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southwest chimney

southwest chimney

southwest chimney

Page Type: Route

Location: Colorado, United States, North America

Lat/Lon: 37.83600°N / 107.95°W

Object Title: southwest chimney

Route Type: Sport Climbing

Season: Summer

Time Required: Most of a day

Rock Difficulty: 5.8 (YDS)

Number of Pitches: 3

Grade: II

Route Quality: 
 - 1 Votes


Page By: Diggler

Created/Edited: Jul 4, 2012 / Jul 22, 2012

Object ID: 798872

Hits: 1715 

Page Score: 73.06%  - 3 Votes 

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Most of the enticing small holds, crumbled at a touch and large masses of the loosely compacted pebbles would topple dangerously at a slight pull.

Difficulty has a charm that is irresistible to many. The enthusiastic alpinist is completely happy only if his skill is severely taxed.

–Albert Ellingwood, first ascentionist.


Albert Ellingwood & Barton Hoag, 1920(!!) (This was one of the first historical usages of roped climbing in the US)


For better or for worse, Lizard Head is one of the more memorable summits in the Colorado Rockies. It lies in the heart of the rugged & beautiful San Juans. This, the standard route, takes you to the top of this volcanic choss pile. The SW chimney is justifiably reputed to be loose & burly, but if climbs off the beaten path up awesome formations are your thing, this is a must-do. The rock is bad, but not the worst (the Fisher Towers are worse). Just remember to pull DOWN on the rock, & not out! The cruxes are crack climbing, & the rock & pro’ at these locations is satisfactory. Read here about the first ascent in the words of Albert Ellingwood hisself. As the formation is basically a giant stone lightning rod, climbing during it during periods of inclement weather is not recommended.

Getting There

Lizard Head is accessible from either the Lizard Head Pass or Cross Mountain (recommended) trailheads. From the turnoff to Telluride, take the 145 (San Juan Skyway- look for great views of 14er Wilson Peak along the way) S approximately 12 miles to Lizard Head Pass. To get to the Cross Mountain trailhead, go approximately 2 miles farther S. Start walking. Once you get to the formation, it is possible to get to the base of the route by either hiking up either the (climber's) R or L side. A use trail up the L side makes going up that side a little easier. Allow 2 hours to get to the base from the trailhead.


A rack of small cams (there would have been a few locations where #.2 Camalots would have been useful) through #3 Camalots. Double up if you desire less spacing between placements. I don’t think I used a nut during the climb- the cracks are virtually all parallel-sided. A #4 Camalot is useful at the P3 wide crux. 2 60m ropes (one lead line + a tag line) for the rappels. Numerous slings/cordelette for the anchors (P2 & 3 anchors are natural), as well as many extendable draws.

Route Description

P1: Start at the obvious dihedral/chimney on the SW side (see photo). This feature is formed by the convergence of the enormous buttress on the S side of the formation & the bulk of the formation itself. Follow this for a pitch up to an obvious notch (165’? less than a full 60m rope-length, & probably a 50-m ropelength or less, although I’m not totally certain). The face to the right of the crack has been climbed instead, but REALLY- just sack up & get in the crack (it is the southwest CHIMNEY, after all). A huge ledge is encountered halfway up; it is possible (some say preferable) to follow a thin crack past a pin & regain the chimney higher up. Alternately, just continue up the obvious dihedral/wide crack. Pro’ if taking the crack is good, & the crack climbing is enjoyable. I would say the crux of the pitch is surmounting the bulge to get to the first belay- a steep stemming/cranking on high handholds maneuver that tops off the first pitch well. Belay from a huge nest of tat rapped around the tower. It is possible to break the pitch up into 2, if the obvious ledge is used halfway up.

P2: Go up & L on ‘death scree’ (probably 3rd class or so, but bad rock & loose- you wouldn’t want to slip here…), up a loose gully. Follow the obvious weakness, & be careful as not to dislodge loose rock that would come down, at the very least on your rope, if not your belayer. Upon reaching the final headwall, head L 20 or 30 ft. until you’re below the obvious crack system/bulge that begins the last pitch. ~180’?

P3: Surmount the strenuous bulge (.8)- this is the crux of the pitch, & arguably the route. This protects well with a #4 Camalot. Keep on following the obvious crack system. Take the obvious L-trending ramp/crack system when you reach it. This widens out to a gully that leads to the summit. There are some good cracks (small to medium cams) shortly before the summit that make for a solid anchor. Note the rap’ anchor, climber’s right, ~40’ below & 50’ (climber’s) R (guess) of the summit.

Congratulations- you’re on top of the hardest summit in Colorado! Enjoy the spectacular views of the nearby San Miguel mountains- Mt. Wilson, Gladstone, & Wilson Peak rise up in splendor right across the valley. The rugged San Juans surround you on all sides.


2 double-rope rap’s get you to the base:

Rap’ 1: The upper rap’ anchor is directly above where the P2 gully runs into the upper headwall. From the true summit, traverse the summit ridge (SW; skier’s L, looking back at the upper portion of the last pitch), & go down ~40 ft. Be careful getting to it, as it is highly exposed & loose (like the rest of the formation). The anchor consists of 2 suspect-looking glued-in bolts, an old pin, & what appears to be an aluminum bashy, all connected by some short chains (see this photo). With rope stretch, 2 60s will get you to the P1 belay notch. Otherwise you’ll have to do some traversing & downclimbing on the death scree to get back to the notch.

Rap’ 2: A double rope rappel off of the miles of tat will get you back to the base of the formation.

* NOTE: If you are knowledgeable in anchor-building & planning a trip up the ‘Head, some anchor supplementation would be a great community service! The way it stands (June ’12), the chains don’t reach the prominent lip over which rap’ ropes run, & there’s no dedicated rap’ ring. When we rapp’ed the rope, we found it impossible to pull the ropes (through 2 chains & over 2 edges), & ended up rapp’ing off a single line that had been left by a previous party, presumably for the same reason. Extending the chains over at least the first lip, & having a dedicated large diameter rap’ ring, would greatly improve the situation.

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Liba KopeckovaHistory

Liba Kopeckova

Voted 10/10

Lizard Head has an intriguing climbing history. At the time of its first ascent in 1920 by Albert Ellingwood and Barton Hoag, Lizard Head was probably the hardest rock climb then completed in the United States. Armed with three soft iron pitons, hemp rope, and nailed boots, Ellingwood and Hoag made a couple of abortive attempts on cracks near the SW corner before rounding the corner to the west face. Ellingwood reported that "most of the enticing small holds crumbled at the touch, and large masses of the loosely compacted pebbles would topple dangerously at a slight pull." In spite of the difficulties, they struggled up and placed two of their rustic pitons in the lower cliff, saving one for the higher cliffs.

After spending about a half hour on top of the summit, Ellingwood and Hoag began an epic descent. Ellingwood's rope became stuck on the lower cliff. As he shook it, a rock cam loose and hit him on the top of the head, almost knocking him from the wall. Hoag was also hit by rockfall but was on secure footing at the time. After more effort, they had to abandon the rope and begin down climbing. Ellingwood reported that Hoag "slipped and, leaving a section of this paint behind, drifted relentlessly downward until the wall became vertical and then jumped (perhaps 15 feet) to the rock below. I followed with more caution, regretfully saying goodbye to my rope that had served me well for five good seasons."

Elingwood and Hoag's climb was well ahead of its time. This is reflected in the comments of Harold G. WIlm who made the second ascent on June 9, 1929 with Dobson West. Referring to Elingwood, Wilm noted: At the time, it was considered an impossible feat, and little credence was given his performance by many who knew the peak. For some time, therefore, Dobson West and I had planned a second ascent, chiefly as a proof of his climb, but also as a mountaineering stunt of our own."

Wilm and West did in fact confirm the first ascent by retrieving Ellingwood's old rope and finding his old rusty pitons still in place. Several more ascents of Lizard Head were made during the 1931 joint outing by members of the Colorado and Appalachian Mountain Clubs. SInce the early efforts, interest in Lizard Head waned. The horror stories have taken their toll.

The first winter ascent of Lizard Head was made on January 18, 1970, by a strong party from Colorado Springs which consisted of Art Howells, Mike Dudley, Don Doucette, Chuck Behrensmeyer, R.J. Campbell, and Fletcher Smith. Although the first 100 feet of the climb had snow on all the hold, they made excellent time and got on and off the summit cone in about four hours.
Posted Jul 28, 2013 3:21 pm

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summit logtowards the baseOopsDuchess looking at our destinationSummit Lizard HeadLizard Head shadowanother summit shot
1st pitch on Lizard HeadRappel anchorsLizard Head southwest chimney P1Lizard Head upper rap\' anchorP1 of Lizard Head (SW chimney)Lizard Head rappel anchor