Crestone Peak, Red Gulley via Spanish Creek
Gary & Lynn Clark
Many in the club have done this climb, so I won't include all the details, except to note that we may have discovered a better approach to this classic Colorado 14er climb. The guidebooks describe the route with an approach from the East via the South Colony Lakes Basin. This is a long drive around for Los Alamos residents, however, and we wanted to approach from the West just to see some new country. We had heard stories about the difficulty of the Spanish Creek approach, but wanted to see for ourselves.
We drove up Friday night and slept in the car at the trailhead (unmarked, but obvious if you have a map). The next morning we left the car around 5:00am. The trail was reasonably good for about 1/4 mile, then it came to a very improbable stream crossing. Not wanting to wade the stream, I started up a sidehill to the North, planning to drop back down at the earliest opportunity to find a better place to ford the creek. It never happened. We went higher and higher on the sidehill until we finally crested out on the ridge North of Spanish Creek. It was clear that going back down wasn't a good option, due to steep cliffs and the fact that I didn't want to lose hard-earned elevation.
We spent the next couple of hours on the ridge, which was very reasonable walking, with a few short scrambling sections and thickets of trees. We kept looking for a way to get back into the Spanish Creek drainage via a traverse, and it finally presented itself at about 11,600'. Skirting around the face of a small triangular peak on a talus slope (large rocks, pretty stable), we turned the corner to an amazing sight. The entire south-facing slope had been burned off in a fairly major fire, so the brush-beating we had been dreading was instead a nice clear slope. We traversed at the 11,600' elevation all the way to Spanish Creek, looking down on major deadfall on the slopes below us.
We camped in the basin directly below the couloir, left camp the next morning at 5:07, climbed up to the left a bit to enter the couloir right at it's base above the rock bands, and summitted at 7:30. The climb was routine and pleasant on good cramponing snow. An early start is important to have good snow conditions and avoid rockfall, a basic bit of alpine lore. However, we had arrived back at our camp, eaten, rested a while, and packed to leave when we looked up to see another party just arriving at the base of the couloir from the S. Colony approach. Not clear on the concept. We hope they survived. Within an hour there was a serious downpour, although fortunately with minimal lightning.
We descended the regular Spanish Creek "trail". This is routine at the higher elevations, but soon enters the downfall zone we had heard about for so many years. Every tree was killed by the fire, and they now all lie atop each other like so many boxes of toothpicks dumped from the sky. The trail, such as it is, is marked by rock cairns piled atop the logs. This wasn't so bad going downhill, but I wouldn't want to do it coming uphill with a full pack.
After the deadfall section we entered a zone of bad overgrowth of the trail. Everything was wet from the storm, so if we hadn't been soaked before, it was just a matter of time now. Then the stream crossings began Ð about 5 of them, none with any assistance from bridges or rocks. Since we were on our way out, we just waded into the streams, letting the water pour into our boots.
We squished back to our van, to discover that we had left the dome lights on, and had a dead battery. Help came in the form of a passing car, who had jumper cables. A good bit of luck.
Bottom line: If I go into the Spanish Creek drainage in the future, I'll use the ridge approach. It is not like hiking a well-developed and maintained trail, to be sure, but the official trail is so bad that the difficulties encountered on the ridge pale in comparison. You must have a topo map to do this alternate approach, and an altimeter helps to know when to begin the traverse.