Ellingwood Point (or "Peak") and Blanca Peak together from car parking are nearly 7000 vertical feet and even a very strong hiker can expect to take 10-11 hours. I had some trepidation about doing this trip because I'm not in the kind of physical condition in which I prefer to be, which has been an issue on my other hikes this summer. But with perhaps more bravado than brains I found myself driving up the first part of the Lake Como road at 2 in the morning. The first 1.5 miles of this road are in good shape, then it suddenly gets rougher. Roach's guidebook suggests parking a car at 1.8 miles, but I chickened out on the last 0.2 miles. There's plenty of parking in this vicinity.
I started hiking up the road at 2:35, taking advantage of the waxing gibbous Moon over Alamosa. While hiking up the gentle grade of the low part of the road, the Moon sank through a layer of haze giving it a vivid orange hue before it finally disappeared behind the peaks of the southern San Juans. Then I had to use my "necklamp". I've found in most cases that it's more comfortable and still effective to hang my headlamp around my neck. I only needed the light because the road has a lot of loose rock that's preferable to avoid when possible (this is true for all of the road to Lake Como).
I was making an effort to maintain a moderate pace, and rest 10 minutes out of every hour. I was still hoping to average 1200ft vertical per hour, which I felt was a minimum pace to be able to climb both mountains (at that pace, I estimated an 11 hour round- trip). However, after the first two hours, I was already a couple hundred feet behind and never caught up. At least I was smart enough not to push my pace beyond what felt reasonable. Shortly after this rest break, the "road" started to get very rough. Above about 10400ft, there are 4 or 5 spots where a would-be driver needs to climb over 2-foot high boulders sticking up out of the roadbed like icebergs. I didn't see any moving vehicles high on the road all day, but there were a few parked ATV's.
It took me over 3 hours to reach Lake Como, a major landmark. The normal camping spots for backpackers are just above the lake due to private ownership of the lake itself. There were a couple tents across the lake near a cabin, which I presume contained aquaintances of the owner. Just past the lake, someone set up their tent so close to the road/trail (literally 10 feet) that I could hear the occupant's snoring!
I continued up to Blue Lakes at 12100ft where easy access to the upper basin is blocked by a steeper, rocky area with a series of small waterfalls down the center. It was nearly sunrise by this time, and I got out the video camera for the first time. This is the third hike this summer that I've videographed for what will become a Christmas gift to my grandfather, in addition to a personal record of the hikes. I'm borrowing the camcorder from my Mom (I certainly can't afford one!), and so far the project is working out OK. Unfortunately, it's hard to get action shots when travelling solo, but the scenery looks great.
Despite it's rough appearance, the trail nicely switchbacks up the steep slope and dumps you out at a small lake at the junction between the Twin Peaks and Blanca Peak 7.5 minute quads. This is the lake mentioned in Roach's route description for the SW ridge. By this time I had passed a few hikers who had packed in the previous day and were heading for Blanca first. Thus, I would have this route to myself.
Roach's description is only 2 paragraphs long and half of that is spent talking about how great the route is. Dawson's description is even sketchier. However, the route from here is easy to follow. First, I hiked up a talus slope which was mostly solid except for a few places where I took the wrong line. This leads to an obvious ledge that angles up to the ridge crest. This involves a bit of scrambling that served as a tune-up for the ridge. Both Roach and Dawson put this ridge on their "best route" lists, describing it as a clean 3rd Class ridge run, with Dawson mentioning that you "should be comfortable with unroped movement on steep, exposed rock". I already had done 5000 vertical feet at this point so I knew I wouldn't be able to enjoy the route quite as much as if I had been fresher.
Since the route climbs about 1000ft in 0.7 miles, it obviously isn't continuously Class 3, but actually has many short Class 3 sections. The rock is exceptionally good, especially for a 14er. I only took a couple minor detours from the ridge crest to avoid a few steep spots. One of those detours was a mistake and led me onto some loose rock about 15ft below the ridge crest and I set loose a pile of about a half-dozen rocks. Some parts of the ridge are very nearly knife-edge with quite a bit of exposure. The wind was 20-25 mph at times, but that wasn't quite enough to cause a balance problem. What I liked most about the ridge was that from afar there were several places that looked really tough, but every time, up close I had no problem picking out a safe line. At the very end of the scrambling, the ridge peters out to become a short face that was one of those tough looking spots. This may have been the toughest climbing on the route, but still wasn't particularly hard. At the top of this, it was just a three minute walk to the summit.
I summitted at 8:51am, taking 6:16 for 6100ft. In my trip planning, I was hoping to have already made the half-mile traverse over to Blanca by this time. However, I had already decided a couple hours ago that I would settle for one summit on this trip. It was still a beautiful day with no clouds, although it was breezy. The summit view was one of the better ones I've had. The infamous Blanca-Little Bear ridge lay in profile to the south, connecting those 14ers. The other 14er in the area, Mount Lindsey, is only about 2.5 miles east. Crestone Peak and Needle were easily recognizible 25 miles north and I could see a few patches of snow in the south couloir of the Peak. Most impressively, Pikes Peak was dimly visible 90 miles to the north-northeast! To the west, the vastness of the San Luis Valley over 6000ft below.
I only remained on top for 20 minutes. I figured that descending the standard route would be the easiest way down. After doing it, I'm not so sure. The route has some cairns and sections of climbers trail, but the talus is loose. Everytime I thought I was following the route, I would lose it, and everytime I thought I was "making my own adventure" I would hit another cairn. However, it was steep enough to lose altitude quickly, and finally I hit the good part of the trail and was down to Crater Lake (12700) within an hour. I was now starting to see more and more people on their way up.
The most exciting moment of the descent came in the flats between Blue Lakes and Lake Como. I started feeling sick to my stomach and was briefly worried that I was going to vomit. After sitting down for a few minutes the feeling passed and it never came back. I still don't know what caused that, but I hadn't been eating much so maybe that had something to do with it.
Despite the continuing clear skies, it remained cool above treeline and I didn't pack my jacket until I had descended below 11000ft. On many 14ers descending this far means that you are almost finished, but in this case, I was only halfway down! Here I also changed into shorts. I never carry shorts [that attitude was in part due to catching a couple of cool summers when I started doing this stuff], but with the very low trailhead and the expected 70-80 degree weather in the afternoon, I carried a pair this time. At around 10300ft, there's a really unpleasant section where you have to do some uphill hiking and by this time, it was hard to hike even a hundred linear feet uphill without stopping. It was also feeling rather hot except when the occasional breeze floated by.
Since you park in the open desert you get the masochistic pleasure of seeing sunlight glinting off the parked vehicles from several miles and 2000ft above. During the rest of the descent my mind fixated on two thoughts. First, I knew that the inside of my car was going to be white-hot from sitting out in the Sun. Second, man did I crave ice water! I still had a little Gatorade left which was still cool and not warm, but three quarts weren't really enough for the hike and I was rationing it at the end. I really wanted that quart of water in the cooler in my car instead!
As luck would have it, about 15 minutes from the end of the hike, a vehicle coming up the road stopped to ask about Little Bear Peak. I couldn't help them much, but after finding out that I had day-hiked Ellingwood, they offered me some...ice water! I think they had an electric cooler in their truck. Refreshed, I continued down to a reunion with my car at 2:15pm (about 5 hours for the descent), still under clear skies. While unpacking my gear, I chatted with a guy from Omaha who was waiting for the rest of his CMC tripmates to show up.
During much of the descent, I was really convinced that packing in was the right way to do these mountains. However, I ended up encountering about 30 people who were backpacking their way up the road. This was a Friday so I figure that there would still be a lot of people arriving after I left because there was still time to make it to a high camp before nightfall. With the people who would probably be packing in on Saturday for an overnighter, I imagine it was very crowded up there all weekend. Of course during the week it would be less crowded, but this seems to be one of those areas where a person should day hike if possible to avoid the crowds and lessen your impact a bit. With 4WD a person can relatively easily shorten the hike by about 1000 vertical feet, or more depending upon your vehicle and driving style.
The effort of the day was so much that I had to pull over and take a short nap on the way home. However, the next day I felt pretty good with no blisters and I could walk just fine. Pretty good since this was a personal one-day altitude gain record and my longest hiking time as well.
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File last modified: 27 December 2004