Saturday, August 15, 2009

Crestone Needle - 14,197

Crestone Needle - June 9, 2002 (Broken Hand Pass to the left)

After Longs it was 22 years before my next fourteener, Crestone Needle with Jay Evans in 2002. Can that be?

I know. If you'd asked me back then if I thought more than two decades would go by before my next fourteener, I would have to say no. But then if you'd asked if I thought I would still be alive at the turn of the century, again I would have to say no. Anyone who knew me then would have to say the same thing. It was as if I had the sleeping sickness, making me drowsy doing anything in less than the hardest way. I sought treatment for this disorder but to no avail. One can imagine, then, that the decade of 80s was a sleepy time for me. Graduate school was in there, followed by odd jobs in Farmington. I perked up a some in the 90s when, back in Albuquerque, being self employed allowed for impromptu trips into the Sandia range east of town, where I contented myself mainly with repeating previous routes. Who knows how long this sleepwalking would have lasted had a mutual friend not reintroduced me to Jay Evans?

Jay had been part of a group I'd fallen in with almost immediately my first semester at the University of New Mexico in 1974. We did some top-roping together around White Rock and made a memorable assault on the West Face of the Prow in the Sandias. But then he'd dropped out of circulation, or I did, and we traded letters for a while before losing touch completely until around 2001 when that mutual friend brought us back together. Ellingwood Arête came up almost instantly. It seems Jay had dreamed of doing it for years, primarily on the strength of its listing in Fifty Classic Climbs of North America, a classic text in its own right. Thus, were it not for Jay, in my somnambulistic state I would probably not have given Crestone Needle a second thought.

In the first week in June of 2002 we drove my truck up I-25 into Colorado, reaching the trailhead just before dusk. Our plan had been to sleep in my truck then get an early start the next day. Eager to hit the trail, though, I talked Jay into starting right away by headlamp, offering the compromise of hiking until midnight and then camping wherever that caught us. It so happened the stroke of midnight found as about a half-mile below the South Colony Lakes trailhead. This would be the parking area for persons with four-wheel drive vehicles versus the spot four miles below where we'd left my pickup truck hours ago. South Colony Lakes from the higher parking is about a one-mile hike, one of the shorter 14er approaches in Colorado. I never have managed to drive to this upper trailhead. Even over the spring break many years ago when with partners Paul Horak and Dave Baltz I skied in to the lakes, we'd had to park low - not just because of the rough road but also the snow, conditions at the time being as wintry as I'd ever seen. The unceasing snowfall, in fact, is primarily the reason why we bailed out of the Crestones after three days, never having seen a single peak.

The east-facing rib descending straight from the Needle's summit has been recently renamed Ellingwood Ledges. Alan Steck and Steve Roper employ the word arête. In all fairness, though, rib, buttress, arête, ledges - all characterize portions of the overall route first climbed by Albert Ellingwood and three partners in 1925. Only a climber will appreciate it when I term Albert Ellingwood the American Reinhold Messner of the early 20th century. His route stands as one of the hardest up any 14er, and it remains popular today primarily due to Steck and Roper's Fifty Classics citation. I mainly knew the route as a formative, sans pareil early conquest by my regular climbing partner Paul Horak. I can still hear Paul saying: You haven't climbed 5.7 until you've climbed 5.7 at 14 thousand feet. Jay and I were about to weigh the truth of that assertion. For now, after crashing at the magic hour, we finished with a dawn hike to the upper trailhead.

If there was a low point to this day it would have to be as we passed through the silent parking lot & roused a sleeping dog that raised such holy hell that it woke everybody in the parking area. At South Colony Lakes we cached our packs & filtered some water and heading up-valley. Jay had a 2-liter Camelback his sister had given him. I had a 1-liter flask strapped to my harness. It seems odd today that I thought I could get by on so little, and thirst was to become an issue later but in the end things worked out. Higher in the basin we paused to scope out the route. A couple of guys on the trail to Humboldt offered their best wishes before heading out on their own projected grand slam of Humboldt, Crestone Peak and Crestone Needle. We could use their good will. Already a team was on the Arete. They were a young boy and girl from California, wearing dancing shoes and carrying a light rack, as we found out once we'd passed them. We didn't pass them because we were fast. We passed them because they were on the Direct Start of Ellingwood Arête.

Unwittingly Jay and I had commenced our climb of Ellingwood Arête on the Direct Start, completing two pitches before realizing our mistake and bailing left in a blind traverse.

(above) Jay following the first pitch of the Direct Start
(below) Following Jay's lead out of the Direct Start

Our traverse indeed led back to the original route, an endless series of stairstep ledges going up to the two crux pitches. This was where we passed the Californians, though they caught up to us again while I was belaying Jay up the first crux pitch. I chatted them up while paying out rope to my partner out of sight above, and when it came time to follow I found an exhilaratingly exposed crack system going up through embedded cobblestones: like a dry riverbed tilted vertically. The gut tells you not to trust this kind of formation, as if the stones might pull out unexpectedly, yet the enjoyment lies in discovering just how fixed they really are - these sedimentary layers so well heat treated in the long long ago as to fuse into a solid conglomerate. The photo below shows the geologic and vertical nature of this pitch.

Jay had belayed midway up the first crux. I took the next half-pitch up to the base of the second crux, a fine straight-in hand and finger crack over minimal exposure. I have no qualms over calling Jay's pitch the harder.

That Californian couple passed us during the summit scramble and we let them as they had been climbing patiently behind us for some time. Just after one o'clock we stood on the summit, meeting up with those same guys from below who were finishing their grand slam. They seemed enthusiastic about our success and that was nice, as in 2002 Jay and I were both pushing 50. Here is a shot they were kind enough to take of us on the summit:

We stayed as long as we dared then started down & promptly got lost. Much like on Longs as mentioned in my last TR, not knowing the way we quickly and found ourselves picking down a loose gully that kept cliffing off obliging a quick rappel before pulling the rope and scrambling farther down, all the time looking for an escape left to where the proper descent route lay & wondering whether the next rappel would overstretch our lone 50-meter rope. Finally I found the escape, hollered to Jay & began wending a tortuous course finally to cross the South Ridge just below the South Couloir.

We'd wasted a lot of daylight. At Broken Hand Pass it seemed as though darkness would overtake us and we'd not brought our headlamps because we weren't expecting to need them. I have bad knees but Jay has worse, so as the sun sank over the San Luis Valley I left him guarding the gear while I ran down for our headlamps, returning in pitch black to give Jay his headlamp so we could complete the descent.

We had lain out our bivvy sacks under the brilliantly starred sky and settled in for a well deserved rest when something strange happened. I'd eaten a spicy meal and was sitting up hiccuping in the dead of night when it seemed as though something white were gliding down the trail. Still half-asleep I took in the apparition dumbly, not knowing exactly what to make of it until dawn came and we overheard some people talking in a nearby camp, mentioning something about a mountain goat. I turned to Jay and said:

'Did you see something white on the trail last night?'

Like confessing a guilty secret he allowed that he, too, had seen the apparition. It seems there is a resident mountain goat in the vicinity of South Colony Lakes who pays visits to sleeping campers at night. How often is it that a mystery gets perceived and explained all at the same time?

And so, despite a few missteps, Jay and I could lay claim to to having climbed Ellingwood Ledges on Crestone Needle. On our third day we packed up and headed down to a celebratory meal of hamburgers in Walsenburg to seal the overall deal.

It seemed Ellingwood Arête had managed to keep me awake. The South Ridge of Mount Sneffels later in the summer would enhance my state of wakefulness, though not before Wilson Peak, the third and last of the San Miguel fourteeners I had yet to climb, confirming my commitment to climb them all.

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