Peak(s):  Blanca Peak  -  14,350 feet
Ellingwood Point  -  14,057 feet
Date Posted:  12/24/2014
Date Climbed:   12/23/2014
Author:  Yikes
 A very slow winter ascent of Blanca   

Welcome winter. After a dozen successful summits last winter, I was looking forward to the season. With two weeks off from work, I was hoping to be able to get to the top of at least four peaks, which would be a good start. I was initially planning on Shavano and Tabaguache as a starter since it is right across the valley from Salida, but Mother Nature threw a wrench in the plans and the Dec 22 snowstorm increased the avalanche danger in the Sawatch significantly. The southern mountains didn't get much snow from the storm, so I figured I would head down there and check out the conditions.

In winter, Blanca is typically a 17 mile round trip. Going solo, I wasn't sure that was doable if any significant trenching was required. I don't consider myself the strongest hiker, so having additional people available to split the trench building duty is always welcome. I was also hoping to be able to knock off some of that mileage by driving part way up the road, but I wouldn't know until I got there. I also decided not to camp at Lake Como, thinking that carrying up all that gear just for 4.5 miles wasn't worth it.

I left Salida early enough on Monday to be able to drive up the Blanca road in the daylight. The road was snow covered, but easily driveable for the first 3 miles before the drifts became more significant and I started to worry about getting stuck (probably wouldn't be a cheap tow). I set up the sleeping bags in the back of the SUV and listened to some audio books to help pass the time. Totally forgot about getting dinner before driving in. I didn't get much sleep, maybe 3 hours, but that is typical for the night before a winter 14er. I had planned to start hiking around 2am so I would get to the upper basin at day break, but since I had trouble falling asleep I bumped the clock to 2:30 and started hiking around 2:50.

The hike up the road was pretty easy since an ATV had driven up to 9500 recently. No snowshoes were required until you enter the drainage. Someone had snowshoed up to the lake sometime recently. Most of that trench had filled in by the wind, but it made for easy snowshoeing when you can find that path and stay on the semi-compacted snow. I didn't see any trench above the lake.

The trenching was more significant from Lake Como to the upper basin, mostly 12-18 inches deep but occasionally deeper. I had trouble locating the road above the Little Bear gully and had to fight through some thigh deep powder in the trees. I highly suggest you avoid the trees in that section and stick to the open area below the LB-Blanca traverse.
Little Bear Gully

Little Bear

The snow near Blue Lakes was deeper than I was expecting; I was hoping for some wind blown dry tundra. No significant issues getting up the slopes above Crater Lake (my initial concern was that this section could hold some dangerous snow). At this point I was pretty much exhausted from trenching and considered turning around. But I didn't want to repeat the hike in, so I pressed on. Very slowly; one step, rest, two steps, rest, repeat.
Blanca and Ellingwood

Blanca wasn't holding much snow, so getting up to the ridge was straightforward. The wind was blowing spindrift on the summits, but it wasn't too bad on the ridge proper. On top at 12:45 (told you I was moving slowly).
A fair amount of snow

Ellingwood from Blanca

Might not look like it, but I'm happy

Looking north


I returned to the saddle and contemplated Ellingwood. My energy was non-existent, but there was still a bit of daylight left and Ellingwood was so close. I had done the traverse in summer and remembered it to be easy, and I didn't want to lose all of that elevation dropping down to the bottom, so I started across the traverse thinking I would just descend if I came across any difficult spots. It went pretty smoothly and I followed the cairns pretty closely; the only difficulty being some waist deep snow in the steeper sections which I struggled through.

There was a bit more snow on Ellingwood, mostly knee deep but sometimes deeper. I was a little concerned about the slope angle, but the snow seemed pretty stable and didn't have any slab. A few small rollerballs, but nothing else was cracking or sliding. It was slow going since the hidden rocks provided a lot of unstable footing; each foot placement cautious and deliberate. On top at 3:15 (yep, very slow going).
Nearing the Ellingwood summit


Blanca from Ellingwood

Now the two summits complete, I only needed to safely descend Ellingwood before I would be comfortable on the valley floor. I followed my steps back to the traverse and descended some steep snow slopes hoping the snow remained stable (which it fortunately did).

The trench in the upper basin was filled in already, so it was a little more work than I was hoping for. The snow at Lake Como was very heavy at this point (late day warming?), so each step was a struggle. I was happy when I got to the road where trenching was no longer required.

The hike down the road went pretty smoothly considering how tired I was. The few uphill sections were not appreciated. Back to the truck around 7:45pm, for a 17 hour hike.

I was very happy to have successfully summited the peaks. It was a very cold day and everything froze, my water, my food, sunscreen, myself. No pictures of the road conditions since it was dark in both directions. Going solo, I had doubted that I would be able to trench the distance I needed to. Reinforces the lesson that a lot of this is mental and that determination can get you further than you think (albeit very slowly).

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11

Comments or Questions
Kevin Baker
12/24/2014 18:49
Way to stick with it, Jim! That is a brutal one to start winter on, especially the solo re–trenching part! Congrats, man.

ap snow
12/24/2014 20:39
Was thinking about skiing these soon. Looks like I should head that way for sure. Thanks for this TR!

Nice work
12/24/2014 21:30
Not the strongest hiker? Plenty strong I’d say, that’s a pretty solid effort! Enjoyed the pics.

Well done
12/25/2014 01:02
Impressive work, Jim. Also, you seem to be quite talented at the art of self–deprecation

Incredible job sir.
12/25/2014 03:14
Now you have made me want to do these two in winter.

If I had a hat on, Jim...
12/25/2014 16:57 would be off for the rest of the day to you. Well done. Well done. A fine effort, and you are not SLOW Happy holidays!

Mickeys Grenade
Great Job
12/25/2014 23:01
Nice way to start off with two new winter ascents. You are most certainly not slow.

Wow Jim!
12/28/2014 06:21
Incredible work…especially doing all that trenching solo. That REALLY does take mental determination! Kudos to you in a big way especially with your pictures….except for that scary selfie!

Nice effort!
12/30/2014 17:04
Sounds like a tough day, cool pics!

Svenski Norski
01/03/2015 02:50
I’ll remember this next time I think I’m tired, awesome, thanks.

beast mode
01/03/2015 19:27
Nice work Jim!

Mountain Ninja
01/14/2015 19:12
Amazing effort! We definitely got away with murder two years ago compared to your feat. Blanca looks beautiful!

01/22/2015 16:47
I love seeing all these more or pseudo remote peaks cloaked in snow. Makes me wish I had more time (or motivation?) to get out in the winter! Nice job.

Good grief!
04/02/2015 19:45
That’s a LOT of snow for the dry Sangres, way more what we had on our attempt two years ago and more similar to February conditions. Nice work!

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