One thing I’ve learned about the mountains is that you must be prepared to change your plans.
Weather is often the main factor. I’ve been chased off a few peaks because of approaching storms. It’s not a hard decision to turn around when the weather is threatening.
Other times, it’s something else. Maybe you’re not feeling it that day. That happened to me last summer in La Plata Peak. Or maybe it’s something as basic as you’re running out of food, low on water, or there’s a gear failure.
But a change in plans doesn’t have to be something that points to failure. There are those days when you have options, and given your desire, energy level or something else, you chose Plan B over Plan A and it works out OK. That’s sort of how it went for me the last time I was in the Sangre de Cristo Range.
Most of the things I listed above were factors in how things played out, but at the end of the day, there was satisfaction earned on a high summit on what turned out to be a fine day in the hills.
Going back a couple of months, me and my friend Bill had been doing some planning on what would make for a decent mountain adventure. Bill is on his second lap of Colorado’s 14ers, and he’s also trying to knock out the Centennials – the 100 highest mountains in the state.
We originally looked at doing Mount Wilson and Wilson Peak in the San Juan Mountains. I love the San Juans, and these peaks intrigued me. But deep drought and wildfires scuttled that plan. Instead, he came up with a wild plan to climb Kit Carson Peak’s north ridge, then tag Columbia Point and Challenger Point as a bonus. Some stout climbers were recruited for this one. It looked to be one heck of a weekend in the Sangres.
But weather forecasts scared most folks away. So that idea vanished.
One of the guys Bill talked to, a funny and seasoned climber named Mike, circled back, however, and a third plan was hatched: Hike up to South Colony Lakes, then tag the high 13ers at Obstruction Peak, Columbia Point, and another high point on Kit Carson Mountain dubbed “Kitty Kat.” (Kit Carson Mountain being a large massif that includes Kit Carson Peak, Columbia Point, “Kitty Kat” and other high points)
So I signed on for that.
I’d been to South Colony Lakes before on an ill-fated attempt at Crestone Peak and Humboldt Peak. The area is easily one of the most stunning places I’d ever seen. I’m not fixated on 14ers – 13ers are good, too. A return trip here seemed great to me.
OFF WE GO
The drive to Westcliffe took a detour in Florence, one of the more famous prison towns in the country. The federal supermax lockup is there, housing the likes of Djokar Tsarnaev, Terry Nichols and Ted Kaczynski. Real swell guys. But there’s also Florence Brewing, a microbrew with a taproom and some pretty good offerings. We caught it on a good night: The place was packed, a barbecue cook was serving up pulled pork sandwiches, and a trivia match was going on. The three of us obnoxiously bullied our way to a second-place finish, but I made sure everyone knew we were “CHAMPIONS” over and over again. Why not? These folks would never see us again and some fun was needed. Our weakness was guessing the country artists. Florida Georgia Line, Jason Aldean, and a bunch of other auto-tuned country crooners all sounded the same to us. Whatever. We took our hard-earned mini-mugs and headed to Westcliffe.
We opted to forgo backpacking and camping in South Colony Lakes. We took a few hours of sleep at a motel and went for an alpine start. The good: We got to sleep in a bed. The bad: We’d be getting up super early (3:15 a.m.) and adding some mileage to the day.
Loading up in Bill’s Jeep, we took off. I hijacked the stereo and gave them a taste of early morning metal, hip-hop and punk. Bill and Mike weren’t amused. But I was, so that made it worth it.
Going up the dirt road leading to the lakes, you have a couple of options. If your vehicle is not four-wheel drive with good clearance, you’ll be banished to the two-wheel drive trailhead. That adds a bunch of miles to your hike. With the right rig, you can crawl your way up to the four-wheel drive trailhead. To get any of the peaks, you’re still in for a hefty day, somewhere between 10 to 14 miles round-trip, depending on where you go.
We saw a few people trudging up the rougher part of the road and picked one of them up, an Evergreen resident named Roger. He was going for Humboldt Peak that day. He was a pretty cool dude who’d bagged a good number of peaks in his day.
And that got us all thinking. I’d missed my chance at Humboldt two years earlier. And being a flatlander, I was concerned I’d be slowing Bill and Mike down. As we got out of the car and started up the trail, we all concluded it would be a good idea for me to tag Humboldt with Roger while Bill and Mike chased 13er summits past Bear’s Playground.
This turned out to be a really good decision.
GETTING UP THERE
I found the initial part of the hike OK. We were in the dark, hiking by headlamp, seeing the dawn break just as we got into the basin where South Colony Lakes are located. Dawn here is nothing short of spectacular. Jerry Roach’s Fourteener guidebook is adorned with a sunrise alpenglow shot of Crestone Needle, and seeing it in person for the second time is no less spectacular than what’s seen on the book.
Bill, Mike and Roger kept a good pace, and one that was fine by me until we got to the headwall leading up to the saddle at the base of Humboldt’s ridge. It seems 12,000 feet is my red line, the place where things start to get tough. Blame my flatlander lungs for that. I stopped to eat a little, grab a sip and trudged up the switchbacks to the saddle. By then, Mike and Bill had taken their left turn toward Bear’s Playground and the 13er fest they planned to hold. Roger and I started making our way up the ridge.
If the headwall was my reality check, the ridge was a slap in the face. It was tough sledding for me, and the route was different than what I thought it would be. My understanding was some extensive trail work had been done here, and indeed, I saw evidence of that. Fine work has been done here. But there were plenty of sections where I was boulder-hopping and scrambling, looking up at various, well-placed cairns to keep me going the right direction. I’m usually a little wary of cairns, mostly because some people make a sport of rock-stacking in miscellaneous places that have nothing to do with the route. Thankfully that was not the case on Humboldt.
The ridge is somewhat steep. And the jumbled nature of some sections of the route made it tedious. Then again, all I had to do was stop, take a rest, and look behind me. Crestone Peak and Crestone Needle were there for the viewing, and they are downright jaw-dropping. From time to time, I’d hear climbers on the Needle’s Ellingwood Arete: “On belay!” “Belay on!” That climb is above my pay grade, but it’s cool to see people doing it.
Weather-wise, I couldn’t have asked for a better day. All we had were a few high clouds and a lot of blue sky. It was also curiously warm. Some people were dressed in long-sleeve tech shirts, soft shells or even puffy jackets. Me? Short sleeves all the way. I’d be burning up with anything more on me.
Roger was one patient dude. I told him he could dust me any time he wanted to, and I’m sure he could have. But he stopped to check on me every few minutes, seemingly coaxing me up the mountain. It seemed to take forever to get past Humboldt’s false summit, but once there, it was an easy walk across the remainder of the ridge and one last scramble to the top.
I blew a lot of energy getting there. It reminded me of last year’s failure on La Plata Peak, only this time, I was on fresher legs. Good thing, too. Otherwise, I might have pooped out here, too. But it was nice to finally get a Sangre 14er summit after being denied twice two years ago.
Roger noticed he was about out of water, so I offered him some of mine. He declined, saying instead he’d hustle down the ridge and filter some at the lakes below. And hustle he did. Once he got to the steep part below the false summit, I never saw him again (we did get a note left on Bill’s Jeep saying when he got there, and a thank-you for the company).
As for me, well, getting down the ridge proved as tedious as it was going up.
One of the key things about hiking and climbing mountains is to make sure you don’t blow yourself out getting to the summit. Sure, part of mountain climbing is dealing with fatigue and pushing through it. But if your legs are gone and you’re out of steam when bad weather rolls in, having some gas in the tank is critical. Admittedly, I was on dead legs on the way down. Fortunately, the weather held up nicely. I picked my way down the ridge, then down the headwall and finally to the trail (which went on forever) and the road (which also went on forever) until I saw the blessed bridge that signified the end of the hike.
Even though it was a slog, it wasn’t without its charms. Clouds cast shadows into the valley, which played games on the flanks of the Crestones. Whenever I grew weary of the walk, I stopped to take a look around and marveled. Few places in the Rockies are as dramatic as the skyline of the Crestones and the surrounding, lower peaks of South Colony Lakes. I’d come back here in a heartbeat.
Given my slow progress down the mountain, I half expected Mike and Bill to be waiting on me at the Jeep. Nope. They were still up there, somewhere.
SO WHAT ABOUT THOSE GUYS?
I’d love to give you a detailed description of the peaks and ridges Bill and Mike scaled. But I wasn’t there. What I can tell you, however, is this: The views of the Crestones from Bear’s Playground are ridiculous. The distance they hiked was somewhere around 14 miles. And the total vert was well over a mile.
And yes, they tagged all their target summits. It’s exactly the type of performance you’d expect from guys who’ve finished the 14ers, and also have summits like Rainier, Hood and Pico de Orizaba under their belts. While the plebes like me are tagging walk-ups and popular Class 3 14ers, they’re busy chasing more obscure, less traveled 13ers and making good work out of ambitious projects.
I can’t tell you much more about it, but I can show you because they gave me permission to swipe some of their photos. Have a look.
BACK TO FLORENCE
About 45 minutes after I stumbled back to the trailhead, so did Mike and Bill. We were all worked over pretty good, but decided a return trip to Florence Brewing was needed.
When we arrived, no barbecue guy or trivia night crowd was there. It was a quieter place until we got there. The bartender was good, patient company as we peppered her with questions about the federal supermax prison and any other general nonsense we were blathering about. I guess that’s her job, but I tipped her well nonetheless. We drank brews and ate cheap fast-food burgers that tasted like Michelin-starred cuisine at that moment.
Such is the way of these mountain trips. You get pumped up by a plan. You dread the alpine start alarm clock. You hike in the dark, see a brilliant sunrise and embrace the slog. You feel like quitting, because it’s easier to lounge by the pool than climb a mountain. You revel in the summit views, grind away at the downclimb and spend yourself utterly on a peak’s slopes. You throw down vast quantities of food, get a beer buzz and strike up lengthy, boisterous conversations with people you don’t know and may never see again. You might even make a new friend on the trail.
And then new plans get made.
ABOUT THE ROUTE: From the four-wheel-drive trailhead, hike up the road past the gate and over a foot bridge until you reach a trail junction turnoff to your right. Follow easy trail hiking through the woods and past some campsites. You’ll be hiking the trail east of and above South Colony Lakes. From here, you’ll begin hiking up long switchbacks on a headwall leading to a saddle that goes right to Humboldt’s west ridge, or left toward Bear’s Playground. The trail steepens as you gain the ridge, and as you ascend, you’ll end up doing some rock-hopping and light scrambling. The route is well-cairned, and the cairns seem to be accurate. At times, the trail will disappear into jumbled rocks, then reappear when the terrain eases. It will take you up to Humboldt’s false summit, but once you reach that, the ascent is almost done. Past the false summit, the steepness eases with only a few hundred yards of easy hiking left to the summit. Class 2, 11 miles round trip with 4,200 feet of elevation gain. NOTE: If your car/truck does not have four-wheel drive and good clearance, you’ll need to park at the two-wheel drive trailhead. This will add 5.4 miles and another 1,100 feet of elevation gain to your route.
EXTRA CREDIT: There are tons of options. From the Humboldt saddle, go north and explore Bear’s Playground. Spend more time camping in South Colony Lakes and climb Crestone Peak (class 3) or Crestone Needle (class 4). Experienced climbers might also look to climb both peaks and traverse the ridge between them. This is one of Colorado’s four Grand Traverses of the 14ers, and includes high exposure and a class 5 section. Also nearby are Class 3 routes up Broken Hand Peak and Music Mountain. Like I said, tons of options.