| Threading the needle (Ellingwood Arete)
The Ellingwood Arete (originally and officially the Ellingwood Ledges) is a classic alpine rock route straight up the needle. It is well known as one of 50 classic climbs in North America. It is probably one of the most well known technical routes to non-technical climbers, and likely one of the most popular alpine rock objectives in Colorado next to the Diamond. It is exposed, aesthetic, and tops out almost exactly at the summit of the Crestone Needle with the crux moves at nearly 14,000'. It was without a doubt a prized objective this summer for me.
Ellingwood Arete overview
Chris and I decided to skip town early on Friday so that we could pack into South Colony Lakes at a reasonable time. We left Boulder at around 2:00 that afternoon in the hopes of arriving at the trailhead by 6:00. We were unfortunately delayed by a flat tire just after turning onto the dirt road, which we hoped would be the only misadventure for the weekend. After finally reaching the trailhead and getting our gear sorted, we set off from the trailhead at 7:30, arriving at our campsite at 9:00. The campsite I had in mind closest to the lake was occupied, but the group there graciously showed us a secluded site just large enough for our tent up the hill. We later learned this was mtgirl's group (thanks again!)
The weather report predicted a 30% chance of thunderstorms after noon, of which we wanted no part. The Arete is blind to approaching storms from the west and would be woeful to attempt to retreat from, so we planned to start up the first pitches by dawn. After a restless 5 hours of sleep, we woke up at 4:00am and began final preparations for our day.
We left our campsite at around 5:00 and reached the base of the direct start just before 6:00am. We opted to do the 5.4-5.6 direct start as a more aesthetic option than the traditional 3rd class ledges. The approach was overall easy, but the final few hundred feet up the talus cone was tedious. The first pitch starts with an easy but exposed face climb, followed by an unprotected traverse until you reach the dihedral. I took lead on the first pitch, and was surprised to find that as soon as the unprotected traverse ended, the terrain eased into what felt no harder than 4th class. I ran the rope out all the way to the end, only clipping a single piton before setting up a belay.
Top of the first pitch after sunrise
I discovered our 60m rope was not ideal for finding a belay station on the first pitch. I recalled from Tom Pierce's report that they exited the open book dihedral to avoid rockfall, which prompted me to look up and left to a rat's nests of slings on a horn. Chris had informed me that I had less than 30 feet of rope left and I saw few good options for an alternate belay station, so I opted to investigate the station I spotted. A 70m rope would have been nice here to reach an obvious ledge higher in the dihedral.
I was less than inspired by the belay station. It consisted of several old slings around a questionable block. I threw my own sling on and backed that up with a cam in a crack above. The crack ate up a .75 camalot, but split a large and possibly detached block so I was thankful that the terrain for Chris to follow was easy. He climbed up to me and noted that a party of 3 was starting up below us, so we would have to be extra cautious about rockfall.
Chris took the next lead, exiting the dihedral as I read about in Tom's report. He eventually climbed back into the dihedral with an attention-grabbing traverse. It seemed like the rope didn't move for a solid 15-20 minutes as he fiddled around with gear. While seconding the pitch I later discovered that the crack system in the dihedral was wet, significantly challenging hold and protection opportunities. Once I reached Chris at the top of pitch 2, the terrain eased as our route joined up with the normal ledges route. We packed the rope up and planned to simul-solo until we were no longer comfortable with the terrain. To top off the fun, Chris managed to booty a #11 BD nut which still had the price tag on it!
Simul-soloing up the bottom of the ledges
The exposure was fantastic and the climbing was easy on the ledges. Some parties opt to simul-climb or even pitch out the ledges, but we were confident with the 3rd, 4th, and occasional low 5th class moves. Tom Pierce suggested to me that protecting the ledges would be difficult and thus simul-climbing would be ill-advised. We were both happy in our decision to solo this section, as it would have added hours of climbing to pitch it out.
Enjoying great views from the ledges
As we approached the famous red knob (right), the upper headwall kept getting closer and closer (left). The terrain gradually increased in difficulty and seemed somewhat flatiron-like in nature, though we were still comfortable soloing. We skirted the left side of the more difficult sections, cutting back right once level with the red knob.
Terrain on the upper sections of the ledges
The terrain increased in difficulty yet again, now sustained easy 5th class with the occasional ledge. We still felt confident soloing, but made sure to watch every move carefully.
The ledges get a bit steeper
We approached the mini-headwall and dodged it on the right, arriving at a convenient belay ledge at the base of the headwall. We had made excellent time, reaching the headwall in just under 3 hours. The weather was holding out beautifully and it was only 9:00am, so we opted to take along break on our scenic ledge. While on the ledge I found an abandoned pink tricam which I gleefully popped out of it's crack. The webbing is suspect but it'll be a nice addition once I get it reslung.
Chris hanging out on the ledge
Me enjoying the break on the ledge
We discussed at great length whether or not we should take the 5.9 variation. It seemed well-protected and not overly difficult, but Chris was not feeling following it with the pack on. He also wanted a chance to lead the 5.5 pitch which cuts around the right side, so we settled on that option. After a long 30 minute break, Chris set off.
Chris leading the 5.5 pitch
I was amused to find a marmot scurrying down the 5.5 pitch while Chris led, as if saying "come on guys, this is easy!" Chris found the belay ledge with only about 15 feet of rope remaining, and I quickly seconded the pitch. I remarked that despite being only 5.5, the pitch was incredibly fun and sustained - alpine climbing at its best!
Looking down the 5.5 pitch
We moved our belay station up a short 3rd class section to a huge ledge just below the 5.7 crux. It looked steep and imposing, but fun and easy to protect. I was psyched to lead it, and quickly set off.
Me excited to lead the crux
If the crux pitch was at a crag, it would be an instant classic. Steep, sustained, really fun stemming moves in the dihedral. It eats up as much gear as you are willing to carry, to the point that I was concerned I would run out of alpine draws before I finished the pitch. Before reaching a committing bulge I put in 2 completely solid cams and pulled the move with confidence. It was only after I cleared the bulge and the terrain began to ease did I realize I had just passed the crux. I was expecting a roof but it was hardly more than a bump to me.
Me leading up the crux pitch
Once the terrain eased up, I ran it out to a large ledge to set up our final belay. Despite carrying the pack, Chris easily seconded the crux pitch and found the pack to only make the crux move slightly awkward. With the technical pitches over and only a short scramble to the summit, we congratulated ourselves and posed with the awesome exposure.
Chris isn't bothered by the 2000' drop either
With the weather holding out perfectly we hung out on the summit for at least an hour, glad to shed our rock shoes and eat. I was finally able to enjoy the full view from the needle, as my previous encounter was completely socked in with fog. A group from the standard route took our picture, and we headed off down the south gully back to broken hand pass.
Obligatory summit shot
I had convinced myself that the descent would be easy. I had done it before and the description was simple: drop into the west gully, cross over (which I remembered), and descend the east gully to the pass. The problem is, I neglected to take into account what effect descending in the fog and not leading the descent would have on my memory. I could not recall which gully was the correct one, and I foolishly listened to an off-route group at the summit.
As it turns out, we dropped into the gully immediately off the summit, which was too far west. The terrain was more difficult than I had remembered, so I pulled out my GPS to check the waypoints. Sure enough, we were about 200' west of where we should be, in the wrong gully. We continued climbing down and crossing over whenever the terrain permitted, but we kept getting funneled away from the west gully. After much 4th class downclimbing, we finally found a ramp which took us up to the crossover, and rejoined the standard route.
I had not visited broken hand pass since it washed out last summer, and to describe it's condition now: miserable. It was loose, steep, and dangerous. I managed to roll at least one rock on the way down, and slipped several times. We were both incredibly frustrated with that part of the descent, and were more than glad once we got down. Once below broken hand pass, we had a new great view of the Arete, giving us a sporting tour de needle.
The Arete from below Broken Hand Pass
We arrived back at camp at around 2:00, and promptly took a nap. We made dinner consisting of spanish rice, black beans, cheese, and summer sausage mixed into one delicious pot. With the fire ban recently lifted, our neighbors, Vicki (mtgirl), Logan, and Kerry graciously let us start a fire with their wood and we hung out by the fire for the rest of the night. I tried to convince Chris to climb the Prow tomorrow, but he was concerned about getting back to Boulder late. Eventually we decided to just sleep in and pack it out in the morning.
The route went really, really well. I was concerned about the difficulty of the Arete, but it turned out to be well within both of our abilities. In hindsight I think The Sharkstooth was a much more committing and mentally draining route due to the more sustained nature. Nevertheless, this is a totally classic route which we plan to come back and do again eventually.
The decision to solo from the top of the direct start up to the headwall is a very personal one, and your mileage may vary depending on your comfort level. Chris and I have plenty of experience on the flatirons, so the moves weren't a big deal to us. Even though there were a few low fifth class sections, they were short and not overly committing. We felt roping up on this section would be prohibitively time consuming, the gear was too spotty to safely simulclimb, but a fall would be disastrous. I would recommend being comfortable soloing up to ~5.4 to make this route go smoothly. It may be worth pitching out one pitch before the headwall depending on your comfort with exposure.
The only real errors in judgement were complacency with the descent route. I had allowed myself to get a bit cocky over it being "just 3rd/4th class" and should have been more careful to study the downclimb better. Fortunately we were carrying all the gear we would have needed to get ourselves out should we ended up cliffed-out, but there's no reason to encourage that situation. Fortunately we made the best of the situation, selected the easiest terrain and worked our way back on route. I was very glad to have the GPS to help us identify exactly where we needed to go, however.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):