The TripThe Needles
2600' elevation gain
7 hours 24 minutes
Joe and Frédérique Grim
I had heard about this route from Steve Martin, and its difficult appearance yet non-technical approach, made me put this hike near the top of my list for this spring.
We started the hike at 8:22am from the Twin Owls Trailhead in RMNP. We then followed the Black Canyon Trail for 1.8 miles along the south side of Lumpy Ridge, enjoying its many rock features along the way. Upon reaching the Sundance climbers trail (N40.40834;W105.55063), we followed it steeply uphill for 0.4 miles to the south base of Sundance Buttress. Upon reaching the buttress, we discovered that in order to reach its eastern side, we had to drop down about 100 feet to make our way around a pile of boulders at its base. Once we had done this (N40.41185;W105.55035), we started making our way up the long, steep, narrow gully between Sundance and the tallest spire of the Needles. The climb up the gully was long and tedious, as we had to zigzag and scramble up through numerous loose rocks and boulders, along with many fallen trees. As the crow flies, our ascent had as much elevation gain as horizontal gain, but our criss-cross climb made the grade a good deal less steep (about 50% grade). Frédérique was the trailing climber (she prefers that I route find), so she wore a helmet to protect from any rocks that I might knock loose from above. To avoid having this happen, I judged my steps very carefully, so as to not dislodge any rocks. Unfortunately, it is not possible to avoid dislodging all rocks, so I also climbed at angle, so that any rocks I might dislodge would fall to one side or the other of her. Fortunately, after climbing up the gully for a little over two hours, we both made it to a small saddle, happy and unharmed ... for the most part. We both had several scratches and bangs from the climb, but they were all quite minor. (On a side note, the right side of the gully often seemed to be the easiest to climb.)
From the small saddle (N40.41616;W105.55237), we were greeted with spectacular views of the Mummy Range to the north. From there, we had another 100 feet more to climb to get up to the actual summit of the tallest spire of the Needles. Desiring to find the easiest (and least dangerous) route to the top, we scouted out several different approaches, before making the climb. We found the easiest way up was to ascend the ridge, while staying about 100 feet to the north of the ridgeline until we were immediately north of the summit (N40.41585;W105.55130). We then shed our packs and did a minimal class 4 climb up to the summit block (N40.41555;W105.55126). The views were absolutely spectacular in all directions, the winds were light, and the sun was warm! Unfortunately, I discovered later that most of the views will have to remain in my memory, as I only took a couple of photos from the summit. The summit block is a rather precarious place, as a slip and fall from here could easily prove to be fatal, which is why we remained on all fours or crouched most of the time!
After enjoying the views for a few minutes, we descended back down to our packs and enjoyed a nice lunch, with the awesome view of the Mummies to the north. After lunch, we decided to descend by a different and easier route, so we headed northwest staying about 400 feet below (north) of the sharp ridgeline of Lumpy Ridge. This route was less steep, but also held nearly continuous snow cover, so that we still had to be careful of our steps, lest we fall through the snow and twist an ankle or knee on a buried rock. We fell through to our thighs a few times, but our slow pace prevented us from any injury. We continued our northwesterly direction until we reached a small flat area along the ridge (N40.41907;W105.55694). Although the least steep way was to keep heading northwest along the ridgeline to a saddle with Dark Mountain, we were tired of the trudging through the snow, so we opted to descend down to the west from the ridge, where we eventually reached the Black Canyon Trail again.
We descended the trail for about 0.4 miles, before we headed off-trail again to the south-southwest down to McGregor Falls (N40.41033;W105.56123). The cool falls were a refreshing place to stop, and I even dipped my head in the ice cold pool below the falls to help cool off. From here, it was an easy hike back, following the McGregor Falls Trail down to the pasture, and then cutting left across the pasture about 20 yards back to the Black Canyon Trail and on to our car, arriving tired but happy at 3:46pm.
For some photos from our hike, you can go to our slideshow.
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