Ellingwood Peak, North Arête

By: Gary Clark | Climbers: Gary & Lynn Clark |Trip Dates: Aug 1-4, 1999

Photo: Gary Clark

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We were in the final stages of packing for the "almost annual" Canadian Rockies trip when the new Rock & Ice magazine arrived. I usually flip to the back right away to see what they've selected for this month's "Classic." Something else named for Albert Ellingwood? Yep - that guy really got around. Sort of the Fred Beckey of the previous generation.

The peak, the route, and the area seemed perfect for a nice warm-up, and was barely out of the way on the driving route we had planned to Calgary. It took about 2 minutes of deliberation to decide to add it to our list.

Captain's log star date 7/31/99, Mile 474: "Pumpkin Vine Road" turnoff, followed by a barely visible road to the top of a grassy knob. Camp 1. Cold dinner in van.

Early morning 8/1/99: We wake to an amazing sight - visibility is limited to about 50 feet by a dense fog, and our van is surrounded by rangy-looking longhorn cattle. They seem to be as curious about this unfamiliar object in their grazing territory as we are of them. As we perform the familiar routine of converting our bedroom back to a vehicle they wander off, and are soon on the road. We drop out of the fog as we lose elevation. Now to log some serious mileage into the heart of the Wyoming mountains.

2:30pm: The drive is finally over! We grab the fastest food in town, then look for topo maps. We find not only maps but also a copy of Kelsey's excellent guidebook in Foley's General Store, where 100 hunting permits are probably sold for each climbing guidebook. Hundreds of animal heads from all parts of the world look down on us as we pay for our purchases. Someone has clearly made it his mission to rid the world of dangerous animals.

5:30pm: The parking lot - I've never seen so many cars at a trailhead! Of even more concern is the number of horse trailers. This is going to be another manure slog. At least it hasn't rained in a few days. The combination of mud and fresh manure can discourage even the most determined hiker. But, I remind myself, this is Wyoming. We've been here many times before so no surprise. To suggest in these parts that horses don't belong in the wilderness would be like suggesting that John Wayne would have looked better in all those movies in pink tights riding a bicycle.

Dark: The hike to Ellingwood Peak is over 12 miles. We hoped only to break it up a bit with our late start, and indeed we find ourselves well more than halfway in before we start looking seriously for a camping spot. The rules are rigorous and enforced - no camping within 200' of water! Finding a flat spot 200' from water that is not already occupied is proving a challenge. A bigger challenge is finding water that isn't running over fresh horse shit. The streams criss-cross the trail and apparently horses can't be potty-trained. Finally we're too tired to care and just load up our water bottles with iodine tablets.

8/2/99: A very scenic hike on a perfect day brings us to the shores of Island Lake, one of the largest, most beautiful, and thus most popular destinations for backpackers and horse-packers alike. We stop for lunch overlooking the lake, then press on to a point on the map where we must branch off the trail to our objective - a sizable but unnamed lake marked simply with its elevation - 10,318'. The hike up the lake's outlet stream is delightful for two reasons; we are finally away from horse shit and flies, and the stream is a visual treat. We cross and re-cross it, sometimes hiking in the streambed itself by hopping between the numerous brilliant white granite boulders that dot it. When we finally rounded the corner and come upon the lake itself, we both remark on the beauty of the setting. Ellingwood Peak is finally clearly visible at the east end of the lake, with the North Arête we are seeking in dramatic profile. By mid afternoon we have a camp set toward the upper end of the lake in a perfect spot. We spend the rest of the day barefooted, both because it feels good to get the boots off, and to minimize impact on the site. The trip down to the lake is stimulating with bare feet since there is still some snow left, but mostly our short hikes keep us either on grass or smooth granite.

8/3/99, 4:30 am: Out of the tent, grab the pre-packed rucksacks, and up toward the face. Shortly we can stow the headlamps and concentrate on finding the beginning of the route. The guidebook has some guidance on the starting point, but beyond that doesn't attempt to give very detailed directions, indicating that there are many options - basically a "start at the bottom and climb to the top" sort of description. We find a likely looking rope-up point with a short steep crack above that turns out to be harder than any of the rest of the route at about 5.8. More searching would doubtless have yielded an easier option, but we are more eager to get on with the climbing than to find the easiest possible line.

After two more or less straight up pitches I begin traversing strongly to the left to join the ridge line. A couple of easy pitches in a large corner system, and we are already well up the arête with the sun finally shining fully on us. Now back slightly to the right, and up pitch after pitch of perfect moderate cracks and face sections. We begin simul-climbing somewhere around pitch 9 when the belay ledges start getting marginal. A short steep headwall goes in this fashion, although upon reflection it is probably the crux of the route. 40' above the headwall I decide to belay again, especially as we are clearly in good shape as to weather and time. As I face down to watch Lynn second the pitch, the sweep of 1500 feet of perfect granite uninterrupted by any large features catches my eye. Beyond that are hundreds of lakes dotting the vast granite landscape, then the craggy main crest of the range. I can easily trace our entire 12 mile approach trail out to the west. The camera gets a good workout. Lynn leads the last pitch, and we pull onto a very fine summit. A superb climb, one of the best in its class we've ever done, clearly deserving classic status.

On the descent we spend more time marveling at the wildflowers than paying attention to route-finding. Nevertheless, we are back in camp in plenty of time to take a nap, then pack it all up and begin the hike out. There are plenty of fine objectives waiting in the far North, and only 3-1/2 weeks left to experience them. By noon of the next day we are busy logging more miles on the trusty climbing van.

Post Script: Due to its moderate rating and lack of objective hazards, this route is an excellent objective for a less-experienced party. However, it is quite long, requires route-finding skills, and the alpine setting demands respect. Our trip was routine and enjoyable due to a very early start and efficient movement. In the late afternoon before our climb we heard the belay calls of a party high on the arête, and watched them struggle up the last few pitches while a serious thunderstorm enveloped the summit. We saw no traces of them on our climb, so they must have survived, but it must have been a frightening experience.

Whatever you do, don't bring horses and further denigrate this fine alpine environment.