to watch the peaks light up. I typically don’t bring coffee past 13,000ft, however I really wanted all the cozy comforts to simultaneously stimulate my heart with emotion on this last climb. Made a cuppa and watched the sand dunes in the distance. From this vantage point, one could see all of the San Luis Valley, and if you squint just right, the mystical magic it held.
It was during our climb down and toward the traverse cairn that we began to see people. I typically prefer less people around for these more technical climbs, however I embraced everyone with the biggest grin. Practically hugging strangers on the mountain. Not really.
Anyway, we made our way across the rocky face of the traverse with one route in sight. The famous black Gendarme rock pinnacle stared us in the eye. I knew it was all fun and games until this point. Based off Saguache Search and Rescue data, this upcoming approach is where most deaths occur.
I had no doubt in my mind that every mountain I climbed over the past two years has led me to this very moment. Fear subsided into ecstasy, and every bone in my body told me I was ready. A truly rare feeling for me to feel so certain about something, when life has always held so much doubt.
We made our way across the rocky face of the mountain with one route in sight. Then, finally, the famous black Gendarme rock pinnacle stared us in the eye. I knew it was all fun and games until this point. Based off Saguache Search and Rescue data, this upcoming approach is where most deaths occur.
It began with a small class 5 move into this narrow bulge. Yes, I am aware as I am typing this how sexual mountain climbing can be. It is probably best that all the research led me to believe this 5.2 move would be the most difficult, and distract me from the later crux. I conquered it with ease, and felt like it would be smooth sailing after. There was an exposed, fun climb across a mini rib which allowed you to see the entire back west side of the mountain – it dropped down for over 4,000 terrifying feet.
Little did I know how steep the approaching 40 foot rock wall would be. The same rock wall that sits on the edge of this 4,000 drop ridge crest. This mountain crux is Crestone Needle’s way of slapping you one last time. You are merely 300 feet away from the summit, and if you can pass this one last, potentially fatal test, then you can enjoy the panoramic views. It is so fitting that there are 3 paths you can take up from this point. If it weren’t for the constant reminder of the breeze, I would have thought I was in a video game simulation.
I watched Wade go first, desperately wanting the ropes he has been utilizing this entire time. Chris followed, certainly intimidated, but with the safety net of knowing he was harnessed in. Matt and I looked at each other and he asked me which I would prefer, going third or last. I knew that he was a strong indoor climber, despite this being his first 14er climb of the season, however I wanted to know everybody was safely above me versus looking below in fear.
So I watched him accent upward, and quickly turn into a faint speck. I was at the final pitch, all alone with a racing heart. My hands reached above me, and chose the path less traveled. The far left route that would force me to see the entire backside of the mountain below. There are no words to describe this mental fuckery. I bit my lips with each hand hold, focusing on each rock. While my hands felt great, I kept having flashes to what would happen if/when my foot would slip beneath me. The hand holds weren’t large enough for my feet to find stability.
About half way up the climb I realized I was completely and utterly alone. Not even my helmet would protect me from the deadly fall should I mess up ONE move. The group was well into safety, as I tried my best not to look left, down or up for that matter. One rock at a time. Just one more rock.
My legs began to quiver and I had to stop to control my breathing. I was having flashbacks to the blizzard on the nearby mountain Kit Carson. I could see my death below me and had to ask myself how badly I wanted this life. Some of you can easily relate to this type 2 fun that shakes your bones and leaves you on another high afterwards.
My hands were beginning to lose circulation and I knew I had to climb on, for fear of my fingers losing grip. At one point I even attempted to call out to Matt. He obviously had no control, nor could really talk me out of this sticky situation. The only option I had was to climb up. So I did.
Eventually I reached the top of the ridge and held back tears – I imagine this is how someone cast away deep in the ocean would feel once reaching land after fearing for the end. Perhaps I’m being dramatic but this certainly was the bang I was looking to go out on.