(This report is considerably longer than I planned; then again, so was the climb...)
I had a big weekend planned with climbs of a couple of 14ers in different parts of Colorado. The plan was to leave Laramie before midnight Friday night (after hopefully getting a nap), climb Humboldt Peak in the Sangre de Cristos, drive to an area just south of Mount of the Holy Cross in the northern Sawatch Range, bivy in my car, and climb Holy Cross on Sunday. Things didn't quite work out though.
I got plenty of sleep Thursday night, and I came home early from work on Friday to finish packing. I even fell asleep around 6pm, but the phone woke me up at 7:30. I couldn't get back to sleep, and at 10:30pm I had the car loaded up and headed out. The best route for getting there was mostly on I-25, so I made good time.
I reached the start of the South Colony Road just before 4am. According to Roach's 14er guidebook, passenger cars should be able to drive 1.6 miles up this rough road to the San Isabel Nat'l Forest boundary. I did not find this to be the case. After driving 0.6 miles up the road and having several rocks bang the belly of my car, I gave up and pulled off at the junction of a two-track road branching off to the north, and parked next to another car. The only passenger car I saw above this was a Subaru all-wheel drive. I think this was near 9000ft, but the only map of the trailhead area I have is Delormes state atlas which only has 300ft altitude resolution.
When I started hiking at 4:32, dawn was just making it's presence, washing out the summer Milky Way. However, you don't need much light to hike up a road. The first interesting part of the hike is at about 9900 feet, where the now definitely 4WD-road crosses South Colony Creek. The problem was that it was over a foot deep here and flowing pretty strongly. I ended up hunting for a better ford above and below the road crossing, but the crossing had the shallowest, slowest flowing water in the immediate area. Now, how to go about this? I had no experience in doing any real fording. The water was very cold so I didn't want to barefoot it. I also didn't want water in my boots with over 10 miles of hiking in front of me. I decided to go across in my spare pair of oversocks with gaitors to keep some of the water off of my legs. With my ice axe as a third leg, I hustled across. The water was strong enough to be felt as a pretty good push downstream and the rocks were slippery, but I made it across without incident (the water wasn't deep enough to be too worried about being swept downstream, but I sure didn't want to get soaked in the cold water). On the negative side, before I could get my socks off on the other side, my toes went numb. While regrouping for the rest of the hike, I looked at my watch and realized that it had taken a total of 30 minutes to travel a whopping 30 meters.
I continued hiking up the road to a junction with the main path continuing to the creek again. This time, the creek would have been up to my knees or more. I sat here for a minute and checked my map. Ah, my trail starts at that junction. After a snack, I went back to the junction and hiked the 100 meters to the end of the road and the start of the trail. There were numerous people camping here. All told, I hiked past about 20 4WD vehicles in this popular area.
I had seen snow along the road as low as about 10500ft in this heavily shaded valley, and above 11000ft, parts of the trail were covered by the white stuff. It got bad enough that the trail was very difficult to follow and I ended up doing some minor bushwhacking. I broke out of the trees well above the level of lower South Colony Lake and I could see quite a few tents here and at the upper lake. The route that Roach suggests follows the trail that I had long ago lost to the upper lake, and then heads up to the saddle between Humboldt and an unnamed point. This far off the trail, I didn't really want to go all the way to the saddle, and I eventually reached a point just below a shallow couloir, with perhaps 800ft of snow. There were 3 people in the couloir a couple hundred feet above me, and I decided to try it as well.
I had recently purchased a pair of 4-point instep crampons, so I strapped those on and started snow climbing. The angle at the bottom was about 30 degrees and the snow was in reasonable condition. Occasional small bits of snow would come down from the climbers above, but nothing to worry about. In parts the snow was yielding enough that one kick per boot was good enough, but others required several kicks. I was using a trick I discovered of placing the ice axe belays (the snow was perfect for self-belay) such that I could kick a step at the same place as the previous ice axe shaft hole. In places I simply followed the steps of the group ahead of me, but I also wanted the satisfaction of doing some trail-breaking myself. Most of this couloir was still shaded, and this was the only place where I wore a jacket over my thermal shirt as the weather was beautiful the whole day with ample sunshine and moderate temperatures with light winds.
The couloir steepens as it passes through a few hundred vertical feet of somewhat cliffy rock that guards the south and southwest faces of Humboldt. I measured the angle of one section at 38 degrees, and that was nearly the steepest part. My instep crampons didn't seem to be helping much as the surface of the snow was soft, but the climbing was still very straightforward. I could see above me that members of that group were occasionally choosing talus scrambling on the edges of the couloir instead of the snow scrambling. At one point, I thought I could hear someone yelling something, and shortly after, a single gravel-sized rock came whizzing by me about a meter to my right. Hmmm, maybe I should have waited for them to have finished. On the other hand, if they had stayed on the snow, there wouldn't have been any rock to send down. This was the only falling rock that I saw or heard, though.
After about 500 feet of snow climbing, I was pretty tired and my toes were hurting from all the kicking (my boots aren't particularly good in this department). I decided to scramble up the rest of the way on the fractured talus. The only problem was that I had really burned myself out on the snow and from such a long approach hike. I was feeling a bit dizzy and light-headed as I started up the rocks. It didn't help that the talus was loose in places and required a bit more effort to safely climb. I took several rests and started to feel better. There were a few Class 3 moves in the steeper rock, but by the time I reached the top of the couloir it was your typical Class 2 talus hike, which it remained for the rest of the climb.
The temperature had changed quite abruptly during the day, and I ended up not setting my altimeter correctly at the trailhead because I didn't have a good map for this area. Thus, I had no idea how far I was from Humboldt's west ridge. I could do a fairly good job judging my altitude by looking across the South Colony drainage to the spectacular terrain around Crestone Needle. However, when I looked west to what's supposed to be a 13290ft ridge point, it didn't give the same result. I don't know if it was a weird perspective effect or if the topo map is incorrect, but some people I met on the summit were fooled as well.
Finally, I reached the ridge, revealing a terrific view down Humboldt's shear north face into the North Colony drainage. There was a climbers trail through the talus field, and after a couple of false summits, I finally reached the top at 10:31. At one minute short of six hours, it was the most lengthy ascent in my short climbing career, and it certainly felt like it. My altimeter was reading 500ft below reality, probably 300ft from the incorrect setting at the trailhead, and the other 200ft is fairly typical on a day with considerable temperature variation.
A woman had just left the summit when I got there, and the group that I followed up the couloir was there. We chatted for a while and looked at the scenery. We also watched that woman descend down another couloir in-bewteen the summit and the one we climbed. This was visible on the way up and didn't look as steep as the ascent route. She and her two dogs were able to do some glissading, so I decided that this would be my descent route as well. The other guys were going to climb that unnamed ridge point.
I was hoping that the descent would be easy, but it didn't turn out that way. I picked my way down the talus and scree to the top of the couloir. The snow was wet and fairly soft, but I was able to start a sitting glissade which lasted 300 vertical feet. However, I was setting a lot of snow loose, and realized that I had created a very, very minor avalanche. I arrested and got out of the way to take a look. The clumps of wet, loose snow were sliding downhill at a remarkably slow rate. I started walking down the slope and was easily able to outpace the 100ft-long slide. It eventually slowed to a stop after another 100ft or so. Lower in the couloir, I was even able to do a short standing glissade. This was very awkward for me as I'm not a skier, but I was able to do it without falling.
The big problem with this descent was that the point at which I exited the snow left me at the previouly mentioned cliffy area, and I had to do a little bit of downclimbing to get past one particular section. At the very bottom of this, I had to do a very tricky move to finish. It was probably Class 4 and I had to drop my pack about five feet down ahead of me to do it. After this, I had to do a bunch of steep talus hiking downhill to a flatter area. After reaching this near treeline, I had a little more snow to hike and slide down to a stream. This looked to be the stream that the topo map was saying would cross the trail soon and this turned out to be the case.
I wish I had great things to say about the hike down, but it was somewhat of a struggle in my tired condition. I don't know if I simply overdid it on the way up, or if I was just having a bad day, or what. In terms of length and difficulty, my climb compares pretty well with Longs Peak, and I had climbed that on two hours sleep in the same amount of time that this climb took. I had really worn myself out then, too, but I'm in considerably better shape now. Oh well, it wasn't that bad and this was certainly a great place to be.
I reached the creek ford again, and this time I decided to do it in my boots, rain pants, and gaiters. Since this was close to the end, I didn't really care how wet I got. I ended up getting plenty of water in my boots and I finished the hike with just my polypro sock liners in my soggy boots. I finally reached my car at 2:18pm.
I figured that I was too beat to climb another mountain the next day and decided to drive home. I probably could have picked something easy to climb and made the final decision on Sunday morning, but I had told someone exactly where I was going to be the whole weekend and I just didn't want to deal with all that. After I got home and had dinner, I ended up sleeping for about 13 hours, the same thing I had done after climbing Longs (granted, I usually get 10+ hours of sleep the night after a long hike).
On the whole, this was a pretty good day. It's too bad that I wasn't able to do anything on Sunday but I'm not disappointed. I do think that this might be a better climb with a backpack or with a high clearance pickup truck, or even with a 4WD vehicle (heresy!) for the approach.
To the chronological trip index
To the Humboldt Peak page
File last modified: 20 December 2004