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October 18, 2021

Climbing the Curecanti Needle

Photos and story by: Angela Lee

The Curecanti Needle, named after the Ute Chief Curicata, sits in the upper Black Canyon, or “Much Rocks, Big Water” in Ute.

Each time I drove away from the Black Canyon I would slow down, straining my neck trying to catch a quick glimpse of this 700-ft granite spire. This was going to be the year.

On many "To-Do" lists but seldom ascended—the Needle had been on my "To-Do" for a few years as well. But the logistics and access quickly became complex. The beta on Mountain Project for the route was a bit old, maybe even unreliable. Or maybe that’s just the nature of climbing in the Black Canyon. We didn’t have half ropes to make the rappels, and I didn’t have a watercraft to approach the river crossing.

But I was determined to touch that rock this year, so I got to work. Let’s check off all the excuses first.

I reached out to the lovely folks at Alpacka Raft in Mancos, Colorado. I knew they were Colorado-based, but was so pleasantly surprised to learn that they operate and make everything out of Mancos! I drive through the town regularly on my way to Bears Ears, and the small, rural town is akin to ours in the San Luis Valley. I never knew such a rad business was crankin’ it out in a place like this. So cool. The Alpacka folks were kind enough to equip me with a loaner packraft—a nice big Mule that could handle all the climbing gear.

Watercraft - check.

Oh crap, there’s a raptor closure ‘til July 15! Okay, let’s wait this out…

Shoot, so you really DO need two 60ms to rappel! Screw it, we’ll just bring two fat singles. Oh wait – Bluewater Ropes is hooking it up with a pair of beautiful half ropes? Righteous, thanks Bluewater!

Double ropes – check.

My partner, Wes O’Rourke, flakes out the brand new Bluewater Excellence half ropes at the base of the Needle. He can’t help the duck face.

Rad, the raptor closures ended. No more excuses left. Find a partner, and let’s go!

…another Rain check. A partner bail. Reschedule. More bad weather. This trip was a nightmare to plan, and my poor little heart crumbled every other week. So much bailing before we even started!

But the stars eventually aligned, as they do… and the right people showed up at the right time. Out of nowhere there were six of us set to wake up the trailhead.

  • Team 1: Me and my work/life partner, Wes O’Rourke.
  • Team 2: Homies Cristina “Goose” Guzman from La Sportiva and Dr. Christian Quijano in New Mexico.
  • Team 3: Skyeler Congdon, our former Sol Mountain Farm Apprentice, and our local San Luis Valley friend, Allen Law. That’s right – three parties of two!

The only thing was – Skyeler wasn’t there in the morning, and neither was his minivan. “I can’t believe he bailed! Seriously, a no call-no show?! Wtf!” As the words “I might never climb with him again” left my mouth, a familiar dirtbag poked his head out from the rocks near the overlook. “No way, there he is!” Wes shouted. Turns out, he was in a different car and was bivvy’ed over the ledge… classic. Thanks for the heart attack, Skye!

Skyeler Congdon, total bonecrusher and one of the last remaining honest dirtbags, wakes up at the Overlook rim with a pillow and toothbrush in hand. The Needle looms behind.

COOLEST APPROACH EVER

Rack, ropes, paddles, watercrafts, oh my!

Allen, Goose, and I were pretty stoked to have packrafts to keep our loads light on the first half of the approach. Wes and Skyeler’s two SUP bags were totally stuffed; a huge 4” barrel pump topped off Wes’ pack at 62lbs. Woof.

Wes O’Rourke on the rim with a nice 62-lb load on his back.

Luckily, the two-mile hike down to the water felt casual in the early morning. A light spring in everyone’s steps. The group stoke was high, the scenery was stunning, and there was a LOT of rock to drool over. After crossing some rad bridges and the numerous pauses scoping some potential lines, we finally arrived at the beach put-in.

After hiking the gear 2 miles down, Allen Law inflates one of his OG Alpacka models at the put-in.

The Curecanti Needle stands across the river from this alcove, where we inflated the watercrafts and loaded up the ropes and gear. One by one, the teams launched onto the water. Our group’s excited chatter quieted down with each vessel floating out of the alcove onto the river proper. The dammed river in the morning hour was so peaceful and green, the sun casting off the surface and shattering into a million glistening sparkles. We were in the Black Canyon, and on one of the largest tributaries to the Colorado River. A memorable approach indeed.

THE CLIMBING

We anchored our boats at the base of the Needle and racked up on the talus. Skyeler and Allen headed up first onto some loose terrain. Skye kissed the death block for good luck and disappeared up the ledge, and Allen started up on his first ever multi-pitch trad climb (way to go Allen!).

Goose and Christian headed up, then Wes and I followed. Once Wes disappeared out of my sight, I was the last one left on the talus beach with a team of empty boats. I couldn’t help but giggle at the sight—we were finally doing it! And with so many friends in a back-to-back team of three! It sure wasn’t how I imagined it to go, but the size of our group added a level of goofiness to the whole experience. I cherish those moments of lightness.

Angela Lee, the author of this blog post, following the off-fingers variation of pitch 1.

The Northwest Rib route isn’t supposed to be any harder than 5.9+. The overall route wasn’t going to the most stellar climbing of our lives or anything, we already knew that. It was more about the adventure of the whole mission… so let’s get through the loose stuff and onto the headwall pitches with the sweet splitter 5.9 hand cracks.

But off the bat, we saw some unexpected stars on pitch 1. I was super stoked to see the rope going up a short but sweet, steep off-fingers crack, which probably goes at 5.10. So cool! Wes and I continued to swap leads up some loose, ledgy pitches to get to the good stuff, trying to manage the awful rope drag. I remember placing just two extended cams in one 30-meter pitch, and the rope drag was still quite heinous!

The approach pitches provided for some fun side-by-side climbing with the homies, though. Normally my experience on most multi-pitch terrain is being ~alone on the wall~ or with just Wes. But seeing Goose a few feet away, climbing together with the green river sparkling below you and the beautiful canyon looming as far as the eyes can see—now those are some special moments.

I caught up to Goose and Christian at yet another huge belay ledge when I looked up and saw the splitter going up the headwall. DAMN! Instead of combining the headwall into one megapitch, I decided to pitch it out so Wes could get some action on the money pitches too. That was some sweet finger-to-thin-hands crack climbing, my friends. It was super cool to see some POV karate chop handjam footage (see video below). But to be frank, I felt like a total bro climbing with a goBro on my helmet.

Angela Lee climbing the headwall pitches.

Being the last team of the group paid off. The crew stood on the upper tier and watched us climb the headwall pitches. Skyeler pointed out a sweet thin-to-wide splitter on the right side of the original line. Wes opted for the variation and we had a blast getting on some more 5.10 terrain mixed into a day of moderate loose climbing.

Christian spreads the ashes of Shadow on the summit.

Another moderate pitch of simul climbing brought us to the summit. Quijano shared some lovely words with the group before releasing the ashes of his dog, Shadow, into the wind. We reveled in the views and danced to Tone Ranger—all six of us on top of the Needle.

The crew on the summit!

COOL DOWN & OUT

The ugly bits? The rappels were god-awful, ropes were nearly stuck multiple times, and a massive death block almost killed Wes during the final rap. It was hot as hell when we got to the base, and the scree/talus hike down to the boats was some of the loosest terrain of the day. Thankfully the skinny dips in the cold river and a couple of cliff jumps cooled us right off.

After the cool-down, we floated our gear off back at the beach alcove and set out for some recreational floating on the river. The vibes were high, and we paddled around on the water at the base of the Needle, exploring up and down the canyon. You could imagine a pretty typical climbers-on-boats experience… “look at THAT line!” and “oh, look at THAT splitter, it totally goes!”.

Recreational paddling - perfect cool-down after a long day on rawk.

Remember when I said the morning hike felt casual? I had felt like the approach maybe took us 45-minutes or something… but I guess too much stoke can really impair your perception. The 2-mile deproach out took us 2 grueling, hot, sweaty hours without any water.

We returned to the rim and enjoyed each other's company over dinner, drinks, stories, and beautiful shooting stars.

It wasn’t like we got totally hardcore or super sendy climbing some classic six-star line and pushing our limits… but dang, that was a proper adventure. One thing I’ve learned, is that you could be on the most classic line in the most beautiful place, but still have a terrible time if you and your partner aren’t getting along. For me, a big part of the magic in climbing lies in the relationships and connection with others. We are the company we keep, and strong bonds ought to be cherished and cultivated. A moderate climb, some loose granite, splitter cracks, a few packrafts and good friends in a very special place—made for an unforgettable time in the Black Canyon. Thank you, my friends.

Angela Lee is a member of the La Sportiva Climbing Team.

THE FILM

Want to see more? Check out the film from the trip, including the POV karate chop handjam footage mentioned above.