Two years ago I climbed Ellingwood Point, a sub-peak of Blanca Peak that only has been considered a separate 14er for about 20 years or so. With a passenger car the trailhead is heinously low, at or slightly below 8000ft, and when I did Ellingwood I just didn't have the conditioning to climb both. So, this weekend I went back to bag Blanca, the highest point in the Sangre de Cristo range and 4th highest peak in Colorado.
While the distance and elevation gain for a one-day ascent may seem daunting, the real issue here is the heinous (that's going to be my pet word for the day) jeep road that you must hike on the approach. This "road" is very gravelly, with much of the "gravel" being more like the size of a teacup. This is rather uncomfortable for hiking and makes the use of trekking poles dicey as well. Of lesser concern for hikers, but of major concern for 4-wheel enthusiasts are the occasional boulders sticking as much as 2 feet out of the road (I kid you not).
Driving south through the San Luis valley there had been some heavy rain showers, and I was worried that the weather wasn't going to cooperate. However, by the time I turned off onto the Lake Como road the sky was half-clear and improving. It's possible to drive a bit farther, but I parked my car 1.6 miles up the road, just to be safe.
Despite starting at 0302, I was actually hoping to be hiking a bit earlier to still be the first on the summit ahead of people who had backpacked in. There was still enough cloudiness around that I needed my headlamp even during the last minutes of moonlight.
The odd encounter of the hike was the group that had driven about a mile and a half up the road to have a house party. They had the music playing for one, anyway. I non-chalantly walked on by and cleverly responded to a "hi" with "howdy". Hey, I didn't say the encounter was interesting, just odd at 4am.
The "oops" of the hike occurred when I decided to look for a better crossing of a creek than the boot-soaking hike on the road. Unfortunately, it wasn't quite as easy as I thought it would be; my boots stayed pretty much dry, but I dunked my right arm up past my wrist. It could have been much worse.
It ended up taking 2:50 to get to Lake Como at 11700ft. This was faster than on my ascent of Ellingwood two years ago, but I was expecting to be even faster. I guess living at a bit lower elevation was partly compensating for a better overall fitness level. Unlike on that last trip, there were quite a few vehicles that had made it up to the lake and beyond. There were also some signs along the road geared towards 4WD access that weren't there before. This is already a very popular area for hikers, so I guess it's going to be doubly crowded from now on. Oh well, someone I met later on the mountain said that when they packed in they walked past a truck on the road with a broken axle.
By the time I got a good view of Blanca and Ellingwood, the sky was mostly clear, except for clouds floating around the summits. I caught a glimpse of a single cloud drifting through a notch on Ellingwood's southwest ridge. A priceless moment and I would have killed to have been able to get my camera out in time.
As you get more into the talus slopes between Ellingwood and Blanca the trail gets sketchy and I ended up doing an easy but strenuous talus scramble up the northwest face. I actually found a pretty solid route, while many of the trail segments are eroded and loose. As I was getting higher, I could see a pair heading up to the low point of the ridge between the two peaks. They were probably moving a bit faster than me, but I wasn't going to get caught. However, by the time I reached about 14000ft, I climbed up into the mist; "flying fog" would be a better term.
With the negligible visibility, I wasn't quite sure where I was in relation to the summit, but decided to climb to the nearest high point. Success! Summit register, dead ahead. It was 0830 and I was very glad I was done climbing. The wind was about 25 mph and my watch was reading 38F, and I had no view whatsoever. After signing in, another hiker appeared out of the mist and stood there about 30 yards from me, waiting for his partner. They both finally moseyed over to the summit. We ended up chatting for a while; we sure didn't have any scenery to look at. I was disappointed that I didn't get the classic photo of Little Bear from Blanca. The first guy up was just 5 peaks from finishing the 14ers and was going to be finishing them soon. I was getting a little chilly and was still just wearing shorts, along with gloves and a balaclava. I didn't really want to mess with taking my boots off to put on my pants (they were just normal Polartec pants, with no zippers to allow one to easily put them on over boots), but the guys finally talked me into it shortly before we left the summit. I think they were seeing my slightly chilled state better than I was. I guess fatigue was clouding my judgment a little, but once I started hiking again I quickly warmed up.
I was hoping I would be able to see the upper basin on the way down so I could descend the same route I ascended. However, I made a point of looking back frequently while climbing, so I was in good shape in the department (see, my brain wasn't completely in a fog on the mountain). It really didn't matter, the face is pretty much managible no matter your exact line, but I'm not the world's best route-finder so I try to mitigate that shortcoming whenever I can.
As I found while descending the north side of the upper basin coming down from Ellingwood, following the "trail" segments isn't always sensical until you get down to about 13000ft when the trail has better definition. Somewhere around 12000ft, I encountered a family that had driven up to the lake and were on a short outing to the high point of the road. They asked the usual questions, and as we were standing there the father pointed out movement on the Blanca-Little Bear ridge. Sure enough there was a party about halfway between the two peaks on the dangerous traverse. The climbing is up to 5.2, with heinous exposure and little opportunity to rope up. They passed around binoculars and someone saw one person crawling at one point.
Just above and below the major ford on the road there was a small traffic jam; an apparent novice driver was having trouble with a particularly bad part, even with the coaching of his more experienced friends. I looked around for a better ford than my ascent, and decided to just try crossing on the road. I started walking out on some rocks in my boots, but ran into some very mobile blocks that would have otherwise made good steps. So I ended up carefully backtracking to the "shore". At this point I decided to see if I could get a few neurons to fire. Sure enough, I had the radical thought that I could just take off the damn boots and socks and wade across. I hoped the water wouldn't be too cold, but didn't even bother testing it before taking the plunge. Anyway, I entertained a group of 4-wheelers stranded on the far shore with my 30-second tiptoe across the stream. The water was cold, but fine; the last time I did a barefoot ford was in July of a heavy snow year and my feet went completely numb during the crossing.
One of them expressed surprise that I was hiking alone. "But someone knows where you are?" I lied and said "yeah, yeah", convincingly. Back in the day, I used to leave my itinerary with a trusted friend when I went hiking, but I gave that up quite a while ago for various reasons. (In any case, I don't have a trusted friend nearby anymore since I moved this spring.) I don't necessarily recommend this approach; for those of you that have read this paragraph without batting an eye, I don't have to explain, and if you are shocked by my "carelessness" I probably couldn't explain.
There's a sequence of uphill sections after this, and after cresting the last one, I was plenty ready for the hike to be over. The road is just lousy for hiking; a trail would be so much better. Not only that, but there's little tree cover on the lower part of the road and it was starting to get warm. I was pretty much in autopilot mode for the last few miles. For whatever reasons, I wasn't having a particularly good day physically. However, this time I stopped to take a picture of sunlight glinting off the cars parked down in the desert from 2000 ft above and 3 miles down the road. Talk about a depressing sight!
After the traffic jam, I didn't see another person or moving vehicle on my downward trek. I finally reached the car at 1349. Despite being 11 miles shorter and 1000ft less elevation gain, it took me exactly the same amount of time to climb Blanca as it did to climb Pikes Peak via the Barr Trail 3 weeks ago. And, I think Blanca was more effort!
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File last modified: 11 May 2005