Crestone Needle, Ellingwood Ledges Direct

By: Gary Clark | Climbers: Gary & Lynn Clark |Trip Dates: September 27, 1998

Photo: Gary Clark

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Friday, 9/25: We do the usual New Mexico to Colorado after-work commute, and sleep in our van at the parking lot at the end of the "good" road, choosing to cope with the remaining 4-wheeling in the light of the morning. We hoped to repeat the Ellingwood Ledges route, which I had first climbed 18 years ago with another partner, then 9 years ago with Lynn. If we could succeed this time, the 9 year pattern would be set - I'd have to return in 2007, 2016, 2025, etc. By then I'll be 80, and someone else can lead the hard pitches.

Saturday, 9/26: This road gets worse every year. This will be the last time I try it in anything less than a HumVee. We beat the crap out of our AWD van until it cries for mercy, then hike the final 1.5 miles to the trailhead. A short bit of trail takes us to the upper South Colony Lake, and we drop our packs to hump up the recently rerouted and restored trail to the top of Humboldt Peak. Some folks have done a bunch of work on this trail, which is now better than the road. Conditions are clear, cold, and very windy. It's not summer anymore. On the way back down, we meet some poor souls suffering up the thing in shorts. We camp as close as practical to the base of the North Ridge of Crestone, and are treated to close encounters with a beautiful mountain goat (which Lynn names Goatbert). Goatbert poses for photos in front of Crestone, and follows us around waiting for somebody to piss on a rock. Someone should carry a salt block up there to discourage this disgusting and socially unacceptable behavior.

Sunday, 9/27: I am not enthusiastic about spending the day blowing on my hands, so had decided that 40 degrees was about as cold as I was willing to go. It is 38 when I crawl out of the tent, but the wind is way down, and the sun is striking the face - it's just too inviting to resist. We brew up some hot chocolate, then grab the rope and rack and start up the grassy approach ramp around 7:40. We are not surprised to see a party materialize below us before we've gained 300 feet. I hope we can coexist on this route, which has a bit of a reputation for falling rock.

I'm searching my memory and Roper's route description for clues as to where we should be heading, and recall that we roped up last time close to the base of a reddish tower (actually, more like a lump), that sits astride the crest. Shortly we are there, after lots of hands-in-the-pockets strolling along wide grassy ledges, interrupted by an occasional 3rd or 4th-class move. We are both sucking wind so badly that I think of the rock group "Hootie and the Blowfish"; soon we name ourselves the "Blowfish Climbing Team". We arrive at the base of the lump, and I look around the corner to see a decidedly 5th-class corner leading straight up. We could climb that, or . . . we traverse back left and keep soloing over a bit of easier-looking face, then back to the crest for hundreds of feet of exposed 3rd class on good rock. This is really fun! We're already well up the crest, and it's only 8:30!

The other party has caught us, which is good, because they are clearly fit and competent. They are from Ft. Collins, and keep on soloing (one in sticky approach shoes, the other in running shoes) while we decide it's time for a rope. As usual, I choose a too-small ledge for the gear change, and do an awkward balancing act getting the boots off and the harness and rock shoes on. Finally I'm ready to lead out past a fixed pin, then discover it is again only a few moves of 5th class. Rather than set a belay, I just call for Lynn to simul-climb when the rope runs out. It's good to have a partner in whom you can have complete confidence. 22 years together can do that.

The day continues crystal clear, chilly in the shade but delightful in the sun, and we are on the lee side of the wind. I lead another short 5th-class section, then wander up a long stretch of low-angle rock interspersed with grass. Above, I see the Ft. Collins team setting a belay at the base of the first unequivocal full 5th-class pitch, below 3 cracks/chimneys mentioned in the description. Since they are taking the middle one, I opt for the right-hand crack, which is to the right of the crest in the shade. It is clear this is a popular option - I pass three good pins before getting the "20 Feet!" signal at the same time I arrive at a small button bolt. With 20 more feet, I can probably make the top of the crack, so I continue up, and run out of rope at an acceptable stance just at the end of the 5th-class climbing. Dave is over to my left, having completed the middle crack - I'm quite sure it was harder, because Lynn now climbs up to my belay and leads through before they finish their pitch. Now we are at the spot the first ascensionists described as "clearly impassible". They traversed around the corner to the left, to finish the climb at a big corner. However, the crack directly above looks pretty reasonable, and I begin leading it. This is the best part of the climb, and I enjoy every foot of this classic crack-in-a-corner. I pass a fixed pin, then see a mess of gear in the crack above - someone has backed off here. I collect the booty - a couple of good Spectra slings and three carabiners, then note that one of the pins they clipped is so loose I can extract it with my fingers. It is an ancient ring-angle, bent nearly in half from repeated beatings it probably didn't deserve. I could imagine that Ellingwood himself placed it in 1925, but then he went around to the left.

The crack is classic 5.7 or 5.8, with only a couple of difficult steep stemming moves over a short bulge with a fixed pin at the waist. It mellows in the upper half, and I arrive at another good ledge and a fixed angle for the belay. Above is a very easy-looking chimney, so we opt to scramble it carrying the rope in coils for the next time we need it. I am expecting several more pitches, not realizing that we just did the crux. I am positively amazed to see the sky replacing the rock all around me as I quickly gain elevation - I'm arriving on the crest! What happened to the upper pitches? I'm blasted in the face with the cold wind from which we had been shielded, and quickly drop over the crest to reel Lynn in like a trout on a line. Fortunately, this is not a "catch and release" area - I get to keep her! She arrives equally openmouthed in surprise that we are already up. It is 10:45 - almost exactly 3 hours since departing the tent.

The Ft. Collins boys arrive, and I tell them "I hope I'm better at remembering the descent than the climb!".

However, the route-finding gods smile on us, and we miss not a turn to arrive back in camp just after noon. Goatbert had made some trails that allowed us to stay on a high traverse coming out of the descent gully - rather than dropping clear back to the lower lake, we arrived almost even with our tent at the upper lake, saving some energy in the process.

We both suffered sore feet on the hike out, and so did our vehicle - the rear axle was bent, a tire was destroyed, the spare was flat, and you don't want to hear the rest . . .