Crestone Needle, Kit Carson Prow, and others

By: Bill Wright | Climbers: Bill Wright, John Prater ("Homie") |Trip Dates: June 22, 2003

Photo: Gary Clark

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Big Day in the Crestones

Homie came up with this idea, but it was right up my alley. He wanted to climb the Ellingwood Ledges route on the Crestone Needle. No big deal, right? Lots of people do this route. It's a "Fifty Classics Climb". Gary and Lynn Clark climbed the two-thousand foot route in 1h 19m. Last year our friends Trashy, Warren and Mark Oveson, not only climbed this route, but then continued on to Crestone Peak via the classic 4th class traverse. This was a big day. We couldn't merely follow in their footsteps. We had to somehow go bigger. That's what friends are for, right? To motivate you.

I didn't want to say anything to anyone about our plans because so many things can go wrong like weather, conditions, fatigue, inherent lassitude, etc. Talk is cheap. Anyone can talk about big ventures. We hoped to pull one off. When Buzz Burrell, legendary ultra-adventurer, asked me what I was doing for the weekend the only thing I said was, "Hopefully something big in the Crestones." Buzz responded, "Ellingwood Ledges?" I was tempted to say more, but resisted and just said, "Now, Buzz, that wouldn't be very big, would it?"

My wife Sheri and Homie's wife Lori accompanied us down to the Crestones. They'd be off on their own adventure to summit Kit Carson Peak. Homie was our designated 4-wheel driver and he took over for the brutal drive up to the South Colony Lakes Trailhead. I'd done this drive once before so there were no surprises. I'm sure this is nothing for a real 4-wheeler but this is about as bad of a road as I'd drive. Anything worse and walking would definitely be easier. This road is right on the edge of that dividing line. Homie told us about a guy on the site that has driven this 5.5-mile road in well under 30 minutes. Now there's a speed record! We took an hour, as Homie tried to take it easy on our Landcruiser.

We drove down Saturday afternoon and got up Sunday at 4 a.m. Homie and I had previously packed so there was little to do besides throw on the packs and start hiking. We were moving by 4:15. We both wore Camelback H.A.W.G. packs, which are great adventure packs. I carried two liters of water and Homie nearly three liters. I hoped for a refill opportunity, but ended up doing the entire day on just two liters.

Homie led us to the base of the direct start of the Ellingwood Ledges where we found a rock hard ice field. We geared up as a cold wind tore through us. Even Homie would complain about cold hands at the start of this route. The wind would hound us all day long, but other than that, we'd have perfect weather, not even seeing a cloud until the late afternoon.

We roped up on the ground and would remain roped until just before the summit. This meant wearing the rope for lots of 3rd and 4th class scrambling, but we were just too lazy to coil and carry it. The route is remarkably free of loose rock and dragging the rope does not cause any rockfall problems. The start was a bit of a dicey traverse over into a prominent dihedral. The climbing up the corner isn't all that hard, but significant sections were iced up and necessitated traverses to bypass these sections. Some of the rock was wet as well due to the melting ice.

Homie switched into his climbing shoes at the base of the route, but I did the entire day in my Exum Ridge approach shoes. I started up the corner while Homie changed and ran the rope out to a ledge. I did all the leading today, but not because I required it or Homie can't do it. We just move fastest this way and we wanted to cover a lot of ground today.

After a 200-foot pitch, we simul-climbed for the next four or five hundred feet. Only the first seventy feet or so were 5th class. I eventually stopped to discuss the route finding and consult the topo. I retrieved the gear and we simul-climbed on to the base of the final headwall. After some discussion we agreed that the trough-like crack heading up and slightly right was the correct choice. It had some grass growing out of it, and it also had some ice on it. I carefully climbed around the ice and clipped a fixed pin before finding the bolt at the top of the pitch. I clipped the bolt and moved on, as we'd simul-climb the rest of the route.

I arrived at the last ledge below the 5.7 crux corner and moved up the crack, clipping an old pin. The climbing is steep at one bulge, but the crack provides some nice hand jams and I used some judicious stemming to get by this section. Soon I was on the ledge below the 3rd class finish and belaying Homie. Homie moved up quickly, pausing only briefly to decipher the bulge, and soon we were on the summit.

I timed our ascent in hopes of being faster than Gary and Lynn, but we were much slower, doing the complete route from the snowfield to the summit in 1h 54m. It was onsight for us and we had heavier packs and some ice and some wind and blah, blah, blah. The bottom line is that none of that held us up much and I couldn't have moved a lot faster up the ground. I stopped to regroup with Homie a couple of times more to give myself a breather than anything else. I'm very impressed with that pair's time for this route. I'm not as impressed with the route though. The climbing is discontinuous and the route is amorphous.

We signed in at the summit register and turned on our radio. Lori and Sheri were carrying one as well and we got an update on their position. They were traversing the ridge from the Humboldt Trail to the Bear's Playground and they had watched our progress up the route. We didn't stay any longer and proceeded directly towards Crestone Peak.

An airy traverse on a thin fin of rock brought us to the rappel that marks the start of this traverse. I took one look down and decided it was easy downclimbing, so we kept the rope on our back. We scrambled down the steep, but solid rock. The Crestones have some of the best rock in Colorado. This traverse is marked by walls with embedded cobblestones, most of which are secure.

We scrambled across faces and down gullies. This traverse doesn't really stay right on the crest, but plays out entirely on the western side of the ridge. We did one rappel down a snow-filled couloir beneath the Black Gendarme. Our soft approach shoes and lack of crampons and ice axes would make the numerous snow crossings a bit dicey. I brought a couple of long slings to leave as rappel anchors, but we also found three slings left by other parties, so we finished the day with an extra sling and biner.

Homie did a superb job of leading the way on most of this traverse. I would have climbed up too early to an intermediate summit, but Homie steered us right. I remember crossing one snowfield by chopping steps with a rock. Other snowfields were either crossed by kicking steps, which we could only do when the snow was soft enough and even then we barely dented the surface. A couple of times we followed previously kicked steps.

We passed a solo climber going in the reverse direction shortly before reaching the saddle on Crestone Peak and saw two others starting their descent of the South Couloir. Leaving our packs at the col, we scrambled up to the summit of Crestone Peak. The traverse had taken us an hour and fifty minutes. We checked in with the chicks on the radio and they were doing great, already nearing the summit of Kit Carson. We looked at our proposed descent route on the north side of the Peak and blanched. It looked steep, dark, snowy, and icy. Homie saved the day by reading the route description for the North Buttress route, and we realized we couldn't see most of our descent route. What we had to do looked hard and scary, but it wasn't that long. This helped reduce the actual problem to a small intermediate step. I envisioned sunny and dry rock on the other side.

From the saddle, I led down across the north facing 4th class rock. The terrain was very steep and a bit intimidating. I found a big rock I could sling and elected to set up a rappel. Soon Homie joined me and we did a diagonal rappel down to a snow gully and then scrambled up a bit to dry rock while still on rappel. After pulling the ropes, we continued up to the subsidiary northeast summit of Crestone Peak. Unfortunately there was more of the same on the other side. The winds were hammering us here and our 60-meter 7.8mm rope was whipped into some frustrating tangles.

I found a sling around a ham-sized chockstone and threaded the rope through it. However, Homie not only didn't like the slightly frayed sling, but he also noticed the chockstone was completely loose and could easily be lifted out. He elected to try downclimbing and moved off. I was left there with my rope threaded through a sling and no suitable anchor. I couldn't waste all my threading work and I downclimbed about twenty feet to a six-foot block of rock. It appeared to be just sitting on the steep slope, but a couple of good kicks confirmed it was firmly attached, though it looked freaky. I rappelled down the difficulties and Homie, after reversing his downclimb, did so as well.

After this we crossed over to the eastern side and found the fun class-three scrambling promised by our guidebook. We descended this easily and eventually hit an endless talus field as we descended into the Spanish Creek Basin. It took us about three hours to get from the summit of Crestone Peak to the base of the Prow. As we approached the route it became more and more intimidating.

The Prow is a fin of rock about ten to twenty feet wide that rises for nearly a thousand feet towards the summit of Kit Carson. We followed a steep ramp up and left to the base of the first pitch, with Homie calling for a belay for the final exposed move to the starting ledge. The crux of the Prow is the first moves needed to clear the overhang at the start. Above this the climbing is supposedly only 5.6, but I found it more like 5.7 and very, very exciting.

I cranked the initial moves without too much trouble and was able to actually sit, awkwardly, on a ramp above to place some gear. I pushed a yellow Alien into a small crack but didn't think it was very good because of the quality of the crack. I slotted my fingers into a crack near the piece and a bowling-ball-sized rock broke loose. I thought it was going to land in my lap, knock me off the ramp and over the overhang, pulling the piece and landing me on the ledge. Thankfully none of that happened, but it got my adrenaline going.

I moved left, placing a couple more pieces and thinking, "This isn't so runout." I changed my mind when, thirty feet above my last piece, I tried to decipher a tricky section. I tried going right, then left. The wind tore at me and threatened to blow me off my tiny footholds. Eventually, I solved the problem with a mantle move.

I wanted to belay as soon as possible in order to give Homie a tight belay for the crux moves, but there was no suitable place. I got in marginal protection every thirty feet if I was lucky. Forty feet above my last piece and running out of options I came upon a two-cheek ledge and slung a solid horn with a sling. I was probably 180 feet out when I called down "Off belay."

I pulled in all the rope, told Homie he was on belay, and prepared myself to offer assistance. I kept the rope as tight as possible, but a 7.8mm rope stretches a lot. At one point I thought I felt Homie weight the rope, but I wasn't sure. He later related that indeed it took him 3 or 4 attempts to pull the 5.8 move. Soon I was pulling in rope, he must be over the roof. He moved steadily up to the belay. I could tell by the look on his face that he was as daunted by the first pitch as I had been. We didn't talk much here and quickly changed over so that I could lead off again.

I found the next pitch challenging as well, though it started easier and even offered a solid piece of protection. Before too long, I was once again forty feet above my last gear. The rock on this route is nearly perfect, bulletproof, and, unfortunately, devoid of cracks. The climbing is stellar though, and very continuous. The position and exposure are outstanding. The route is a beautiful line, and a far better route than the Ellingwood Ledges.

I led for 220 feet, inadvertently causing Homie some simul-climbing. This is a common practice for us and he was completely unfazed by it. We couldn't communicate much because of the wind and issued belay commands via rope tugs. Homie knew what to do when the rope ran out: pull the anchor and get moving.

I stopped and belayed on a nice, secure cleft in the ridge and we mentally relaxed for the first time since starting up. The Prow loomed above us, steep and intimidating, but we knew it was easier than what we had already done. From this belay, there was a steep downclimb into a notch before continuing up the Prow. I led a long beautiful, 200-foot pitch and brought Homie up. The ridge was starting to lay back a bit more, so we simul-climbed the final 500 feet or so up and over the summit of the Prow and down to the horizontal ledge known as Kit Carson Avenue. This ledge cuts across the south side of the Peak and allows access to the satellite peak Challenger Point.

We took our first break of the day here, spending all of ten minutes relaxing and eating some food. As I spilled my Doritos all over the ledge, Homie says, "I'm glad I climbed that with you, Bill, because I'll never climb it again." I smiled, knowing that Homie would be dreaming up bigger and more ambitious outings after just a few days. His capacity for punishment is high and he has the alpinists' gift of a short memory.

After fueling up a bit, we headed over to tag the summit of Challenger, leaving our gear on the ledge since we would return to the Prow for the direct finish to the summit of Kit Carson. This finish provided more enjoyable steep climbing, followed by a narrowing, low angle ridge. We simul-climbed this as a 300-foot pitch before putting the rope away for good before the final exposed ridge walk to our 4th 14er summit of the day.

After another short break on the summit of Kit Carson, we started our descent of the East Ridge. The route home gave me quite a bit of respect for Lori and Sheri, as they covered this terrain twice. We had to get down off Kit Carson, go over Columbia Point (continuous 3rd class on a sparsely cairned route), then traverse "Obstruction Mountain", down to the Bear's Playground, across the interminable and surprisingly continuous 3rd class ridge over to the Humboldt Trail. We rejoiced upon reaching this trail and taking our first steps on a trail in 13 hours. The walk out was still an hour long but our spirits were high and we felt a bit of physical recovery coming on. At 14h 53 minutes into our day and back on the 4WD road, I asked Homie if he wanted to run. "If we do, we might be able to break fifteen hours," I said. I wasn't really interested and was glad when Homie simply said, "I'm happy with our current pace."

The entire day was basically onsight for me and mostly for Homie as well. I had done the Ellingwood Ledges 19 years before, but with the ramp start and the chimney finish, so I really hadn't been on any of the route we did except for the 4th class middle section. Neither of us had done the traverse or the Prow before. The total stats for the day are almost meaningless. They are mildly impressive at 12 miles and 9000 vertical feet, but on a trail that would be a tiring, but comparatively casual day. This was a big adventure for us and we were very excited to pull it off. Originally, we had hoped to add on Humboldt Peak in order to climb all five Crestone 14ers. We both felt strong enough to do it, but we had to get down and get home. If we didn't have to leave that night we'd have probably trudged up Humboldt. I have little regret though. If we had merely intended to top the five summits there are much easier ways to do this. What I really wanted to do was link the two technical routes with the traverse. We had a wildly successful day.


Split Time

Elapsed Time

Base of Ellingwood Ledges



Start climbing



Summit of Crestone Needle



Summit of Crestone Peak



Base of the Prow



Kit Carson Avenue



Start toward Challenger Point (first break of any duration)



Challenger Point



Start up Direct Finish



Summit of Kit Carson



Depart summit of Kit Carson (second break of any duration)



Back at the car



Editor's Note: The author is a Major Contributor to the North American Classics project.