Crestone Needle, Ellingwood Ledges Direct

By: Dave Condit | Climbers: Dave Condit, Carlo Rodriguez |Trip Dates: Late August, 1998

Photo: Gary Clark

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Thumbing through a copy of Fifty Classic Climbs of North America quite some time ago, I had first been interested in this route. It was located very near one of my favorite backpacking areas in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of Colorado. I mentioned the route to a friend, and he informed me that he was very interested. Although he later had to pull out of the plans, I continued to pursue the idea. So, while on a recent trip to visit my parents in Colorado Springs, I joined up with Carlo (an acquaintance of mine and old friend of my parents) and set the plan in motion.

Through several e-mail conversations with other climbers, I had heard the weather was preventing most summit attempts. If you've ever lived in Colorado, you know that every summer afternoon brings rapidly billowing gray things that spout lightning, rain and hail. Despite the unwelcome forecasts, we decided to give it a try. We planned to hike in on Friday afternoon, summit on Saturday, and hike out on Sunday after a little fishing. My father was coming along but would remain in camp and fish on summit day.

After a leisurely drive through the mountains, we arrived at the beginning of the four-wheel-drive road that leads to the trailhead. A recent e-mail reply from someone had told me that the road was quite passable and took about an hour. Hmm…it didn't look very far. I wonder why it takes an hour? Bump…jostle…tumble…bang…bump…knock…bump…bang. By the time we reached the parking area, I was in need of a rest!

The afternoon thunderstorms never developed, and we headed up the trail toward upper South Colony Lake under a deep blue sky. I could see Crestone Needle in front of me soon after emerging from the dense forest…what a view! Just like the guidebook says, it looks quite imposing from way below. With the big rock as our guide, we soon arrived at the perfect camp sight.

Early to bed and early to rise keeps this climber alive…I was soon snoring away with my watch set for 5 a.m. We would have planned on an earlier departure, but we weren't quite sure of the start and wanted to do it in the light. This would later turn out to be a mistake. But, when my alarm went off, I was ready to go!

Still yawning, we walked slowly toward the towering mass of stone that loomed ahead in the ever-increasing gray morning of pre-dawn. We were both wearing our Gore-tex as the early morning air carried a bite. Our rack consisted of a set of Camalots to #3, Metolius FCU 1-3, black and blue Aliens, and a set of stoppers. I hadn't gotten any beta on recommended racks, but I figured this would be fine. As it turned out, the only item I didn't use was the black Alien. The rack was entirely sufficient. While I carried the rack and rope, Carlo carried a backpack with water, food, headlamps, and a few other items. Within a few minutes, we were approaching the base.

The guidebook talks about choosing between a long, ascending traverse and a more difficult (but still pretty easy) direct start. We chose the direct start and headed for the base of the arête. By the time the sun popped over the hills, I was leading the first pitch. Initially, I was planning to do the whole thing in my approach shoes, but I quickly chickened out and put on the fufu's when the start required me to climb unprotected for about 25 feet. The rock looked loose, but it was really quite solid … well, most of the time … maybe … I guess.

"Rock!" I shouted as Carlo hunkered in close to a small overhang. This shout would be echoed many times as we picked our way up the arête. The first pitch went quickly, and I set up a belay at a fixed pin (always a welcome sight…we must be on route!) Carlo led off on the next pitch, and I could immediately tell that it would be a long day. He's always been more of an alpinist than a rock climber. After slowly meandering his way up the 5.5ish crack and face, he arrived at a likely place for the belay. After another 15 minutes, I was shivering and shouting up for a progress report.

"I'm having a hard time finding some good pro for the belay." he shouted back down. Oh well, it was his first pitch in quite some time…I'll cut him some slack. Eventually, he made it work and brought me up. Upon reaching him, I grabbed the rack and looked up. Hmm…that looks about like 5.8 or so directly above us. The crux is supposed to be at the top and is only rated 5.7. Since I had no intention of climbing anything more difficult than 5.7, I decided the route must traverse left. Off I went and soon found myself belaying from another fixed pin (backed up with a couple, more pieces of course).

After one more pitch of easily protected climbing, we arrived at a spot where things eased up a bit. At about that time, my dad checked in on the radio. I have two of those little Motorola radios, and we had left one with my dad for the day. From his perch by the lake, he informed us that there was a party of three doing the long traverse and a part of four coming up behind us. After telling us that he'd caught one trout, he signed off. We had agreed to check in every hour on the hour.

At about this time, I saw a head peek around a corner below. "Are we on the right track?" the unknown face asked. I confessed my ignorance about the route but told him of the fixed pin. I also said we'd be as careful as possible with the loose rock. For the next several pitches, we climbed on easy rock (4th class to 5.4) and made pretty good time. However, within just a few pitches, the three climbing parties were converging. There are lots of potential lines down low, but the place really turns into a funnel about half way up. We talked to the party of three for awhile as we took a break on a large, grassy ledge. George, the ringleader, said that he'd done the route twice before. He gave us a few pointers on the route and then took off on the next pitch. Although we would probably move faster, they had arrived on the ledge before us, so we let them go ahead. Things got REALLY slow as we waited for the other parties. Somehow, the party of four had gone around to the left and passed us while we sat on the grassy ledge. Although we were first on the route, we were now last in line! There's nothing like doing one of the "50 Crowded Climbs." Soon, my dad was checking in to tell us he'd caught his limit of large, cutthroat trout. He informed us that he was going to make a try at Humbolt Peak, a walk-up 14er just across the small valley. At about this time, Carlo said that he thought I should lead the rest of the pitches since I was much faster. I quickly agreed·we were way behind schedule. Besides, I love to lead! Off I went on the next several pitches, quickly passing the party of three and catching up to the party of four.

As midday wore into afternoon, I paused on another fine ledge. Although there were thunderstorms off in the distance, I could tell that God had spared us from the rain. The sky around us was clear and bright. I realized that I hadn't eaten any lunch, but the altitude seemed to suck the hunger from me. I pulled out some dried fruit, munching slowly. Soon after Carlo arrived at the ledge, a huge marmot appeared next to me. It sat just three feet away and eyed my tidbits of food. I tossed it a dried apricot…then it charged me, going for my jugular! We rolled around on the pile of rope, embroiled in a battle of life and death. With all my strength, I just managed to keep its gnashing teeth from tearing into the soft flesh of my cheeks! For several minutes, we were locked in a mortal stalemate, our eyes only inches from each other. By the grace of God, I slowly managed to push the menacing, throbbing pile of claws, teeth and muscles away from me. Just as I was about to toss the vile demon from the mountain, I lost my grip! It came at me unopposed…"Hey Dave, wake up." Carlo nudged me and pointed up the slope. "We'd better get moving."

"O.K.," I responded. Hmm…the marmot was still there, watching me. Whew! It was just a dream. I grabbed the rack and headed up. Just before I pulled over the next small overhang, I glanced back at the creature. It winked at me! I swear it did! I always knew those marmots possessed strange powers.

The top was getting much nearer, but it was also getting late in the day. By my best estimates, it looked like we would arrive on the summit just behind the first party about 4:30 p.m.; much later than my original plan but with plenty of time to descend before dark. Checking in with my dad, I found that he was only few meters from the summit of Humbolt. Wow, that was fast! Especially for a 59-year-old man who had been living below sea level in the Netherlands for the past six years.

Working my way up an awkward crack, I spied a precious piece of metal and webbing. Ah, someone was unable to retrieve their #1.5 Rigid Friend! After a little tinkering around, I added the booty to my rack. Arriving on a large ledge covered with loose rock, I glanced up at what was supposed to be the 5.7 crux pitch. "It looks pretty dicey at the start." I told Carlo "Maybe it eases up a bit as you ascend." Carlo didn't look too happy about it. He certainly didn't climb more than 5.8, and at 14,000 feet with a pack on his back, he wasn't going to be gunning for his personal best. Oh well, no sense waiting around…the party of four is almost to the summit (I think…can't see them from here), and the other party is only one pitch below us.

As I struggled to gain altitude, it never dawned on me that I might be off route. I have a tendency to think everything seems harder than it is, so I didn't think twice about the difficulty. I started shaking a little as I pulled some difficult moves on crimpy holds above questionable pro. After multiple scary moves, Carlo informed me that I was almost out of rope. What!?! I was still at least 40 feet from any potential ledge. There was no way I would make it. A few moves later found me setting up a hanging belay in a tiny crack.

Looking back at my progress, something slowly began to dawn on me… Carlo would never be able to climb up here. He just looked up at me and shook his head. What was I thinking? I had done several moves that were at least 5.9. My fears were confirmed when George (the guy who'd been here before) glanced up and said, "Wow, you guys are really going for it. I think that's the 5.9 variation." After which, he sauntered around the corner to the left. Looking down, I could see a very nice 5.7 crack leading up from his new position.

Now, since Carlo would not be able to come up to where I am, I had to decide how to get back down below. I thought about leaving a few pieces and just rapping off, my desire not to leave any booty for anyone else had me down climbing. I must say, it totally sucks to down climb 5.9. Each time I pulled out a piece of pro, I prayed that I didn't fall. To make matters worse, I could see that we would now have to stand in line behind the slow party of three once I made it down.

Eventually, I made it back to the ledge. After a quick hike around the corner, Carlo and I settled in for a long wait. Dad had reached the summit of Humbolt and was well on his way. As the shadows lengthened across the valley, I began to get concerned about the descent. Even the easy way up and down Crestone Needle is loose 4th class along 1000-foot ridges. The prospect of picking my way down between potential death falls in the dark did not make me feel real happy.

The party in front of us offered to descent with us, but they reiterated that they would not wait around on the summit if we were late. No problem, I planned on climbing on the heels of their third person. After a VERY long wait (they had some sort of problem), I started climbing. Their third climber was a young lady who had not had that much climbing experience. When she arrived at the more difficult part of the pitch, she got stuck.

With me directly below her, I coached while her teammates hauled. It took her almost 20 minutes to surmount the small overhang, but eventually she made it. I quickly set up a belay and started to bring up Carlo. Unfortunately, he had the same problem on the overhang and took even longer to get past it. Frantically, I watched the other party disappear into the dusk toward the summit. "Come on Carlo!" my thoughts were shouting, "I don't want those guys to leave us up here." I knew he was doing his best, so I never voiced my thoughts. As Carlo arrived at my humble belay, I could hear the other party shout down that they were going to start their descent.

I told Carlo that we could easily simul-climb the rest of the way. Roped together, we headed for the top. I had already had my headlamp on and blazing away. By the time I reached the summit, it was completely dark. I quickly signed the summit register as Carlo arrived huffing and puffing. We quickly snapped a couple of photos, illuminating the small summit with the camera flash. After changing shoes and putting on our jackets, we started down along the knife-edge ridge.

We stayed roped together in glacier travel format, more for the psychology than the safety. It didn't seem too difficult, and my spirits began to rise as we could hear voices not to far in front of us. We kept the radio on, staying in constant communication with my father who was getting a little concerned. He could see the pinpoints of light moving slowly along the steep ridge. I told him to get the fish ready because we'd be home for a late dinner! How wrong I'd be…

As the descent became less and less obvious, we shouted down to the party in front of us for instructions. At first, they were a ways off, but we soon found ourselves rapidly gaining on them. What's the deal? They should be cruising…shouldn't they? Within a short time, we rounded a corner and found ourselves on a small ledge with the other party. After a joyous reunion, I asked a simple question. "So, why are you guys just sitting here?" The unhappy reply came from the nice young lady (who was now shivering in the cold): "We're lost."

Hmm…this isn't looking good. The guidebooks all describe the route from bottom to top and then assume that you'll just follow your footsteps back to the bottom. However, if you happen to ascend via another route, you're pretty much S.O.L. Just a little warning for future travelers, the route is not very obvious, even in the light. So, we sat around for awhile and then decided to carefully explore some options. George checked down to the right while Carlo and I checked down to the left. Within a few minutes, Carlo and I were back on the ledge after seeing a deadly, sheer cliff. George also found a drop-off, but wasn't sure that it couldn't be navigated. The problem was that we might have gotten off route much further back, so who knew where to go!

After more sitting around, Carlo and I decided to have a look at the route George had scoped. We really just wanted to get away from the other climbers who were getting into fights with each other by this time. They were arguing about whether or not to bivy on the ledge or rappel into the darkness. The bivy idea sounded best, but we figured we would find another ledge…or maybe luck into a trail of some sort. So, into the inky blackness I went, following the small round spot from my headlamp. Upon arriving at the drop-off George had described, we found that it was possible to traverse left and then down-climb further. After nearly an hour of making very slow progress, we shouted up that we had found a cairn. Unimpressed, the other party continued to argue with each other. After another hour or so, Carlo and I found ourselves on a grassy slope with lots of cairns. This must be it! We were very excited and began following the faithful piles of rock. However, within just a few minutes, we were once again without a trail and facing multiple drop-offs. Try as we might, we just couldn't figure it out. We radioed my dad that we would have another quick look at the guidebook. No luck … it was vague and useless. Peering around in the darkness, we realized that this fine ledge would be our home for the night. We radioed my dad with the news, and he iterated that it was for the best.

I was exhausted and figured I could sleep anywhere. We located a relatively flat location, flaked out the rope for insulation, and hunkered down for the night. Just as I thought I might fall asleep, the wind kicked up a little causing a deep chill to run through my body. Within a few minutes, we were both shivering uncontrollably. It turned out to be a much colder night than normal. At 13,000 feet with a stiff wind blowing in our faces, we were literally freezing. I was wearing my light climbing clothes covered with a layer of Gore-tex - not enough for the conditions. Stupid! I usually bring my bivy sack just for these circumstances, but today it was sitting back in camp. I shivered so hard I even chipped a tooth. Eventually, I found that I could manage the temperature if I jogged in place for five minutes out of every 15.

In between jogging exercises, Carlo would sit there and rock back and forth. We both kept thinking we saw lights or heard voices, but it was just the ghosts of our imaginations. Watching an airliner quietly pass far to the south, I couldn't help but think of the passengers all warm and happy…probably on their way to Hawaii or some other place warn. I could also see tiny, warm lights in the valley. I could almost see the warm beds and burning fires. If I just had a layer of fleece or a bivy sack or a sleeping bag or a big fluffy down comforter…jog,jog,jog…shiver,shiver,shiver…the night seemed to last forever!

"Did you see that?!" I asked excitedly.

"See what?" Carlo asked with a stiff voice.

"I could swear that star just turned into a big flying saucer!"

Instead of telling me that I was crazy, Carlo's voice got excited also. "I didn't see the star, but did you see the big lights moving along that wall? I think someone is coming up here. They probably have blankets for us!"

We both peered into the coal-dark night with eagerness. After a few minutes, we both silently realized that we were just hallucinating from the cold and exhaustion. Although I saw many more exciting things during the night, I just kept them to myself. I kept watching the east…

After what seemed like an eternity, we both agreed that the stars in the east were truly beginning to disappear - it wasn't just our imaginations! After watching for as long as we could, we soon found ourselves happily packing our few meager things into the pack that had been our seat for hours. By the time we had policed up the area for loose items, it was light enough to see. After a few dead-end gullies, I spotted a path along the ridge to our left. We traversed a difficult section and soon found ourselves on an obvious trail that lead down toward the notch that lead to the valley that lead to our campsite! Arriving in camp after three more hours of hiking, we were greeted by my father and a pan full of trout!