Submitted June 10, 2009

We were exhausted, wet, cold, tired and lost

After spending nearly a decade scaling many of Colorado's so-called 14ers I had begun to look forward to an annual escape to work on my list of yet-climbed mountains. So was the case on August 15th, 2006, when my long time climbing partner and I departed the South Colony Lakes trail-head in the Sangre de Cristo Range for one of Colorado's Classic 14er traverses. Our destination was the traverse from 14,197' Crestone Needle to 14,294' Crestone Peak. I had used this trail-head previously for an ascent of nearby 14,064' Humbolt Peak and for multiple attempts on 14,165' Kit Carson Peak. This area is in the heart of one of Colorado's great mountain ranges.

Our day unfolded much as planned first scaling the Needle, rappelling down the "airy and beautiful Class 4 crux pitch of steep and knobby rock" to the saddle where we began our traverse. A couple of hours later we completed the last few moves to the top of the Peak and we were half-way home, or so we thought. We began our descent of the Peak as the weather began to come in, typical for summer afternoons in the Rockies.

The descent was steep and challenging and eventually lead to an area known as the Bear's Playground at about 13,140' in elevation. By this point we found ourselves surrounded by bad weather with thunder audible in several directions. Our pace quickened as we hustled across the plateau toward what we thought was our decent route. In this area there is no place to take cover and we were in a hurry to get down below tree line to escape the rapidly deteriorating weather. We identified the South Colony Lakes basin and dropped over and headed back to camp.

Hours passed as we continued to bush-whack our way down the basin through the now steady downpour. As we were only on a day trip we were not particularly concerned with staying dry as we would be back in camp soon. But as we continued we were repeatedly unable to find the trail and had to retrace our steps looking for the way down - through countless patches of willows. After several hours of this Jim turned to me and calmly said "I don't think we are in the right basin"... and we realized, he was right. With bad weather above us we had no choice but to continue our decent despite the fact that we had hiked completely off the side of the map we had with us. We were exhausted, wet, cold, tired and lost. This was bad.

We decided it would be best to press on knowing that the further we descended the warmer a night out would be. To our good fortune another hour later lead us to a faint trail that became a better trail that lead us to the Rainbow Trail. By now it was near dark but we pressed on, guessing our way, eventually finding a dirt road and a cabin where a good Samaritan gave us a ride into nearby Westcliffe where we thankfully got a room for the night. We later calculated that our planned 3.9 mile day had turned into a 14 hour nearly 16 mile day.

Do you think a better level of preparedness would have helped you?
Absolutely- we were experienced mountaineers, but still found a way to get lost. A better map would have helped as well as better preparation in terms of knowing our decent route before we departed.

Also, with the experience you went through, what do you think of the following kits?
Yes - I, like you, am constantly appraising and re-appraising my kit-contents in search of the ever-elusive perfect items for each trip.

What — if anything — could you have had with you beforehand that would have made your experience more bearable?
A better map, a better plan for if we got lost, money for when we got back to Westcliffe (we had no $ and had to "negotiate" for lodging) and a better commitment to stay dry. When we finally realized we were going to be OK, our adrenaline could slow down and we realized how beat-up, wet and cold we really were.

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