Saturday, July 23, 2016

Sangre Scramblin' - Peak Bagging in the Blood of Christ Mountains

Ever since hiking in northern New Mexico and looking east to their enormous, craggy and snow capped peaks I have been curious about the Sangre de Christo mountain range in southern Colorado.  It just so happens Guthook hit me up to see if I wanted to get in a backpacking trip in Colorado in mid-July.  I agreed and had already worked out part of the route, the remainder was pieced together using descriptions and maps from and  Soon I had developed a long loop, almost entirely off trail and requiring a bike ride to get back to my car at the end as Guthook was flying in.  The trick was that the daily mileages were so low but the elevation gain never dropped below 4,000 feet per day, and all above 12,000 feet.  We would need strong legs and good weather to get this done.  Not only that but Guthook lives at sea level in Maine, so I had to keep altitude sickness in mind.

Approaching Venable Pass up and to the right.
He flew in late on a Wednesday night and of course my phone didn't ring when he called because I left it on night-time mode.  That led to me realizing at 3 AM that he was shivering at the bus station. Woops, sorry Guthook!  The next night we left after I finished work and we ended up car camping at 9,000 feet near Poncha Pass about an hour from the trailhead.  After breakfast in the incredible hippy town of Crestone we stashed the bikes at the southern trailhead and made our start around 9:30 AM from the northern trailhead.  In front of us was a mosquito ridden 5,000 foot climb to the top of Venable Peak which we reached after some easy class 2 hiking up from Venable Pass.  From the ridge we could see smoke churning into clouds from the Hayden Pass Fire - a 12,000 acre wildfire about 15 miles north of us.  It was an incredible but somber sight.
Smoke mixes with clouds.

From the top of Venable Peak we tried to identify the route ahead and could spot 7 of the 10 peaks we had on the menu.  On the way down we encountered a group of 14 (!) backpackers taking 5 days to do the loop that we had just done half of in 7 hours.  Their packs were of the extra-extra large variety but I'm sure they had a great time in camp.

Climbs not pictured: Horn Peak, Broken Hand Peak and Obstruction Peak.
Soon we dropped down the adjacent drainage and found a breezy camp a little below 12,000 feet to keep the mosquito's off.  We had to eat dinner at the lake and haul water up for the next day since we had no sources to count on along the crest of the Sangres. Guthook had a mild head ache but no issues with the altitude so far.  The view from our tents wasn't too bad to boot.

The west side of Comanche Peak lit up at dusk.
The next morning we climbed the ~1,000 or so feet back up to the pass, turned left off the trail and ascended Comanche Peak, our second 13'er (peak higher than 13,000') of the trip.  Ahead was a false summit and a broad flat area north of Fluted Peak.  The ridge to Horn Peak loomed to the west, branching off fluted's false summit and we went back and forth about whether to climb the 2 miles out and back, losing 500 feet and gaining 800 in the process.  In the end we bagged it and enjoyed our first real "Class 3" scrambling of the trip.  It was a good warm up for the Class 4 we encountered on the ridge between Fluted and Adams.

Fluted Peak in back, Adams is behind me.
Guthook exiting an exposed Class 4 chimney on the way to Adams.

This was not the thing you want to do with a heavy pack, every pound tugging you backwards and sloshing around when you make a quick move across a potential 1,000 foot fall.  The climb up Adams had four intimidating ribs jutting out along the ridge, each of which presented a vertical wall of rock with a chimney along the back side or some other way of negotiating it. We managed to make it to the summit without vertigo or death and descended the much simpler standard route to camp above Willow Lake.

Guthook contemplates the summit of Adams.

Dusk gives the Sangres their name as Challenger and Kit Carson glow red in the fading light.
Another breezy, almost mosquito'less camp.
The next morning we finished the descent to South Colony Lakes and joined up with the standard route up Challenger Peak - our first 14er and 6th summit of the trip.  We both hated the route - straight up a dusty and loose rock ridden slope with little solid rock until the top.  Fortunately no other climbers were immediately ahead of us, so the risk of a rock to the head was low.  We did meet a few on the summit who took our photo though.

Summit of Challenger Peak.
I printed our route descriptions and photos of the way to Kit Carson, down Challenger's ridge and around "The Avenue" but it was all fairly obvious and well cairned.  At the summit of Kit Carson we began the descent down to a Class 4 traverse across its East Ridge which was the most sustained and enjoyable scrambling of the trip so far.
Guthook head up to Columbia from Kit Carson.

Easy, right?
Soon we had the summit of Challenger and another cairned and well trodden path around it leading to a view of Obstruction Peak and the "bears playground" - a huge flat grassy ahead.

Ridge to Obstruction Peak - our 4th 13,000'+ peak that day.

Bears Playground with Crestone Peak in back.
At this point clouds were rolling in so we had to hoof it.  After another class 3 ridge traverse we made it to the saddle below Humbolt Peak and decided to call it a day.  It was 2:30, the weather was iffy and we were both almost out of water.  Our fourth day was unplanned and had several options so we decided to regain the ridge, bag Humbolt (our 3rd 14er of the trip), descend and go up Broken Hand Pass to Broken Hand Peak.  Yet again, we found a beautiful campsite, but with some big horns as a bonus.

The next day went as planned, although the trail up Broken Hand Pass turned into more of a scree scramble at the top.  Again, we didn't have anyone above us which made things a lot safer.  We were both totally exhausted but made the slog up Broken Hand Peak for our 11th summit of the trip. The descent back was uneventful and we found another epic campsite.  The tents came up minutes before the rain and a thunderstorm rolled in.

Summit of Broken Hand Peak looking towards Crestone Needle.

Another pleasant site.
We got up a little earlier the next morning hoping to outwit the mosquito's but were severely disappointed when clouds of them chased us down the trail.  For over two hours I killed at least a mosquito every 5 seconds, totalling over 1,000 blood suckers.  I still came home with several dozen mosquito bites since we neglected to bring any bug spray.  Oh well.  The trail down Cottonwood Creek was difficult to follow until we were below treeline but soon became a beautiful waterfall riddled thing with open granite ledges (and more mosquito's).  We got back to the bikes only to find one had a flat tire so I booked it back to the car, changed and came back for Guthook (and my other bike...).

All in all, an epic trip.  34 miles, just under 20,000 feet of elevation gain and descent.  For reference, in New Hampshire's steep white mountains a pemi loop is about 33 miles with 10,000 feet of gain.  This trip was double the climbing and nearly all of it was between a lung gasping 12,000 and 14,000 feet.