Sangre de Cristo Traverse 2012
The following is a detailed account of my epic 9-day solo traverse of the Sangres. The long-winded nature of my TR is not meant to be boastful or egotistical, but rather simply strives to do justice to the most rewarding solo trip of my life. It is also an attempt to inspire those who may be interested in such a trip, as the layout of the mountain range lends itself wonderfully to a thru-hike/traverse.
The idea first came to me in 2002 while driving north on Highway 285 in the San Luis Valley. As I approached Poncha Pass I was suddenly captivated by the prominent and isolated rib of mountains extending southeast towards the Great Sand Dunes. At the time I was somewhat familiar with this spectacular mountain range known as the Sangre de Cristos, mainly the two clusters of 14ers found along the vast spine of peaks. As a 19 year old boy that had just moved to Colorado from Texas, I was easily enamored by the endless vistas of rugged landscape found throughout the state, and this place was no exception. Yet the peculiar aspect of my enchantment with this range was the realization that this spine of mountains, at least initially, was fairly tame and lacked the rugged nature of so many peaks found in Colorado. My thoughts drifted to a vision of a route that stayed on the true crest of the range for an entire trip. The rolling terrain could provide a reasonable means of travel with an overnight pack, right?
The next ten years of my life involved an invigorating progression of difficulty and commitment in wilderness travel. After completing a 30-day NOLS mountaineering course in the Wind River Range of Wyoming, I felt I had discovered a doorway in my life that lead directly into the mysterious world of alpinism. The concept of climbing was transforming into a more holistic experience for me…one that focused just as much on the “approach and descent” so to speak, as the climbing itself. The most valuable and memorable experiences were those that slowly exposed themselves over days of exertion, struggle, and perhaps suffering. My life started to revolve around this idea of dedication and discovery. It did not matter what type of climbing it was…from 3rd class scrambles to bouldering to difficult traditional climbs, I was constantly in pursuit of power. And it was all preparation for the ultimate proving ground: the alpine.
In addition to climbing, I continued to pursue backpacking as a means of exploring more remote areas and to experience the wilderness settings not commonly found at popular climbing destinations. I was also realizing my draw towards solo wilderness travel. It offered a unique challenge to me that I could not find in climbing, one that revolved around complete responsibility for my survival. After all, the vast majority of my climbing excursions included a climbing partner. I began taking extended solo trips into the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, often times summiting mountains and going off trail. I became increasingly comfortable with the idea of being alone and remote, and my thoughts were always looking ahead to what was next.
Ultimately, it was the culmination of my climbing abilities and solo wilderness experiences that brought me full circle. An idea buried in my mind from 10 years past was suddenly in the foreground. Of course! The Sangre de Cristo traverse!
As I began planning the logistics of the trip, I knew it was going to be the most difficult of my solo trips to date. I wanted to include the classic Crestone Traverse in the route (5.2), and I wanted to do it with my overnight pack. My vision was to start at Poncha Pass and finish at Great Sand Dunes National Park, and I would stay on the crest of the range the whole time. The topography dictated that I start at Poncha Pass and complete the more mellow terrain while my pack weight was heaviest, allowing me to negotiate the potential 5th class difficulties of the range with a more modest pack weight. After hours of studying quadrangles, I concluded the route would take 9 days…which put me at the limit of how much food I could carry without a re-ration, all while keeping my pack weight low enough to consistently endure big days in the mountains at altitude.
I have no problem admitting that my starting pack weight of 46 pounds (including 3 liters of water) could have been greatly reduced, and that most ultralight backpackers would scoff at such a load. Without going into great detail on my gear list, I will include a few notes on the most debatable equipment I used before moving on to the trip.
I chose to carry a Deuter ACT Lite 65+10 backpack, which weighs approximately 4 lbs. It is an extremely comfortable internal frame pack that is stripped of bells and whistles and features fabrics just robust enough to get the job done. Going with a lighter frameless pack was simply not an option given my total pack weight.
I used a Hilleberg Akto 1-man tent (3.75 lbs) as my shelter. 5 of the 8 campsites on the trip were above treeline and I wanted to be certain my shelter could stand up to brutal wind and storms if needed. This tent ended up totally kicking ass and I wouldn’t choose anything else in the conditions I encountered.
I carried a Bearvault Bear Canister BV500 (2.75 lbs) to ensure no rodents got into my food. Again, consider that I was constantly above treeline with no suitable hang sites, and if a critter ate my food my trip was done. I own an Ursack that was chewed through by a squirrel on a previous trip.
I carried a Katadyn Hiker Pro water filter (.85 lbs). This ended up being a great tool for extracting water from a mud puddle at my first camp, and was generally quite useful for the purpose of getting water from shallow sources.
I carried almost 2 lbs of electronics on the trip. This included a cell phone (which I never got service for), a spot GPS unit (to give loved ones piece of mind), ipod shuffle w/headphones, digital camera w/extra battery, a mini tripod, and a watch. These were creature comforts that simply helped me “keep it together” on a 9-day solo trip.
Day 1 (6/15/2012): 5.6 miles, 2,500ft elevation gain, 895ft elevation loss
I woke up in Boulder to the bustling sounds of traffic on South Broadway merely feet from my front door. Rising from bed, an intense feeling of anticipation swept over me. It was time! After a quick breakfast I tossed my pack in the car and began the drive south to Poncha Pass. With Lamb of God on the stereo and a heavy foot, I quickly found myself at the turn off for the Dorsey Creek Trailhead. A moderately rough dirt road led to a fork which my Subaru gladly stopped at. I buried two sets of keys near my car and started off up the remainder of the road in high spirits. The initial 4x4 road was just gorgeous, meandering through lush aspen forests before finally reaching the wilderness boundary.
A sign marking the wilderness boundary sucked me in and, combined with my eagerness to transition from road to trail, I soon found myself on a faint path that petered out into dense woods. Realizing my mistake, I took a deep breath and pushed onward, accepting the fact that small navigation errors are a part of the game. After a mile or so of bushwhacking, I intersected the Simmons Peak Trail and began a pleasant stroll traversing the flanks of Simmons Peak towards Salamander Lake. Walking along at a relaxing pace I became lost in the moment, realizing that as I approached the beginning of this remarkable mountain range I was also starting the trip of a lifetime. Sometimes the preliminary moments of a big trip have a way of etching themselves into one’s mind, and I’ll never forget the overwhelming sense of peace I felt as I continued deeper into the woods…
And then my next obstacle became abruptly apparent: Salamander Lake was bone dry. Walking out to the middle of the mud patch, a couple of bear prints were all that greeted me.
“F***!” I said to myself. Looking at the map, it appeared that Merkt Creek started about a half mile southeast so I decided to continue on in hope of finding water. Almost immediately after leaving Salamander “Lake” I entered a complex system of downed trees. It was as if a tornado had come through and leveled everything in its path. Absolutely nothing remained standing, and my travel slowed to a creeping pace. At times I was taking my pack off and passing it under logs while climbing over trees stacked ten feet high. Thoroughly soaked with sweat and sap, I emerged on the other side and began trucking towards the creek.
But I never found it, because it didn’t exist either. The extreme drought of 2012 had taken its toll and there was just no f***ing water anywhere! It was starting to get late and I knew I had to keep making decisions, so I turned around and started heading back towards Salamander “Lake”. Again I found myself in the terrible mess of downed trees and I failed to follow the exact course that I had previously taken. At one point I remember being completely trapped in a fortress of deadfall with no escape in sight, and fear overwhelmed me. Was my trip really going to end on the first day from an unfortunate oversight? Backing out a bit from the trap, I turned and marched uphill for there was no other direction that offered passage. I gained 400 feet and reached the ridge of Simmons Peak, from which I had to drop over onto the north side to evade the monster of downed trees. After a huge detour northwest, I regained the ridge and snuck silently back down towards the pathetic mud patch, wondering what was next.
I don’t know if I believe in destiny or if people just get lucky, but on my descent of shame I stumbled upon an interesting drainage feature that seemed to emerge from the ground for a brief 15 feet before being swallowed up again. And in the middle of this feature was a f***ing mud puddle the size of a football. “Holy f***!” I proclaimed, and whipped out my plastic trowel and started digging. Soon I had 3 liters of crystal clear water and my filter cartridge looked like soiled toilet paper.
I quickly pitched my tent and pieced together a simple meal as darkness encroached. Knowing that things were once again going as planned, I relaxed and crawled into my sleeping bag. “That was a little too close” I thought to myself, but I grinned and closed my eyes realizing that succeeding in the face of defeat was a testament of perseverance. What lay ahead was more than just an adventure…it was going to be a trial of diligence.
Day 2 (6/16/2012): 9.25 miles, 5,585ft elevation gain, 4,400ft elevation loss
Lots of creepy noises in the woods overnight left me slightly restless, but I woke up psyched and determined. My staple breakfast was Grapenuts, powdered milk, and dried fruit, and it tasted just fine. Home was quickly stowed into my rucksack and I set out straight for the ridge, knowing the forest of hell waited intently to swallow me. I dodged it again and grunted up a trippy forested ridge to finally reach tree line for the first time. It was immediately apparent that the whole freaking state of Colorado was on fire and the smoky haze from its wake lay settled across the land. I could taste the smoke, and it was already affecting my breathing on the uphill. But the views were still incredible and I continued southeast along the beginning of this prominent spine of rounded goodness. The valley floors of the Arkansas River Valley and the San Luis Valley quickly fell from both sides of my suspended body, and I tromped along the rolling mountains with a perma-grin.
Soon I passed my first 13er of the trip, Hunts Peak, and the hiking was becoming more intense. After all it was my first day at altitude and my body was starting to get hammered. The 44 pounds of gear on my back began taking its toll. I passed Red Mountain and Twin Sisters North and realized I wasn’t going to make my destination, which was an ambitious 11 miles and 7,100ft of vert. I spotted a super nice meadow down to the north above Stout Creek Lakes, so I dropped in and made home of a heavenly campsite.
I was beat up but not destroyed. At this point in past trips, I would lie down in my tent and take Ibuprofen before the lactic acid became too much to bear. But my training had paid off and I sat in the grass, gazing at Twin Sisters South and blasting metal in my headphones. Darkness fell after some cheesy beans and rice, and the stars unfolded into chaos. I passed out hard.
Day 3 (6/17/12): 13.4 miles, 5,950ft elevation gain, 7,600ft elevation loss
I awoke the following morning knowing that I had a rather large day ahead of me. I had not reached my intended destination the previous day, and I would be damned if that was going to stop me from getting back on schedule. Pulling myself out of my sleeping bag at 5am, I noticed that the condition of my feet was already deteriorating. Blisters had formed and popped on top of most of my toes’ knuckles. But toes are easy, and I quickly wrapped them all in a band of athletic tape and called it good. I wolfed down some breakfast, packed up camp, and set out south back to the crest of the ridge. My legs were tired initially but soon warmed up and moments later my route was back in view.
Now that day three had arrived, the routine was starting to set in: wake up, hike, hike some more, set up camp, sleep, repeat. Life was becoming so simple, but at the same time its meaning was deepening. As my route along this mysterious ridge unfolded, my body was turning inside out. All that I had to show was my guts, my spirit…my true self. It was so relieving to have nothing but the Sangre de Cristos to judge me.
Looking south I could see the range tapering down to a low point: Hayden Pass!
I pressed on with unwavering intent and after several more summits had my first human contact of the trip. I rounded an unnamed mountaintop and passed a party of three who were headed north. I was initially surprised given the fact that storm clouds were building (the only real storm clouds of the whole trip) and these people were continuing on to higher ground. When I am in the wilderness, my interactions with other people tend to be brief and slightly awkward, so it is no surprise that our exchange was short-lived. They asked what I was up to and it soon became clear to them that I was in a hurry. Alas, I had to descend to Hayden Pass before this brewing maelstrom had its way with me!
I scampered over Galena Peak and bombed down the fading ridge towards the pass with such haste and eagerness that I nearly took a wrong turn to the west. A narrow exit put me back on track…for the time being. Eventually I hit tree line and a road which I decided couldn’t be the correct way so instead I struck off down the hillside towards what I believed was the saddle of Hayden Pass. After a significant bout of steep bushwhacking I emerged from the woods onto the Hayden Pass road, about a half mile below and west of the pass. “F***!” I said to myself. I was behind schedule, a storm was brewing, and the last thing I needed was more uphill just to get back on route. So I trucked up the road at a frantic pace and reached the pass just as a crew of noisy 4-wheelers was arriving. I hiked shortly up the trail to keep my distance, then sat down and took a break with my full rain gear on as the mosquitos honed in on me.
A couple of dudes on motor bikes pulled up and again I was questioned on my intentions. As I was sitting and snacking, I had little option but to disclose some information about my trip, though it came out something like “yeah, I’m headed to Cottonwood Peak.” Soon they too drove off and I was once again thankfully alone. It was Saturday and I was expecting to see people near this pass, so I did my best to keep my composure and act like a normal American. Hah! If only they knew the extent of my psychotic marathon! No, I would not disclose such incriminating evidence as my crafty plan to link massive terrain features in one giant blow. To me, going solo is an opportunity to completely disconnect and even meager interactions with other people pose a threat to the experience. Silly humans! Your attempt at conversation is futile!
Alright, so after some snacks I dragged my pack back onto my body for round two: Hayden Pass to Cottonwood Peak. I set out up a steep and eroded trail again following the spine of the range. I was somewhat relieved at my position below tree line given the mounting storm, but at the same time I was still the highest point around. This fact is one of the major dangers I had to accept before starting my trip: the crest of the spine usually means the highest point all the time. As I continued beneath gray clouds, the trail suddenly ended in a marshy area. “What the f***!” After making my way across the marsh I was confronted with another giant crop of deadfall. The shit was full force and my pace dwindled. Things were looking grim; I was being forced down a drainage and alas, away from the ridge. But I kept pushing forward and made my way through the maze, then trucked uphill and found the trail. This was a giant relief and I looked at the sky, only to notice it clearing. I carried on at speed along the ridge towards Nipple Mountain. This was one of the few established trails I would follow on my trip and it was definitely a luxury to be able to let my guard down for a bit. After a beautiful section of rolling terrain and some wild forests, I reached the flanks of Nipple Mountain.
With Cottonwood Peak in view, I struggled up one last unnamed summit then began a steep descent into the Black Canyon. The scenery was mind boggling.
I reached the valley floor and found a wonderful meadow to camp in. I was very pleased to have reached a destination just down canyon from my original goal, and as I would find out the following day, this would set me up for a delightful variation to my intended line (shown in the photo above).
Day 4 (6/18/12): 10.75 miles, 7,360ft elevation gain, 5,610ft elevation loss
I woke up psyched and ready for another big day. The meadow I camped in remained still as dawn lingered. The creek continued its pleasant rumble and I packed up camp with ease. I set out along the drainage and soon found a nice crossing, followed by steep slopes up onto the spur of the west ridge of Cottonwood Peak. The position continued to amaze me!
After a long grunt I stood on the summit and was confronted by a commanding view of my future.
The majority of day four proved to be fairly straightforward. The terrain was rolling with significant gains and losses, but never exceeded 2nd class in difficulty. My travel was focused as I never quite knew what to expect around the next corner, but the day played on in a pleasant, almost soothing manner. There was a nice predictable rhythm of high points and saddles, and after five 13ers I passed Banjo Lake.
More spans of endless mountains to the southeast.
Eventually I reached a point high on the northeast ridge of Mount Marcy where I spotted my campsite far below at the bottom of a valley. I was able to descend steep tundra directly to the valley floor and cut off 0.8 miles in the process. The site was once again incredible and I made a cozy home in a lush meadow. The wind was strong that evening and I was forced to cook inside my vestibule.
Well, I was quite pleased with my progress for the day and it felt nice to be at my intended destination. That evening the meadow began flooding with runoff from a snowfield above my site. I quickly arranged a large selection of stepping stones around my tent, and just in time because the water level rose fast! Once again, the Hilleberg had no problem with the conditions and I stayed dry. The comforts of tents! I slept well.
Day 5 (6/19/12): 10.5 miles, 5,860ft elevation gain, 6,090ft loss
My morning routine slipped by: wake up, tape feet, make breakfast, pack up. And so I stood with intent at my now deserted campsite, bearing a full pack and scanning the horizon with suspicious eyes. Again my route choice was steadfast and I scrambled quickly to the south ridge of Mount Marcy. I was cruising along and by 9am had my first glimpse of the west summit of Spread Eagle Peak, which would be my first 3rd class scrambling of the trip.
Delightful, though broken slabs on mostly good rock led onward to Rito Alto, whose summit cone I managed to skirt on the left. I passed a 4x4 road at Hermit Pass which was strangely blockaded at the saddle. It was relieving to find Hermit Pass vacant; the lofty wind gusts and the barren tundra gave it a country western feel. After summiting a couple more 13ers I encountered a mellow knife ridge stretching towards Venable Pass.
After traversing past several commanding valleys I arrived at Venable Pass feeling…great actually. The lakes below the pass were my intended campsite but alas, I could not stop now, not with the Phantom Terrace beckoning my curiosity. So I pushed onward following a wonderful trail that cleverly breached the terrace via an exposed ramp. Amazing!
After a sapping ascent of Comanche Peak I was feeling beat. My fuel tank was definitely on low but I found hope as a potential site came into view:
I decided to descend regardless of how high the water table was, for there appeared to be an abundance of excellent camping terrain. To my surprise there was a creek running near the first flat spot I encountered, and so I dropped my pack in satisfaction. I had surpassed my goal by 3 miles which in my eyes was a great achievement. This would later prove to be a key accomplishment due to the time consuming 5th class difficulties that would follow on day six.
The site was perhaps the most scenic so far, with giant rock slabs and a surreal sunset.
Day 6 (6/20/12): 6.5 miles, 4,860ft elevation gain, 4,470ft elevation loss
This was an exciting morning for me. I woke up knowing that today I would finish my “approach” to the unrivaled duo Crestone Peak and Crestone Needle. So far, the trip had been mysteriously escalating in a vague but persistent fashion. From day one there was an unmistakable pull from the southeast that I experienced with a steady intensity, and this morning was no exception. Thinking back on that morning, I now realize that I was not expecting a technical day…in fact I chose not to think about what lay ahead and instead just allowed my reality to unfold before me in a sort of “onsight” fashion. So I busted back up to the ridge and upon reaching my first high point was provoked by an immense front of splendor: lofty mountaintops zigzagging across a blue gradient sky leading straight towards the death and transfiguration, the Peak and Needle.
After passing a couple more summits, the Dry Lakes came into view:
…and ahead of me stood the northeast ridge of Mount Adams:
…on which I would encounter the first 5th class climbing of the trip. Actually the view of the ridge did not look too bad and I started up without hesitation, eager to find out what was next. After a bit of scrambling I headed left out a grassy ledge and continued up a beautiful slab. The terrain ramped up to overhanging and I made an exciting traverse left and up through some steep steps. I admit I was drawn onto the steeper terrain by my curiosity and in hindsight there may be an easier way that stays closer to the apex.
After the spicy first half of the ridge, I dropped down from a high point and noticed that perhaps there was a route that would contour left around the summit cone of Mount Adams. So I launched off across steep tundra and soon found myself connecting wonderful ramp systems en route to the mountain’s south saddle. Upon arrival I took a water break and checked the time. I was doing fine and so far the terrain hadn’t been too sustained. Feeling good I pushed on, unaware of the madness that was about to go down.
Soon my route came into view and I was astounded by the Willow Creek drainage.
My goal was to stay on the ridge…so I did, and the terrain was loads of fun: knobby traversing and even straddling at times.
As I made progress the route finding intensified and I found myself climbing up and down tower after tower, searching for the easiest line. After offwidthing down a steep corner I reached an exposed saddle and realized my only retreat would entail reversing several towers. Ahead of me lay a large gap and an interesting bridge of conglomerate rock spanning the chasm. A short traverse and a splendid face of knobs brought me to easier terrain and I smiled big time. That was f***ing crazy! After scrambling a bit up a loose talus slope I turned and got a view of what I had just completed:
I was amped and the remaining slog up loose boulders to the ridge of Kit Carson Mountain was easy going. I knew the view that was moments away would be tits, and soon it was indeed.
The treacherous pair of 14ers stood proudly above the Bear’s Playground, and the North Buttress of Crestone Peak was almost at my fingertips. Of all the terrain I expected to encounter on the trip, none had more question marks than the southeast ridge of Broken Hand Peak and the North Buttress of Crestone Peak. The dubious traverse from “Northeast Crestone” to the Red Notch was something I had shortly glimpsed when I summited this sub-peak with Evan Horst in 2004, but my only memory now was simply steep rock.
I descended to a saddle at the head of the North Colony Lakes drainage, skirted a steep cornice, and plowed down to an unnamed lake at 12,500ft. The camping was once again remarkable.
Relaxing in a meadow next to the lake, I was thankful to have made it this far without any major issues, and amazed at how the weather was cooperating. In 6 days of travel on the crest of the range, only one storm had developed on day 3 and it occurred while I was at a low point. Otherwise it had been solid blue skies with the occasional cloud. My body was getting quite strong as my pack weight dwindled. By my calculations I would start day 7 with 38 pounds on my back which included 2 liters of water. This was in the realm of alpine pack weight and my spirits grew. As the evening rolled on I summoned the dead spirits whose earthly bodies had perished in these mountains and we conspired on the following day’s plans. If the weather could hold for one more day, maybe 2, then I might just be able to pull this thing off. The stars were out as I dozed off.
Day 7 (6/21/12): 6.7 miles, 4,000ft elevation gain, 5,580ft elevation loss
The first rays of morning light enveloped the tent as I sat on my Thermarest and taped my pounded feet. I had slept well and I couldn’t believe the madness that was about to ensue. Packing up camp, I spent some time gazing southwest up towards the Bear’s Playground. The Crestones were hidden from view by the west ridge of Humbolt Peak, which cast eerie shadows across the moraine I was camped in. The saddle high above was pulsating with energy and so finally I gathered my thoughts and tossed the rucksack upon my back. I began the climb.
I boulder-hopped up the moraine with relative ease, and when I arrived at the saddle there was a rather abrupt view of the Crestones and my knees trembled.
Then suddenly I turned right and saw a small group of mountain goats galloping towards me. I sprinted forwards (with a full pack!) and soon noticed the goats were just out for a morning run and continued past me on this so called “playground”. Was this an omen? I am not superstitious but sometimes you have to wonder…
Walking along the Bear’s Playground I had more vistas of incredible magnitude.
I began climbing up the North Buttress on easy, though loose terrain and soon had an interesting view of the route:
Actually, the exact line was not obvious from below as the headwall looked steep throughout. I worked my way up onto a ramp and zigzagged up the first half of these slabs with some brilliant 3rd and 4th class knobs.
After some careful route finding I eased up a short 5th class bit and continued to the top of Northeast Crestone. Classic! I did not dwell long on this small summit and after a quick water break I began my descent towards the crux traverse. The downclimbing was easier than expected and soon I was confronted with exposed slabs and ledges.
The wind picked up and my fingers grew numb. I was not interested in spending too much time dissecting this broad slab to find the dubious 4th class passage; instead I was motivated to continue my rhythm and so I set out on an adventurous traverse aiming for the notch. It would be difficult to explain the exact line I took, and it’s hard to know if I chose the easiest path, but nonetheless I carefully edged and smeared across this long section of rock with complete focus. The climbing never exceeded 5.2 in difficulty and I felt quite confident despite my pack weight. I finally merged with the very top of the Northwest Couloir and followed it past the notch and up fun ledges to the summit of Crestone Peak. Nice!
Another quick break and I was on my way towards Crestone Needle. I descended past the Red Notch and dropped a ways down the south face, definitely further than the 300ft described in my topo. Finding the exit from the south face to the traverse was actually a bit tricky but after some thought I found the right line and was able to follow cairns along a series of 3rd class ledges surrounded by steep terrain. After several ups and downs I passed some confusing terrain and finally made it to the base of the Black Gendarme.
I climbed up into a narrow gully and found a bit of fixed line at the technical crux (5.2) of this traverse. Instead of yarding on the rope, I made fun stemming moves to a slopey topout on polished knobs.
The route continued over an exposed but easy bridge to more ledges and after some zigzagging the final headwall:
Beautiful climbing on exposed 4th class knobs led to the summit. Gaining the summit of Crestone Needle that day was incredible. The San Luis valley lay 6,500ft below me and the lofty summits of the Sangres dominated the sky. What a classic route in such an amazing mountain range!
The immensity of the trip began to sink in and my thoughts drifted as I sat alone on the still summit. Soon I would continue towards Broken Hand Peak and was slightly nervous about what I would find on its southeast ridge. I snapped some photos and began my descent of the south face. It turned out to be fun scrambling down steep, featured slabs and runnels.
From Broken Hand Pass, I took a direct line through a fun cliff band to gain the west face of Broken Hand Peak. Steep tundra and scree led me past the blocky summit and onto a narrowing ridge, which soon turned technical.
I passed steep towers on the left and right, and after negotiating an exposed 5.5 step-down the ridge’s difficulty let up slightly. My heart was pumping as I carefully chose my line down complex gully systems. I was surrounded by steep terrain and at this point had no idea what was next, but managed to sneak down along a ramp to finally gain the saddle. The ensuing ridge began with a large overhang and I quickly decided my time had come to depart from the ridge proper. I bailed down a loose gully to the south and quickly worked my way east along the base of the craggy spine. It was relieving to pass such steep rock and avoid the potential nightmare of navigating the towers that loomed above me. At the very head of Cottonwood Creek a trail appeared that meandered up towards my destination north of Milwaukee Peak. I gladly hopped on and after a steep grunt I arrived at another high point.
“Holy f***!” I said out loud as I turned to view my route from Crestone Needle over Broken Hand Peak. It did look like an easier path could be found further south of my line on the southeast ridge but as mentioned before, my curiosity tends to lure me onto the steeps…
It became apparent at that moment that I was transforming into a monster. I mean seriously, no one f***ing does what I just did. I looked down at my feet, past my rapidly expanding and collapsing diaphragm, and watched my shoes melt into the tundra. I was no longer bound by the physical boundaries of my shaking body. Instead my skin diffused into the wind as my mind willed itself across the pass and on to the very head of the Sand Creek drainage. I was completely weightless as I gazed northwest for one last glimpse of the Crestones.
Turning downhill I ran down a long tundra slope and soon discovered the first trickles of Sand Creek. The valley constricted into a narrow passage along marsh and boulders, and at the end was a fantastic runnel of rock leading down to the valley floor.
I followed a wonderful trail across a bench and into the valley proper. Meandering past a couple of trail junctions, I eventually arrived at a clearing where my campsite emerged amongst tall pines. Setting up my tent, the immensity once again sank in. I was so incredibly psyched on my performance amongst the sustained, craggy peaks of the Crestones. I knew that skill had only taken me so far, and that my determination was what truly carried me along this route in the sky. After munching some dinner I had plenty of time to relax and reflect on what had just happened. At this point I knew I was close but couldn’t quite let my guard down yet. Day eight was coming fast and it would be the longest mileage day of the trip. Darkness arrived and I crawled into my bag with heavy eyes…
Day 8 (6/22/12): 12.1 miles, 4,950ft elevation gain, 7,370ft elevation loss
I woke to partly cloudy skies and I became nervous. There had been practically no clouds the whole trip…would I get thwarted by storms on my last push to civilization? I packed up quickly and the ominous sky turned overcast. I bid farewell to the meadow and galloped down the trail, almost immediately arriving at my junction towards Music Pass. At this point, most people would continue down Sand Creek and circle around the last bit of peaks en route to the Great Sand Dunes. But I was and continue to be fascinated by the concept of style: indeed, in my mind simply arriving at a destination is only the final note of an entire concert; it is how and by what means one arrives at an objective that matters most. And so instead I would regain the crest of the Sangres one last time to follow a direct line along the range, finally dropping into the Great Sand Dunes from the flanks of Mount Herard.
Peering up into scattered clouds, I rallied up to the pass and as I caught my breath, turned to see the view.
Menacing clouds lingered over the Crestone group, yet my route to the south lacked the darkness present in those plumes of uncertainty. Straight ahead and well below, the Sand Creek drainage ran its grandiose course around a bend and out of sight. It was truly impressive!
Alas, my route involved higher ground and so I launched again with unbending intention across Music Pass and off trail once again, aiming for the spine of the range. Heart-melting vistas of the valley below inspired my swift pace along the ridge as the pummeling winds of Zephyr suggested a deeper significance. Up ahead, a small herd of deer made their lonely journey across the wind-swept crest and time slowed to a halt. I surged hard uphill but could not tell if I was moving. Once again I experienced that melting sensation and soon lost track of my body. I looked east and realized I was leaving the ground.
Speechless, I kept my weightless rhythm and detached as an observer.
After several miles of high points, I returned to form and discovered Mount Herard standing quietly in front of me. The weather had held and the final summit of my trip sat precariously on the horizon. I couldn’t decipher what the hell was going on but it seemed as if each step I took coexisted in both the future and past. Had I come this way before? Was I perched on the threshold of another lifetime? The weight of my pack disappeared and without rest I levitated up the slopes of Mount Herard. The final ridge came and went, and as I arrived at the summit the winds died. A loud roar escaped my lungs and I basked in the presence of the Sand Dunes.
I took my pack off and spent some time standing on that summit, turning in circles and laughing at the ridiculous views. Crestone Peak and Needle had emerged once again from the northwest, with a few scattered clouds quickly burning off their shoulders. I had an enormous feel of my position along the range, and my being shrank to the size of a grain of sand on a beach. It was truly a feeling of coming full circle…from the first step I had taken on that 4x4 road on day one to the last summit of my trip, I was forever connected with this mountain range. I knew the Sangres would forever occupy an important part of my soul.
Shouldering my pack, I once again peered down at the Sand Dunes and my uncertainty returned. How the f*** was I going to get down there? I had almost 5,000ft to descend and my route was all but obvious. I cleared my mind and stepped off the summit onto the southwest ridge, excited for what I would find.
Mellow terrain led over a small hump and down towards a saddle. My original idea was to take the ridge all the way to the valley floor but my interest was soon sparked by a beautiful, steep avalanche path that fell directly to the south. The ridge would soon become engulfed by dense forest and steep rock, and this abrupt gully void of vegetation seemed like a spec of hope amongst the ensuing chaos. And so with the unwavering courage I had demonstrated throughout the trip, I left the security of the ridge and dropped into the clutches of Mount Herard’s south face, its jaws wide open. As I trespassed down the steep, loose terrain it felt as if I was being swallowed by an uncanny monster. After all this was an avalanche path, a gully that knew only one cycle: accumulate and destroy. The farther I descended into this portal, the more debris appeared and the atmosphere that had been so euphoric was changing rapidly. I felt like a warrior entering a dragon’s lair as I sidestepped mangled trees and dislodged boulders. I became aware of a presence in that gully that still creeps me out to this day. I was definitely being watched.
After a bend in the path, the gully narrowed and I became surrounded by steep rock walls. “This makes sense” I thought to myself. Geologically, I was being lured into a trap that thousands of years of runoff had carved out. My descent continued down ever steepening terrain but still I managed to downclimb past several cruxes. My inner thoughts turned grim: what if I dead-end somewhere down here? I couldn’t imagine climbing back out of the bowels of this beast…
And so it happened. I came upon a painfully gorgeous drop-off that upon thorough inspection was about 15 feet too tall to risk downclimbing. I looked around and noticed I was engulfed by vertical rock towers on both sides. “Motherf***er” I said to myself quietly. I did not want to make too much commotion with such imposing foes looming about. I turned around and began climbing back up a steep, wet root system and after ten minutes caught a glimpse of hope. An elusive ramp guarded by an exposed boulder problem carved out the side of the tower on the left. Hell f***ing yeah! I hardly hesitated as I launched up through a series of exciting moves and emerged onto a bench with a commanding view. I transitioned over into a separate drainage and for 15 minutes enjoyed easy slopes and minimal vegetation…
Then the madness continued. The drainage pinched into a tight slot canyon full of deadfall and steep drops. I worked my way slowly down the maze, becoming more and more committed to my route.
The consequences of another dead end would be serious. I tiptoed along, almost as if my silence would keep the brute from waking.
Another cliff presented itself and I downclimbed a dead tree to its side. “This is f***ing insane” I thought to myself. The intensity of my situation rivaled the 5th class climbing of the high peaks. Still I mustered a smile as I encountered footprints of some large animal. Sometimes it’s in those moments of despair that providence shines through the strongest. I couldn’t help but giggle at this incredible situation as I plunged down some horrific drainage in an unknown gully on the likely unexplored south face of Mount Herard. Or was it Mount Seven? Both names appear on the various maps detailing this wild landscape. So with complete surrender I followed the giant footprints through the muck, wondering how I was going to meet my end.
But my end never came. I kept marching and the terrain slowly let up. Steep drops gave way to vegetated hillsides, which transformed into gardens of lofty plants and shrubs. Finally I caught a view of Little Medano Creek up ahead. I couldn’t f***ing believe it! Mount X had literally just gobbled me up, chomped me a few times, and furiously spit me out in disgust at its base. Suddenly my feet gave way softly and I looked down only to discover I was walking in sand.
I turned southwest and stumbled along through the insecure sand. My mind was racing uncontrollably. How the hell did I just pull that off? My adrenaline slowly waned and fatigue set in. 11 miles had gone by and I was totally feeling the effects of that monster drop of 4,000 feet down the god damn esophagus of Satan himself. My lips were parched and I was out of water but I kept moving, knowing my campsite had to be near. The landscape was a total mindf***! I felt like I was slowly approaching a sea of death and my thirst had me halfway convinced I was doomed.
Finally, a line of footsteps emerged through the sand and I deciphered a trail heading southeast through the dunes. I wandered across and followed the creek into an alien setting with trees growing out of the sand. My tent was pitched upon a platform of bark and I grinned when my water filter finally plopped into the gentle current of the Little Medano. I was absolutely, unmistakably, alive.
Day 9 (6/23/12): 6.75 miles, 325ft elevation gain, 775ft elevation loss
The final day of my trip was super casual. Waking up in a lagoon of cottonwood trees surrounded by sand dunes threw a strange twist upon the day. My hike began and I soon realized that my day would largely entail cumbersome walking on soft sand. The trail merged with a road junction and I chose to follow the road in hopes of finding packed sand to walk on, which was sometimes the case.
My first human sighting in 6 days came abruptly as I rounded a corner and observed an amusing sight: A woman had driven her huge Dodge Ram into a massive mud pit and had gotten stuck, and she was knee deep in the muck trying desperately to dig her truck free. As I walked passed I noticed a sign saying “Deep mud, do not pass” and construction cones that she had obviously moved to the side of the road. No words were exchanged between us and I kept moving, taking a deep breath and slowly accepting the fact that as I got closer to the visitor center, I would only encounter more humans.
The road left the safety of the cottonwoods and the sun began pounding my body with heat. I whipped out my sun hat and pressed on as the occasional truck passed me en route to give the mud pit a shot. I thoroughly enjoyed witnessing the juxtaposition of dunes to the west and mountains to the east…it was a nice change of pace and my mind relaxed. A Ford Excursion with Texas license plates passed me, and I couldn’t help but notice the hoard of occupants wearing identical sunglasses and burnt orange shirts. Each passerby stared at me as if I was some alien life form waking from hibernation and emerging from the dunes, seeking my first victim. I was too bitter, too lost in translation to cope with these silly tourons and so I pushed them from my mind, instead focusing on the heat that continued to suck rivers of sweat from my monstrous figure. After a while I hit pavement and found a nice trail that paralleled the highway. One more mile and I was at the visitor center, and I made my way into the bathroom to wash my hands and face. Peering into the mirror I saw a thin, battered face staring back at me. I had changed, not just in appearance, but also in mindset. I knew that things would slowly become normal again but I could never deny the impact this trip would have on the rest of my life.