The Ellingwood ridge on La Plata is one of Colorado's all time classic ridge traverses. It runs roughly North to South, curving to the West until it joins the summit in one last dramatic 1300ft push to a rocky false summit. From there, another third of a mile deposits you on the summit. The majority of this 2 mile traverse occurs at 13,000 feet and can be done anywhere from sustained 3rd class to 5.4 with some rappels. Depending on how close to the ridge you want to be. The total cumulative vertical gain is close to 5,200 ft and total hiking is around 10 miles.
Word has it that some time in the 1920s or 30s Albert Ellingwood was heading up the approach of the standard route with a group of folks. At some point, he separated from the group, telling them he would climb the peak via the ridge that now bears his name. They waited for him on the summit and when he did not show up they went down worried about his fate. Fourteen hours after they had separated a thoroughly satisfied, albeit tired, Ellingwood showed up at their campsite after completing the arÍte route.
This is not a technically challenging climb although it is long and committing. Your main challenge will be having enough stamina and speed. You want to complete the ridge before a thunderstorm moves in. A thunderstorm while on it has to be a horrific if not potentially deadly experience. Escapes are possible but come with a guaranteed ticket to an epic. Take your best route finding skills with you and double check each hold. Lots of lose stuff up there...
Take CO Highway 82 towards Independence pass. From Leadville, take CO 24 to CO 82 and turn right. The Lake Creek Trailhead (on the left side if headed towards the pass) is 14.6 miles from the junction of CO 24 and CO 82 past Twin Lakes. There are two national Forest campgrounds a few miles before the trailhead.
Park at the pull out and hike up the dirt road past a large bridge and up the hill for some 100 yards. A small sign on the left besides gate and a small trail will let you know that the first mile of the trail is on private property. Follow this smaller trail, [go] left and past another bridge (smaller) over a waterfall. All water on this basin is contaminated with heavy metals and arsenic so bring your own. There is a sign-in station somewhere along this section of the trail.
Continue on this small trail for about a mile until you reach a third creek with yet a smaller bridge. From here, follow the trail some 20-30 yards and watch hard for a trail going left. There was a small cairn when I was there. The trails split after a small rise. Take the LEFT trail. The right one takes you up the Northwest ridge route which will be your descent...
Follow this trail for 1.5 miles as it countours a couple of ridges. This trail becomes faint after a while and care must be taken not to lose it. Eventually the trail will turn right past a rock buttress (right side) and will reach a 4th creek. Follow this creek up the mountain. There is a primitive trail on the right (West) side of the creek. Resist all urges to bushwhack. It is nasty....
Follow the creek up for some 1000 feet until you can see the talus field on your left above tree line. Cross the creek and head for the rocks. Climb the loose talus field for some 1200 feet. This is horrible, and it is the price to pay for the fun that is to come.
Once above the talus you are on the shoulder leading to the ridge. All 2 miles of it appear in front of you. Have at it. All difficulties can be bypassed on the left (East) although some significant altitude must be lost and regained if you want to keep it at Class 3. We stayed on the ridge some 85% of the time and did a lot of Class 3, a large amount of Class 4 and some 5.easy stuff particularly on the downclimbs. We downclimbed a few of the towers on the right so look for creative solutions.
As the ridge climbs up to the peak there is a 1,300ft elevation gain. Just what you needed after 1.5 miles of Class 4 at 13,000ft. Stay on the ridge to avoid the heinous talus field on the left. Climb the false summit and make one last push for the real summit.
Head down the Northwest trail which is Class 2 and well marked once you leave the talus field.
Time estimates (these are our times, we are no record beaters but move relatively fast)Trailhead to Ridge: 2 hrs, Ridge to Summit 4hrs, car to car 8 hours. We took helmets but no ropes, harnesses, or pro. Light is might on this baby.
Escapes - For most of the time while on the ridge you can escape West into the basin and thus towards your car. This can be done via Horrible talus chutes that will probably forever alter your ankles and knees, but I guess it is doable. Once you reach the section where the ridge rises towards the summit the fastest way down is through the summit and down the Northwest route.
Escaping East looked really nice, vegetated, not too steep slopes. However you will wind up in a completly different basin some 10-15 miles from your car.... Better not have to escape from this one....
Light Rack if planning to do the technical parts.
Rappel rings and lots of leaver slings if planning to do the technical part
|By Steve Levin|
From: Boulder, CO
Jul 10, 2002
Excellent, a "Top Ten" climbingboulder.com route description!
We found a faint trial immmediately after the 3rd bridge, and trending with a slight uphill contour, reached the 4th stream without problem. You may want to scout at least part of this the night before if you plan on a pre-dawn start. As stated, there is a reasonably good trail on the right (west) side of the 4th stream, and it is obvious when the terrain opens up to cross the creek and start grunting up the talus to gain the ridge.
It is possible to stay near the top of the ridge for most of the distance with minimal lower-end 5th Class climbing. With a little luck at sniffing the easiest route (there are many sneak ledges and easy slabs around the gendarmes) staying close to the ridge may even be faster than dropping further down to avoid the harder scrambling. The rock is actually pretty solid for the most part.
A friend once ran Mt. Elbert from the east, descended the south trail, cruised along the highway, then did the Ellingwood Ridge to the summit and back to the trailhead...in less time than I want to believe.
|By Bill Wright|
Jul 10, 2002
Your friend sounds like a friend of mine: Bill Briggs. His times in the mountains are legendary. He is also the record holder for the Third Flatiron Time Trial...
|By John McNamee|
From: Littleton, CO
Jul 29, 2002
Great description ... thanks.
At the third creek with "yet a smaller bridge" we actually found two trails. The first trail starts about 50 feet from the bridge, don't take this one, but continue for another 50 feet (approx 100 feet in total) and you will notice a much better trail going left. There were two small stone cairns at this point.
From here we followed the trail easily until we reached windfall in the creek. At this point we moved left and continued up on a rib that has a good trail till the start of the scree. Opps I mean talus.
The talus is pretty good. Just keep to the old rocks with the lichen and it goes quickly. Its no big deal. Once on the ridge crest it is a fun day out. We kept pretty much to the ridge and backtracked or dropped height only when it looked like an rappel was necessary. Once you start losing height it quickly becomes a choss heap.
Took us a casual 10 hours car to car including including breaks and lunch etc.
|By Tim Silvers|
Aug 3, 2004
Warren, thanks for the great description. Here is a little more detail on finding the "faint trail" after crossing the 3rd creek: The trail is exactly 20 yards (We stepped it off) from the end of the bridge. Also, the first 10 feet of the trail are heading on almost exactly a 90 degree true bearing (east), and then the trail curves slightly south of east. There is a 4" diameter log blocking this trail (probably to keep NW ridge hikers from getting on the wrong trial). There were no cairns.
|By Tim Silvers|
Aug 3, 2004
Forgot to mention that we started at 5am and it took us a little less than 9 hrs to summit and about 12 hrs total trip time, and we consider ourselves to be in "above average" condition. You need to be in excellent shape and have solid routefinding and climbing skills to tackle this route. Plan on a long day and start early to avoid the almost inevitable afternoon thunderstorms. Enjoy!
Aug 22, 2004
START EARLY, I know this is common sense on the big mountains,but we started at about nine, made it to the start of the ridge and had to turn around due to the time of day. of course were no speed demons! we certainly learned our lesson.
|By Philip Smith|
Nov 22, 2004
I was with a group of boys from a summer camp when we came across the ridge unawares.We had camped at Winfield and approached via Blackbear Creek. Our topo sheets showed a ridge, but we were surprised by the degree of difficulty. We hesitated because the group included very untrained hikers. We had ropes and belayed at a few points, but all of us made the summit, albeit much later in the day than we had planned. It was a climb I will never forget.
|By Tom Dickey|
Jul 31, 2006
Excellent route. pretty darn good rock. I did almost all the various gendarmes, and downclimbed most all of them, just to be complete. This was fun, but a few of the downclimbs were a bit more "fun" than I expected (especially the one involving a leap to the next gendarme, halfway down its face....)
One approach comment. After reading the warning to avoid all temptation at bushwhacking, I kept looking left (east) as I followed the 4th stream and started to see a small ridge that looked sparsely vegetated. I then saw an obvious trail leading up this hill across the stream, so I followed it. Maybe I missed something in the descriptions of the approach, but this variation didn't seem to be described. At any rate, I found this to be a great way to reach the start of the scree slope. It takes you right to the foot of an ill-defined spur where the scree is well anchored and not bad to climb on at all. This allows you to get on the ridge at the very first little outcrop, so you can do the entire ridge.
|By George Bell|
From: Boulder, CO
Aug 1, 2006
I remember the leap mentioned by Tom Dickey (it is near the start of of the traverse). At least I remember comtemplating it, and then choosing to downclimb around it. It looks cool, but I figured a klutz like me would be the one to miss it ... not good.
|By Garrett R.|
Sep 17, 2010
Lots of fun, not really a whole lot of real climbing, but that's kind of a given. Took me eight hours (almost to the minute) car to car. That was a fairly casual pace and I'm no alpine machine. I highly recommend an unneccessarily early start, just because watching the sunrise from the ridge is something beyond pleasant.