Painting by Ardith Stewart of Westcliffe, Colorado
Research by Arthur Vyn Boennighausen
We offer you this account of the first ascent of this mountain which was made in August of 1925. The image at the top of this page is an artist's impression of the Crestone Needle.
Colorado so abounds with mountains that even by World War I there were still unclimbed 14,000-foot peaks. The state has fifty-three of these giants, and anyone with a sturdy pair of legs and a functional set of lungs can climb these peaks. Only a few of these coveted peaks require the use of the hands, and none really demand a rope. Still, many of them are fine-looking mountains, and a few even present spectacular aspects.
For example, hidden in the isolated Sangre de Cristo Range of south-central Colorado lies a cluster of jagged alpine peaks known as the Crestone group. On the afternoon of July 24, 1916, one of these peaks became the last-conquered 14,000 footer in the state. Ranked twenty-first in height, the Crestone Needle proved to be an enjoyable class 3 and 4 scramble for first ascenders Albert Ellingwood and Eleanor Davis. as they descended a couloir on the eastern side of the peak, their eyes lingered on the northeast side of the Crestone massif. Ellingwood later was to write that this mile-wide wall contained "a superb array of formidable buttresses, seamed by tempting cracks and set off from each other by steep-plunging chimneys that probably have not been free from ice since the glacial era." By far the highest and most impressive of these buttresses was the 2000 foot prow which was almost dark as the pair passed under the buttress, but Ellingwood searched for a possible route, hoping they would return. It was to be nine years, however, before the two climbers once again stood under the face.
Prior to World War I, Ellingwood had studied at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, yet he somehow found the time to learn to climb in England's famous Lake District. After returning to Colorado to be a professor of political science, he found he was the only climber in the area who could handle a rope with any degree of skill. Indeed, his 1916 ascents in the Crestone group were, as climbing historian Chris Jones has put it, "probably the first rock climbs in the United States where a conscious effort was made to belay. "In succeeding years Ellingwood established an enviable climbing record, making among other Colorado climbs the first ascent, in 1920, of Lizard Head, still regarded as the state's most difficult summit to attain. Three years later, he and Eleanor Davis climbed in the Teton Range, making the first ascents of the South and Middle Tetons. The pair also made the fourth ascent of the Grand Teton, with Davis becoming the first woman to stand atop the highest point in that range. By 1925 Ellingwood was quite likely the finest mountaineer in the land, and Eleanor Davis was undoubtedly the most experienced American female climber. In August of that year the pair decided to attempt the buttress remembered from their 1916 trip and organized a foursome for the ascent.
Camping at the windswept lake below the Crestone Needle, the two climbers studied possible routes with their companions, Stephen Hart and Marion Warner. The lower part of the buttress was sliced by many ledges, some of which even contained grassfields. They weren't too concerned about this section, but as Ellingwood later wrote in his account of the climb, "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."
As predicted, the forty-five-degree lower section proved easy, though a slip, according to the professor, would result in "deliberate suicide, and there are easier ways. "A hail-storm arose just as the foursome reached the upper "delectable and dubious cliff. "Though brief, the storm left quantities of hail on every ledge, and the climbing was slowed while the mountaineers scraped away the ice and thrust cold hands into warm pockets. A long chimney system, visible from the ground, led up just to the right of the buttress, and the party soon was spread out over hundreds of feet. This section, in the words of Ellingwood, was a "diddle-diddle-dumpling sort of climb-one foot in and one foot out, and hands usually clawing at such minute molecules of rock as have survived the process of erosion." The chimney was not difficult, but the tiny belay ledges, the hail covered rock, and the altitude of 13,700 feet conspired to use up several hours.
Eventually the climbers reached a wide ledge, directly on the prow. Above was an "an obviously invulnerable" wall, so they set out on an upward traverse which led around a corner on the left. This easy pitch brought the foursome to the now famous Head Crack, the crux of the climb. Ellingwood struggled up a short chimney, his head awkwardly ensconced in the crack. A delicate move to the right soon had the professor spread out "like a skin stretched to dry." From this compromising position he finally was able to grasp a small hold and pull himself onto easier ground. Elated, the party regrouped at the top of the Head Crack pitch, but a bit higher another possible cul-de-sac; this one a chimney "almost wide enough to drive a wagon through" confronted the tired mountaineers. The resourceful Ellingwood stemmed up as far as possible, then transferred to an easier crack on the right. The shorter members of the group found the stem a few inches too wide, and for the few feet they needed help from the rope. Conditioned by this point to expect another impasse, the four climbers were surprised to see the summit ridge only a hundred feet above them. It was late in the afternoon when they celebrated their success around the cairn Ellingwood and Davis had built nearly a decade before.
As on the earlier descent, the irrepressible Ellingwood kept gazing at the battlements for other routes, and he later indulged in word play: "One of the famous problems of the Middle Ages was to ascertain the exact number of angels who could sit upon the point of a needle. I would adapt it and propound a question both more interesting and more answerable: From how many angles can the Needle's point be reached?"
Ellingwood died at the early age of forty-six, but before his death he highly recommended the climb to his protégé, Robert Ormes. In July 1937, Ormes-later to write the definitive "Guide to the Colorado Mountains- and a companion made the second ascent of the route, naming it the Ellingwood Ledges in memory of the professor. (Later this was corrupted to the Ellingwood Arete, a misnomer since the ridge is not sharp.) Like the first-ascent party, the 1937 team took four hours to overcome the "delectable" upper section. To preface Ormes' article in Trail and Timberline, the journal of the Colorado Mountain Club, the editor wrote: "Ormes' own account of the second ascent......draws deserved attention to a long neglected field for those who appreciate the weird contortions of Acrobatic Alpinism.
Despite an ever-increasing number of climbers who stealthily practiced "weird contortions," the next ascents did not take place until the early 1950s. Later, however, the route became so popular that it was not uncommon for several parties to mingle on a pleasant summer day, enjoying not only the fine climbing but also the remarkable views of the massif.
One of the highlights of the route is the quality of the rock. The sedimentary conglomerate, formed during the early Paleozoic Era, bristles with so many knobs that it is confusing to know which one to grab. Some of the pinkish-colored knobs appear on the verge of being expelled from the matrix, but Ellingwood discovered they were so firm that they must have "roots ten feet long." Climbing on this unique rock is a pleasure that few climbers ever forget, and many return for additional doses of knob climbing in an alpine setting.