North America, United States, Colorado, The Crestones

Publication Year: 1950.

The Crestones, Colorado. Mountaineering is the delicate operation of pursuing the appearance of danger while avoiding its reality. In my bailiwick of Colorado, there is no place where it can be practised with greater security than on the Crestones. They are part of the Sangre de Cristo, a 75-mile exclamation point running S.E. by S. from the Arkansas River town of Salida and comprising the largest chunk of the San Isabel National Forest. The Blanca Group makes the dot; the Crestone Group is at the lower end of the shaft. To the W. is the broad, potato-growing San Luis Valley, which gets its Sangre de Cristo water from artesian wells. On the E. side is the smaller Wet Mountain Valley. The approach is through the latter, by way of Westcliff and S. to Casper Henrich’s ranch by car, and then up S. Colony Creek on an old copper mine road. This road is “jeepable” for the first two and a half miles, and good for horse- or back-packing all six miles to timberline.

One usually camps, as Roger and Hassler Whitney and I did, E. of the lower of the two Colony Lakes and across it from the copper mine. Spruce thickets provide wood and windbreak, but are not high enough to cut off the fine view of Crestone Needle. Several peaks are available from such a camp: the deeply gashed Kit Carson, three miles N.; the center section, which natives call the Needles, comprising Crestone Peak, Crestone Needle and a half-mile of connecting ridge; and, to the S., two lesser summitsknown as Marble Mountain and Music Peak. All these mountains are outcrops of a wonderfully pretty conglomerate schist—river- smoothed stones of lively colors imbedded in green cement. Across Colony Lakes from the Crestones is Humboldt, one of those 14,000- footers we Coloradoans climb because we are in the rut of making all the 52 in the state. In characteristics it belongs farther up the range, where there is a whole row of pyramids, similarly perfect and similarly dull. Humboldt functions well, however, as a camera tripod for photographers of the Crestones.

There are three standard trips up the Crestones, all taken by sizable Colorado Mountain Club parties. The shortest is to the Needle and back by way of the low point on its S.E. ridge. Although the name Needle is perhaps an exaggeration (the point is blunt enough to hold many fat angels), this climb still has a lot more fun to it than most of the state’s mountain excursions. The last 400 ft. entail rock work, quite steep in spots. The knobs are plentiful; the green cement is hard and reliable and holds them properly in place. Half (and more) of the people who start up as hikers, seeking the unexposed troughs and lines of least resistance, become climber-minded before they are through—trying out on ribs and buttresses their new-found power over gravity. The Peak, up- valley from the Needle, gives a short couloir climb and some typical Crestone rock scrambling near the top. The third trip commonly taken is a traverse first of Needle and then of Peak. The ridge between is jagged. To circumvent its high points, climbers do a lot of lateral wall-walking, using the hands for balance. Much of the route looks rather incredible from before and behind.

There is a very fine climbing route on the Needle which has yielded at least three ascents. It was done first, in the early ’20’s, by a party of Albert Ellingwood’s. It is the arête on the Colony Lake side. There are about 2000 ft. of rock climbing on it. The strata slope in, but there are little bumps of obstacles on it here and there, and a finale that I think would give anyone a kick. I remember particularly a long, exposed crack, made easy by the ubiquitous knobs, and the last pitch, which says how-the-devil to the climber all the way up from his camp. It takes him into an out-tilted, concave cube corner from which there is no apparent advance. A crack, hitherto invisible, opens up on one wall. He puts first an arm into it, then a leg, then his body. Soon he is around the corner in a deepchimney. He climbs easily to the top, which is roofed over, and then, still wondering what next, down one wall and around another corner to the summit rocks.

I have always wanted to try a parallel route on the Peak. Instead of a main arête, it has a dish face with lesser arêtes and ice couloirs. The three of us back-packed in for conditioning and, next morning, looked at the face from across the valley. The Whitneys picked a tentative route—a fault-line running diagonally from left to right across the face. We moved up over snow and easy rocks, tied in, and started the first pitch. From across the way, it had looked like an ominous, steep-slanting slit. We found that the lower lip protruded 80 ft. and gave us a broad wall to work on, its crest a jutting, knife-edge ridge where we could back away from the face at close range. The couloir-crossing ahead of us, and the others to come afterward, looked dirty. Like the true conservative liberals that we are, we chose a route that paralleled the couloir and remained a little bit left of center.

It gave us good variety—trough, ledge, a little chimney, ribs, a fine steep wall at the end. We were on the rope for most of 1000 ft., during which it was never dead easy nor very hard. In the whole climb, the only rock too rotten to use was a chockstone that could easily be avoided. The roped section took us four or five hours; the total, seven. We got our hands on some more knobs during the return. Ice drove us out of the N.W. couloir and into some amusing wall traverses.

The next day the Whitneys wanted to climb the Needle. Once more they picked a route left of center, heading for the first notch below the summit on the S. ridge. Their effort to find something difficult was rewarded by a very straight piece of wall on which the knobs were sheered off by faulting. There was almost no purchase. They made it, however, and thus established a new route on this mountain as well.

The Crestones will give a lot more sport in the way of new routes and variations. There is little of the uncontrollable hazard of rottenness. Consequently, these are safe peaks, even for those who do not go clanging about the country with great bunches of hardware.

R. M. Ormes