Thursday, June 25, 2015

Climbing Humboldt Peak

Humboldt Peak has been on my radar since I moved to Colorado last year.  Its summit stands less than a mile and a half from the Crestone Needle and less than two miles from Crestone Peak.  The Crestones are among the most scenic peaks in Colorado featuring a jagged wall of rock towering a sheer 2000+ vertical feet straight up from the South Colony Lakes.  My interest in Humboldt stemmed from the desire to see the grandstand view of the Crestones from Humboldt.  What didn't sound appealing was the 5 miles of walking on the four wheel drive road on its standard route on the West Ridge.  I'm not a huge fan of road walks so I never made the hike a priority.

As winter approached, I started hearing about the alternative East Ridge route.  The East Ridge is the primary winter route to access Humboldt and fairly popular when there is snow cover.  I brought up the idea of a winter trek to Humboldt to my occasional hiking partner Drew Petersen.  We talked about taking the winter hike a few time but it never panned out.

By late May, Drew moved fairly close to Westcliffe, CO and had renewed interest in exploring the Sangre de Cristos.  As the heavy late season snows melted he started exploring the area and even climbed Humboldt from the West Ridge.  As his interest grew, he got a hold of me to set up a hike to climb Humboldt ascending  its East Ridge and and descending the West Ridge, traversing the peak and hiking a big loop.  This time we agreed to meet Tuesday, June 23rd and had a solid window of weather.

The East Ridge is the main route on winter climbs of Humboldt due to relatively safe avalanche conditions.  In the snowfree months, the East Ridge is not climbed too often.  From what I gathered, the biggest obstacle is a bushwack through the forest on the lower reaches of the mountain can be difficult.  Drew scouted this route in the past couple weeks and found a route that was partially cairned with a herd path developing on the lower part of the bushwack.  Knowing that the bushwack was not much of an obstacle we were set on taking the East Ridge.

Because recent hot weather with another fairly hot day predicted, we got an early 545AM start just before sunrise.  Four wheel drive vehicles can drive higher and shorten the hike.  We both drive cars so we parked at the lowest trailhead, roughly 8800 feet in elevation.  This makes the distance to the summit of Humboldt via the East Ridge at  least 6.5 miles or more depending on the source of information.  The distance isn't exact since there isn't a trail to measure the distance much of the route.

Sunrise over the Wet Mountains
The first 3 miles or so are fairly straightforward.  The first 2.5 miles follows the rough dirt road to the rainbow trail and involves about 1300 feet of climbing.  From there, we turned north onto the Rainbow Trail.  After a creek crossing, a short climb leads to the top of a small where we turned to the woods.  The turnoff point to the woods marked by a cairn.

The view from the trailhead
Closeup of Humboldt Peak from the trailhead
The bushwack is the only portion of the hike with any route finding challenge.  From the turn into the woods, a short climb to the narrow ridge led to a faint herd path marked with the occasional cairn or piece of flagging tape.  The herd path was generally easy to follow for about a mile or so.  Eventually the herd path seemed to fade and we had to choose our own route.  As we climbed the woods seemed to have an occasional reappearance of a path and even an occasional cairn.  The markings of a trail didn't last though.  We took turns leading the way generally following the path of least resistance while heading uphill.  We soon reached a thinning forest with shorter vegetation and before long could see treeline.

The faint herd path is visible here
Continuing along the herd path 
The herd path is gone here as we bushwack.  You can see
Drew ahead of me in one of the denser sections.
Reaching the thinning trees with the
East Ridge ahead
Beautiful grassy tundra above treeline
Looking at Marble Mtn from treeline
I'm not sure why, but I was expecting a mess of rock and nasty terrain on this route.  What we found was a very pleasant walk over grassy tundra.  It felt like a scene from The Sound of Music   Wildflowers were starting to cover the tundra and there was a sweet smell to the area at times.  The walking was quite easy.  Since we were on the wide open tundra, we split up, hiking at our own speeds.  Since I am the faster hiker of the two of us, I took the lead and hiked alone ahead of Drew until the summit.

Easy walking on the tundra
I knew that the long, grassy ridge before us was leading to a false summit.  I was thinking the route became more difficult.  A few brief sections easy rock became mixed with the grassy tundra as I climbed toward the false summit, but nothing that lasted too long.  The final hump to the false summit grew steeper and seemed to be the steepest part of the entire East Ridge.

Climbing the false summit the terrain had more rocks
View were pretty good early on the ridge
Looking back down my route
From the top of the false summit, the elevation is about 13,200 feet and the summit about a mile away.  The route started with flat, grassy tundra for a short distance before the climbing started.  Where the climbing began was the only stretch of snow on the entire East Ridge that had to be negotiated.  From a distance the snowfield appeared threatening.  In reality the slope was fairly gentle and not really a risk with no need for traction or ice axe.  The snow was fairly solid and I didn't really sink.  My feet stayed completely dry even in my trailrunners.

More tundra above the false summit
looking toward the East Ridge
Looking north across the tundra
Looking ahead toward the peaks south of the Crestones
Broken Hand Peak on right and I think Milwaukee Mtn.
Climbing the snowfield
Looking back down the snowfield
At the top of the snowfield, the ridge became rockier and narrowed.  Even with a nearly steep drop on the north side of the ridge, the route was relatively tame for the most part.  The south side was not too steep and there is grassy patches mixed in among the rock.  As I climbed higher, the ridge became rockier but passage was easy with only a short stretch that required using my hands for stability.

The last section before getting onto the more rugged ridge
The terrain becomes rougher on the ridge
One of the rougher sections to pass
A section of knife edge
The last stretch before the summit
One last rocky section
Looking back down the East Ridge
I reached the 14,064  foot summit at 915AM, 3.5 hours from the beginning of the hike with more than a vertical mile of elevation gain.  I hadn't been above 14,000 feet since January.  Despite the altitude and elevation gain, I felt quite strong on the ascent.  When I arrived at the top,  I had the summit to myself for about 10 minutes before another group arrived from the West Ridge.  While I waited for Drew I took some photos before eating some snacks and hydrating.

The steep drop on the north side of Humboldt with
East Ridge in the distance
Drew reaching the summit
The views from the summit were just as glorious as I hoped.  The Sangres are a rugged mountain range and this was the heart of the Sangre's jagged peaks.  The views of the Crestone's jagged skyline exceeded my expectations.  I have seen the Crestone's from other summits further away in the Sangres but you don't really get a feel for how grand they really are until you see them from such a close vantage point.  Broken Hand Peak, just to the south of the Needle continues with the jagged, rocky skyline.  14ers Kit Carson and Challenger Point tower just to the north of Crestone Peak.  Colony Baldy's hulking mass lies just across the North Colony Lakes Basin.  Centennial 13er Mt Adams with its rugged profile and its neighbors stand to the north.  The highest peak in the Sangres, Blanca and its group of 14er companions are visible to the south.  The long line of the Sangres crest stretches out far to the north with the peaks of the Sawatch Range visible on the northern horizon.

Crestones and Kt Carson beyond summit
Looking south from summit with Blanca group
on the horizon
Kit Carson
Mt Adams
Looking north from summit
We began our descent down the West Ridge.  Unlike the climb up the East Ridge, there was a trail on parts of the descent on this route as well as cairns.  The descent was also more of a jumble of rocks.  The best part of the descent was the constant view of the Crestones.  We didn't see another person on the East Ridge, but we were passing numerous groups that were climbing as we descended.  Just above South Colony Lakes, we stopped for a short break.
Looking back to the summit
South Colony Lakes coming into view
Looking south from the West Ridge
Crestone Peak and Kit Carson
Kit Carson on the left
Colony Baldy
Looking over the basin
Between Humboldt and the Crestones sit the two South Colony Lakes.  Framed by the impressive backdrop of the Crestone's 2000 foot cliffs, the South Colony Lakes basin is quite a stunning location.  It is a popular place to camp with its beautiful scenery and close proximity to the Crestone's and Humboldt's 14,000 foot summits.  As we passed through the basin, the area was teeming with dozens of marmots.  A few brief stretches of trail in the basin still had snow while other sections of trail were covered in water.

Looking up the basin from the upper lake
View from the basin
Crestone Needle from the basin
The rest of the route was mostly just the long trudge back to the valley.  From Humboldt's summit to the trailhead, this route covers around 8 miles.  The scenery keeps your attention before dropping below treeline.  Before long the trail reaches the old four wheel drive road that used to travel close to the basin.  Now the road is blocked a fair distance below the basin but is still part of the hiking route.  From the upper trailhead, it is nearly a 5 mile walk back on the dirt road to the lower trailhead where we parked.  There is an occasional view from the road but otherwise, the dirt road descent is anticlimactic.

No shortage of scenery
Broken Hand Peak and Crestone Needle
After roughly 15 miles of hiking with more than a mile of vertical elevation gain and loss, we reached the trailhead at 115PM.  With our time on the summit and a break near South Colony Lakes, we finished the hike in 7.5 hours.

Another view of the Crestones on the descent
Another look south on the descent
I'm glad we chose to hike Humboldt as a loop.  Climbing the East Ridge allowed us to experience the climb by ourselves and miss the crowds while hiki over some nice alpine tundra much of the way.  Descending the West Ridge gave us the great views of the Crestones and the South Colony Lakes area.  The East Ridge is a fairly tame route that I recommend to anyone as an alternative to Humboldt's standard West Ridge Route for anyone that is comfortable with bushwacking and off trail travel through the woods.  The East Ridge will ensure some solitude before reaching the summit.

Another look the the Crestones from
above the upper lake
Looking over South Colony Lakes