Crestone Needle - 14197' - Ellingwood Arete Class 5.7
Finally it was time for me to climb the Ellingwood Arete! I had flown in from Seattle for a short 4 day trip and Stephan picked me up from DIA and we made the long drive down to the South Colony Lakes Trailhead. Along the way we saw numerous thunderstorms but the forecast called for improved weather on Saturday the 8th. We made it up just fine in Stephan's truck and since I had just come from sea level and we were carrying pretty heavy packs we made slow progress up the old road to the old closure gate. The rest of the trail along the base of Marble Mountain was of and on snow to the lower lake where we decided to continue up the trail to camp at the upper lake to get as close to the arete as possible. The afternoon lighting was beautiful and perfect for taking photos. Once we arrived at the upper lake we found a nice flat spot near the outlet stream and pitched the tent. Out my tent door I stared at the arete which looked dubious but awesome. We had a quick dinner and after sunset went to sleep.
Ellingwood Arete Climb
The next morning we woke shortly after sunrise and were disappointed when we realized that Humboldt Peak was hiding the sun. Oh well...we ate a quick breakfast and started hiking towards the arete. The route description stated two starting options. One was a direct 5.6 start right above the upper lake while the other was hiking left and scrambling up a crack to reach the ledge and hike the famous ledge to the crest of the arete. We chose this option and began traversing left to what looked like the best scramble crack. At the base of the crack, after traversing some hard snow with our microspikes on, there was one class 4 move to gain it then class 3 for around 50 feet in the crack to reach the small snowfield above. We continued up about 100 feet up the easy snow which was softer since the sun had been hitting it when all of a sudden a bunch of rock came tumbling down from our objective ledge above. I was on the snow exposed to the fall line and found myself dodging 10-15 rocks while Stephan was lucky and was still back against a cliff. Whew...that was close! Turns out it was a family of goats above us. Reasons why I hate goats!
We continued traversing up the 20-25 foot wide ledge all the way until we reached the arete and continued up class 3 ledges until we got to a point where the climbing became substantially more exposed and more sustained 4th class. Here Stephan wanted to rope up so we donned harnesses and I racked up and we prepared to simul-climb the remaining arete to the base of the final 500 foot headwall. So off I went scrambling up very exposed terrain alternating from short cliff and narrow ledges placing a piece of pro every 40 feet or so while Stephan followed. Thankfully most of the route was dry by this point. However we reached an area which was less steep and I passed by a huge piton. This area was snow covered a little but luckily we still had our boots on so it wasn't a big deal to kick steps up. At the top of this snow, I found a ledge leading left and followed it up to a long east class 2+ section of the arete. Here I placed one piece for the 30 meters of rope between us then after another short 4th class section we reached a slung boulder marking the base of the final 500 foot headwall. I belayed Stephan in and looked at the route above.
After a short break I began leading up this full 70 meter 5.5 pitch which I will call our pitch 1. It was easy climbing and I soon realized I had climbed over 70 feet with no pro! I found a place for a cam and threw it in but above that it felt like a sport climb since I clipped into three pitons. At the top of this chimney, I cut left on a nice ledge to reach a huge flat ledge on the arete where I ran out of rope and made an anchor to belay Stephan up. He followed nicely and I led a short pitch around a corner to the left and up a slab to reach the base of the famous head crack which marked the crux. I then clipped into a couple huge pitons and belayed Stephan around the corner. No pro needed on this short class 3 pitch. I decided the head crack was best done without my pack on so I took it off, led up the slightly overhanging and awkward move to gain the crack and scrambled up it to a chalkstone with webbing around it. I decided to simply belay from here even though it was only 50 feet because I had to pull the packs up. Once I got them up, Stephan followed and I then continued the rest of the way up the head crack however the second half of the crack was dripping! Water was almost flowing out of the large overhang to the left and the route was wet. I managed to work through the awkward and slightly pumpy (since we are at 14,000 feet!) move though and pulled through to the end of the crux pitch (by now almost soaked!). Right above the head crack I made an anchor, hauled the packs up, and belayed Stephan the rest of the way. With the crux complete and a light bit of hail falling we quickly finished the class 3 final slope to the summit. Upon reaching the top the sun began to come back out! Finally I had reached Crestone Needle, My 54th 14er out of 58. I stared over to the Peak and said "until next time" as the Peak is one of the four I have left. It was about 2:30pm when we summitted, some 6 hours after we left the tent. I'd say painfully slow since we only gained 2,000 feet but others seemed to think otherwise.
Our Descent of the Standard Route
I signed the register and Stephan and I dreaded the descent which we had no clue as to what the route was since neither of us had done the Needle before. All I knew was it was class 3 and we had to avoid the wrong gully. So down we went, at first following the correct cairns down to the upper couloir. Some class 3 descending to the icy couloir wasn't bad but without stiff boots and crampons we soon realized we were not going to be able to descend much of the snow. We only were able to head down 100 feet of snow where it was deeper and softer before being forced onto rock to the skiers left. I found myself descending much class 4 rock and we were probably off route many times since I think we followed the wrong cairns down the wrong gully a short ways.
I was forced to set up a short rappel since I was trapped at one point with a huge icy snowfield to my right, and some mid-fifth class rock below me and to the left. Luckily I found a horn to sling and rap back down to the middle of the couloir where the snow by this point was softer. We plunged a short ways and found a trail leading left. Somehow though we managed to head too far right and I felt like we were descending into upper Cottonwood Creek. I told Stephan we needed to be further left so we backtracked and I found a way around some exposed ribs to another trail heading towards Broken Hand Pass. After a few more class 3 drops it was finally easy trail to Broken Hand Pass. We reached the pass at 6:30pm! For crying out loud it took over 3 hours to descend that garbage. I recalled stating the standard route sucked! From the pass we started down some loose rock then reached the nice snowfield that I was able to plunge step down quite a ways. We had to decide how we were going to retrieve camp since it was over there at the upper lake and we had a straight shot to the lower lake. I had a headache by now so Stephan volunteered to run 400 feet back up the trail from the lower lake to get our tent and sleeping stuff. Thanks man...I owe you a beer!
While waiting I had a nice time speaking with another guy about climbs I'm planning to do in the Canadian Rockies. Once we met back up we reshuffled gear and started back down the trail. By the time we reached the upper gate it was completely dark and the final 2.5 miles down the old road was miserable. Upon reaching the truck it was 11pm and we were disappointed to realize nothing in Westcliffe was open.
Overall a fantastic climb though. Not too much snow anymore but enough to warrant an axe in a few places.
Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoy the photos!