Crestone Needle - Ellingwood Arete/Ledges
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Difficulty: Class 5 
Exposure:Dangerous exposure that requires careful, technical moves to navigate around. A fall would likely be fatal. Big, sheer drops.
Trailhead:South Colony Lakes
Start:9,900 feet
Summit:14,197 feet
Total Gain:4,400 feet
RT Length:11.25 miles
USGS Quad.:Crestone Peak
County Sheriff:Custer: 719-783-2270
 Saguache: 719-655-2544
National Forests:San Isabel, Rio Grande
Wilderness Area:Sangre De Cristo
Last Updated:9/2015


Take Colorado 69 south from Westcliffe. Drive 4.5 miles and turn right on Colfax Lane. Drive 5.5 miles to the end of Colfax. Turn right and drive 1 mile on a dirt road to a junction. Continue straight up the 120 Road for 0.3 mile to the Lower 2WD Trailhead at 8,800'. To reach the Upper 4WD Trailhead, continue 2.7 miles to parking/camp spots before the first river crossing, near 9,950'. In 2009, the South Colony Lakes road was permanently closed here (gate) and this is the current trailhead. The trail starts next to the trailhead kiosk, in the parking area.


The original name of this route is Ellingwood Ledges, it is also known as Ellingwood Arete. There are two options for the start, a 5th class 'direct start' and a 4th class 'ledges start'. Both overcome the lowest cliffs on the route and converge near a red knob halfway up the arete Photo #22.

Direct Start:
Follow the Humboldt West Ridge route description on this site to a trail junction near 12,000' where Upper South Colony Lake is to your left (southwest). Take the trail junction to the left (west), or toward the lake. Follow this obvious trail through a few sporadic willows and then along the south side of Upper South Colony Lake toward Crestone Needle. If you're struggling through a dwindling trail in thick willows, you probably left the Humboldt trail too early and are off route on a trail lower in the basin.

As you approach the talus cone below the face, identify your route up to the direct start, a large open book feature of weakness through the lowest cliffs of the east face Photo #1. A snowfield at the foot of the cliffs may last well into the summer to the south of the start of the route. Climb two or three pitches of 5.4 to 5.6 terrain in the center of the open book to easier 4th class ledges. The more difficult sections on the direct start include the initial traverse into the open book from the start (5.4) Photo #2 and a steeper section of crack at the beginning of the second pitch (5.6) Photo #3. Between the difficulties is easy terrain Photo #4.

As the open book fades Photo #5, the terrain opens up into broad ledges Photo #6. Climb up the face Photo #7 (class 3 and 4) until the terrain steepens just below the knob into a wall. Either climb this wall directly (mid 5th class) or contour around to climbers left and then back right on 3rd class ledges. As you wrap around the difficulties Photo #8, the 'ledges' and 'direct' variations join.

Ledges Start:
Follow the Crestone Needle south gully route description on this site to the Crestone Needle sign directing hikers toward Broken Hand pass. Begin hiking toward Broken Hand Pass until you reach the second very large cairn. Leave the trail behind and head right (north) down through grass and willows then up talus toward steeper terrain Photo #9. Work your way through an intial cliff band on its right Photo #10. Once above the initial cliff, follow broad grassy ledges climbers left. The ledges narrow considerably as you narrow in on the top of the cliff Photo #11. Above the cliff the terrain opens to broad grassy slopes. From these broad grassy slopes, traverse up and to climbers right using more ledges contouring all the way across the face toward the arete. A detailed route photo of the traverse across the face Photo #12. Many 3rd and 4th class options exist through here. Aim for the saddle above the red knob. Just as you approach the arete, the 'direct' and 'ledges' variations join.

Upper Route:
The 'direct' and 'ledges' variations of this route meet on the arete directly above the red knob difficulties in steep ledges Photo #13. The first mandatory class 5 terrain on the route is the next 100' feet of climbing above this point. Some parties may opt to rope up here for a short pitch. Utilizing the easiest path on or just to the climber's left of the arete, the difficulty should not exceed low class 5. Looking down on this section of the climb Photo #14. Above this difficulty, the arete become less pronounced as you encounter more 3rd and 4th class ledges. Continue directly up using the path of least resistance as the crux pitches of the route come into view (climbers circled) Photo #15. A mini-headwall may be avoided to climber's right (north) using class 4 terrain Photo #21 and grassy ledges Photo #20, or climbed directly with a short 5th class pitch. Either way, you should end up on a well used dirt platform directly below an obvious crack in the face, belay here.

Both options for the first pitch of the main headwall use this belay station. The split in the arete is a 5.9 option, the right facing corner to the north a 5.6 option Photo #16. There are old fixed pitons in both routes. A 50 meter rope on the 5.6 route will require a bit of simul-climbing to reach the next belay.

Above the first headwall pitch, brief 3rd class climbing takes you to the bottom of the 5.7 crux pitch, a fantastic steep right facing dihedral Photo #16. Climb this well protected crag-like pitch for 50 meters to a wide ledge. The 5.7 crux move is a well protected small roof halfway up the pitch. Looking down the route from just above the crux Photo #17. Above the crux is solid 5.6 right facing dihedral Photo #18 which ends at a wide ledge. Follow an obvious 3rd class gully toward the summit ridge Photo #19. The summit is a very short stroll to the north.

Use the standard 3rd class south gully route for a descent. Research this route if you have not climbed it before as the route finding on the way down can be confusing. Do not descend the gully heading west from the summit, this is not the route. Head back south past the finish to the Ellingwood Ledges route to find the correct system of gullies which head in the general direction of Broken Hand Pass. Rain can make this down climb treacherous. Several parties have been forced to bivouac due to descending the wrong route.


- Expect the route to take a full day if you climb on belay through the easier sections. Experienced climbers take between 3-6 hours on the face with the direct start. The ledges variation is faster.

- There are other options for the final 5.7 crux pitch, see the climber topo below.

- A standard alpine rack to 2" is suggested. Hand sized hexes are very useful.

- For a climber's map see Gary Clark's excellent topo: http://lamountaineers.org/NAC/browserf/climbs/crestone/topo.pdf
 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.

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Route Photos  Print Options

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