Two jagged peaks that rise to 14,000 feet in the Sangre de Cristo mountain range, the Crestone Needle (14,197') and Crestone Peak (14,294') are mountains admired by many, but summited by few. And they're summited by few for a good reason – reaching the top of each mountain is no easy walk in the park and has proven deadly on many past occasions.
In order to climb either peak, most hikers must first ascend to Broken Hand Pass at around 12,900 feet above sea level. From there, hikers have the option to continue down into a valley below toward the standard class three Crestone Peak route or up a steep and rocky climb to the top of Crestone Needle with class three and class four options.
Author's Note: These climbs are very dangerous. If you seek these hikes out, proceed with extreme caution.
I made my climb to the top of each mountain in one long go, traveling some of the most dangerous terrain I'd ever seen including class four sections, deadly cliff drops, and a treacherous icy slope.
Leaving the trailhead a bit behind schedule, I had a long route ahead of me. I would be traveling more than 20 miles throughout the day with around 8,000 feet of vertical gain. My plan was to climb Crestone Peak up the standard route, returning to Broken Hand Pass to decide whether or not I had enough left in the tank to responsibly bag the shorter, but more technical ascent to the top of Crestone Needle.
From a trailhead outside of Westcliffe, the approach to Broken Hand Pass is straightforward. It drops hikers into a large alpine valley that's home to the South Colony Lakes and surrounded by stunning mountain peaks with Crestone Needle (14,197') and Humboldt Peak (14,064') dominating the wraparound views. Of course, the approach to this valley is just about the only straightforward part of this climb.
Upon reaching the base of Broken Hand Pass, a large boulder field is encountered. At this point, hikers must ascend approximately 1,000 feet up steep terrain notorious for holding snow and ice long after a storm passes through. During my climb, winter conditions were present though manageable with minimal traction assistance and a hiking pole.
Author's Note: I opted for Korkers overshoe traction during this climb. They use BOA technology, which really helps secure the device to the shoe quickly and reliably across many shoe styles.
Upon reaching the top of the pass, howling winds nearly knocked me off my feet. I quickly dropped down into the valley below and made my way down a winding trail past an alpine lake and to the base of Crestone Peak.
From this point, the "red gully" is very visible – a section of red rock the climbs up the mountainside. This is the most technical part of the climb to the Crestone Peak summit, requiring route finding up steep and loose terrain with high exposure. Though notably less technical than terrain encountered on the way to the summit of Crestone Needle, moving through this section requires extreme caution.
After I made it through the red gully, a short scrambling section brought me to a tricky summit block and the top of Crestone Peak.
Ten miles into my hike, I was feeling great and able to enjoy the stunning views that surrounded me.
Knowing time was precious, I soon started to make my way back to Broken Hand Pass. The descent down the red gully was a bit nerve-racking due to loose rock, but again, totally manageable for the experienced hiker.
Once at the top of Broken Hand Pass, I had a decision to make – head down the steep snowfield and back to my car or push on to attempt a Crestone Needle summit. Conditions were as good as they get for mid-October and I knew I would be disappointed in myself if I left without trying to summit a peak that had long been on my list. I started taking a few steps in the direction of the Crestone Needle route and before I knew it, I had started the climb.
The Crestone Needle climb is very unique. It's extremely exposed in a way that a single mistake would most likely be deadly in many sections. However, while this exposure risk is there, a lot of the rock on the route is very secure.
As I made my way up the difficult class three slope, I eventually hit a split in the route. I could either continue on class three terrain by cutting over from the east gully to the west gully or I could make the jump to class four terrain by pushing directly up the mountain. As someone that has a bit of rock climbing experience, I found that this class four option seemed to cater to my skill set with how sturdy and ample the holds were. I charged upward.
Over the next 20 to 30 minutes, I made my way up some of the most technical terrain I've ever encountered. While dangerous, this was also some of the most fun I've ever had climbing Colorado's fourteeners. At times, the climb had me feeling more like I was on a route designed for sport climbers in a gym – in the best way possible.
Eventually, this route is flanked with a massive cliff that drops more than 2,000 feet into the valley below. Thankfully, winds weren't present at this point and I was able to safely keep moving with nothing but air and very distant dirt to my right.
Soon, I was at the summit, again surrounded by spectacular views.
At this point, it was around 4:30 PM. I knew I would be ascending part of the route in the dark and had prepared for that, though my main priority was now getting off of Crestone Needle and back to Broken Hand Pass before sunset.
I started to look for the less technical class three route down the west gully and, as I had read in warnings online, it was no where to be seen. Thankfully, I was able to party up with other hikers on the trail that seemed to know where they were going. After a bit of search and deliberation, we found a cairn leading us in the right direction and continued.
Author's Note: I had done a lot of research on this route beforehand, including watching multiple videos of the descent. This downclimb was still very difficult to find. You have been warned. Thankfully, I did know where the class four downclimb was located, though my preference was to find the class three route instead so that I could experience both.
The downclimb through the class three gully was slow, but with careful footing, it was not too loose to the point that I felt unsafe. Eventually, our small makeshift group made our way down the mountain in a staggered formation, getting off of the most dangerous terrain just as the sun started to dip below the horizon.
I was now on the dirt trail leading back to Broken Hand Pass. Getting down from that ridge would be the last technical section that had to be traveled on the way back to the long class stretch that led to my car. This would be a downclimb on the large snowy slope that I had ascended without issue earlier in the day. However, this time around I would be traveling through the terrain in the dark.
Two other hikers that I had encountered along the way were headed down the slope in front of me. Using their headlamps to assist in my route finding and using my own light to ensure solid footing, I carefully made my way down the slick slope in their wake.
Slowly, but surely I reached the bottom of the gully shortly after those ahead of me. From there, it was smooth sailing back to trailhead under a night sky overflowing with stars.
Back at my car 16 hours after I had left it behind, I slumped into my driver's seat in bliss. I had checked off my 34th and 35th unique fourteener summits and had the adventure of a lifetime along the way. The two-hour drive back to Colorado Springs would be a breeze, as my adrenaline would keep pumping for hours to come.
Overall, I loved this hike. Albeit a bit longer, I found that Crestone Peak was a much less technical ascent comparatively to Crestone Needle. That being said, I found the ascent up Crestone Needle to be easier given my rock climbing experience and the many secure holds. Both peaks have numerous places where a slip would likely be deadly, reserving this mountains for only the most experienced hikers and climbers. Climb at your own risk and plan ahead for worst-case scenarios. Always be willing and able to turn back.
Author's Note: These are very dangerous climbs. It is strongly recommended that you do not attempt to summit these mountains alone. Wear a helmet and be willing to turn back if you notice your energy levels waning. Getting to the summit is optional, but getting down from the mountain is mandatory. Consider carrying a GPS emergency signally unit, stay highly aware of the weather, and bring adequate food and water (and make sure you're using it to refuel regularly).