OverviewThe north ridge of Ellingwood is an infrequently done climb that is in equal parts sketchy, fun, & rewarding. You get to avoid the throngs of peakbaggers going up from the standard Lake Como side, have great views of Ormes Buttress & the north face of Blanca, & give yourself a good scare at the same time!
The crux of the route is getting up the ‘approach climb’ that goes up the wall forming the impressive cirque north of the Blanca massif, before getting to the actual ridge itself. I would suggest that you be comfortable soloing mid 5th on less-than-perfect rock if planning on doing this climb.
Also remember: you’re coming down the same way you came up, so comfort downclimbing the same difficulty of the ascent is mandatory. Reliable rappel anchors should not be expected, & a rope (& pro’) would be of limited use to would-be climbers. Downclimbing the cruxes would not be enjoyable (or safe) wet; keep a close eye on the weather during the ascent.
Getting ThereThis approach info (getting TO the trailhead) shamelessly pilfered from sunnysummit's Huerfano River Trail page:
From Denver travel South on I-25 to Walsenburg. Exit at Walsenburg and follow Hwy 69 westerly to the town of Gardner. Continue westerly through Gardner a mile or so to an intersection where Hwy 69 and CR550 intersect. Go due West on 550 until the road intersects with CR570 at which point 550 becomes CR580. Continue Westerly on 580 until you drive through the Singing River Ranch. The property surrounding the ranch is private and the road becomes rough, but passable above it. There is camping along the road above the ranch and very good camping at the roads end.
FROM the trailhead:
Start at the Lily Lake Trailhead. Take the Lily Lake Trail (#1308) up the Huerfano (orphan boy in Spanish) Valley. At a certain point, the trail will start to switchback up towards Lily Lake. At the first major switchback (where the trail makes a hairpin turn), set off cross-country; it’s about 2.5 mi. from the trailhead to this point. Remember this area, as you’ll need to find the trail on the return.
Head across the cirque toward the impressive wall that is the north face of the Blanca massif; Blanca is the obvious, impressive, monarch of the group, & Ellingwood Point the next-most impressive subsidiary summit, connected to Blanca by a graceful knife-edge (this is the standard route up Ellingwood, accessed from Lake Como, on the other side of the massif). If this looks intimidating, don’t worry- it only gets worse :) Bypass the numerous small cliff bands; it’s probably easiest to do this on their uphill sides.
The climbYou’ll eventually get to the wall; at this point, you’ll have no more excuses :) Gaining the notch north of Ellingwood via this face is the next step, and the crux of the climb.
There are various starts at this point; some merge higher up, others, not so much. It is advisable to scan the way up to try to find not only the most obvious way up, but hopefully the easiest, as well as those that potentially connect; having the greatest number of options will be advantageous as you proceed. All options have mandatory lower 5th at some point. Protection would be difficult, if not impossible, in many places due to the nature of the rock (compact & downward-sloping); even if one were to get pro’ in, much would be of dubious quality (again, the rock- not the best). The cruxes are characterized by slick slab, oftentimes vegetated. Following gullies connecting the frequent benches along the way seemed the best way to go to me. The psychological cruxes typically involve crossing slabs to access the next logical gully/low-angle dihedral system. While it is a very good idea to try to note the way you come up, it is quite likely that you’ll not find the exact way you came up on the descent; be creative, and also be prepared to downclimb unknown terrain. The difficulty is fairly consistent up to the ridgeline- 4th to low 5th, separated thankfully by nice, grassy ledges.
Once the notch is attained, breathe a sigh of relief- the physical & psychological cruxes are behind you (until the descent). If an apocalyptic Rockies storm sneaks up on you, you could descend the mellow slopes on the other side here, but you’d have a LONG walk back to where you started
From here, the route is obvious. Take the ridgeline to the summit, going over a number of minor notches along the way. This starts off 4th class, then mellows out to mostly 3rd class, with a short section of easy 5then route. If you’ve made it this far, the remainder is by and large chill & fun.
Once you’re at the top, enjoy the tremendous views, particularly of Blanca Peak & the San Luis Valley, as well as explaining to others who came from the other side how you got up.
DescentDownclimb the route. In case it wasn’t obvious on the ascent, you probably don’t want to do this in the rain, or even when the rock is damp. I’d highly recommend factoring this into your itinerary. Off by noon makes A LOT of sense on this route.
ParaphernaliaA helmet on this route wouldn’t be a bad idea While a rope, stoppers, & maybe a small selection of cams might be helpful, they also might not- the rock quality is questionable, & there frequently aren’t cracks where you’d want them anyway. Better to just 3rd class it, & be aware of what you’re getting yourself into from the get-go.
External linksRoach's 14er guide- THE book to have for climbing Colorado's highest peaks.