Ellingwood Arete on Crestone Needle

18 Jun 2000 - by Scott Mefferd

See the photos at http://www.digimountain.com/mypage/slideshows under "New Slideshows" or "Climbing".

Sunday, June 18th Kevin Jackola and I left Littleton at 3pm to climb the Ellingwood Arete on Crestone Needle. We arrived at the South Colony Lakes trailhead after 7pm. 4 1/2 miles of bouncing around and trashing my Jeep on the four wheel drive road can get sort of annoying. Mysteriously there were a great deal of green trees fallen along the road that had been cut and moved. Unfortunatly some of them were still too close to the road and I managed to impale my rubber bumber with one. The four inch diameter branch is still sticking out of it until I can work on removing it.

At the trailhead there was still a little daylight left so we hiked up the trail a short distance to get a good view of the Ellingwood Arete that we would climb the next morning. While contemplating the route and looking at it I began to feel a little anxious. The photo in Dawson's guide makes it look alot easier and less exposed than this view. Had I gotten myself into something more than I expected? I made a mental note to pack a huge rack. I didn't care how heavy it was. Kevin ended up carrying the rack.

I took a few photos as the sun was going down, and we walked back to the car camp. While we were sorting gear and fixing dinner, I ran over the creek several times to get more photos as the sunset was turning more beautiful every minute. Finally we called our girlfriends, got our bivvy's ready, and turned in right after darkness fell. I had a hard time getting to sleep since it was so early and I was anxious about the climb.

After a fitfull few hours of sleep we nudged ourselves out of the bags shortly after 3 am. We were on the trail by 4 and at the south lakes by about 6. The sun was just coming up then. A few lenticular clouds hung east of the range, but Kevin had heard it was supposed to clear up in the afternoon.

We started by climbing the route that Roach describes. First we climbed up an apron of talus way to the north of the arete and surmounted a short fourth class step to reach a large grassy bench still north. We then climbed and traversed over on third and fourth class ledges and smaller grassy benches. We met the ridge crest at about a third of the way up at 7 am. About a hundred yards before the ridge, we passed an easy looking fourth class section. I think that section and below it to the base is the route in Dawson's guide. I wonder which way Ellingwood climbed it.

At the ridge we were uncertain of the route and started to climb straight up a few feet on the left side of the crest. We roped up here to start a running belay and simulclimb. Kevin began to lead into a tight, short chimney that he said kept pushing him out. I thought he could lead a short traverse to the left and pop over the small bulge. From where he was, he couldn't see a good line to the left around a big flake, but he said the rock was too rotten to get over to it. After about ten minutes with only one marginal piece of protection between us, seemingly nowhere to go, thinking we were off route, and the prospect of a shaky downclimb, Kevin started to get nervous. He also didn't like that we were tied together in this position with not much protection. My idea was to keep going and put in some more pro. I volunteered to lead and tiptoed out left on small rocks in the conglomerate cement and quickly pushed over the small bulge. Immediately above this was easy ground again. I set up a well anchored belay and Kevin follwed right up behind. Now I think the real route goes up the easy looking fourth class section 100 yards left.

We scrapped the running belay idea at that point, because Kevin didn't have confidence in it and didn't like the idea of being tied together. I actually would have preferred the security of a rope and pro for most of the 4th classing on this climb although we did go faster without it and that turned out to be a good thing.

A little farther up we met two guys from Boulder, Brook and Mark. We had seen them a bit below us as we were climbing to the ridge. They took the direct route up the fourth class face at the base of the ridge. They took the direct route from the base. It must have been faster than our ledge traversing route since they were now ahead of us. At this point we were about three pitches from the top of the technical section and about five or six hundred feet below the summit. We had to wait for them to finish their pitch before we could start.

The weather was still holding, only lenticulars just enough to the east to keep the sun from hitting us all day. I was glad I had kept my extra clothes on. Here we put our shells on to keep the slight wind out while we were waiting. We also put on our rock shoes here and packed the boots. They felt heavier on my back than on my feet. Kevin led out and passed Mark, the second on the other team, while Mark was trying to get a nut out. After the next belay, I led just behind Brook who was leading up the next pitch. Brook and I shared the next belay station bringing up our seconds. Brook asked if we knew the descent route. I said Kevin did, and they should wait for us at the top.

The next section was the last pitch and the crux of the route. We let Brook lead all the way and get Mark started before we got going. We waited for at least 45 minutes. To keep us occupied we took lots of pictures, posing at every angle. We took pictures of Mark as he was climbing trying to get good photos of the exposure below him. We said we would exchange emails before we parted so I could send him the pictures. The clouds were now building into cumulus although we got about ten minutes of direct sun before we started the pitch. The sun made everything seem wonderful. Kevin had a little trouble at the crux, and even called for tension. It is different pulling 5.7 with a big pack at altitude. Fortunately there was good protection. After awhile it was my turn to go up the famous Head Crack. I nodded to the party that just arrived behind us, and pushed on. I too felt a little unstable at the small bulge, but with my top rope for security, I committed quickly and pulled over it. I thoroughly enjoyed the rest of this pitch just as I had enjoyed the last few and met Kevin a few hundred feet below easy climbing to the summit. As I greeted him, we heard a clap of thunder in the distance and sped up to the summit. It was now 1:30 pm and the sky was grey where 30 minutes before it was sunny.

Mark and Brook obviously heard the thunder and saw the clouds too, as they were nowhere to be found on the summit. After a few quick tasks: calling my father for Father's day and our girlfriends, getting a summit photo, signing the new register we left on the summit, and picking up a rock for Mariah, my girlfriend's 5 year old, we hurredly started to descend. We caught a glimpse of Mark and Brook heading down the wrong couloir. Unable to call to them, we hoped they would be alright. It was starting to rain graupel and we could see lightning flashes close by. We wondered about the party behind us too. It would be tricky climbing the crux pitch in the rain.

I was even more uncomfortable about being unroped on the descent through the north couloir than on the ascent. The rock was very slabby and steep in places. Although stable unlike scree and talus, this rock seemed more dangerous, because we had to downclimb it. The rock on Crestone needle is very neat. It is an interesting conglomerate consisting of different colors of round stones in a concrete like substance. Some of the stones can be trickier than granite, because they can be pulled out of the conglomerate without any notice. A hold might look secure because it doesn't move, but is it? I remember thinking this while tiptoeing around a watermelon sized stone protruding more than halfway out of the cement. I needed to face it and touch it for balance, but I didn't want to pull on it. On top of the normal difficulties of downclimbing this route, the rock was also wet and we were tired. We had to be very alert, and it took a lot of concentration to get down. I was amazed at how difficult the route finding was. Luckily there is a trail and cairns in places. I was glad Kevin had done it before. The photo in Dawson's book, doesn't even come close to showing the complex maze of couloirs and cliffs on this face.

Finally at Broken Hand Pass, I felt secure, and was glad to be descending. Lightning was flashing above South Colony Lake in the valley below us right in our path! We descended very wet ground now in a small couloir below the pass. The last challenge was a thirty foot section of very steep snow angling right into a big rock, and continuing into another couple hundred feet of lower angled snow below it. A fall here would likely bounce a climber into the rock and slide them though the snow below into sharp talus. We wished for our axes now. I pulled my sleeves over my hands to use for balance and very carefully kicked steps and put my hands in the steps above me. The snow was so soft, some of the steps would give and I had to catch my balance. Happily after this section, I glissaded farther down on my feet and continued to lose altitude. Kevin was way ahead of me.

Eventually we arrived at the lake, and couldn't find the trail. The graupel turned to rain at this lower altitude and we were getting very wet. Bushwacking through willows soaked my legs. My socks were squishing. We picked up a trail. Only two miles to go.

We finally trudged into camp wet and tired at 4:30 pm. Only another hour and a half of third class driving and three hours on the highway to go. We changed clothes rested a little bit and then hit the road. Or should I say the road hit us. I hate 4 wheelin'.

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