At the Willow Lakes trail head (TH for Kit Carson/Challenger), we parked our jeep and spread out all our gear in the sun to give it a chance to dry out. It wasn't long before most of it was completely dry and we just had the day to relax at the campsite. We sat out a one hour long storm in the afternoon inside the Jeep. Throughout the day, hikers came down the trail to head home and I made a point of talking to as many of them as I could. Kit Carson and Challenger are right next to the Crestones, so the area experienced the same storm that we did the evening before. One man got stuck above treeline in a cave at 11,800 while his wife waited for him in their tent below, but they spoke of it like it was nothing. The next lady tried to cross the creek and almost fell in but was caught by a man on the other side. One couple made it across one of the two stream crossings, but had to stay the night, hoping the next stream crossing went down enough to be safe. Two old men told us about how incredibly scary the stream crossing was since it was white water directly above a cliff. They met a couple climbers who were climbing the Prow, a class 5 route up Kit Carson, and were stuck on the wall, exposed to the elements for the 30 minute hail storm. Finally, a couple forest rangers returned and showed us pictures of the stream crossing. All the rocks and logs that they had personally placed there were completely washed out and the creek was raging. Seeing the pictures, there was no way I would even consider trying to cross that stream, so we decided that we wouldn't attempt Kit Carson/Challenger for at least another day. We decided to attempt Crestone Peak via Cottonwood Creek the next morning.
None of us knew very much about this route up the peak. We had a short description about the approach in our Roach guide book, but none of us had studied the route like we had all the other routes in our plan. So I took a horrible photo of our map and we woke up at 1:30 for a 2:00 start time.
A completely useless iPhone photo of our map
The approach was tough. With our early start, we would be walking in the dark for a good 3.5 hours, which made the poorly maintained trail very difficult to follow. We lost it several times throughout the morning, but always found it again, since we at least knew that the trail followed Cottonwood Creek for the majority of the time. Eventually, the trail veers left and climbs up towards the basin area below the needle and peak. There were a couple sections where we had to climb up some steep, featureless slabs, knowing that it wasn't going to be very fun to descend. The sun started to rise as we approached treeline, but even in the sunlight, we had trouble finding our route. Standing in a talus field, we looked all around us and saw cairns in all directions. To continue in the direction we were already going looked like a dead end at a large waterfall and cliff. So we followed a cairn that cut to the left up a steep hill. We continued passed the cairn and climbed up a steep, grassy gully. The cairns disappeared and we figured that we must have gone the wrong direction. We could see very far, so we just chose our own route to the base of Crestone Peak's red gully through boulder fields and grassy slopes.
About 5 hours into our hike we were finally at the base of the actual climb. The red gully seemed to go on forever above us. From here it would be a 2,000 ft class 3 climb up to a saddle about 100 ft from the summit. The view was daunting to say the least.
The red gully
So on came our helmets and we packed our trekking poles for the climb. The gully was relentless. We were gaining elevation fast because it was so steep, but it was very tiring. It was really just a long slog up a gully with the same view the entire time. There was water flowing down the gully most of the way up so there was a lot of wet rock to avoid. A few times, Tony and I chose some more difficult lines to avoid the slippery rocks in the middle of the gully.
But the climb went on and on and I was ready to be at the top. Richard ran out of water about 2/3 of the way up so we stopped at the stream flowing down the gully and filtered some water for him.
Towards the end of the gully we could see all the way to the sand dunes and the Blanca group.
Finally we made it to the top and enjoyed some time on the most spectacular summit I had ever been on. It was a shame I was so tired and that clouds were starting to form. Otherwise I would have enjoyed sitting on the summit more.
Remember how we were hoping to climb Kit Carson and Challenger? Well, we took a look to the north to see how much hail hadn't melted yet and sure enough the Kit Carson Avenue (the long diagonal white line near the top) was piled full of hail. The Avenue is a wide ledge that must be followed from the Challenger summit on the left in order to keep the climb up Kit Carson class 3. Combining the danger of the hail-filled ledge and our fatigue from this difficult hike we were on, we decided to not try to climb the peaks the next day.
The climb down from the peak was long and frustrating. The gully was quite loose and we kept on triggering small rock slides. One small rock hit my head, which thankfully had a helmet on it. The clouds seemed like they got thicker and thicker. About halfway down we met a man who was climbing up. He had left his pack at the base of the gully and was carrying nothing. Not even a water bottle or a rain jacket. Crazy man.
Right when we reached the bottom of the gully it started sprinkling. And then it started raining. And then we heard thunder right when we were reaching some trees. On the descent, we actually found the correct route that we should have taken up and it really wasn't any better than the route we chose. There was a ton of bushwacking through wet bushes and at one point, we had to shimmy down a steep and slippery class 4 chimney next to the waterfall. I didn't blame us for thinking the waterfall was a dead end on the way up. It was a sketchy down climb. With all the bushwacking, Richard eventually blew up. I could hear him struggling to get through a bush and then he just screamed out in anger. The rest of the hike out, he barely said a word except to complain about this horribly maintained trail that we had to hike. He was having a rough day and apologized to us later that evening.
The hike out was mostly uneventful and the trail was much easier to follow than it was in the dark that morning. It was raining for about an hour, so the steep slabs that we had to climb up were terrifying to go down. If we lost our footing, we would slide about 100 feet down the slab and while it wouldn't be fatal, it would be very painful and bloody.
It took forever, but we finally made it to the bottom and all three of us wanted nothing but a burger and beer. So we drove out of town to this place that we saw had a big sign saying, "Burgers and Beer Here." Sadly the place was closed so we drove back to the town of Crestone to find another restaurant. A man at the grocery store pointed us towards the only restaurant in town where we went and enjoyed some pizza, burgers, and beers. It was a nice way to unwind and observe the interesting Crestonian hippies that congregated at the restaurant. Exhausted, we all slept well that night.
This was definitely the most difficult hike of our trip. It was something like 13 miles with 6,000 ft of elevation gain. Definitely long enough to have done as an overnight trip, but it felt like a big accomplishment to do it in one big push. The fast and light alpine style, I guess. I would like to come back to the Crestones someday, camp at South Colony Lakes and then attempt the traverse between the peak and the needle. And maybe someday in the not too distant future I'll get to climb the 5.7 Ellingwood Arete up the needle. These are some truly spectacular mountains.