Crestone Needle: Ellingwood Arete Direct Start

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Date: August 20th, 2009
Partner: Tom Pierce
Route: Ellingwood Arete (aka Ellingwood Ledges) with Direct Start, South Face descent

On our descent from Longs‘ summit a month ago, Tom and I laid down loose plans for our next trip to another alpine wonderland.  It didn‘t take long for the somewhat infamous Ellingwood Arete on Crestone Needle to surface in the conversation, this is a route I‘ve literally been drooling over since I first read about it four years ago.  It seems if you‘re into 14ers and alpine climbing, the Arete is one of those must-do routes.

Tom headed down to Westcliffe Wednesday and booked a hotel and a Jeep rental as I had class until later in the evening.  After I got out I high tailed it on down to the Westcliffe Inn and let myself into the room to find a snoozing Tom and Aaron (he had plans to hit the Crestones the next day as well and conveniently bummed a hotel and ride to the upper TH).  We hit the road around 5am and reached the upper TH an hour after that.  The weather forecast was literally perfect so Tom and I felt there was no need to push it, we were looking forward to a nice, beautiful day of casual alpine rush.

Our objective receives first light.

We contoured up and around the lower lake and found ourselves staring at the route in full, pictures just never do this thing justice.  We aimed for the “open book” feature in the lower face, better known as the direct start route.  The choss pile at the base of the Needle went quickly and we found ourselves eating and gearing up at the base of the first pitch around 8:30am.

The route in full seen from South Colony Lakes.

Tom was willing and strong enough to take on the leading responsibilities this day as I am still getting into the sport, watching his every placement and asking questions throughout the climb has been an excellent platform for me to start learning, but I‘m not quite at the level of leading a tough 5.7 at 14,000‘.  Learning from a guy like Tom really just requires open ears and a good memory, he knows a ton about climbing and is an excellent teacher.  Be on the lookout to sign up for one of this guys CMC trips in the near future :D.  We flaked the rope out, organized the gear, and began the climb.

Tom starting things off on the first pitch.

Tom ran out around 70 meters of rope (we were climbing with an 80 meter) and tugged to let me know he had reached a belay, after pulling up the remaining rope I was heading on up.  The first pitch is in the mid 5 range and made for an excellent, solid way to begin the day.  I came up over the horizon line and saw Tom sitting on a ledge a ways up, I worked my way up to him quickly and we were all smiles at this point as we knew an awesome day was in the works.

Working our way up the open book.

After another lesson in rigging anchors, Tom and I surveyed the upper terrain and took note of wet, cold rock above us.  Also at this point a few missiles whizzed past, we decided to head out of the open book and found a nicer mid 5 pitch in the sun that ended up spitting us out exactly where we needed to be.

We headed up this nice pitch we found climbers left of the standard direct start route.

We did find an old piton on this pitch so apparently it sees traffic now and again. Now officially above the direct start pitches, we stowed the rope and enjoyed why the route is nicknamed “the Ledges”.  The scrambling here was intense at times due to the exposure, and without flawless route finding it seems one will inevitably end up having to execute moves exceeding class 4, as we did several times, but overall this was a fun section.

Looking up at the road ahead. From this vantage point it’s difficult to make out the exact route.

We came up on the Red Tower and gained the arete in earnest, I can understand why some guidebooks mention that certain parties will want to rope up here.

The higher we got on the route, the more exposed we felt. Not surprising I guess.

An exposed traverse around to climber‘s right had us at the base of the final pitches, the wind picked up and lit a small fire under our asses to get moving.  Here we also ran into two guys who had made the trip out from California, their first time climbing in Colorado.  Rope out and gear organized, Tom took the lead again and headed around the 5.7 (or maybe 5.5) route to climber‘s right.

On the rope again.

Tom made quick work of this pitch and before I knew it he was bringing me up. I tried to climb it quickly as I was really having trouble with cold hands, I topped out happy to be back in the sun and continued past Tom to the base of the last pitch.

Looking down the Ellingwood Arete.

We were both a bit tired at this point and were looking forward to getting to the summit and down for a few beers.  Tom and I later discussed this final pitch of the route in detail and we formed our own opinions on the matter of ratings, suffice it to to say we both found this last pitch to be more challenging than we expected it to be.  This is a rock climbing route, and whether the pitch should be rated 5.7, 5.8, or 5.9 its good to keep in mind that it is an exposed, typically shaded, alpine pitch above 14,000‘ at the top of a long route…its gonna be somewhat of a challenge I guess no matter how you slice it.

Tom headed on up and after a few different looks at the slightly overhanging bulge move I had read so much about, finally managed to stem it and finish the route.  I was freezing in the shade and was happy to be climbing once again, I followed with a similar stem technique and eventually shimmeyed up over the bulge, after that it was a simple matter of grabbing some of that trusty conglomerate rock and finding a few foot holds and the route was done.  I came up over the lip and found Tom basking in the sun, a big smile on his face that we were over the hump and had beer in our near future.

Looking down from the middle of the final pitch. Photo by Tom.

A short class 3 gully scramble had us on the summit within ten minutes.

Crestone Needle’s summit. A satisfying way to top out on this peak for sure.

We didn‘t stay on the summit for long, maybe five minutes or so, then we began the familiar descent down the South Face.  Another two hours or so and we were back at the Jeep, then in Westcliffe enjoying a well-earned dinner.  Thanks for reading.

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