Ellingwood Arete (Ledges) Trip Report


Trail: Ellingwood Arete, Class 5.7+ , ~5 miles, ~3150 ft elevation gain

It has been a good year for climbing. I have done some great technical peak ascents and still have the Grand Teton coming up in just about a month.  The Ellingwood Arete was something I really wanted to do but didn't have the highest hopes of getting to this year.  Since I am still new to technical climbs allot of my choices are dictated by finding a partner with some interest in them.  Fortunately for me, Brian Hynek, seemed interested in the Arete as soon as I talked to him about it.  (we also are going for The Prow on Kit Karson next year)

The Arete itself is the long spine on the NE side of the Crestone Needle and rises 1500 feet from Lower South Colony Lake before reaching a prominent 500 foot headwall filled with all sorts of climbing opportunities ( it is clearly shown on the cover of Gerry Roach's 'Colorado's !4ers').  A better name for the Ellingwood Arete is Ellingwood Leges and this may be the actual original name.  The climb itself  can be done by either starting out with a few pitches of 5.6 climbing followed by a thousand or so feet of steep ledges (4th class to 5.4) ending with 500 feet of pitches ranging from 5.2-5.9 or by bypassing the initial 5.6 pitches and scrambling up 3rd and 4th class terrain over top of them.  We decided to forgo the initial pitches for the sake of time but will probably return to climb them one day. 

The following is some history on the climb and is the work of  Arthur Vyn Boennighausen,  http://sangre-de-cristo.com/westcliffe/sangre_de_cristo/history_exhibits/Crestone.htm

We offer you this account of the first ascent of this mountain which was made in August of 1925. The image at the top of this page is an artist's impression of the Crestone Needle.

Colorado so abounds with mountains that even by World War I there were still unclimbed 14,000-foot peaks. The state has fifty-three of these giants, and anyone with a sturdy pair of legs and a functional set of lungs can climb these peaks. Only a few of these coveted peaks require the use of the hands, and none really demand a rope. Still, many of them are fine-looking mountains, and a few even present spectacular aspects.

For example, hidden in the isolated Sangre de Cristo Range of south-central Colorado lies a cluster of jagged alpine peaks known as the Crestone group. On the afternoon of July 24, 1916, one of these peaks became the last-conquered 14,000 footer in the state. Ranked twenty-first in height, the Crestone Needle proved to be an enjoyable class 3 and 4 scramble for first ascenders Albert Ellingwood and Eleanor Davis. as they descended a couloir on the eastern side of the peak, their eyes lingered on the northeast side of the Crestone massif. Ellingwood later was to write that this mile-wide wall contained "a superb array of formidable buttresses, seamed by tempting cracks and set off from each other by steep-plunging chimneys that probably have not been free from ice since the glacial era." By far the highest and most impressive of these buttresses was the 2000 foot prow which was almost dark as the pair passed under the buttress, but Ellingwood searched for a possible route, hoping they would return. It was to be nine years, however, before the two climbers once again stood under the face.

Prior to World War I, Ellingwood had studied at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, yet he somehow found the time to learn to climb in England's famous Lake District. After returning to Colorado to be a professor of political science, he found he was the only climber in the area who could handle a rope with any degree of skill. Indeed, his 1916 ascents in the Crestone group were, as climbing historian Chris Jones has put it, "probably the first rock climbs in the United States where a conscious effort was made to belay. "In succeeding years Ellingwood established an enviable climbing record, making among other Colorado climbs the first ascent, in 1920, of Lizard Head, still regarded as the state's most difficult summit to attain. Three years later, he and Eleanor Davis climbed in the Teton Range, making the first ascents of the South and Middle Tetons. The pair also made the fourth ascent of the Grand Teton, with Davis becoming the first woman to stand atop the highest point in that range. By 1925 Ellingwood was quite likely the finest mountaineer in the land, and Eleanor Davis was undoubtedly the most experienced American female climber. In August of that year the pair decided to attempt the buttress remembered from their 1916 trip and organized a foursome for the ascent.

Camping at the windswept lake below the Crestone Needle, the two climbers studied possible routes with their companions, Stephen Hart and Marion Warner. The lower part of the buttress was sliced by many ledges, some of which even contained grassfields. They weren't too concerned about this section, but as Ellingwood later wrote in his account of the climb, "there were pessimistic doubts expressed as to the last five hundred feet, where the precipice seemed to attain verticality, and near the top of which a huge boss of well-polished rock was certain to force us into an enormous overhang from which we could discern no avenue of escape."

As predicted, the forty-five-degree lower section proved easy, though a slip, according to the professor, would result in "deliberate suicide, and there are easier ways. "A hail-storm arose just as the foursome reached the upper "delectable and dubious cliff. "Though brief, the storm left quantities of hail on every ledge, and the climbing was slowed while the mountaineers scraped away the ice and thrust cold hands into warm pockets. A long chimney system, visible from the ground, led up just to the right of the buttress, and the party soon was spread out over hundreds of feet. This section, in the words of Ellingwood, was a "diddle-diddle-dumpling sort of climb-one foot in and one foot out, and hands usually clawing at such minute molecules of rock as have survived the process of erosion." The chimney was not difficult, but the tiny belay ledges, the hail covered rock, and the altitude of 13,700 feet conspired to use up several hours.

Eventually the climbers reached a wide ledge, directly on the prow. Above was an "an obviously invulnerable" wall, so they set out on an upward traverse which led around a corner on the left. This easy pitch brought the foursome to the now famous Head Crack, the crux of the climb. Ellingwood struggled up a short chimney, his head awkwardly ensconced in the crack. A delicate move to the right soon had the professor spread out "like a skin stretched to dry." From this compromising position he finally was able to grasp a small hold and pull himself onto easier ground. Elated, the party regrouped at the top of the Head Crack pitch, but a bit higher another possible cul-de-sac; this one a chimney "almost wide enough to drive a wagon through" confronted the tired mountaineers. The resourceful Ellingwood stemmed up as far as possible, then transferred to an easier crack on the right. The shorter members of the group found the stem a few inches too wide, and for the few feet they needed help from the rope. Conditioned by this point to expect another impasse, the four climbers were surprised to see the summit ridge only a hundred feet above them. It was late in the afternoon when they celebrated their success around the cairn Ellingwood and Davis had built nearly a decade before.

As on the earlier descent, the irrepressible Ellingwood kept gazing at the battlements for other routes, and he later indulged in word play: "One of the famous problems of the Middle Ages was to ascertain the exact number of angels who could sit upon the point of a needle. I would adapt it and propound a question both more interesting and more answerable: From how many angles can the Needle's point be reached?"

Ellingwood died at the early age of forty-six, but before his death he highly recommended the climb to his protégé, Robert Ormes. In July 1937, Ormes-later to write the definitive "Guide to the Colorado Mountains- and a companion made the second ascent of the route, naming it the Ellingwood Ledges in memory of the professor. (Later this was corrupted to the Ellingwood Arete, a misnomer since the ridge is not sharp.) Like the first-ascent party, the 1937 team took four hours to overcome the "delectable" upper section. To preface Ormes' article in Trail and Timberline, the journal of the Colorado Mountain Club, the editor wrote: "Ormes' own account of the second ascent......draws deserved attention to a long neglected field for those who appreciate the weird contortions of Acrobatic Alpinism.

Despite an ever-increasing number of climbers who stealthily practiced "weird contortions," the next ascents did not take place until the early 1950s. Later, however, the route became so popular that it was not uncommon for several parties to mingle on a pleasant summer day, enjoying not only the fine climbing but also the remarkable views of the massif.

One of the highlights of the route is the quality of the rock. The sedimentary conglomerate, formed during the early Paleozoic Era, bristles with so many knobs that it is confusing to know which one to grab. Some of the pinkish-colored knobs appear on the verge of being expelled from the matrix, but Ellingwood discovered they were so firm that they must have "roots ten feet long." Climbing on this unique rock is a pleasure that few climbers ever forget, and many return for additional doses of knob climbing in an alpine setting.

One thing people who know me might remember is that the Cretone Needle was the site of my greatest stupidity on any mountain (stupidity), it was in fact, the events of that trip that spurred me on to learn how to rock climb, use rope, understand the weather, etc. etc. I'm happy to say that after the Peak to Needle Traverse and climbing the Arete I feel that I have reprieved myself a little bit. Looking back on the person I was a year ago I am amazed at the difference.  I distinctly remember looking at a couple going to climb the Arete back then and thinking how f'ing crazy they were.  Times seem to have changed.  I also look back at the picture on the opening page of my website where I am decked out in jeans and cotton and realize that while I may know how to handle myself allot better now, the feeling I had about the mountains when that picture was taken hasn't really changed, so I leave it up as a reminder to myself what all of these trips are really about.

OK, that is enough side stories.  Brian and I set on Saturday, August 6th, 2005 as our target date.  Jen came along to rehike Humboldt and (bless her) to drive our tired bodies home.  Brian once again brought Marley along and he proved to be excellent company as always.  We set out of Boulder around 3:30 and were at the 4wd parking lot by 9:30.  It never fails to take about 4-5 hours to drive as there is always traffic and that god awful road always takes an hour.  One of these days I'm going with a pen and paper and writing a route description of that road, mile by mile, for first timers.   We were a bit concerned by the rain but the forecast called for clearing so we were hopefull.  We went to bed and I actually managed 4 or 5 hours of sleep before waking up at 3:45 AM.  I went about my usual practice of drinking a Gatorade, eating 2 eggs and a sandwich, and popping a caffeine pill.  Brian had slept out of the truck in a tent and was packing it up while I read the route beta from climbingboulder.com.  At 4:30 we were ready and headed out.  Both Brian and I only had daypacks but we had enough cold weather gear, food, emergency supplies, etc to spend the night if necessary.  We brought with us a 60 meter rope and a fairly full rack (nothing bigger than a number 3 camalot though). 

The hike started normaly with a zombie march through the darkness.  The hike in was interesting.  At one point a porcupine ran ahead of us for 5 minutes before realizing it could escape to either side of the trail.  Shortly later a man was sleeping on the trail and mumbled to go around him (hmm, always thought trails were for walking?).  The man said that he and friends were doing the traverse, from Needle to Peak, without rope that day and what did I think.  I replied that I would not do it without rope but f they felt comfortable down climbing 75 feet of steep, exposed class 4 that they would be fine.  After passing this guy Brian and I headed to the upper lake.  This is a waste of time.  There is a faint trail on the far side of the lower lake which starts the climb off just as well without extra hiking.  The last picture on this page shows our (approximate) route, where the yellow ends is where we roped up and either simulclimbed or ran actual pitches.

Getting onto the climb basically requires a good bit of 3rd (4th) class scrambling up a few hundred feet from the backside of Upper South Colony Lake.   The shot below was taken as the sun was coming up and we were above the initial cliffs.

Once past the initial cliffs the route is obvious.  You basically follow a broad ledge up towards the Arete proper then veer diagonally towards the spine of the Arete at the top of the first gully like feature in the picture below.

Once on the climbing part we tended towards climbers right (aiming for a point on the Arete above a prominent rock formation).  The climbing is 3rd to5th class and was pretty easy.  We freed the climb until  coming to a nasty, cramped chimney just to the left of the rock formation we were tending towards on the Arete.  At this point we roped up, climbed through the ugly chimney in one 30 foot pitch, and gained the Arete.  Some of the climbing before this point is shown below.

It is hard to describe the route to the headwall other than to say it is allot of picking the path you like the most.  We had rope between us and occasionally simulclimbed and used hip-belays but for the most part it was a scramble on semi technical terrain.  The route below was pretty steep and the fall potential was high so I'd advise people to rope when they feel uncomfortable but to try to free or simulclimb as much as possible to save time.

We gained the area below the final headwall around 8:30.  It is hard to describe a route here.  There are  allot of ways to go.  Some paths take you over low 5th class pitches to the headwall while others offer up to 3 full pitches of technical climbing.  We scrambled up and simulclimbed to the base of what seemed to be an obvious first pitch.

Gaining the Headwall


The headwall is pretty impressive


We initially thought we were following a system from climbingboulder.com which would consist of a two 5.6 pitches followed by the 5.7 crux.  I was going to take the middle one since it supposedly eased up halfway.  At the base of the first pitch I set up an anchor and Brian set out to climb.  We both brought walkie talkies and I would tell him when he was halfway, 3/4 of the way, and needing to set up a belay.  It worked out very well since he could hear my instructions from the walkie talkie in his bags side pouch.  We had also been communicating with Jen all day to let her know we were safe.  The weather had cleared up and Jen had been giving us reports from Humboldt so we decided to go for it.

The first pitch went a full 180 feet and started out as a chimney that turned into a hand crack with some friction moves.  Maybe I'm not used to the rock or the friction moves but the climb felt the equal of anything I'd done at 5.7 before and I thought we might be on a different crack than we had thought.  Brian thought it was more like 5.6+ and he has more experience so I'll assume he was correct.  The pictures below are of the first pitch and one taken looking down the first pitch at a rest point.  Someone had left a good few nuts in this route and I managed to recover at least one of them.  One was seriously stuck though.  I'm not sure if the second couldn't clean them or if they were use to escape the route.


After the first pitch I thought that if that was what Crestone 5.6 was like I would leave the lead to Brian.  He agreed that this was a good idea.  We headed up about 20 feet to an obvious belay point.  This pitch is pictured below and the line we took is up the crack to the left of the right facing rock, 2/3rds of the way to the right in the picture below.  If anyone can tell me whether this is the Ellingwood Crux or some variation I would appreciate it. 

Brian set out up the pitch and about 50 feet up said 'Wow an overhang on a 5.6 , you'll love this move Jared'.  I wasn't sure love was what I would be feeling.  Brian topped out with about 30 feet of rope left making this another nice long pitch.  I headed up the route and found a good few pitons hammered in it.  I also left a red tri-cam so if anyone wants a free tri-cam, go for it.  This pitch felt like 5.7+ with a couple 5.8 moves before relenting near the top.   It was pretty cool to be up there.  I couldn't see Brian, could see a couple thousand feet below me, and was working hard.  I made my way up the moves without slipping and was pretty proud that I got up it as easily as I did (not that I would have lead it). 


At the top of this pitch I was pretty sure we were near the summit.  Nothing above us looked that bad and from down below I figured there couldn't be worse than the 5.4 range so I said I'd go on.  I headed up a 4th class gully and realized we were near the summit.  At an obvious point I cut to the left and told Brian we were there.  He untied himself from the rope which I then brought up and coiled.  We both scrambled quickly to the top.  I should add this last part is LOOSE, be very, very careful.  Even though it is 3rd and 4th class a tumble would still send you to your death. I had a huge rock move and would caution people not to trust anything up there.  The picture below is of Brian coming up the last little bit to the summit.


Once on the summit we organized our gear, ate, and relaxed.  It was my 3rd time on the Needle and it was another fantastic climb.  I of course snapped the obligatory marmot shot before we headed down.   I'm fortunate to have Brian as a partner.  He is a better climber and mountaineer than I am but is humble and supportive. 

The route down was fresh in my memory (from two weeks prior) and we made good time.  There was a a large group, many of whom had no helmets, kicking allot of rock down so we stayed in the leftmost couloir for the descent.  I was prepared to hate the descent down from Broken Hand Pass but the CFI has been doing great work and it was much smoother than we expected.

Jen had been waiting for us with Marley at the lake.  She had brought Gatorade and victory cigars (thanks Jen).  We gave a bit of beta to a couple that was planning to climb the Arete the following day and headed back to the truck.  I have to say, even though I didn't lead it, I felt great doing the climb.  It is certainly a classic in every sense of the word and should not be missed.

We made it back to the car by 4 and it took me an hour to drive down the road. We stopped for a 6 pack of Avalanche (at which point Jen took over driving) and drank it at a pull off between Westcliff and Florence.  I went to sleep in the back seat with Marley and stayed asleep most of the way home.  I can't wait to climb the Grand with Brian in a month.

(our route to the best of my memory)



 Correct Route Courtesy of  Alan Ellis
Summitpost Ellingwood Arete Page

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