Blanca Peak - 14,350 feet
Ellingwood Point - 14,057 feet
Blanca Peak - 14,350 feet
Ellingwood Point - 14,057 feet
|Just Say "NO!" to Como|
Blanca Peak and Ellingwood Point
Gash Ridge from Lily Lakes, traverse to Ellingwood, descend North Ridge to South Zapata Basin
~5,000' up, ~6,100' down
15 hours car-to-car
This trip was motivated by a deep disgust for that "road" they like to call Como. Road? HA! You're funny. All I know is I've been up that death march three different times with zero summits, and I was not going to let that happen again. The Como Road part, or the zero summits part.
So I kept hearing ramblings of this alternate way to get to Ellingwood via South Zapata basin and the class 3 North Ridge. Sweet, I'm in. But how to get to Blanca without trespassing on private property? I was looking through old pictures of my climb of Mt. Lindsey and marveling over how gnarly Blanca looked on the hike up the Huerfano basin, and then it hit me. Something about a gash. The Gash. Gash Ridge. That route in Gerry Roach's book that is rarely ever spoken about. That route that starts a half mile higher in elevation than the Como approach and is half the mileage of the standard route. The route that offers sick, super fun, exposed, and sustained climbing for almost a mile before the summit. Sweet, I'm definitely in! Now to find a poor soul that wants to drive a completely ridiculous amount of time to shuttle cars from one trailhead to another...
This task proved to be rather difficult. The few partners with whom I was comfortable asking to tackle such a route never had matching schedules and logistics just didn't work. Then my climbing partner, Worth, texted me asking if I was down for some cragging this weekend. PSH! Primo 14er season, brah. Get your priorities straight. After I randomly tossed out the idea of a Blanca and Ellingwood shuttle from Lily Lakes/Huerfano to South Zapata, the poor, poor guy, completely unaware of the breadth of what I was asking, after summiting his first and only 14er this March on Elbert, enthusiastically jumped on board. If anyone was prepared for the technical and exposed aspects of this climb, it was this kid. If anyone knew exactly how much of a suffer fest this route would probably be, it was most definitely not this kid. I'm really hoping that he still wants to be my friend and climbing partner after I put him through this...
Anyway, on Friday, immediately after an interview in downtown Denver with some of the most lifeless, corporate, soul-sucked-away zombies I've ever met, I left the skyscraper in my tie and nice clothes to run several blocks through a torrential downpour to reach my car. I proceeded to meet Worth in Morrison, and he followed me down to the South Zapata trailhead. After loading my car up with his stuff, we drove around the horn and took the super convenient, well maintained, fairly smooth, 50-mile-saving Pass Creek Road to meet back up with 580, which we took up to the Lily Lakes trailhead. I slept with my Thermarest on the ground and enjoyed an unbelievably clear and starry sky before passing out around 1:00 AM.
Alarms at 3:30, fresh coffee and a little yoga to wake up, and we were on the trail at 4:20 AM Saturday morning. We had a few waypoints Roach gives in his guide, some beta from some helpful 14ers.com folks, and a sweet topo map of the Sangres to help us figure out the easiest way up. The trail that splits off the main Lindsey trail is not well signed, not well defined, and is easy to lose. We did a little bushwhacking between when we left the standard Lindsey trail and where we pointed it uphill at the base of a boulder field. While not impossible to find without a GPS, I knew it would have taken us a lot longer and probably a lot more zigzagging, backtracking, and elevation loss had we not had all those tools available.
Around the time we left the trees, the darkness began to fade. As we worked our way up toward the rocky slopes allowing access to Gash Ridge, the northeast face of Blanca appears, with Ellingwood just chilling all non-chalant to the right, and it is a sight to see. Gerry calls this "one of Colorado's finest places" in his description of the Gash Ridge route. As the sun rose, we were treated to an awesome alpenglow display, put on by the humble Blanca and Ellingwood. It definitely did not suck.
We chose the least steep gully, which we figured to be the one Roach referred to, and worked our way up. Sometimes we stayed in the fall line of the gully, sometimes we climbed onto some slabs, sometimes we climbed up the small snowfields remaining in this north facing area. While it was steep, it wasn't too bad in terms of looseness, rock fall, rotten rock, etc. There was a small section just a hundred feet or so below the notch where the easiest and safest path was a stupidly steep, loose jumble of scree and dirt, but it was short lived and that was the only section of that crap we dealt with on the ascent.
We got to the notch at 12,580' and the climbing began immediately. There was a nice section of class 4 rock to climb right away, and then a talus hop the rest of the way to the top of Point 13,380'. As we rounded this hill, I started laughing and smiling at how stupidly fun that ridge to the summit looked. We were not disappointed in what we saw.
Everything after this was alternating talus hopping, class 3/4 scrambling on somewhat questionable rock, and the occasional exposed class 4/low 5 move. We found many of the more obvious holds to be chossy or rotten. It took time to find the best holds and best routes, and we found ourselves backtracking a few times to get up or down safely. Several times we descended into an abrupt gully, thinking "hey dude, maybe THIS is the Gash!", but each time we were fooled. When you see THE Gash, you will know it. It's the first and only time you ask "how the hell do I get down this?"
There were several options, including a rappel from near the top of the ridge. We chose to descend a short rocky slope just south of the ridge, then traverse back toward the ledge on a slope with a couple exposed, sketchy class 4 moves before shooting back uphill on safer terrain toward the Gash. Those few airy moves were, in my opinion, the scariest and most difficult part of the ridge.
From the bottom of the Gash, there a short, steep, somewhat exposed section of class 4 or low class 5 rock, and then you quickly get to safer ground. From there, we stayed mostly directly on the crest of the ridge, or just to the left. The last several hundred vertical feet to the summit are a blast with almost continuous class 3 and 4 climbing.
We topped out on Blanca around 11:30 AM under beautiful, sunny skies. You could see forever. We hung out with three other guys on the summit for a while, two of which just completed the traverse from Little Bear after also climbing down to South Little Bear. And they would later join us on the summit of Ellingwood. Badasses. Kudos, bros.
The talus-y scramble down Blanca commenced around noon. With clear skies in all directions, we took our time getting over to Ellingwood. We topped out on Ellingwood a little after 1:00, and enjoyed at least a solid hour of glorious weather on top of its summit. Blanca sure does look sick from there (I know this has been said a bajillion times). The ballers from Blanca (and Little Bear. And South Little Bear) joined us on the summit and were cracking us up for the greater part of the last half hour on the summit. You know when you meet people way older than you, and you're thinking, "dang, I really hope I'm half that cool and badass when I'm their age!" Yeah, that was these two guys.
The first part of the descent down the North Ridge is a blast. The rock is more solid the closer to you stay to the edge of the ridge, but you also have to factor in the thousand foot drop off the right side if you do stay close. It later mellows out to a talus field once the ridge starts sweeping around to the northwest and west. There is a "trail" here, but I almost think you're better off doing your own thing. I alternated between the "trail" and finding my own line, and both were not that enjoyable. About this time, I started bonking. Hard. Worth waited for me for a while to catch up near the top of the Crossfire Couloir, where I needed to take my millionth break to let my jello legs chill out for a while.
We found the entrance to C2, which to my dismay, held almost zero snow. We brought our axes in anticipation that we might be able to get a few hundred vertical feet knocked off by a sweet glissade at the end of the day. Not happening. Instead, Worth negotiated a super steep, loose, exposed class 4/5 section, to which implored that I must go around. Well, we were in a shaded part of the gully and there was a small patch of snow, maybe no more than a half foot deep and a hundred feet long. Not like it would do anything to help on something like this, but I felt that the terrain was steep enough to warrant an axe, just in case. After my fourth plunge step down this steep part, the rock and snow below me gave out and sent down a cute little mini wet slide that sent me directly on my butt sliding down. I self arrested quickly into the two inches of snow, with the rest of my pick digging into the loose scree underneath. WHEW! Now I had to traverse over to drier to terrain with wet shoes, which proved to be a challenge.
Now I must say, I've put up with some suffer fests in my life. I've climbed and descended Columbia's standard route. I've descended Challenger's standard route. I've dropped off the Sunshine/Redcloud saddle into that sketchy scree field. But I seriously think that descending this gully without snow is quite possibly one of the worst portions I've ever experienced on a fourteener. That gully sucks. It is so steep, so loose, so dangerous, so miserable, that I would highly recommend nobody takes this unless it's filled with snow. I know that C3 (which was completely melted out as well) is supposed to be less steep and a little easier, so I'm going to recommend that to anyone that takes this route to Ellingwood in the summer. Worth and I both fell many times on this descent. I think I was in the range 20 something falls. There were a few times that I swore a boulder looked stable, stepped on it, then it just flipped or slid out or wedged into another hole. I almost got my foot pinned under one of these loose boulders when it moved and filled in a hole just above my foot.
Worth made it down to the grass about 20 minutes before I did and lounged around, enjoying a fun display of my suffer fest all the way to the bottom. After taking off some layers, cursing C2, and a little food, we started off down the trailless basin toward South Zapata Lake.
We were finally able to find a trail just past the lake. From here on, I was in zombie mode, just barely struggling to move along down the trail. Worth had to wait up for me a lot, and the trail continued to undulate the entire way down the car. After a long day, the last thing you want to keep seeing is the trail going back uphill - over, and over, and over again. I was a shame that I was so tired and grouchy at this point, because, like I've heard from others, this truly is a spectacular basin. I think it beats the basin going up Como Road by a mile (or by several miles if you want to talk about route length ;) ). The lake is gorgeous, and the way Ellingwood rises abruptly surrounded by other craggy, steep faces is quite remarkable. We tried to take in what we could, but basically just slogged it out on the undulating trail all the way back to the car.
15 hours and 15 minutes after leaving camp at the other trailhead, we returned to the shuttle car at the Zapata Falls trailhead. After a quart of water and a mandatory Omission IPA, we headed down the hill in search of a hot meal. We would highly recommend All-Gon in Fort Garland. They are a pizza place but serve all kinds of other awesome dishes (many with green chile!), they serve free chips and red chile salsa, and the prices are pretty reasonable with good portions.
Just after dark we got back to my car at the Lily Lakes trailhead, where we didn't last long before passing back out for the night. It was awesome to wake back up the next morning in the same place and be able to see Blanca and the entire Gash Ridge at first light, and thinking "we climbed that yesterday!"
This is a LONG day. Be prepared for it. While it's much less vertical gain to get to the top of Blanca from Gash Ridge, it is a lot more vertical to descend to get to the car. Make sure you bring fresh legs.
The climbing on Gash Ridge is fun, but lots of sketchy rock does exist. The first holds you find often will be rotten and worthless. There is a lot of choss on this rock, which makes the couple friction-y parts a little more dicey.
The exposure on Gash Ridge is serious. Most of it isn't that bad, but there are definitely several places where we slowed down and very deliberately had to think through and work through each move. If you aren't cool with exposure, forget about this route.
Descending the ridge (if you didn't go out to Ellingwood or Lake Como) would definitely be a little more sketchy. While we couldn't locate any bolts for a rappel on the summit side of the Gash, I would probably want to bring a rope to get down at least that one section.
South Zapata Basin is absolutely stunning. Just beautiful. C2 is awful. Avoid it at all costs (unless it's snow filled). Take C3 and the extra miles and vertical.
I initially thought I was going to be super smart and clever by taking a shorter, "easier" route (relatively speaking for someone who loves exposed climbing and hates miserable slogs on awful trails/roads). I thought Blanca and Ellingwood would be super enjoyable and way better than any Lake Como suffer fest again. While the climb from the trailhead all the way up to Ellingwood Point was pretty awesome, after a long day like that, descending 5,500' on a rolling trail just kind of sucks. Maybe it was my 2.5 hours of sleep, maybe it was my lack of nourishment from the day, maybe it was just a bad attitude. But I think I would highly recommend doing each of these peaks individually, or maybe even (gasp) descending out Como Road instead. Nah, scratch that. Just be ready for a long, tiring day if you do this!
My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):
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