Leader: Per Frost
Co-Lead: Andy Doig
Participants: Alison Violette, Ben Litchfield, Tom George, Steve Corcoran, David Lazar
June 29-July 7, 2019
Arrival day in Denver. All made it in as planned and we stayed overnight at Quality Inn in Aurora.
Drove from Aurora to Alvarado FS campground on the Eastern side of the Sangre De Cristo range. By 2PM we had our tents pitched and were ready to start our acclimatization hike towards Comanche Lake. Thunderstorms were threatening but held-off until we had completed our hike (turned around at 11,000 ft. after about ~3 miles) and had finished our campsite dinner.
We started our ~7 miles/3,000 ft. hike in to South Colony Lakes after a short drive to the 2WD TH. Most of us carried 45-55lbs packs. David won the prize for being the most efficient and well-organized – checking in at just over 30lbs. His “prize” was an extra allocation of club-gear!The trek along the 4WD road is perhaps not the most exciting but the road has tricky points even for 4WD cars and we did not want to tempt faith with our rental cars. However, the main purpose was really to acclimatize slowly as we trekked up towards the campgrounds near the Lower Lake at 11,600ft.
At 11,000 ft. we crossed South Colony Creek on some sketchy logs and shortly after that we reached the first snow-fields. Some campers in that area warned us about route-finding and said they had turned around because they couldn’t find the trail. Actually, the route is pretty obvious but with no visible travel on the snow-fields we weren’t always exactly on the trail. We reached South Colony Lakes mid-afternoon and with thunderstorms threatening again we immediately began searching for good campsites. There are some 40 established sites in the area but many were covered by snow and others were pretty wet and muddy. However, we managed to find 3 good sites reasonably close to each other and quickly got our tents pitched.
We started our trek towards Humboldt Peak a little after 6AM. A steep snow-bank after crossing the snow-bridged South Colony Creek proved a bit tricky (without traction) but easy enough for those of us who chose to put on the spikes. A few more snow-fields to cross before reaching the Upper Lake but from thereon the trail was snow-free.
Spectacular scenery all the way and a delightful encounter with a group of 10 big horn sheep as well as several marmots. We reached the summit in good order mid-morning and enjoyed a long stop on the summit. A brief hail-storm hit us but it was very minor and generally the weather was excellent. The risk of thunderstorms re-merged in the afternoon but by that time we were back in camp.
Throughout our trek to Humboldt Peak we were able to get a good look at the Crestones (Crestone Needle and Crestone Peak) and the access route via Broken Hand Pass. It was pretty clear early on that our set-up did not allow us to climb up to Broken Hand Pass which meant that any attempt on the Crestones were off.
Having ruled out the Crestones the day before our new plan now was to circumnavigate the South Colony Lakes (Lower and Upper).
We started early on the standard route towards Broken Hand Pass and quickly reached the last snow-free patch at a bit over 12,000 ft. From there we had an excellent view of the Pass. It looked like there might be an alternative route to Broken Hand Peak (13,573ft.) and Andy (having joined directly from the Shuksan Expedition and always willing to explore) went up to take a look. Well, it was a nice idea but not feasible.We continued our trek around the lakes descending a couple of steep gullies and crossing numerous snow-fields. Challenging in places but very doable. A delightful trek once again accompanied by big horn sheep and marmots.
On the trail by 5AM. We had decided to split into 2 groups with Andy, Steve and David making an attempt on Kit Carson Peak (14,165ft.) and the rest of the group having Obstruction Peak (13,799ft) – on the route to Kit Carson Peak – as their target. Weather forecast was favorable but very windy. The snow-bridge over South Colony Creek had dwindled but was still holding and the lead group quickly disappeared after the crossing.
After reaching the saddle on the route towards Humboldt Peak we now turned west instead of the easterly route towards Humboldt and then commenced the ~1mile long ridge traverse (class 2+ and all above 13,000 ft.) towards an open saddle known as “Bear’s Playground”. Route finding was a bit challenging as we constantly switched from one side of the ridge to the other. And with one side sheltered and the other completely exposed to the winds we had to proceed cautiously and make sure we had good solid footing at all times.
Group 1 ventured a bit beyond Obstruction Peak to explore the route and assess conditions but with clear views of the peaks ahead (Columbia Point, “Kitty Kat Carson” and then Kit Carson) and some large and challenging snow-fields they decided to call it a day and wait for Group 2. In a “normal” year group 1 would for sure have made it to Kit Carson but conditions were far from normal this year. Originally, Challenger Point which lies about another mile beyond Kit Carson was also under consideration. This involves a narrow traverse known as Kit Carson Avenue. A few days before our trek into South Colony the area was subject to a helicopter rescue and one fatality. Although it was not determined with certainty reports suggested that the person had fallen from the Avenue and rangers had issued a strong warning not to attempt it.
Once back from the ridge-traverse we found a sheltered spot near the Humboldt trail and hung out there for an hour enjoying the sunshine, scenery and chatting with people hiking up towards Humboldt Peak.
We broke camp early and started our hike out. All uneventful and we reached our cars by noon. Packed up and then drove to the Great Sand Dunes National Park at the south easterly end of the Sangre de Cristo Range. Apparently, camping is generally permitted in the Sand Dunes and we thought that would be a cool idea. Some paperwork but we quickly obtained the necessary permits (free) and started our preparations for the hike into the dunes. A nice change of scenery and after crossing a brook most of us were hiking barefooted in the sand. However, as we started heading up along the dunes the wind increased significantly and we got a real taste of what a sandstorm must feel like. We tried to find some shelter for about an hour but then gave up and hiked back. We were lucky enough to find places on a campground just outside the park – but then had to contend with the mosquitos!
We drove north along the west-side of the Sangre de Cristo Range and had great views of the Crestones, Kit Carson and Challenger Point but first made a visit to Zapata Falls. Had lunch at Poncha Springs (local diner/gas station with 3 generations of history) before descending along the Arkansas River – where we enjoyed watching white water rafting – towards Cañon City. After cleaning up and re-packing for travel home the following day it was time for our tremendously enjoyable team dinner at the local brew house.
Video-link (courtesy of Andy Doig): www.youtube.com/watch?v=wabhAnxmMzA