Peak(s):  Ellingwood Point  -  14,057 feet
Date Posted:  07/06/2019
Modified:  07/27/2019
Date Climbed:   07/02/2019
Author:  JaredJohnson
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 Blanca Group Done Wrong   

The title of this report has a bit of a double meaning.

Our trip up to the Blanca group was intended to be done the "wrong" way from the start. We don't regret doing it in this dumb way, and I hope some people will be inspired to repeat it.


I also made some blatantly wrong choices in the course of the trip that nobody should repeat, leading to my first legit "self-rescue" experience.


For better or worse, this trip had all kinds of wrong written all over it.



Good Wrong

This year I was planning a second attempt on Little Bear with my friend and frequent climbing partner Peter. Last year we drove in from Kansas, slept at 8800ft, and hiked to Lake Como the next day. The next morning, when we were to attempt LB, I had a terrible altitude headache, the first time I've ever had one. I had no desire to tempt fate by going higher so I stayed put. Peter, who often has altitude problems on short trips, didn't want to hit LB alone so he did Blanca successfully.

This year we wanted to give ourselves a chance to acclimatize before attempting Little Bear, so we started planning a 2-day summit of Ellingwood Point via South Zapata Creek, as an acclimatization hike before going up Como Road. Peter asked if we couldn't just go up and over EP to Como. Curious, I asked on the forum and the answer was that this would be much less efficient than simply doing everything from Lake Como and taking our time there. I had to agree, but it sounded interesting and fun to explore both sides and to see what we could manage with heavy packs on. Thus our unnecessarily difficult plan was born. It went something like:

  • Day 1: Drive from Kansas and spend the night in a comfy cheap hotel at ~7k ft
  • Day 2: Start at Zap. Falls TH, Hike to South Zap. Lake and spend the night at 12k ft
  • Day 3: Pack up and take all our gear up and over Ellingwood Point and descend to Lake Como to spend the night at 12k ft
  • Day 4: Chillax and acclimatize some more at 12k ft
  • Day 5:
    • Fully acclimatized, Jared and Peter both summit Little Bear and traverse to Blanca
    • Peter descends to the Como 2WD TH with all our gear
    • Jared traverses from Blanca to Ellingwood, then down to Zap. Falls and our car
    • Jared picks up Peter and we have a burger

We weren't really sure if this would work at all, but we figured we could always drop the packs, tag Ellingwood, drive back to Como, and chalk up the first couple of days to a separate acclimatization hike.


The hotel and Zap. Lake portions of our plan started off well. Peter began to feel the altitude and by the evening at our campground just below Zap. Lake he puked, then again in the morning. He didn't have any other symptoms so he went on. He wound up puking 7 times during the duration of the trip which is a record even for him. I don't know why he keeps coming back. But it didn't stop him, he continued to rehydrate and showed no other symptoms.

Day 2 we started up Ellingwood:

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C2 was clearly well covered with snow, Peter had climbed snow with microspikes and an axe but was nervous at the likely prospect of trying a steep couloir with crampons mandatory.

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When we reached the legit snow climbing portion, the snow was great in spite of a late start, and Peter was comfortable in spite of his initial worries.

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We were both pretty exhausted by the C2 exit, my pack likely weighed in around 30lbs. The ridge was snow free but it took us a lot of plodding.

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The last bit of ridge walking and climbing on the summit pitch was fantastic. We both had packs that "climb well" in spite of the heavy load so we didn't notice it even when going off-route a bit for some class 4 or low 5 moves.

We reached the summit and Peter signed the register for us.

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The way down to Lake Como was obvious; softening snow and heavy packs slowed us down but didn't put us at any risk. There was a little bit of good glissading to be had, and some beautiful lakes on the way down toward Lake Como.

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We found perfect camping right at the juncture with the Little Bear trail with the summit looming right over us. It was a great place to rest up and finish acclimatizing for the big day.

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Backpacking to Lake Como via Zapata and Ellingwood Point was a ridiculous and unnecessary endeavor that was an absolute blast and felt like a great accomplishment. Everyone should do it. Once. There's no reason to do it again once your body knows how difficult it actually is!



Bad Wrong

Last year while I was waiting with my altitude headache for Peter to return from Blanca, I heard screams and ran to investigate. I ran into two brothers who had just attempted Little Bear. They had started up the wrong gully but decided to keep going and try to attain the ridge. One brother made it to the ridge but the other brother couldn't handle the off-route climbing and fell between 100 and 200 feet. Miraculously, he escaped from his fall with cuts on his nose and hands, and by the time I reached he had a bloody face and shirt and a harrowing story to tell but didn't require any assistance and were on their way back to their jeep.

What morons amiright? The initial gully to start the route up LB is blindingly obvious to anyone who has looked at a picture or who has any sense of what a route that goes looks like. And once you realize you're on the wrong route up arguably the most dangerous 14er in Colorado, you don't keep going!

On the morning of the big day we started in the dark at 4 AM because we were worried the Hourglass would be too soft to climb up later in the day. We crossed the stream and I used AllTrails to confirm we were quite close to the GPX track for the gully we needed to be in - just slightly to the left of the red line, so we tried to trend right a little. We ascended one or two small snow fields, then some solid talus, I checked the GPX and we were still a bit to the left of the route so we continued to trend to the right as we went up. As the scree became loose we started hugging the rocks on the right for stability.

I checked the track and we were closer to the main route line, but we were still to the left of it. But we were hugging a rock wall to our right. I realized we must have managed to find ourselves on the right side of some kind of rock rib. In the dark I couldn't see it very well but clearly we shouldn't continue to hug it and climb or we could wind up way off-route. And the rock was starting to look pretty rotten. We were having to take extra care to test every hold, and were both having to take care to stay out of each other's fall lines when possible.


Backtracking looked annoying and the rib didn't seem that tall so I decided to explore the possibility of just climbing over it. Maybe we wouldn't have to lose elevation, even the elevation gained scaling the rib, and we could just meet back up with the route.

By the time I was halfway up the pitch, it was clear this would involve a bit of class 5 action, and the rock was so rotten it was really stressing me out to the point I had to stop, breath, and gather myself before continuing. I knocked off a few small pieces which seemed harmless but they got pretty close to bonking Peter and I apologized. Peter was telling me he had his doubts about following me up, not knowing the correct way down. I told him he should trust his instincts and not do anything yet.

When I was 3/4 of the way up the pitch, Peter yelled loudly. I wasn't sure what happened at the time, he reported he was alright. It turned out I had unknowingly dislodged a larger rock, which hit him hard on his helmet and then grazed his ear on the way down.


When I got all the way up the pitch, the sun was beginning to come out and I and realized that this maybe-1-pitch rock rib was actually much higher. There were no more comfortable lines up it, and if I got up and over it, there was no way I wouldn't find myself perched high above the gully on the other side. Furthermore, I had just gotten up a whole pitch of pretty vertical class 5 rock that was coming off in handfuls; there's no way I had the skill to safely downclimb it.

I was on an easy ledge so I started exploring around the corner and getting an idea what I had gotten us into.

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Some small rock rib. I had taken us up the entirely wrong gully, then started climbing the sheer, massive rock wall that separated this junk gully from the route we were supposed to have been on. In the light any idiot could see we should have backtracked and gotten onto the correct route. Instead I had climbed up onto a ledge and I wasn't sure if I could get myself off of it alive.


Peter had stayed low but had taken some doable lines around to get back below me and help scope out what was going on. I told him I was in quite a pickle. There were a couple of realistic exits off of my ledge but they were both moderate class 5, with rotten rock, and the exposure was very obviously consequential. This is when I started literally talking to Jesus and begging for some supernatural calm and ability to make exactly the right choices. And considering whether I needed to sit my sorry self down and ask for SAR to somehow come pluck me off my perch.

One of the possible exits was a solid slab that had a less than vertical slope to it and ended with a small ledge. One could reasonably butt-slide down it and risk only a couple of sprained or broken ankles. I took my water off my pack, and a hip pouch that contained a few snacks, my wedding ring, and my satellite beacon. I took off my pack and dropped it gently onto the slab. It quickly slid right into place onto the ledge.

The worst case scenario, where I took the same path down as the pack, didn't look so bad; but I wanted to properly climb down the slab using the abundance of dinner plates next to it. The walk over to the exit slab was precarious; there was a very large rock in the way so I checked Peter's location, who was out of my fall line, and glanced around to confirm there was still nobody else around. I yelled "rock" very loudly, waited a moment, and then flung the huge rock down to get it out of my patch. Peter and I were impressed with the impact.


I got over and slowly got myself into position with some bomber hand holds and my feet firmly against the slab. As I began to test the large dinner plates I was planning to use to get my hands lower it was clear that many/most of these would absolutely not bear my weight without coming off. About the same time, I realized that my serious attempt at downclimbing meant putting my body in a position where falling would mean a tumble past the ledge, not a gentle slide down to it. It was time to hurry and there were some good holds in amongst the terrible ones, so I started yelling "rock" and quickly flinging off some of the bad ones to expose the more stable rock underneath. This was repeated maybe a half a dozen times before I became aware that Peter had been crossing below me attempting to traverse further out of my fall line. He saw these large rocks fly over his head, and also saw one of them make contact with my pack, which was then flung off the mountain and went tumbling down a few hundred feet before coming to rest in some talus. I'm pretty sure this is what would have become of Peter if he had been the one that was flung off the wall by one of these dinner plates.

Meanwhile I found a couple of completely reliable dinner plates and held on tight as I worked my feet down and repeated the process until I was down to the ledge my pack had just been flung off of. The dinner plates were sharp and I was instinctively holding onto them for dear life even as I worked my body down, so I tore my hand up a bit and gave the mountain a very small portion of the blood it wanted from us that day.

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From that intermediate ledge it was a simpler class 3 or 4 downclimb to the ledge that connected me to Peter. He then led the way down the safe route he had found up to the area and back to the exact location where I had started the foolish class 5 section of our adventure. The red line in Photo #14 and Photo #15 shows my whole unfortunate path up the wrong gully, up the wrong wall, then down and back. Then we retraced our route back down the talus and over to where my pack had been deposited.

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The pack and the ice axe secured to it were the worse for the wear but not destroyed; I don't think Peter could have taken those likes though, and I was glad to be walking around under my own power retrieving it rather than asking some kind SAR people to come retrieve me off of my ledge.



Como Road

We had just retrieved my pack from the correct line up the entrance to Little Bear's ridge, and it was still early, so we had the opportunity to go ahead and continued to attempt it. Or if I wanted to do something more mellow to salvage the day and beef up my checklist, I could let Peter take our stuff down while I went up Blanca and then traversed over to Ellingwood and down to the car as planned. But my bad decisions had ruined my headspace. My judgement was clearly not bulletproof and it didn't seem smart to continue going after a dangerous objective today, or to go on my own to reverse the route I'd taken a couple days before with much more gear. The goal now was to exit our adventure in the safest way possible, and be able to tell the story of how I did something very stupid and dangerous but got out of it... not the story of how I did something stupid, got out of it, and then managed to do something else stupid and dangerous on my way to the car, proving that I had learned nothing. We later talked to some hikers who reported the hourglass was no longer a safe snow climb and it's not yet a safe rock climb, so if we had continued up LB, we would have been wise enough to give up at the base of the hourglass anyhow. Our misadventure had actually put us off the doomed task and on the road home at a much more convenient time.

I wasn't going solo to retrieve the car, and we weren't interested in carrying our backpacking kit uphill back over Ellingwood and hoping C2 was in good condition to descend. So we took the walk of shame down Como Road toward the highway. We found a turnoff well out of the mountains, followed by a bit of bushwhacking through junipers and dirt, to cut a mile or two off the hike toward the highway and up to the Zapata TH where our car was parked.

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In my previous experience Colorado folks seem very friendly to hitchhikers, but we didn't run into anybody awesome until we had hiked an extra 5 or 6 miles, were rationing water and had started up Zapata Road itself. A nice family in a minivan spared us the last 3 miles of uphill to our car, where we immediately dug in to the cooler full of drinks we had waiting for us there. We were back on the road toward Kansas by 3 PM, ahead of schedule. Not at all the most efficient way to do it -- a car drop or even a bike drop would have been much smarter -- but at least we got to log some extra miles and burn some calories. We were in great spirits given we had knocked off Ellingwood, enjoyed a fun snow climb, carried some ridiculous loads up a 14er, and had a great time outdoors. And we were still in one piece in spite of my best efforts. We're glad we did this weird route. Although the next time I attempt Little Bear, it'll likely be from the Como side and probably via the Southwest Ridge.



Postmortem

My next big adventure is going to be with partners, and will include my wife, so I'm obviously processing the screw-ups that happened during our Little Bear excursion so I can be fully confident that taking other people into the mountains with me is as smart as I once thought it was. In no particular order some of the things I'm taking away from this experience:

  • Wear a helmet. Thank God Peter was wearing a helmet. Even so, his ear was filled with blood from whatever abrasion found its way past the brain bucket.
  • Take my situation seriously. We were in the first hour of the climbing day, where on other adventures I'm often still just walking up the class 1 approach. Maybe this is part of why I had a pretty cavalier attitude toward the beginning of our route, even though we were already in consequential class 3 terrain on rotten rock by the time I upped the stakes to class 5.
  • Don't go blindly forward when my gut or my partner starts asking questions. Maybe I could have down climbed from halfway up the pitch when it was already becoming apparent this wasn't such a good idea.
  • Watch out for the tech becoming a crutch. If I had asked myself "could I do this without Alltrails" I would have definitely waited for dawn, and the route would have been completely obvious, even if I had continued checking my work against GPX occasionally. Maybe this would have been the right move -- or at least if I'm going to use the tech to get an earlier start, I'd better be absolutely sure it's working and I'm using it correctly. My blue dot had better be on that red line.
  • Investigate red flags. I'm sure there's loose rock on the LB route but the gully we started up was obviously horrible. I could have asked myself what was up and tried to verify whether the route really begins this terribly. It doesn't.
  • Maybe buy a headlamp with better beam distance. Yeah this is tertiary but it sure could have helped and outdoor gear lab has plenty of info on this
  • Take fall lines dead serious. Even with a helmet, climbing above a partner on known-bad rock was a terrible idea. And maybe it's OK I was tossing rocks off like a mad man at certain points, but doing so without being absolutely sure where the human below me is located was a pretty bad move. I don't have guilt about it but I'd better not drop the point lightly that I could have easily killed my friend at multiple points in the situation.


Maybe I'll edit or comment on this part as I reflect more. I'm already risking the wrath of internet scorn even posting this situation, but obviously I'm interested in anybody else's thoughts on what to learn from, what should have been done differently at each juncture, etc. I was taking my life pretty seriously and sincerely believed that "self rescue" was appropriate and safe here but I'm curious if folks think I was out of my depth and should have gone ahead and requested help. I'm interested in some veteran opinions on such things.

Please be gentle. And seriously, try the Blanca group as a multi-day loop from Zapata Falls. It's very foolish, very doable, and very cool!




Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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Comments or Questions
crowdsurf
User
2 Wrongs
07/06/2019 07:46
Hi Jared,

First of all, thanks for posting. Glad to hear you and Peter are ok.

I will not waste your time and mine breaking down all your decisions. We are all human. Others will likely take the time to do that. I have had my own experiences that were difficult learning lessons. It happens.

Have you considered reducing your ambitions a bit? It seems like you want to do the hardest mountains first. What's the rush? I haven't done LB and am not planning on it until I have several more technical mountains under my belt. It makes my palms sweaty thinking about it, so I know I am not ready yet.

Set yourself up for success, not failure! Learn from this and grow. Make things easier on technical terrain. Use this as a motivating factor to be a better hiker/climber.

Good to hear this ended well with you guys making it out safely. Take care and good luck with your future endeavors.


TomPierce
Live & learn, great report
07/06/2019 10:17
Jared,

Glad you survived your adventure! But more than anything, glad you have the right (IMO) mindset: Step back when things go wrong and ruthlessly analyze what worked, what didn't. Then adapt. Early on in your climbing career there will be bumps on the road, learn from them, it's (again, IMO) an essential survival skill. That aside it sounds like it was still a pretty good adventure, great weather. And yeah, if you're going to be doing real-deal mountaineering, probably a good idea to get a real-deal headlamp, essential when things hit the fan. 100m+ beam throw, several hours of burn time on high. Great report.
-Tom


painless4u2
User
Glad you're ok
07/07/2019 07:17
Thank you for posting. It would have been easy to not admit one's errors, and it takes courage (and humility) to do so. I think most of us who have done a fair amount of climbing have made wrong decisions that put us in some bad situations. I certainly have, and still get sweaty palms thinking about some of them. Just glad to live through them!
We are actually planning a similar hike from Zapata Lake, over Ellingwood, but then also up Blanca, then descend to Como for an overnight before LB the next day, then hike out. But we'll do a car drop at the base of Como, saving a return trip. Sort of a "Tour de Blanca Massif". Happy hiking!


justiner
User
Thumbs Up
07/07/2019 11:47
Glad you're OK too. You did the right thing when you realized you were way over your head. Your self-evaluation of what happened is really important, and I'm glad you did it - hopefully others can learn. Glad I'm not going to read about this in AINAC


AlexeyD
User
GPS
07/07/2019 15:02
Thanks for sharing, and glad you and Peter are both OK! Just one small thing to add to your comment about over-reliance on GPS: it's a good idea to also have your partner carry his/her own GPS device - preferably a different one from yours - so that you can compare notes if something seems off. While the actual GPS receiver is pretty similar across most devices, the app that you use, the resolution on your screen, etc., all those things can vary considerably and can lead to an incorrect interpretation of where you are. For this reason I also have several different apps installed on my phone, and when I'm solo I try to make sure I have maps downloaded for at least two of them (also a good idea because smart phones are weird and quirky and can do things like inexplicably delete the very app that you really need - ask me how I know...). Point being, GPS is often a powerful and useful tool, but redundancy and a mechanism for error-checking make it even more effective.


JaredJohnson
User
good tips
07/10/2019 18:38
Thanks for the encouragement and suggestions.

@crowdsurf I consider myself ambitious but not quite beyond my reach: I've found that attempting the big peaks and having to turn around is often a lot more fun than the smaller peaks. I do a lot of failing so my experience level isn't very well represented by my list of summits.

@TomPierce I picked up a zebralight with a 121m throw as recommended by outdoor gear lab and @justiner (:

@alexeyD I'm not quite ready to drop the extra cash on a second device but I'm certainly considering trusting my phone less!

@painless4u let us know how your tour de blanca goes, a successful version of our trip would be a great TR. We realized we should have at least done a bike drop at como, it would have saved us a few extra hours on the way out!


AlexeyD
User
GPS
07/11/2019 10:46
Heh...I guess I must have been confusing in my ramblings. I do NOT mean in any way to suggest getting two devices. What I meant was either (1) your partner should carry and know how to use their own device (better if different from your) or (2) if this is not possible, have two different mapping apps installed on your device so that yo can compare between two different interfaces.


JaredJohnson
User
GPS
07/27/2019 01:50
That does seem pretty attainable, in fact I think I paid for a lifetime subscription on another app once upon a time and forgot about it. This week on Crestone Peak AllTrails disappointed me by inexplicably not having close-up tiles so I couldn't figure my elevation from my horizontal position on the topo until I got most of the way up the red gully and got data reception. Not a do-or-die situation at all but pretty annoying. Don't even get me started on how unreliable my phone's GPS is for simply telling me my elevation. Isn't GPS tech supposed to make that easy?



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