I can’t tell if I woke up, or if I never actually fell asleep. Either way, my watch alarm is beeping. 4:30am. I reach up and pull it from the gear loft, fumbling to remember how to turn it off. It has soft, green glow. My head hurts a little, and I’m sore; not used to sleeping on the ground. I sit up in my sleeping bag and say something to Colin. He mumbles that he’s awake too. Then he farts loudly and we both start to giggle uncontrollably.
I take a few sips of water, hoping that will help my headache. Finding my headlamp, I switch it on and look out into the tent vestibule for the stove and pot. Get the stove lit and the water boiling. Coffee. That will make things better. Outside, the wind is whipping and the tent flaps and shudders. It’s dark, cold, and less than comforting. I have that same nervous feeling in my stomach. I’m excited about the climb, but nervous, uncomfortable. The water is boiling, and I carefully shake two Starbucks instant coffee packets into each mug, then, slowly add the water, hoping I won’t spill any. It’s dangerously hot, so we let it sit for a few minutes with the lids off, watching the steam rise through the beam of my headlamp and listening to the wind whip through the cirque. It’s warm and safe in the tent. Shit, it’s early; do we really want to go out there?
The second round of water is getting close; I can hear the pot rattle on the 3-prong stove, steam shooting from the vented lid. Breakfast burritos are up next. I’m not at all hungry, quite the opposite actually. But food will help; it’s going to be a long day. Colin had said something about the suggested amount of water for our freeze-dried meal being too much, so I halved the amount and it worked pretty well. The eggs come out great, and we scoop them into the two flour tortillas we brought. I eat mine on the empty plastic tortilla package. Holy shit is it good. Maybe the best burrito I’ve ever had. Salty and delicious, just what I’m craving. I realized I actually am hungry, and the burrito disappears in a matter of a few large bites. Colin doesn’t have a plate, or anything to eat off of, and his burrito rips and spills onto his sleeping bag. I laugh, and start to feel better about the morning.
The coffee is a good temperature now, and we drink from our mugs, which resemble grown-up sippy cups, as we start to get ready.
We’d laid out our gear the night before, so it didn’t take long. I like to sleep in what I’ll be wearing the next day, so I can wake up ready. It’s faster that way, which means I can sleep longer. It’s also easier in the confines of our small tent. I’ve always thought it must be hilarious to watch two people struggle to get dressed in a small tent, drunk with sleep, kicking and elbowing each other as long underwear and baselayers are wrestled on. Once we’re dressed we pack the bags. Rain coats, an extra layer, camera, food, and water bottles. Colin grabs the rope. and stuffs it in his pack. I grab the gear rack and sling it over my shoulder. As were getting ready to leave the tent, I notice that the wind has calmed down. I’d gotten used to the constant noise, but now I hear the birds chirping and whistling away, loud and happy is their constant chatter. It makes me smile, and for the first time this morning, I’m really looking forward to getting started.
Walking out of camp, ducking under the small pines and heading down to the trail, I glance at my watch. 5:15. It’s a good start; and we should reach the base sometime around 6. The cirque is fairly bright, and we don’t need headlamps to see the trail. We start off at a good pace, and it feels good to be moving, to shake of the bad night’s sleep and the headache, get the blood flowing, and warm up. Our shoes crunching along trail and the climbing gear softly clinking while we hike are the only sounds we hear. The moon sits above the saddle to the south of the peak. Its bright and beautiful, an amazing sight in an amazing place. We stop for a moment to take pictures and look around. Halfway between the Lower South Colony Lake and the Upper, we are in a stunningly beautiful basin, the shape of a horseshoe, but deeper. All around us, walls rise hundreds, thousands of feet upwards. Our goal, one of the tallest, and certainly the most impressive, is the Crestone Needle; rising to over 14,000 feet. West of the Upper lake and almost directly at its base, the pale brown buttress towers almost 2,000 feet above our heads, the king of this basin. After almost 3 years of looking at pictures and drawings, we can see our route, and it looks remarkable. We take a few more pictures and continue hiking up towards the lake.
Nearing the start of the Upper Lake, we saw that we were even with the start of the route, and decide it’s time to leave the trail and head towards the climb. We hike over moss and other alpine plants, doing our best to stay on rocks and dirt. Life is fragile at such high altitude, and trampled plants may take years to grow back, if they manage to at all. Stopping periodically to look at our route, there are two options. The original route, first done by Albert Ellingwood and friends in 1925, ascends a series of grassy, exposed ledges going left. It zigzags up, and crosses a snowfield before traversing back right to the start of the harder climbing. The new, direct start follows the “arête” proper, and has several easy pitches that drop you off at the start of the real climbing. For this trip, we’ve chosen to take the original route. It will be easier, and hopefully faster, safer. We’d almost canceled the trip due to a bad weather forecast, and that was by far my biggest concern. Neither Colin nor I had climbed technical rock at this altitude before, and while I was curious to see how we’d do, I knew the climbing was relatively easy and wasn’t worried with that. Neither of us had been struck by lightning before either. Or snowed or rained or hailed on while climbing that high up. That’s what worried me. That’s why I wanted to keep moving.
I’d originally wanted to do the direct start. We hiked a long way in, and I thought we should get as much roped climbing in as we could. But standing there looking at Ellingwood’s original route, I was excited. It looked like fun, and I liked the idea of retracing a historic line. As we got closer, we could see the start of the route. Grassy ledges, switchbacking up to a ramp system that would eventually lead us up to more vertical rock where we would rope up, almost 1,000 feet above. It looked easy and fun; except for the first 80 feet or so. A small strip of grass, maybe 4 feet wide (at the most), and 40 feet long, needed to be crossed in order to access the ledges above. The grass was sloping, maybe 35 or 40 degrees, and everything looked wet. The rock above was black, wet, and crumbly; nothing to hold onto as you tip-toed up. It was all runoff from the large snowfield above, the underside of a small water flow. The kicker was the 70 foot drop off the side. Maybe you wouldn’t die if you slipped, but I think you probably would. I’d noticed a wide crack about 150 feet right of that, which would take you right up to the start. We talked about it, walked over to check both options out, and decided on the crack. I’ll take rock any day over wet grass. We started up the crack, carefully placing toes on small ledges and knobs, scanning for the handholds and testing the rock quality.
It was conglomerate, like someone had tossed pebbles of all different sizes into a cement mixer and then let it harden. It was my first time climbing anything like it. Inching up and finally climbing after all this time, we soon left the crack and found ourselves at a large meadow, staring a snowfield about half the size of a football field. Crossing was out of the question. We’d only brought sneakers, leaving both heavy boots and rock shoes behind in order to save weight. I was in my new Merrell Capra Sports.. We had a trekking pole each, having seen the snowfield the previous day and realizing we may have to deal with more snow than we’d originally thought, and having neglected to bring ice axes to keep the weight down. The options for the snowfield crossing were clear: up and over, or down, and then back up. While I originally thought we should go up, rather than down and then back up, wasting time and energy, we both decided the smarter line was down. We crossed a small flow of water leaving the snowfield, running over smooth, water polished knobs of red rock, and then made a beeline straight up towards the start of the ledge system.
A few hundred feet up, we reached the famous Ellingwood Ledges. Rock slabs, about 5-10 feet wide and covered in grass and plant matter. Trending up and right, these ledges carried on for another few hundred feet, offering amazing views of the cirque and Upper South Colony lake, 1,000 feet below. Up until now, the route-finding had been easy. All the features we’d climbed were visible from below. Now, we were coming to the 4th Class climbing. This means that you don’t quite need a rope yet (if you’re a competent climber, and OK with the exposure), but all hands and feet will be employed while climbing. We pulled out a printed topo of the route, and discussed where to start climbing. We also tried to spot where we were going, in order to stay on route and not get off track.
And with that, the climb began.
Over the next hour, I fell into a state of pure concentration. I think it’s why I was so drawn to climbing early on. Your mind is calm and focused, thinking only of your next hand placement, foot placement, and the rhythm of your breath. It’s a place that all climbers like to be; dream of being. You’re enjoying the pure happiness of moving on rock. Occasionally, I would stop to check that I was more or less on route, and to look up at the clouds. I saw some forming above, but couldn’t tell much. We were climbing the eastern side, and could not see anything moving in from the west. It’s a bit unsettling to be up so high, thousands of feet above the safety of your tent, exposed to whatever weather comes your way. Once, when I was learning to climb and constantly nervous, wondering if the rope would hold or break, a friend gave me some good advice: “Take a breath, and look around. Enjoy the view!” I don’t get as nervous these days, but the advice holds true. I look behind me, at the ring of peaks lining the cirque. White snow dots hillsides and clings to life in places that don’t get much sun, the lakes below are a deep, dark blue and shimmering in the morning sun, neon green grass lines the valley floor and rock ledges, tiny purple and yellow flowers appear in the most unlikely of places, having found a way to survive in this harsh place. It all makes me smile, and I say a quick “thank you”, just in case anyone is listening. Then I continue moving up.
After what feels like just a few minutes, but is actually closer to an hour, I pull over a small bulge and find myself on a comfortable ledge, 10×20 feet in size. Above, a wall rises hundreds of feet, and finally, we’ve arrive at what we really come for. I slide the cams, nuts and slings off my shoulder and lay them on a flat rock, out of the dirt, then take off my pack, and look up at the route. I can’t see it, but I know the summit is not far, maybe 300 feet or so. It’s 9am.
A few minutes later, Colin pulls up and onto the ledge. A little short on breath, but with his trademark ear-to-ear grin, happy as can be. It’s no small thing to come from Seattle (sea level) and climb this high this fast. Most people need a few days to acclimatize, but we don’t have the time for that. We sit there for a while, enjoying the rare calm. Often, that high up in the mountains, it is windy. Very, very windy. Any warmth the sun may offer is quickly taken away, and all you want to do is keep moving. The wind is an agitator, a mental enemy. It’s constantly harassing you, and it always adds an unwelcome element of fear to my climbs. It’s a silly thing really, it poses no real threat; but up there, hanging by fingertips, toes searching for some small ledge, it gets in your head. Not this morning however, at least not yet. After eating some food and sipping some water, we decide it’s time to start. There are three options. A large, ugly crack goes up the center. On either side of the crack, there are other routes. I can’t see over to the left, and the center looks climbable, but ugly. The crack is an off-width, meaning it’s too wide for hands and feet to jam in, but not wide enough to get your body into. This climb is very much a test, a reconnaissance to see how well we perform at higher elevations, and so we haven’t come to push our climbing limits. I choose the moderate looking route to the right. And with that, the ritual begins. Our rope is laid out on the ground in front of us, and is 60 meters long and 9.8 millimeters in diameter. A little heavy for a climb like this and nearing the end of its lifespan, but it’s been a good rope and I trust it. Colin and I find both ends, and tie ourselves to it with a figure eight knot through our harnesses. I reach for the climbing gear, and start racking it on my harness. Nuts on the front left loop. Cams on the front right loop. Small cams up front; big guys in the back. I put quickdraws on both sides, so I can reach them easily. A few single slings around my shoulder, and I’m ready. Colin feeds my end of the rope through his belay device, and we double check each other. Knots good? Yep. Biner locked? Yep. Harness buckled properly? Yeahhh buddy.
“You’re on belay, Derek”
Before I start, Colin gives me a fist bump. We try to hide it, but the inner Bro is never far away. “Have fun man!” he says. I look up at the route, close my eye, take a few deep breathes, and step onto the rock.
I’m up about 10 feet off the deck, time to get a piece of gear in. Not so much for myself, but for Colin. If I fall now, the full force will be on him and the anchor, something called a Factor 2 fall, and basically a cardinal sin. Unfortunately there are no cracks for me to place gear, just smooth rock. Fortunately, the climbing is pretty easy, so I keep moving up. After 10 or 15 more feet I find an old piton, bashed into a crack.
Ever since I first started scrambling around in the mountains, I’ve loved finding old pins. They are such a reminder of the pioneers, the ones who came before us. They were so bold, so adventurous. Their spirit lives on with us, but we are nothing like them. Their ropes would not have held big falls, or even small ones for that matter. Their hiking boots didn’t have the sticky rubber that ours do. The pitons were strong, but hard to place and hard to remove, and they only carried a few of them. I clip a quickdraw to the eye of this particular pin, and the other end to my rope. I give it a light tug, and it bends. I doubt it would hold much of a fall. It’s probably 60 years old. But that’s all I’ve got. I’m a good 30 or 40 feet off the deck at this point, and have come around the right side of the corner; I can’t see Colin anymore. The climbing is steeper now, and the exposure hits you. I can see straight down to the valley floor, only a few ledges between me and the lakes a thousand feet below. The climbing is pretty moderate, but I’m not used to climbing in my Capra’s, and the protection opportunities are fewer than I’d thought. You need cracks to place gear in, and if they’re not there someone usually puts in an expansion bolt you can clip to. Not here; not in the alpine. No choice but to keep climbing. I’m looking up now at a right facing corner, and it gets steeper. My stomach is fluttering, and when I get solid feet and a good hand hold, I take a moment to get my breath under control and calm things down. This is not the time or the place to get panicky. It’s all good, Derek. You’ve got this no problem; its easy stuff. I look down and feel the dizziness. Breathe in. Slowly out. Again. Good. Again. Look up at the route, now. Plan every move, nothing hasty. This is a chess match with you and the rock. Think ahead. Breathe. Hand and footholds begin to appear where I hadn’t seen them at first. They’re not much, but plenty for what I need to do. I move slowly up another 10 feet or so, and see a large crack on the upper left side of the corner. Perfect! Not only can I use that to get my hand into and stabilize myself, I should be able to sink a good sized cam in there and clip my rope to it. Once I do that I’m home free, the angle above eases up a bit, and I can see the end of the pitch, maybe another 40 or 50 feet up. I stem my feet out in the corner, left foot smeared onto small bumps on the left wall, right foot doing the same on the right wall. My right hand doesn’t have much to work with, but that’s ok. The crack is only a foot or so above me, and it looks great. I palm my right hand on the rock, fingers down, and slowly push off and up, inching my left hand towards the crack. Palm facing me, my hand slides in and I latch on, ready to pull my whole body up. Rather than the usual rigid nature of a handcrack, the entire thing shifts. Instantly I feel nauseas and shaky. Thankfully Id only pulled gently on it, instinctively not trusting anything. My head is swirling and my heart is hammering in my chest. I look down at my last cam, a shitty piece 15 feet below. That would have been a bad fall. I can see now that what I thought was a solid crack was actually just open air between the wall and a 4 foot tall spire of rock. From below I hadn’t been able to tell. It’s completely detached from the wall. I looked around. This was not the route I’d intended, and I don’t think it gets climbed much, and I understand why. I move up a few feet, and find a good stance. Back to breathing, get things under control. I look around, find a crack and plug a small cam. It’s not great, but it helps me psychologically. I look back at the piece of loose rock, and for a moment consider ripping it off, letting it fall to the valley floor. There’s no one below us, and this would make the route cleaner, safer for others. Colin’s belay is off to the right; he’s safe from it hitting him. But I realize there’s a good chance it could hit, and chop the rope. I decide to leave it be. I yell down to Colin, describing its shape and color, and warning him not to touch it. So, this is alpine climbing.
After 30 or 40 feet of easier climbing, I pull onto another big ledge. I’m calm again, and the view is incredible, it just gets better. Now the majority of peaks surrounding us are a few hundred feet below where we stand. The weather looks good still, and we continue to be ahead of schedule. I build a quick anchor, and pull up all the slack rope. When I feel it get tight, I hear a muffled “That’sssss meeeeee, Derekkk!” far below. I clip Colin’s end of the rope to the anchor, and as loud as I can scream, “On belay, Colin!” into the wind. He responds, and begins climbing.
20 or 30 minutes later, I see an orange helmet peeking over the ledge. I few grunts later the helmet is followed by that that infectious grin.
Colin walks over, and given the relative safety of the large ledge, I take him off the belay. I’m pretty focused today, and not really in the mood for small talk. I’m still on edge about the weather, and want to get moving. Our next belay ledge is only 15 or 20 feet above us, and does not require roping up to get to. I suggest that Colin take the rope up and start to get ready, while I break down the anchor.
When I get up to the next belay, Colin is ready to go. Above us looms another large wall, steeper than the one I’d climbed. A beautiful crack lines the inside of another right facing corner, and this is Colin’s route, the money pitch. Above, one last, easy scramble to the summit! I give Colin the remainder of the climbing gear. We do the standard safety check, exchange commands, and now it’s my turn to wish him luck. I can see he’s a little nervous, but he’s smiling, and I know he’s got it. This climbing is well below are standard level of difficulty, but we’re just below 14,000 feet, and were climbing in hiking shoes, not technical rock climbing shoes. Alpine climbing, we believe, is a matter of efficiency. We’d hike 6 miles in yesterday with heavy packs full of camping gear, climbing gear, and food. By leaving the rock shoes out, we’d saved weight and space. It’s also a good test. A real climber shouldn’t need rock shoes for this kind of climbing. That’s what the books and magazines say anyways. I guess were learning whether or not we’re real climbers. Colin’s a ways up now, about to pull over a small roof feature, and he doesn’t have any gear in yet.
Since moving to Seattle he hasn’t been rock climbing as much, more mountaineering, and I can tell he’s a little rusty. He gets a good cam in, and wrestles up and over the lip. He’s at the base of the crack now, and gets another good cam in. For the next 20 minutes or so, he battles up the crack. He’s breathing heavy and grunting. I try and shout words of encouragement up to him without disturbing his concentration. He’s out of sight now. Finally, “Offfffff belayyy, Derekkk!” drifts down from above. “YOU’RE OFF BELAY, COLIN!” I yell as I unclip him from the rope. As the remaining rope gets pulled up from above, I put the backpack on, double check everything, and wait for the rope to pull tight. “THAT’S ME, COLIN!” I shout when it does, and a few seconds later I hear, “Onnnn belayyy, Derekkk!”. “CLIMBING, COLIN!” “Climbbb onnn, Derekkk!”
Starting up, I quickly realize that it’s a bit harder than my pitch, steeper. My hands and feet feel less secure. On the other hand, there are more opportunities to place good gear, and a fall would be harmless here. Terrifying, but safe. The climbing is amazing. Perfect hand and foot jams up the crack, with great features on the right side. Soon I’m above the crack, panting and breathless. It’s so incredible to be climbing like this up here, in this incredible, fairytale environment. This is the dream. Every climbing how-to book we’d read and route we’d climbed in the past had prepared us for this. It’s surreal. Easier climbing brings me up to Colin at the anchor, and I don’t remember much of the last part of that pitch, it’s all a blur. At another, smaller ledge, Colin takes me off the belay as I clip my personal tether into the anchor. We talk about how fun those last two pitches were, expounding on the steepness and danger. Our exaggerations rival those of any good fisherman. Once the gear is cleaned up and the rope stowed away, we begin the final pitch. While still real climbing, this last 100 feet is pretty easy scrambling, and we won’t need the rope. It is loose and dirty however, with rocks big and small waiting to be kicked down. We’d seen a party below us a few hours back, and so take extra care not to knock anything down on them. I start first, with Colin close behind. There’s not enough room for him to climb out of my fall line, so instead he stays close. If I were to knock something down on him, it wouldn’t have time to gain much momentum, I hope. We move quickly, adrenaline and excitement flowing now. Again I’m in that focused, meditative place. Right hand. Left hand. Push up on my left foot. Get a high right foot. Stand up. Right hand. Left hand. Up, always moving up. It’s a fluid feeling, and it’s wonderful. I’m so zoned in that I don’t notice it when I get to the top. I stop, look around, and realize that there’s nowhere else to go. We’ve made it.
I wait for Colin, just a few feet below, and together we step up and onto the summit blocks. I don’t really care who gets to the top first, it’s a team effort, and I think it’s cool to do it together. Simul-summiting! It’s hard to describe to you what it’s like up there, especially if you’ve never been. It’s simply stunning. I fully believe, especially your first time, that your brain has difficulty comprehending the vast scale and size of what it’s seeing. That malfunction of the senses roughly translates to disbelief. All around you, 360 degrees of the sheer awesomeness of nature. Hundreds upon hundreds of smaller peaks spread father than you can see. Clouds and birds circle and float below you; far, far below you. Ridgelines sweep out from the peak, leading to other peaks. It’s a mass display of the power of our planet. Standing literally on the point where the plates collided, and the Rocky Mountains were born. Was it violent? Did it happen in a few hours of chaos? Or slowly? I don’t know, and remind myself to look it up when I get home.
There are clouds in the distance, but they’re far off. Its 11am. We did great. It’s also the 4th of July, and despite the serious nature of this climb, for us at least, we’d made plans to celebrate. I’d gone to Target a few days earlier, and bought Colin and I American flag boxers. With small bottles of Bulliet whiskey, standing on the summit of the Crestone Needle at 14,203 feet in only our American flag boxers and helmets, we gave a toast to a successful climb, and downed the bottles.