Sangre de Cristo Range Traverse Fastpack

Crestone Peak from Crestone Needle

Sangre de Cristo; Sangre Fría; Solo y Sin Apoyo

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Follow me on my public inReach page, tracking me in real-time. I will be starting on Monday, July 15th.

Route Description

The Sangre de Cristo Range is a long chain of mountains starting (going South to North) between La Veta Pass near Fort Garland, CO to Poncha Pass, near Salida, CO. It’s around 75 miles long as the crow flies. This range rises straight from the valleys that flank it without any foothills, making a very dramatic spine of mountains.

The Sangres Range Traverse Line
The Sangre de Cristo Range Traverse Line

Simply put, the route I will be taking will follow the very crest of this range starting with ascending the Southwest Ridge route to Little Bear Peak from Highway 150/Lake Como Road and staying on the very ridge of the range until descending off of Methodist Mountain towards Salida, CO.

The Sangre de Cristo Range Traverse – approx. elevation profile

Dozens of peaks comprise the very spine of the range (70 – 80 peaks, depending how you count), including five fourteeners, and two Colorado centennial peaks. This spine also includes two of the Four Great Fourteener Traverses: Little Bear/Blanca, and Crestone Needle/Crestone Peak (both rated easy 5th Class). The route will thus link these two traverses together. Nick Clark breaks down the peaks as follows:

  • 14ers: 5
  • 13ers: 33
  • 12ers: 18
  • 11ers: 17
  • 10ers: 4
  • Total peaks: 77

Many other semi-technical traverses can be found on this ridge of similar quality. Most of the route is off-trail – perhaps a few miles of trail in the total line. Talus, tundra, and forested areas will all be passed through.

The total elevation gain/loss of the route is between 50,000′ to 60,000′; the equivalent elevation gain/loss of two summits of Mt. Everest from sea level, back to back.

Caltopo Map

This map holds my intended route, Nick Clark and Cam Cross’s route, labels to major peaks, and all my beta notes.

Attempts/Completions

Brendan Leonard and Jim Harris

Brendan Leonard and Jim Harris, Cottonwood Peak

The first time I ever heard of anyone trying to link the Full Sangre de Cristo Range was when reading about Brendan Leonard‘s and Jim Harris‘s trip going North to South, starting in Salida in 2013. Read their story in Backpacker. Brendan writes about trying to be the first to attempt doing the full range. After ten days, they bailed off of California Peak due to torrential downpours – the same weather system that caused massive flooding here in Boulder, CO.

Cam Honan

Cam walking across the Great Sand Dunes National Park

In 2016, Cam Honan did a variation of this route (his trip report is here) – I don’t know his exact route, but I believe he dropped off the ridgeline near Milwaukee Peak, then traveled to the base of the range on the west side and into/across the Grand Sand Dunes National Park, before re-ascending to the ridge. I’d love to see a GPX. ~8 days. Not quite sure of the style, but he notes that Paul Mags joined him for the last push to Ellingwood/Blanca Peak. I don’t believe the Blanca/Little Bear Traverse was done.

Nick Clark and Cam Cross

Cam Cross, photo by Nick Clark

In 2018 Nick Clark and Cam Cross completed the first (known/documented) traverse from Lake Como, to the TH for Methodist Mountain (starting with Little Bear Peak, and doing the Little Bear/Blanca traverse) staying pretty much on the ridgeline the entire time (except to source water), in about four days, 11 hours. Their trip report is worth a read.

They noted having a few food/water caches along the way. Researching their track, it does seem they missed a few minor peaks, but stayed generally on the very crest of the spine of the mountains, including the two 14er traverses. Nick describes their line as such:

hike, climb and maybe jog a little from Lake Como to Methodist Mountain in as expeditious a manner as possible, while staying on the range’s central ridge for as much of the route as feasible and/or practical.

Among other things, Nick writes about terrible blowdown in some areas below treeline, highlighting that the cruxes aren’t just what’s found on the high peaks and knife edge ridgelines.

My Style

I’ll be going solo and unsupported. I’ll be packing all the food I’ll need for the entire trip with me from the start and only sourcing water either from lingering snowfields I find along the way, or from creeks/lakes if I need to drop off the ridgeline itself. The north side of the range will be more difficult to source water from, than the (higher elevation on average) south side.

I’ll bring enough food for about five days – about 4750 calories/day. I’ll need to do 20+ miles and 12,000′ of elevation gain/day or go hungry in the process.

I am attracted to the purity of going unsupported, as well as its simplicity. I also am enamored by how committed you are required to be, knowing that there is no relief to be had in the form of an awaiting bag of food/supplies, as well as the planning that needs to be done to put together a kit that will get you through this type of route.

I certainly believe I can do this all without food caches, and in this time frame – but only barely. Five days of food – around 4,000 – 5,000 calories a day weighs quite a bit (around 13lbs), and my pace will suffer greatly from that – especially at the start, no matter what else I bring with me when it comes to gear.

The Mosquito/Tenmile Range Traverse that I did in 2018 would be the most similar trip in Colorado to the Sangres Range Traverse, although the former was shorter at 81 miles, had less elevation gain at 29,000’+ and took me less time: 3 days, 19 hours. Mosquito/Tenmile though, stays at a higher average elevation (maybe 1,000 feet higher on-average, roughly).

The Sangres Range Traverse differs greatly in the Nolans 14 linkup, as dropping down into the valley with its relative safety and copious water sources just won’t happen in any part of the line.

I anticipate my pace to be around 20 miles/day, and gradually get faster as the weight of my pack gets lighter. I don’t anticipate that I can beat Nick/Cam’s time, but I can get close.

Itinerary

I’m expecting this plan below to be wishful thinking, as projects like this seem to delve into a seemingly uncontrollable chaos after the first minute. But in the chaos, one will find a strange type of order. Each day is approximately 20 miles. Day 1 and Day 3 are absolutely the crux days.

Day 0

I’ll be taking public transportation from Boulder, CO to Alamosa, CO, as I do not own a car. This will take approx. 10 hours of bus time. Once in Alamosa, I’ll be probably hitchin’ it to the road, or taking a 20 mile prologue of a walk. I’m actually excited of this sort-of side-quest to explore how a peak-bagger enthusiast (like myself) can use public transportation (most notably the Bustang and Bustang Outrider CDOT services) instead of a car.

I think I’ve proven this already in my Tour 14er and Tour of the Highest Hundred projects, that one does not need a car to enjoy summertime mountain activities in Colorado – the access is really incredible for self-powered travel.

Once in Salida, I’ll be taking the same network of buses back home.

Day 1

I’m planning to start early – very early at the beginning of the Lake Como Road and Highway 150. Nick Clark/Cam Cross started higher up at Lake Como – I’m not sure why that was, but starting at the base of the range itself will add 7.25 miles and 4,000′ of elevation to the route. I’m also planning to take the Southwest Ridge route, rather than the standard route (Hourglass). I find the Hourglass dangerous, and well: if the whole grand idea is to stay on the ridgeline, it makes sense to start on a ridgeline, too. Both routes are of similar technical difficulty (Class 4).

Little Bear Peak, the first official peak in the line, is at around 8.25 miles in. At 14,035′, you’ll gain around 7,000′ just to summit this one mountain! That’s a stiff start, with a heavy pack.

Little Bear/Blanca Traverse
Little Bear/Blanca Traverse

Ahead of you is one of the main cruxes of the entire line: the Little Bear/Blanca Traverse (low 5th Class). I’ve done this traverse twice – and once with a pack with two days of food and overnight gear, so I feel I’ve got a handle on it. Still, it’ll take upwards of three hours to do this one mile.

Blanca Peak, Tour of the Highest Hundred
Blanca Peak, Little Bear Peak in the background

Some relief will be found after summiting Blanca, and then crossing over to Ellingwood. I plan to easily source water from near Blanca’s northwest face, melting snow with a stove I’ll be bringing. The line gets gnarlier again once at the summit of Ellingwood. A Class 4 knife-edge route across several high 13er points awaits, finishing with California Peak (a centennial).

Once at California, the ridgeline relents, and I’ll drop some massive elevation towards Mosca Pass. At around 23 miles in, this will be my target for finishing Day 1.

Day 2

A bit of a reprieve, Day 2 will see me on more friendly terrain, with a summit of first Mount Zwischen, then after a few miles of undulating terrain: Blizzadine Peak/Blueberry Peak/Snowslide Mountain will be found and summited in quick succession, then I’ll be finishing up near Music Pass. Around 40 miles into the route, this day will be less mileage than the day before, but should give me a little insulation against coming up short the previous day. I haven’t done any of this part of the route before.

Day 3

Out of the frying pan, into the fire. The Crestones begin after Music Pass, with Marble Mountain and Broken Hand Peak. Then it’s up and over the Crestone Peak to Needle Traverse.

Crestone Peak from Crestone Needle
Crestone Peak from Crestone Needle

If the weather is holding, it’s time to get summit Obstruction Peak and attempt to link up Obstruction with Mt. Adams (a Centennial). The ridgeline between the two should be loose, challenging, and quite committing.

Marble Mountain marks the point at which the route will be above 12,000 feet and thus above treeline for almost the next thirty miles. This leads to a lot of challenges. Water may start to be hard to source unless one drops off the ridge, and weather/lightning storms become a very critical issue that cannot be ignored.

I’m not quite sure where exactly to bivy in this area. My gut feeling is to run the hike out as far as weather permits, but the 60 mile-ish mark to get the needed mileage for the day is at around Peak of the Clouds/Hermit Pass.

Day 4

If Hermit Pass can be made on Day 3, the next pass, Hayden Pass, is less than 20 miles away and makes a good target. Hayden Pass tops at ~10,700′, and marks the first evidence thatthe ridgeline will be coming down in elevation.

Day 5

Nothing left to do, but finish up the line! As Nick Clark writes, “by this point, you can smell the barn” A mad rush to Salida for burritos, last call for a local brew, and a frigid swim in the Arkansas!

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Should I Use the Fixed Ropes Found in the Hourglass on Little Bear Peak?

To not bury the lede and to respect the intelligence of my readers, here are the take home points:

  • If you decide to climb Little Bear via the West Ridge and Southwest Face route (aka The Standard Route), you’ll encounter the Hourglass Couloir. There are a lot of objective hazards not found on most other 14er routes, including plenty of rockfall and wet/icy conditions (even in summer).
  • Rockfall, particularly coming from those above you that are inadvertently kicking projectiles down may very well be your main objective danger.
  • There are often times fixed ropes on the route, put there anonymously. The ropes are utilized sometimes by people to ascend and descend the route.
  • The ropes may not be safe to use. They could be damaged from rockfall and general exposure to the elements, UV damage, and damage from animals gnawing on the rope.
  • It’s questionable if one can assess the health of the rope/anchor for use to aid ascending, no matter how well experienced a climber is, since the anchor in the system cannot be easily seen from the bottom of the route. Sometimes, it’s hard enough to see the ropes themselves, due to atmospheric conditions (fog).
  • The route can be done without these fixed ropes.
  • Damaged ropes – even a very damaged rope with the sheath completely cut away and only a few strands still held together, may be able hold enough weight to support a climber. There is no way to calculate how much weight can be supported.
  • It’s much easier for a skilled mountaineer to assess the quality and condition of the fixed gear (rope + anchor) from the top anchor when wanting to use the ropes to descend and make a judgement of their safety and utility – far more than assessing it from below for utilizing the rope for ascending.
  • If you do decide to do this route, realize the objective dangers, as well as the questionable conditions of these fixed ropes. Big takeaway: the ropes may not be in a condition to safely use. It will be up to you to decide if they are safe enough for you.
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Future Projects: Tenmile/Mosquito Range Traverse + Sangre de Cristo Range Traverse

The Fletcher to Atlantic Traverse

Sometimes it’s seems that it’s hard to follow up something like the Tour of the Highest Hundred with the next project. It took years to get myself physically and mentally ready to take something like that on – save nothing for the financial burden of taking so much time off work and the burden of that food bill!

Still, in the heartbeat, I’d do it all again. But the world is a big place, and there’s so many fun and challenging things to do – even so close to where I live. I don’t necessarily like to repeat myself, but I do like to progress in what it is I do, and in doing so: explore different facets of the talents I’ve taken a life to develop.

Anyways, the future! What’s on my mind to do this summer (or next)? Here’s two projects I’d like to try (more coming, later…)

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Fastpacks From Hell: The Crestone Centennial Enchainment!

Crestone Peak from Crestone Needle

The Crestones! A highlight of my Highest Hundred trip – the mountains of this group are awesomely steep, the rock is solid, the scrambling: divine. This is truly a Fastpack from Hell-yeah!

Stats:

  • 36.1 Miles
  • 15,200’+ elevation

Total time:

  • 1 day, 17hr, 28min

Seven Centennials summited:

  • Adams
  • Challenger
  • Kit Carson
  • Columbia Point
  • Humboldt
  • Crestone Needle
  • Crestone Peak
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Fastpacks From Hell: The Colorado Sierra Blanca Centennial Enchainment!

Stats:

  • 33.1 Miles
  • 15,085’+ elevation

Total time:

  • 2 days 25min

Six Centennials summited:

  • Ellingwood Point
  • Little Bear Peak
  • Blanca Peak
  • “Huerfano Peak”
  • Mt. Lindsey
  • California Peak

To make the Tour of the Highest Hundred work, my general strategy was to keep the number of separate trailheads I needed to visit by bike as low as possible, while designing my route on foot to tag as many mountains in an area as possible. Transitioning to/from bike-mode/hike-mode and superfluous riding are big time sucks.

One of the largest puzzles is the Sierra Blancas. Even enthusiastic peak baggers will separate this group of mountains into >= two trips:

  • Approaching from the east for Mt. Lindsey and “Huerfano Peak” via the Huerfano/Lily Lake Trailhead
  • Approaching from the west to access Ellingwood Point, Little Bear, and Blanca via Lake Como Road
  • And well, also approaching from the west for California Peak (if the Centennials are part of your goal), which is accessed from an altogether trail head: Zapata Falls.

Three different trips to three different trailheads is a lot of bike riding for six mountains that sit close together. Visiting the eastern trailhead, then the western ones means either crossing a northern mountain pass (Mosca Pass), or going around the entire southern end of the Sierra Blancas (La Veta Pass) – I was willing and needed to do one, but not both.

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Tour of the Highest Hundred Week #2 Notes

Crestones

Centennials Summited (11):

  • Mt. Adams
  • Kit Carson Peak
  • Challenger Peak
  • Columbia Point
  • Humboldt Peak
  • Crestone Needle
  • Crestone Peak
  • Phoenix Peak
  • San Luis Peak
  • Stewart Peak
  • Rio Grande Pyramid

Total Mileage:

  • By foot: 85.4 miles, 29,916′ elevation gained
  • By bike: 276.3 miles, 12,298′ elevation gained
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Tour of the Highest Hundred Week #1 Notes

Centennials Summited (9):

  • Pikes Peak
  • Culebra Peak
  • Red Mountain
  • Ellingwood Point
  • Little Bear
  • Blanca Peak
  • “Huefrano Peak”
  • Mt. Lindsey
  • California Peak

Total Mileage:

  • By foot: 62.4 miles, 23,625′ elevation gained
  • By bike: 362 miles, 21,242′ elevation gained
Continue reading…