Crestone Peak ski descent

This was, unquestionably, the most miserable day I’ve ever spent in the mountains. Nothing was fun, everything was awful (except the company), and the entire time was spent either bushwhacking or punching through breakable crust – or both. I’d never taken a shot at Crestone Peak before, and I have no plans to go back. I’d texted with Mark about getting out for a peak or few this spring in March after camping in the Sangres. Conditions up high looked good – at least as best as I could see from Zapata Falls and Grand Sand Dunes NP – so we decided to give Crestone Peak a shot. There was some debate about which direction to go after it from – starting on the east side of the range would be a little longer by the numbers, but much more direct. The west side – via Cottonwood Creek – would be an easier drive for Mark, and a little less distance and vert. I’d been warned about the bushwhacking coming from Cottonwood Creek but Frank Konsella told Mark that it wasn’t that bad, and provided a GPX track for us to follow. I asked Mark how unreasonably early we could start, and decided to shoot for 1am.

And so a very very long day was set. I had to go to work Thursday, got home and packed, made dinner for the family, put the kids to bed, and got on the road about 8:30pm. I pulled up to the trailhead about 12:30am and realized I’d forgotten to pack hiking shoes. All I had were flip flops to hike the unknown amount of dry trail. I figured I’d make it work rather than hike in ski boots for an hour+, which was the right call as it was almost two and a half miles before I put my boots on heading up.

Mark, still in shoes

Following the “trail” was challenging once the snow set in. It’s lightly-traveled and maintained in the summer, so once it’s buried there’s almost nothing there. The GPX was not helpful and led us to climbing up steep rock slab sections, bashing through trees, falling on trees and poking a hole in my long-beloved Atom LT, and just all around suffering. Ultimately it took us five hours to bushwhack to the base of the line proper.

Finally out of the trees, 3,000′ to go

Actually getting to the couloir through this section was simpler than the photo makes it looks. Regardless, I was exhausted and demoralized after bashing through trees and feeling half-lost all night. But I also knew we would get to the top, and get it done.

That it was very cold – single digit temps – didn’t help, nor did knowing we’d have to get all the way back out the mess we just suffered through. But we pushed on.

First light hits the upper reaches of the mountain

Based on the consistency of the snow (i.e. punchy and slabby) I had a bad feeling about how the rest of the way would go. It’s less than 2,000’ from the base of the couloir to the summit, which would ordinarily take less than an hour and a half. Unfortunately the snow was not well-consolidated (partially thanks to a foot+ dump less than a week prior). I led the climb up the Red Gully, spending three hours wallowing up the mountain. It was awful, slow, painstaking progress. And, of course, we’d have to ski back down it as well.

Making our way up the Red Gully

Finally at 9am – 8 hours after we started – I was on the summit. I was not enjoying myself, knowing what was still to come but having no idea how long it would take.

On the summit of Crestone Peak

After spending about half an hour at the top eating, resting, and recomposing we were on our way down.

Tentatively skiing the upper stretches

I was slow and tentative and busted through the crust many times, in part due to having my small mountaineering skis. Mark managed to make it look good, and looked happy to have brought a bigger pair of skis.

Mark shredding

We were unable to ski through the choke at the bottom of the red gully, and had to downclimb. It wasn’t so bad.

Mark downclimbing the choke

And then we got a few more – and actually enjoyable – turns at the base of the line.

Mark taking advantage of the few fun turns of the day

There are no more photographs from here out. Typically the ski getting down to treeline is enjoyable, but it was not this day. The snow was nothing but breakable crust. Once back in the trees we wallowed more, picked our way through trees, tried to follow our track on the way up, and got cliffed out repeatedly. Finally, at long last, we made it back to the hiking trail and I got my flip flops on. After the boots came off I found that I somehow managed to cut up my shin through socks/boots/pants, but didn’t care and was just happy to be almost done with the day. And a couple miles later I was, except for the drive.

Happy to just be done and with post-14ering beer

I was so tired I laid down in the rocks for a few minutes waiting for Mark (he swapped shoes a bit before I did, so we hiked the last bit out on our own – but were only a couple minutes apart). It took five hard hours after we started the descent to get to the trailhead. I knew better than to swear off any more 14ering, but I wasn’t far off. Mark was camping at the trailhead so was in no rush to leave. I had a 3-hour drive to cover still, had been up since 6am the previous day, and really wanted to get home before dark – so I wished Mark a good nap and hit the road, getting home shortly before sunset.

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