Matt Mahoney's 2001 Colorado Vacation

Crestone Needle

Aug. 13, 2001. This was the scariest of my climbs. I had intended to do the Crestone Peak to Needle traverse, which includes a class 4 pitch at the top of the Needle, but I wanted to see this section before I committed to it, so I climbed the Needle first. I was worried about this section, because I had read that most people rappel down it with a rope.

I started from Cottonwood Creek in Crestone. The trail was difficult to follow at the higher elevations. I got lost, so I ended up bushwacking and scrambling over difficult boulders directly to Cottonwood Lake. Then I took the ridge around the south side instead of following the marshy trail around the north, but I eventually made it to the southeast ridge of the Needle. Then I climbed the standard class 3 couloir to the summit. This was very steep, but the conglomerate rock has very good handholds and footholds. Still I would rate the climb as more difficult than most other class 3 routes such as Longs Peak. The climb took 5 hours.

(Left) Looking back at the trail from Cottonwood Lake. (Right) Crestone Peak (left) and Needle (right) from the marsh below Cottonwood Lake to the south.

Crestone Needle from the south.

As I climbed the Needle, clouds moved in, partially obscuring Crestone Peak (right). At the top of the class 4 traverse from the summit, a rock was rigged with slings and carabiners, but I had no rope. I descended about 15 ft. down the 60 deg. slope on an outside corner and came to the crux, a 75 deg. slope for about 10 feet before the ridge eased to 60 deg. again where I could be more confident about downclimbing. I traversed the wall back and forth looking for better holds but found none. Two climbers had just come up this way, so I knew it could be done.

I made the extremely fortunate decision to climb back up. As I did, I was pounded by pea sized hail. On the summit, my hair stood on end and the rocks crackled with static electricity. The other climbers had already started a hasty descent and I chased them, making the terrifying descent over 45 deg. rock slabs now with water running over them in a thunderstorm. About half way down, I somehow got off the standard route and ended up descending a waterfall for 1000 vertical feet in a mix of hail and rain, making significant use of handholds and footholds with water rushing over them. In the picture above, these falls are visible as the gully descending from the notch in the center of the ridge, down and slightly to the right. This picture was taken by 2 other climbers who started when I did, but never made it above the lake before the storm started.

The storm ended and Crestone Peak was just above me, but I had no desire to climb it. My body was crying for rest. I descended (5 hours) and took the next 2 days off before Nolan's 14.