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Blitzing the Crestones

 Blitzing the Crestones

by Warren Teissier

August 14, 2002

Photos by George Bell and Warren Teissier

Nestled in the hard-to-reach Sangre de Cristo Range are what Gerry Roach calls two of the hardest of Colorado’s Fourteeners: Crestone Peak and Crestone Needle. Due to its remoteness and difficulty, Crestone Needle was the last of Colorado’s 14ers to be climbed. It was not until 1916 when Albert Ellingwood reached its summit after traversing from Crestone Peak. This complex half a mile traverse through exposed 3rd and 4th class terrain would in time become one of Colorado’s four “Classic” traverses.

But the traverse and the first ascent of the Needle were not to be Ellingwood’s only contribution to the history of these formidable peaks. Almost a decade after his first ascent of the Needle, he returned to climb the 2,000ft arete that divides the North and the East face of the mile long alpine wall that stretches from the Needle to the Peak. The route, later christened Ellingwood Ledges and mistakenly referred to as Ellingwood Arete, follows the 2000 vertical feet of ridge and culminates with three technical pitches at 14,000ft.

“Life is nothing more than the pursuit of stories worth telling to your children.”


In late spring, George Bell and I received an email from Mark Oveson, the subject field read “Summer Adventures” and it invited us to share our targeted climbing adventures for the summer so we could sort out the dates and make plans. We haggled over the many options and boiled them down to the real “must do” list. George, who is by far the most experienced climber of our small bunch, wanted to do one of the four Classic Colorado traverses. I wanted to do the Ellingwood Ledges. Mark was happy with anything alpine and long. As we sorted out what to do, George made the off-hand comment that we could climb the Ellingwood Ledges and then do the Crestone traverse. Either one of these goals is usually tackled as a one day affair by mere mortals like us. We all laughed, but by the end of the discussion we had somehow agreed to do just that. A date was picked and we forgot about the issue for nearly two months.

George scrambling up 3rd class terrain towards the Red Tower Dinner time, Friday, August 9th. Mark pulls into the parking lot of the Pizza Dough-Main restaurant in Silver Cliff a suburb of Westcliffe CO. During dinner George entertains us with stories about camping for two weeks at the foot of the Crestones waiting for the weather to clear while on a leadership course. This time the weather looks great. An hour later finds us rattling up the horrendous 4 miles of 4x4 road. Mark and his Land Cruiser make short work of the task and we even manage to pick up two hitch hiking climbers who are planning on doing the traverse the next day. We mention our plans matter-of-factly, feeling important when we notice their surprise, while deep inside we anxiously hope we are up to the task.

We count no less than fifteen cars at the trailhead. Within minutes of our arrival, Mark is going from campsite to campsite courteously inquiring about their plans. We find one group that is planning to do the Ledges route. But we are uncomfortably aware that other folks attempting the route are probably spending the night at the base of the wall some 3 miles away from our campsite. We can’t afford to be second on the wall if we want to top out in time to do the traverse. We turn in at 10PM for a night of vivid dreams at 11,000 ft.

Up at 3:30am and hiking by 4:15am. Mark forgot his headlamp, but his training during our pre-dawn Flatiron outings, where he has forgotten his headlamp on several occasions, enables him to hike at a fast pace while sandwiched between George and I. We plan to do the direct start, a variation to the original route that adds one to three additional technical pitches. As we reach the base of the targeted talus cone we are relieved to find there is no one on the route yet, after all, it is still pitch black… As we stand there and discuss which of the features is the actual start, Mark points to a tent that we had not noticed, pitched some 20 feet from us. We shut up and move up the large talus cone. Once we identify the start of the route we proceed to shed some layers and to put on our harnesses and climbing shoes, we are no longer in a hurry, we are first in line. Our friends in the tent below are awake and getting ready, but it is too late for them, Mark is leading the first pitch…

Simulclimbing above the Red Tower. Headwall section looms above us “…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.”

Albert Ellingwood
On the upper section of the Ellingwood Ledges route

We carry one 60m rope and plan to simul-second the hard pitches and simul-climb the easy but technical ones, the rest will be done unroped. Mark disappears behind a bulge while George and I shiver silently, hoping for the “off belay” signal that will allow us to get moving and to warm up. We are rudely awakened from our trance by Mark’s shout of “rock”. I instinctively lean against the wall while George remains undisturbed looking up. A few seconds later a fist sized rock whizzes by some 15 feet from us. I mention to George that he didn’t even move and he replies that he was trying to sort out the weird trajectory of the rock and that he could tell it was not coming at him. After a pause he adds with a chuckle: “ although if it had been coming at me, I'm not sure I would have been able to duck in time”.

As George starts up, the party of two from the tent reaches the base of the wall. George greets them but it is clear that they are none too pleased to be second on the wall. They probably think that as a threesome we will be holding them back… We will see them only at a distance a time or two the rest of the day.

Simulclimbing to the base of the headwall George leads the second pitch. Up the dihedral and out left onto a grassy ledge, we are spending a lot of time sorting out the correct path of the direct start. We could traverse further left on the ledge but to put it in George’s words “the next pitch looks fun”. He launches into it and we reach another grassy ledge that joins the original route. We solo up, slowly drifting right towards the first identifiable feature in this massive wall: the Red Tower. The rope comes out again and I lead us to the notch between the tower and the arete. From here we proceed to simul-climb the next four hundred feet.

A small headwall blocks our passage and a fixed piece on the right suckers us in that direction. Mark leads up to the fixed piece and it quickly becomes apparent that this is not the 5.4 section we are looking for. Mark reverses the moves and George leads up to the left on much easier terrain. His lead takes us to the base of the last three technical pitches: the famous headwall, where the route cleverly squeezes between a polished slab on the right and a brooding overhang on the left. In a long lead, I string up two of the pitches. We regroup and George leads the last technical pitch. We are doing the “right side” variation, a steep 5.7 dihedral. The position of these last three pitches is nothing short of amazing. I simul-second behind Mark, cleaning the crux pitch and breathing hard at 14,000 ft. Then, slightly under five hours after our start from the base, we unrope and proceed to scramble the last 100 ft up a small gully leading to the top. [Click for route topo of traverse to summit]

Warren leading the first pitch of the Headwall “ And now, we dance…”

Mike Myers as “Dieter” in “Sprockets”. SNL.

Close to ten people crowd the summit when we reach it. There is a surreal party atmosphere going on. There’s the two guys from Alma, CO that we met last night, and just like last night, they are drinking a Bud. There’s the two quiet guys away from the crowd and then there’s the group of three guys and the two women who are chatting noisily and taking pictures of the gals as they flash their boobs. It turns out this is a ritual they have going, they are trying to climb all the 14ers flashing their boobs atop each one of them. A lot racier than hanging out with George and Mark…

I am incredibly happy to have completed the Ellingwood Ledges route. What a great climb, my best 50 Classic Climbs so far. But somehow, I can’t savor this achievement fully. I am anxiously thinking about the traverse. I glance at it while I change my shoes and eat. It looks wicked from where I stand: The ridge is three feet wide, the drop-off to the North of it is more than a thousand feet, the drop off to the South is slightly less. Then after some thirty feet the ridge disappears. A sea of towers and gullies extend towards Crestone Peak. It looks as if there were too many features crammed into the half a mile separating these mountains. It is not clear at all which way to go. George looks for the rappel anchors that mark the start of the traverse. We cautiously reach the anchors at the end of the ridge as one of the Bud boys follows us at a distance and utters words of encouragement. Part Deux of the adventure starts with a rap…

“Gather your fears and your possessions, whatever certainty you’ve know. Forget your heroes, you don’t even need those last few lessons. Stand in the open, the next voice you hear will be your own”

Jackson Browne

The Black Gendarme. First major feature of the Needle to Peak traverse After a 100 ft rap we proceed to scramble some 400 feet of 3rd and 4th Class while pursuing a generally downward traverse. The exposure is mind boggling. A mistake here, a broken hold, would be final. I slow down and George and Mark have to wait on me on a couple of occasions. We finally reach one of the few recognizable features in the traverse: The Black Gendarme. This awesome black tower stands some 150 feet in height, teetering on the ridge between the two peaks. The ridge at the saddle below the base of the gendarme can’t be more than a foot wide. George and I stare at it for some time trying to decipher a possible route to its summit. There is a wide crack on the side that might go although it looks burly. Rappel slings near the top show that the summit has been explored. We downclimb a constricted gully that ends in a ten-foot cliff requiring some easy 5th class moves. Finally, we are on some comfortable ledges and cairns appear leading us towards the Red Couloir (this is the South face route up Crestone Peak). A mind-numbing traverse on ledges ensues. When we reach the Red Couloir we are about 800 vertical feet from the summit, we switch into autopilot and we work our way up. Slightly less than two hours after we started the traverse, we reach the summit of Crestone Peak. No party awaits us here, just a couple of people who nicely decide to leave when we get there. We have accomplished the second part of the challenge, we are really happy, but we still have to get down. By now, we are desperately short on water. The great weather that has allowed us to carry out our adventure, has also badly dehydrated us. The sun has been relentless and there are no clouds to provide relief. We decide to downclimb the South face route of the Peak since this is a safer route than the standard Northwest Couloir. The cost of safety: we will have to hike up Broken Hand Pass to reach the trailhead, an additional 600+ vertical feet.

Starting the descent from summit of Crestone Peak. The Needle is in the distance separated by the 1/2 mile traverse ridge. “Well I’m, near the end and I just ain’t got the time, oh yeah. And am wasted and I can’t find my way home…”

Steve Windwood, Traffic

We painfully work our way down the Red Couloir; we are to lose some two thousand vertical feet this way. Due to its Southern exposure the sun is baking us. We are nine hours into our day and the wear is starting to show. Near the bottom we try to contour towards the pass to save us some distance but we get cliffed-out. Back to following the cairns, they are there for a reason. Then a breakthrough, Mark spots a small stream, more like a trickle. It is trickling from the rock above us and forming a small pool no more than 3 feet wide and six inches deep. The water is crystal clear and cold. George and I use chemicals to treat it and have to wait an agonizing half hour until the water is cleansed, Mark decides to take his chances and downs a quart almost immediately.

We reach the basin and hike towards the pass past Cottonwood Lake, it is brutally hot, in spite of us being at 12,500 feet. This is not fun anymore. An eternity and 600+ vertical feet later, we reach the top of the pass. On the other side of the pass I hope for a nice trail on a grassy shaded slope leading to the car. Instead, I get a loose dirt and scree 3rd class gully in the sun. We slowly suffer the gully and at 4:45 PM we reach the trailhead. The descent and hike back had taken three hours and fifteen minutes. We have been on the move for twelve and a half hours. We have hiked a bit over eight miles and climbed about 5,000 vertical feet.

While signing out we bump into Gary and Lynn Clark from They are heading up to the lakes and are planning to speed-climb the Ellingwood Ledges the next day. We talk about our day and it slowly dawns on me that we have completed our adventure: We climbed a 50 Classics Climb, completed one of the four “classic” Colorado traverses and bagged two 14ers.

On the drive back, just as we exit the 4x4 road, I mention to Mark that it feels like we have been here for a week. He agrees and after checking his watch he points out we have been here less than 24 hours. After a pause, he smiles at me and says: “we blitzed the Crestones.”

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