Crestone Needle, Ellingwood Ledges Direct

By: Mike Sofranko | Climbers: Mike Sofranko, Carol Adair |Trip Dates: August 26, 2000

Photo: Gary Clark

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Carol and I had been talking about heading to the Crestones to climb Ellingwood Ledges for a few months. Finally, in mid August, we made a firm schedule of certain climbs we wanted to do through the end of the alpine climbing season. The weekend for the Crestone trip was to be August 26th and 27th.

Having heard that the road to the trailhead was a very rough 4WD experience, I asked a couple of 14er-bagging friends (who own nice trucks) if they were interested in traveling with us. Pete, Mike, and Prashant all signed on. Pete was eager to drive the rough road in his Land Rover Discovery.

We got on the interstate headed south around 1:30 on Friday, in two separate vehicles. After stopping in Westcliffe for dinner, we piled all our stuff and ourselves into Pete's truck at the 2WD trailhead, and embarked on our bumpy journey. After an hour and a half and five miles, we finally reached the trailhead.

Carol and I were content to set up camp next to the truck, but the guys wanted to hike into the lakes to camp. While they packed up for the hike into the unknown rainy night, Carol and I pitched her tent and got comfortable. The guys tried making me feel guilty about not wanting to camp by the lakes (apparently that was our original plan), but I wasn't buying it. I thought they were crazy for not camping at the trailhead.

After an early alarm and coffee and hot chocolate, we got started on the approach around 5:30am. Soon it was light enough to turn off the headlamps. However, it still wasn't light enough to see well, so we missed the cairn where the trail left the road. After another switchback in the road we came to an impasse, and finally noticed the trail a couple hundred feet below. After getting back on track, we were soon at the lower lake. There was no sign of the others, and we continued on to the upper lake. Amazingly, we found the tents all the way up there, but we cut a corner in the trail and never got close enough to pull their stakes and wake them up.

The Needle and our chosen route were now looming above us. We noticed several parties above us, but they seemed far enough ahead so as to not make much of a difference. After scrambling up to the left through 3rd and 4th class terrain, we reached a grassy slope. We stopped and changed into our climbing shoes and rearranged the packs. From there, we continued to scramble unroped up to the right and towards the blunt arête. Once there, we encountered another party just finishing the direct start, and we headed straight up.

At a steep step we tied into the rope and Carol led off. We hoped to simul-climb up to the beginning of the truly technical upper part of the route, but after a hundred feet she stopped and belayed. The other team had slipped in front of her and cut her off, and she was hesitant to climb over their rope. I then set off, with the goal of simul-climbing, but stopped after 200 feet due to trickier than expected climbing. I had taken an alternate path due to the other party, and found it difficult enough in some sections to preclude simul-climbing. From there, Carol headed up with the goal to simul-climb, but once again she stopped and belayed, this time due to rope drag. Once I joined her and climbed a bit past her I was able to get a good view of the remaining scrambling to the steep section. It looked reasonable, so I told her to start climbing when I reached the end of the rope. Thus, we were able to climb the next 450 feet in one long pitch. The other group belayed about 30 feet below the ledge at the start of the first truly technical pitch, so I handily passed them and secured our spot in line.

There was a group of two on the next pitch above us, and a couple groups ahead of them, so we settled in for a wait. They climbed it efficiently, and soon I was on my way. This pitch was a fun right facing corner system. I had a route finding problem at the top as I tried forcing my route up a direct (and wet) path, but soon I backed down and went the correct way. It had a number of fixed pins, and even an ancient quarter inch bolt at what appeared to be an intermediate belay stance. Carol joined me quickly, and led off around the corner to the left towards the bottom of the large overhanging wall that marked the principal obstacle of the climb. I joined her and found her situated at several fixed pins at the top of an exposed slanting ramp.

From here it appeared things got awkward - we were faced with the wide crack of the crux pitch. Since I was wearing a decent sized pack, I figured it was going to be interesting. Up I went, aiming for the fixed pin. I found it very awkward and had to keep myself mostly out of the crack due to my pack. However, soon I was past the difficulties, and making my way up easier ground to a ledge. After Carol reached the belay, we unroped and scrambled up the last bit of class 3 to the summit, which we reached sometime around noon.

We had talked to another group about teaming up for the traverse to Crestone Peak, but they changed their minds and so did we. It kind of looked like some weather was moving in, and getting down seemed like a good idea. The South Face proved to be an enjoyable descent until we reached Broken Hand Pass. After that, things got loose and unpleasant, but we reached Lower South Colony without major incident by 2:00pm.

By this time, it really looked like some rain was moving in. However, in a fit of peak-bagging foolishness, I decided to try Humboldt. I really wanted to summit all the 14ers in the area that weekend, and to do so I pretty much had to bag Humboldt on Saturday. Carol graciously took most of the gear back to the trailhead, and I ran off the other way, hoping to beat the rain.

The initial part of the trail above the upper lake was perfect, and made for quick going. Once I reached the long ridge heading to the summit, the enormity of the slog ahead of me started to sink in. I forged ahead, and was greeted at the false summit by the first rumble of thunder. I ran across the saddle, ran around the summit cairn (now 4:00pm), and back across the saddle as it started to rain and hail. As I was scampering down the ridge, I passed Mike and Pete heading *up*. After a brief discussion, they regretfully turned around and headed down with me. Once we reached their camp, the weather of course started to clear. I hung out with the guys for about 15 minutes, I made it back to Carol and the trailhead at 5:30, right on schedule. What a day!