14,064 Feet (Ranked 38th in CO)
West Ridge Route from South Colony Lakes 4WD Trailhead (11,100 Feet)
August 9th, 2009
7.25 Miles Roundtrip
Elevation Gained: 3,100 Feet
Greenhouseguy (Brian) and Slow Moving Fun Seeker (Jay)
Humboldt Peak was named for noted German geologist and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, who was an international celebrity in the early-to-mid 1800’s. He advanced studies in the fields of plate tectonics and biogeography, and even held an altitude record for reaching 19,286 feet on the 20,703-foot Mt. Chimborazo. This record lasted for 36 years. Although Von Humboldt was an expert in western U.S. plate tectonics, it is apparent that he never visited his namesake mountain.
Jay and I arrived at the South Colony Lakes 4WD trailhead as the sun was setting. Driving the last five miles of road was exhausting; while the road is much improved over its prior state, there is the constant threat of tearing out a sidewall. The last stream crossing can be hairy in the early spring, but water levels were low enough to make it a non-issue. There were quite a few vehicles at the trailhead, all of them 4WD. Campers were washing dishes and preparing their gear for the following day. Bruce from the Rocky Mountain Field Institute invited Jay to join his camp, while I got ready to sleep in the Jeep. Crestone Needle cast a jagged silhouette as the sun dropped behind it.
We got up at 5:00, ate breakfast, and prepped our gear for the hike. Headlamps were not necessary by the time we hit the trail at about 6:00. The trail starts out on the old mining road, which is still used by Search and Rescue. The wildflowers were pretty nice on both sides of the road, particularly the columbines.
The road heads southwest towards Broken Hand Peak, then it turns north towards Lower South Colony Lake. The mellow lower part of the route only gains about 400 feet in the first 1.5 miles.
The mining road ends below Broken Hand Peak, and the route continues as a narrow trail. Huge Crestone conglomerate boulders litter the landscape in this area.
Crestone conglomerate rocks have small to large river rocks imbedded in a sandstone matrix. Significant portions of Crestone Peak and Crestone Needle are composed of this interesting rock, which provides good hand and footholds for climbing.
The wilderness boundary is just below Lower South Colony Lake. The 226,455-acre wilderness area was created in 1993. All the typical rules apply – no camping within 300 feet of lakes or within 100 feet of streams; no shortcutting switchbacks; if you pack it in, then pack it out. This extraordinarily powerful place is worth preserving.
Wilderness boundary sign
The trail to Broken Hand Pass split off of the main trail just below Lower South Colony Lake. At this point, right about treeline, the rugged Crestone Needle absolutely dominates the landscape. This incredible view is likely to leave an indelible mark on any hiker who takes the effort to come this far.
We got a pretty good view of our route up to the saddle from Upper South Colony Lake. There is a decent Colorado Fourteeners Initiative trail with plenty of switchbacks. About ⅔ of our elevation gain was still ahead of us – 800 feet to the saddle, and 1,200 feet from the saddle to the summit.
I noticed that I wasn’t the only one looking over my shoulder to take in the view of Crestone Needle towering over Upper South Colony Lake. Jay was taking plenty of pictures, as were the pair of hikers ahead of us.
The numerous switchbacks in the trail up to the saddle kept the trail from being too steep, but it was still a relentless grunt. We took plenty of short breaks to take in the stunning scenery.
We stopped for a break once we reached the saddle. We chatted with hikers from Iowa and Minnesota, and watched a bold marmot graze just a few feet away. The views of the Crestones, Kit Carson Peak, and Colony Baldy were excellent.
Crestone Needle (left) and Crestone Peak (right) viewed from Humboldt Peak's saddle
Humboldt Peak’s west ridge looked intimidating from the saddle. It was rocky, steep, and the trail wasn’t visible from below. Jay seemed somewhat discouraged, but I knew that the easiest route would reveal itself as we got closer.
The sand/scree/dirt trail through the talus was steep, but it was better than I had expected. It seemed pretty stable on the way up, but we slipped and slid a little on the way back down.
The crux of the route was a jumble of talus just below the false summit. There were short sections of trail in this area, but we mostly had to boulder-hop along the cairned route. It was steep and the route finding took a little time, but at least the talus was stable.
The trail bypassed the crest of the false summit, and the true summit came into view. There was a huge antenna on the summit; I had never heard of an antenna being up there.
Large cairns marked the obvious route to the summit. The route followed the edge of a steep cliff that could spell disaster for anybody navigating in dense fog or a whiteout.
At last, we reached the broad, flat summit. It was spacious, to say the least. A few hikers milled around, and there was this curious antenna set up at the wind shelter…
It turns out that it was Ham Radio Day on the fourteeners in Colorado and California. Two ham radio operators had set up in the shelter, along with the pair of pack goats that they had used to haul their gear. The friendly goats were exceptionally well behaved, and stayed right beside their human companions. I heard one of the operators talking to another operator on Quandary Peak, while the other hammered out his messages in Morse code.
Steve (red jacket) and Peanut (brown fur). Crestone Peak is in the left of the image, and Kit Carson Peak is to the right.
It was cold and windy on the summit, so I ducked down into the wind shelter on the east end of the summit. I enjoyed the sunshine and the views of the Wet Mountain Valley while I chatted with several other hikers. I was probably on the summit for 45 minutes or more – the longest I’ve been able to stay on a summit this season. There was not a dangerous cloud in sight. Jay snapped my image with a Which Wich? bag, which will earn me a free sandwich at the Denver-area sandwich shops. Interesting concept, good sandwiches.
On the summit with my Which Wich? Bag, earning a free sandwich. The Crestones are in the background.
I scoped out the interesting East Ridge Route on Kit Carson Peak while I descended from the summit. It looks like fun, but many people say that the route from Willow Lake is their favorite fourteener hike. It might be worth hiking both routes just for the comparison.
Farther down the ridge, we passed a rock pile that was like a marmot apartment complex. I saw at least six of the furry little buggers among the rocks. A particularly ballsy one taunted me as I snapped his image with Crestone Needle in the background.
We took our time to enjoy the awesome scenery on the way back to the trailhead. I followed our progress on my GPS, and noticed that while we were on a good trail, we had departed from the standard route. We backtracked about a hundred yards and got back on the correct trail. Shortly afterwards, it occurred to me that we had been on the pack trail that goes almost directly to the trailhead. I would have stayed on the pack trail if I had realized this, because it shaves nearly a mile off of the trip. Oh well, no regrets.
This was my 29th fourteener summit, and I have to say that the scenery was the most impressive of any route that I have taken. Anybody who has not hiked Humboldt Peak should make every effort to get up there this summer – the road will be closing at the upper 2WD trailhead in October, and this will be a much longer hike in the future.