(WINTER) HOLD ON! If you don't have much high-elevation, winter climbing experience, be careful in your planning and take a partner. Even the "easy" 14ers (Quandary, Sherman, Grays & Torreys) can be deadly in winter.
From the town of Blanca, go west on US-160 and turn right (north) onto CO-150 for 10.7 miles and turn right onto a gated, graded, unpaved, 2WD road. Drive 3.5 miles up the road to reach the trailhead.
Climbing Ellingwood Pt using the S Zapata Lake approach has many advantages over the standard Lake Como Road Route.
1. The S Zapata TH is at 9060' vs the standard 8800' stopping point on Lake Como and is accessible by any type of car.
2. The S Zapata Lake Trail is seldom used but is in great condition, is mostly dirt and is maintained by the NFS.
3. The North Ridge Route using the S Zapata Lake Trail is 4 MILES SHORTER than the Standard South Face Route starting at 8800' on Lake Como Road.
4. On this route you don't have to deal with the noisy/smelly 4WD vehicles and 4-wheelers along the Lake Como Road, and the drunken all-night parties at Lake Como with random gunfire. Once you leave the Zapata Falls TH you will will have solitude and can camp in peace at South Zapata Lake or below the nearby tree line.
5. Once you turn off of the Zapata Falls Trail and onto the South Zapata Lake Trail you probably won't see another soul until you reach Ellingwood Pt's summit!
From the Zapata Falls TH Photo #1TH parking lot head up the old dirt double track for 0.4mi towards Zapata Falls. You will come to a trail junction where the South Zapata Lake Trail splits to the right Photo #2 . Turn right onto the South Zapata Lake Trail and the trail will begin a long switchback up onto the ridge south of Zapata Creek. From here you will get your first glimpse up the South Zapata Creek Valley Photo #3 and of the Sand Dunes to your North Photo #4. At 1.2mi you will reach a creek crossing. Photo #5
After the creek crossing, there will be a series of very steep switchbacks that will climb up the side of the valley and get you high above the creek. Here you will get your first glimpse of Ellingwood Pt at the head of the valley Photo #6 . The steep switchbacks will finally relent and will more gradually lead you up the valley and along a wide shelf. At 2.3mi you will cross California Gulch; the trail will continue climbing for another 100 yards or so before it levels off and then begins to drop ~160' of elevation over the next 0.1mi as you descend down nearer to South Zapata Creek to circumvent a large talus slope. At the bottom of this downhill portion you will cross a side creek which is the North Fork of South Zapata Creek. Once the trail begins to climb again you will have about 1.5mi to go until you reach tree line. At 3.4mi you will cross to the west side of South Zapata Creek and will continue up through the trees until you reach tree line at 3.8mi. Here you will get your first view of the beautiful South Zapata Lake Basin and Ellingwood Pt's 1200' high North Face towering above it. You will also begin to see your 2 options of how you will gain Ellingwood's North Ridge Route. Without snow Photo #7 with snow Photo #8
Option 1: C2 Couloir
This is the shortest option and the best option if you are doing this route early in the season and are prepared for a moderate snow climb. Or, if you are doing this route late in the season and the couloir has completely melted out. Since this is a north facing gully snow may remain in the couloir as late as mid-summer depending on snow pack.
Option 2: C3 Gully
This gully is hidden from you when you get to South Zapata Lake. It is further up in the basin to your right. It is also north facing but is not as deeply inset and thus is not as protected from the sun as the C2 couloir is so it melts out a month or so sooner than the C2 does. It is a little bit longer than Option 1 (about 1/2 mi) and requires more elevation gain as you have to traverse some bumps up and down Ellingwood Pt's West Ridge.
Here is a bird's eye view of the two routes taken from high on Ellingwood Pt's North Ridge. Photo #9 The C3 gully is drawn in green and the C2 Couloir is drawn in red. Here is another view from the base of the C2 Couloir that shows the two options splitting at South Zapata Lake. Photo #10
WARNING: You will also see the Crossfire Couloir just to the left of the C2 Couloir. It is tempting to climb this couloir as it gains Ellingwood Pt's West Ridge at the lowest point. DO NOT attempt to ascend or descend this couloir. It is VERY steep and dangerous whether snow filled (icy) or dry (hard packed scree). Photo #14
If you choose to do Option 1 then head left at the outlet of South Zapata Lake and follow a use trail that goes around a rock glacier and higher up into the basin to the base of the C2 Couloir. With snow Photo #11 without snow. Photo #12 Climb up to the top of the couloir staying RIGHT when it branches near the top. The left branch will lead you to a section with no good hand holds and steep dirt with poor footing. The right branch will keep you on easier rock. At the top you will pop out onto Ellingwood Pt's West Ridge.
If the C2 Couloir is snow filled and you would rather not do a snow climb, then when you are near the outlet for South Zapata Lake head Right/West up grassy ledges, benches and some talus filled gullies until you reach the upper basin and a small tarn comes into view with the C3 Gully above it. Photo #13 Cross the talus and begin climbing the gully. There is a "use" trail you can follow up for much of the gully. This gully will pop you out further west along Elingwood Pt's West Ridge. And give you this view Photo #15 From here it is tempting to traverse along the south slope of the West Ridge (purple dashed line in the previous image) so you don't have to go up and down some bumps along the ridge. DO NOT do this! This south facing slope is very steep, loose, and dangerous and you have to cross some VERY treacherous gullies along the way. So once at the top of the C3 gully climb up onto the ridge crest and follow it over several bumps until you reach the top of the C2 gully as you see in this picture Photo #9
Once you have reached the top of the C2 gully using either option, climb up the steep talus along Ellingwood Pt's West Ridge Photo #15 seen as the red route in this picture.
After a steep slog up the talus you will gain Ellingwood Pt's North Ridge and you will see the rest of your route to the summit. Photo #16 Ellingwood Pt's North Ridge has a spectacular precipice on its east side but there is plenty of talus on the west side so you never have to go too close to it except for the last 100ft near the summit. Continue up the North Ridge until you reach a section of easy Class 3 climbing in the last 100' to the Ellingwood Pt's SW Ridge. Photo #17 This picture is taken looking down this section Photo #18
Once you reach the summit ridge, turn left and scramble on easy Class 2/3 rock ~50' up to Ellingwood Pt's summit.
From here you can either return the way you came or if you have the time and energy and MOST IMPORTANTLY the weather is cooperating, you can do a traverse to Blanca Peak.
Here are some pictures of this route in Spring (May 2014) conditions.
Nearing South Zapata Lake Photo #19
From Zapata Lake looking at Ellingwood and C2 Couloir Photo #20
Starting up C2 Couloir looking down Photo #21
Halfway up C2 Couloir looking up Photo #22
Almost to top of C2 Couloir looking down Photo #23
Topping out on C2 Couloir looking at rest of route to Ellingwood Pt Photo #24
Ellingwood North Ridge Photo #25
Along Ellingwood North Ridge looking back towards Crossfire Ridge Photo #26
Snow traverse just below summit of Ellingwood PT Photo #27
REMEMBER: If you do the traverse to Blanca Peak you MUST climb back over Ellingwood Pt's summit and descend the EXACT way you came on the North Ridge Route. Having said that, doing the combo of Blanca and Ellingwood by this route has a similar elevation gain compared to hiking the Lake Como Rd from 8800' but is still 4 MILES SHORTER! IMPORTANT: This route enters the Sangre De Cristo Wilderness area. Wilderness areas have special regulations and restrictions for party size, dispersed camping, campfires, etc. Also, dog owners should read the wilderness information carefully because some wilderness areas prohibit dogs to be off-leash and/or limit how close dogs can be to lakes and streams. If you have questions about the Wilderness area, please contact a U.S. Forest Service office for the National Forest(s) listed above.