Peak(s):  Blanca Peak  -  14,350 feet
Ellingwood Point  -  14,057 feet
Date Posted:  07/28/2013
Date Climbed:   07/22/2013
Author:  ronbco
 "Sewing up" the S. Zapata Lake - C2 route   

Upon discovery of this route to avoid Lake Como Rd, from excellent trip reports by geojed and painless4u2, this route decision was clear. In the hiking party with me were 2 of my sons and my nephew; all experienced with climbs up to class 3+. We greatly missed my other son and daughter.


I did have some hesitation about the risk of a steep, loose, gully on a route that has not been done by many. But after some dialog on the forum with the authors of the trip reports we were confident this would work for our skill/comfort level.
Geojed has said he will be preparing a route submission using his experience and a couple pics I got for him. I think this is a great idea. The route has a lot to offer: 2wd to trail head, awesome water fall at TH, clear and good quality trail to the camp site, shorter distance and elev left for the peaks themselves, no crowds, and an excellent ridge (north side of Ellingwood).

We started the hike in the best way, by leaving a couple adult beverages to chill under some rocks in the creek near the falls, in prep for a triumphant return.
The falls really are special. Our pics did not do it justice so here is the wiki page: They are tucked back around a couple corners and you will need to walk through the cold water to get a view. If you are a birder then make sure you visit it at dusk to have a shot to see the Black Swifts. There is a great story about these epic travelers

The hike to the lake was predictable. Steady incline with a couple unfortunate dips (relative to thoughts of the return). A couple of our party did lose the trail at one point but with no big consequences as they met up with it again after crossing on the side of a boulder field.

South Zapata Lake is at 11.9k and has enough space for several campsites on grass. Spectacular basin, of course!


But firewood above treeline is obviously a challenge. There were some strays.

Can't find any branches for fire...

The lake sits at the base of the north ridge of Ellingwood and it's west-running spur ridge, which we would be climbing. The peak, and Crossfire and C2 cols can be clearly seen. A trip reports mention a third gully, informally named C3, but I suppose that is hidden around a corner of the ridge to the west. It seems likely it would be safer at the cost of perhaps an hour more travel time. I am guessing it is at about the 4 o'clock position when facing east on the east side of the lake. Below is a pic of the slopes to the SW of the lake that likely lead to C3. This pic is taken from part way up C2.


The weather that night was fantastic and the full moon came over the N ridge of Ellingwood to light up the whole basin.


We left the next morning a bit later than usual, but that is the reward for camping at 12k and having only 1.5 miles and 2k to the summit. C2 was as expected, unpleasant. But it is not so steep that rocks roll very far. It took our party between 45 min and 1 hr to reach the ridge, traveling with care. Near the top is a fork and we found that the left side led to a short section at the top with no good hand holds and steep dirt with poor footing, so we resorted to the other side which had no such problems. The following pics of C2 make it look steeper than it seemed, but still there is some risk in here as you will read about later.



The ridge heading east toward the north ridge was great. Below is a pic looking down Crossfire in case you want to consider that approach. It will not save you any time as it is right next to C2, but if you want a little steep class 4 then here it is.


After an annoying boulder field to get to the north ridge the most fun section begins. The ridge is solid with nice exposure on the east side and plenty of room on the west side if you get nervous. The 1st pic below taken from the peak looking down on me ascending the ridge shows the gnarly east face of this ridge. The ridge itself is not has harrowing as it appears in this pic as the west side is modest. The second pic is a different section taken during our return.



I had been a little wary of the final section below the peak. But I found it to be no problem at all. One of the previous trip reports indicated you can travel around on the west to rejoin the main trail from Como. I did not feel the need to do that and was on the summit in just a couple minutes.

From the top of Ellingwood, as is so often the case, then adjoining peak looks, well, impossibly steep.


On the traverse I was stubborn about giving up elevation, as usual, and found myself on some nervous ledges near the ridge line as I neared the deep gully. I watched the others practically skipping along with ease on the trail below me. Of course I had to come down anyway at the deep gully, having wasted physical and psychological energy that I soon wanted on the steeper ascent of the ridge to Blanca. But one step at a time and eventually you are there and the full realization of the insanity of the ridge to Little Bear reveals itself.

With dread of the re ascent we started the return to Ellingwood, but grateful that the weather was not threatening. The return did not seem as bad as expected; the 300 ft less going up Ellingwood is a blessing! On top we radioed our other party member who was not doing Blanca and was returning from Ellingwood. He told us he had "a little problem" descending C2, cut his leg and would need stitches. But "take your time, I'll be alright getting down and start packing out". We were about 2 hrs behind him at that time, and so moving deliberately but being sure to not add another injury to our party, we made our way back. We were quite cautious descending C2 and were surprised that he had already packed up. We determined by a radio call that he was still almost an hour ahead of us. We had planned on camping at the lake upon the return from the peaks and so we were weary after our 9 hrs of climbing and now facing a few more hours and 4.5 miles to get back to the car.

Finally, back at the car we saw the wound and were shocked! How had he got down the gully and then 4+ miles out with that 10" gash? He had bandaged it with TP, his pant leg and some cord. One tough dude! We should not have been surprised since he has had 2 tours of duty in Afghanistan / Iraq. He reported how it happened and this is the warning for us all. In the whole hike we had not encountered any rotten rock, that is rock that would break off with human interaction. But there was at least one and that one got him. It was a huge boulder near the top of C2. He had tested it for sliding with his foot applying full weight. It did not budge so he used it as a hand hold to descend past it. Then he pivoted while beside it and still holding on, and it fractured, sending a mini-fridge sized piece rolling over his leg. We were blessed that no bones were broke. But the gash required 23 stitches (thus the trip report name) in the Alamosa hospital ER! It was great we had radios, but in hind sight I should have just packed in enough batteries that I could be confident leaving them on for all of the time we were climbing apart. Another lesson is that even if all the rock seems solid then there can be hidden fractures. So a big sterile bandage and ace bandage should be with each climbing group.

We all were left asking ourselves if the risks are too high a price for the reward of gorgeous wilderness peaks. I think we all conclude that all life has risks, whether it is walking down the stairs at home, repairing our roof, driving on the freeway, or climbing a peak. We just measure them, make our decision, and learn what we can from each experience. In the faith I hold it is all in God's hands. In the end the trip was reasonably successful and will make for epic family tale for decades.

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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Comments or Questions
Great meeting you!
07/29/2013 04:41
Sounds like the ellinwood trip was good and dangerous! Thanks for the sunscreen on Blanca and leading the way up ellinwood. Thanks again!

07/29/2013 15:08
Great trip report, glad it all worked out. I'll definitely need to run this route at some point.

Nice report!
08/11/2013 17:53
Definitely would recommend camping in as your group did. Jay521 and I took this route last summer in a day. It was one very long day and getting caught in a storm on the re-ascent of Ellingwood made it even longer. All that aside, I believe others will find this route lovely and enjoyable (beautiful basin and lack of crowds as you mentioned). Glad your friend got out safely!

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