Peak(s):  Blanca Peak  -  14,350 feet
Ellingwood Point  -  14,057 feet
Date Posted:  08/10/2010
Modified:  08/11/2010
Date Climbed:   08/07/2010
Author:  KeithK
 It Takes All Kinds   

Blanca Peak (14,354') and Ellingwood Point (14,042')

August 7, 2010
Standard routes from 10,300' on the Lake Como "Road"
Elevation Gain: ~4,800
Mileage: ~11
Alone in the Dark

I never wanted to "chase the list", and lose sight of what's really important, which is to have fun and savor the experiences that hiking in the Colorado mountains can offer. Still, this weekend felt more like work than play, as I cast my sole focus on the only Sangre de Cristo Fourteeners that I had yet to climb. My plan was simple, drive high, hike early, get down and get home! It seemed plausible, after having driven to Jaws .5 back in May, and thinking that I could drive further still, shortening the exposure to the heat of the San Luis Valley and ingesting fewer dust particles on the hike out. All I had to do was execute...

Tires met dirt at 9:00 p.m. sharp, and I was lamenting my later than hoped for arrival at the infamous Lake Como Road, known as the Blanca Peak Road in serious four-wheel drive circles. High beams blazing, I pounded my way up the "road", which after the first half-mile or so begins to resemble much more of a goat trail. Heavy summer rains have washed out sections of the thing, making it even worse than it was back in May. I negotiated shadowy obstacles all the way to Jaws .5, and without hesitation, cranked the wheel onto the line I remembered from previous scouting, and hit the gas. It may not have been the most graceful driving, but it sounded worse than it was. That time. The next portion of the torture, err, I mean, journey, involved some rougher road, including a couple of huge rocks just below the last switchback that could severely disable the unaware. Wanting to eliminate any uphill hiking on the way back down, I forged ahead, passing the only really good parking/camping area for quite some time, and committed to about ten more minutes of white-knuckled, innards-shaking, head-pounding punishment. There is a sort of roundabout a few hundred yards before Jaws 1, and I took advantage of the opportunity to finally sit still, hoping my truck's vital fluids would all remain in their appropriate containers, and not on the ground!

Awake at 1:27 a.m., my alarm didn't even need to sound. I worked my way into activity, and was hiking through the darkness just after 2:00, passing Jaws 1 within 10 minutes, and arriving at the creek crossing about fifteen minutes after that. The road seemed much more manageable and went by quickly, perhaps due to the combination of hiking in the dark and having a nice, light daypack in lieu of a heavy overnight pack. Arriving at Lake Como before 4:00, I could barely see the reflection of the lake to confirm its presence as I hiked around and into the trees. The hulking form of Little Bear was present, but barely discernible as I strode along its northern flanks, following the ten feet of dirt and rock in front of me for what seemed like too long. Finally finding the trail, the adventure could really begin. Somehow I had a hard time keeping on route around the waterfall, and had to stop and look in every different direction on more than one occasion, hoping a cairn would magically appear through the blackness. This bumbling approach would continue well into the basin, before the blanket of night would finally begin to lift, revealing the outline of the familiar saddle ahead of me, and the ledges below it, the next major task ahead. Linking cairns together, the route weaves up the ledges, which on this morning were bleeding heavily from the past day's rains. The terrain is slabby and fairly steep, so I took my time and searched out the easiest, driest of routes, finally transitioning from slab to talus, the vast expanse of Blanca Peak rising before me.

Ellingwood Point...

Finally enough light to see back down the basin...

Little Bear finds protection behind its famous northeast ridge...

By now the basin was waking up, and three young hikers caught up to me as I finally reached the ridge. I was happy to let someone else search out the next cairn, and followed them as best I could on old, tired legs. The initial stage of the ridge was much more exposed and rugged than I expected, and the easiest route is to drop down to the right for the first hundred yards or so, before working back to the ridge crest, where the hiking gets a bit easier for a few minutes. As the ridge begins to bend, cairns denote a more direct route to the summit, leaving the crest and heading across the face. The terrain looks more difficult, but really isn't, and after crossing a couple of shallow ribs, the summit is directly overhead, with some brief, almost fun scrambling available if you want it. I took a straight line up, making two or three easy class three moves before walking onto the top.

Finally on the ridge proper...

There's a route to the summit there somewhere...

I joined the group of three on the summit, enjoying the opportunity to visit after several hours of solitary hiking. They were keen on Ellingwood, too, which made me feel a bit better about the day. Looking across the saddle, it looked imposingly steep, without any clearly defined trail, but I expected it would be just like Blanca. I was wrong.

It does look "little" from the summit of Blanca Peak...

The good Sangre Fourteeners are over there...

I've never taken the time to figure out which one is Culebra Peak, but it's over that way somewhere...

Destination: Ellingwood Point...

The descent of Blanca was not bad at first, but grew increasingly more annoying the farther down I went, especially after dropping from the ridge, following the route description's advice to hit the Ellingwood trail below the obvious mine structure a couple of hundred feet below. A silhouette on the ridge just below the summit asked if he was on route, and I simply told him that he was too close to the summit to care at that point. I would later learn that this was Greenhouseguy, as I met his partner, Zoomie83, below on the ridge. It's always interesting to run into people you know out on the trail. In spite of the atrocious road, it was a popular place, as several parties were making their way up both Ellingwood and Blanca. I gave some directions to one group of ladies in particular, who would later have a serious story to tell... I continued to follow the group of three, even as I watched a larger group heading straight up one of the couloirs below the class three ridgeline, not a helmet to be found amongst them. I later heard that they thought they were climbing Blanca. Rocks were being kicked loose, and my only objective was to then get across below them as quickly as I possibly could, wishing I had brought my helmet as well. Crossing below the mine, the route finally clicked into view, as a few small cairns seemed to lead in the right direction. Unfortunately, there really is not a defined trail on Ellingwood Point. Or if there was, the terrain is so loose that it doesn't stay in place for long. This was really some of the worst climbing/hiking I've ever done, and I could not think of any other Fourteener with so much loose rock. This was like climbing a gravel pile, only the rocks were larger and far more dangerous. It was impossible to be efficient, and took me a lot longer than it should have, even as I was tiring rapidly, over seven hours into the hike.

Trying to find something that might resemble a trail...

Nothing but rubble...

A welcome sight just before the summit...

I arrived at the summit, joining two guys that had climbed Blanca earlier, traversed the ridge proper, and now sat on their second Fourteener, ever. In stark contrast, I also shared the summit with two 63-year old gentlemen, who had decades of experience in the mountains. This truly is a hobby that can suit anyone who is willing and able to enjoy it. The inexperienced group of helmet-less climbers also arrived, triggering a rockslide as they descended the prominent notch that splits the summit apart from the ridge. They were all wearing cotton and carrying minimal gear, most only having canteens with them. While I try not to criticize or come across as some sort of mountaineering elitist, and encourage everyone to embrace the outdoors, much of what I saw on this day still bothers me. Cutting switchbacks, throwing rocks at marmots... It really was amateur hour up there, with first timers climbing super dangerous routes, underprepared, but perhaps too brazen to understand just how serious things could get if there was an accident. Which there was, ironically enough, but involving a different climber, one who appeared to be well prepared...

Clouds begin to congregate above the Crestone Group as California Peak begs for attention...

Mt. Lindsey erupts!

I've been there before...

I left the summit with my new friends, Robin and Larry, the two 63-year old gentlemen. We had watched the younger guys depart the summit, opting to descend the third-class southwest ridge, a decision I found a bit puzzling, but hey, if only I was young, fearless and in shape! Or just in shape? Fearless would certainly be a bonus... We chose to stay along the ridge crest on the down climb, at least to the prominent notch that marks the start of the more serious climbing. From there we would follow a winding scree trail down until it petered out about 200 feet below the ridge. It was at this point that I noticed the women from earlier, whom I had spoken with on their way up Blanca, sitting in a notch along one of the prominent ribs that divide the face of the mountain. Robin had met them at camp the day before, and called over to them to say hi, and the woman's response startled me. "She's hurt!" she yelled. I asked if she just said what I thought I heard, but she was already confirming it by telling the 911 operator her location and describing the situation through her cell phone. I honestly did not know what to do. Robin and Larry made their way over to them, while I stood in place, waiting to assess the situation further. A climber was rapidly descending from the ridge, and I could see others on the other side of the rib arriving as well, leading me to the difficult decision to continue my descent, as I could not see any practical reason to become involved. With no medical training, knowing that Search and Rescue had been dispatched, and not carrying much in the way of useful items, I felt that I would only be in the way. As I saw Robin and Larry leaving the group as well, I assumed that they felt that the situation was under control. It was not until much later that the details of the ordeal would come out, shedding light on a situation that was far worse and dangerous than I had guessed.

The ridge is much spicier than I had anticipated, with HUGE exposure to the east!

The descent of Ellingwood Point is horrendous, and I was surprised that I hadn't noticed very many negative comments about it. It really felt like a rock slide waiting to happen. Angling towards the main trail, I finally managed to stumble my way onto better terrain, before hitting the actual trail above the cliff band above Crater Lake. I heard more rock fall, and looked up to see the guys that had started down the ridge were coming straight down the face, having abandoned the ridge already. Not far behind them, the other summit group was also descending steep, dangerous looking gullies, far to the left of the standard route. I was glad to be well clear of them. It was now almost noon, and more people were on their way up, much braver than I am during these monsoon-riddled August days. Finally on the trail below the cliff band, I was home free. Except for several more miles of trudgery, but I was happy to be off of the choss heaps.

Cairns will lead you through the maze...

The emerald waters of Crater Lake...

I think this thing should be ranked, it looks like a more pleasant climb than the others in the area!

The waterfall; the water in the area is certainly a redeeming feature...

Having hiked through the entire basin in the dark, I could suddenly see all sorts of things I hadn't known about earlier. Like the good trail that switchbacks up the headwall next to the waterfall above Blue Lakes. It seemed much easier on the way down, perhaps because I was on it! Completely on auto-pilot, I hiked down the road, encountering ATV riders, hikers and Jeeps, most of which still had their tires touching the ground. One poor guy thought he would drive directly over Jaws 1, and was perfectly perched on top of it, all four tires essentially dangling in mid-air. He and his buddy were getting ready to winch the thing off, somehow, but I didn't stick around to watch, as I knew I had my own vehicular challenge ahead of me. I was performing a 27 point turnaround at 2:30, over twelve hours after beginning my day, ready for the hour-plus ordeal of relentless, angry road. It was just as bad during the day as it had been the previous evening, and I cringed and shuddered continually as I tried to keep my truck in one piece. It was a thorough relief to reach the Wilderness boundary, where two women were hiking down and begged me for a ride, which I certainly obliged. I wish that horrible hike on no-one. Just as I wish that horrible road on no-one, and have developed a less than complimentary opinion of the mountains that it serves. Like the Wilson Group out west, I really doubt I'll ever go back, and I know I'll never drive that road again. I'm lucky to have survived with only a badly battered running board and a punctured sidewall, making the trip much more expensive than an undertaking of Culebra Peak. I'll gladly pay my $100 to climb that mountain again before I will go back to Lake Como.

Stupid road...

Comments or Questions
Well done
08/11/2010 03:36
Nice job on these two Keith, wish I hadn't missed your message or I would have gone with you. Hopefully that woman that was injured is ok. Let me know about the Bells this weekend?

SW Ridge of Ellingwood
08/11/2010 05:28
Congrats on ”checking them off”. You're not alone; a few of the last peaks on my ”list” definitely felt that way. Impressive dayhike nonetheless!

Be thankful the rock-knockers didn't follow you down Ellingwood, though. Right?

Vile Road!
08/11/2010 14:04
Nice write-up Keith. I did a mirror of your trip last year. Running boards on that road can't be a good thing. I think I enjoyed the climb more than you did, only differences being verglass on the ledges to Blanca for some bonus points but I stayed high on the ridge to EP. There's quite a bit of exposure but the rock was very stable up there. My route down was straight off the top and down one of the gullies. Not such a good idea and wouldn't do it again. Your report brought back memories of a great day!

Nice job...
08/11/2010 14:25
...getting both in a day and in good weather! I really like the photo of Little Bear and Crater Lake. Only 4 left! Great TR again.

IF I were to do it again...
08/11/2010 14:37
I would want to climb Ellingwood from the SW ridge, then do the full traverse to Blanca. That would be the most pleasant, and even easiest, way to go I think. I wasn't prepared for a class 3 venture this time, so I was stuck to the standard routes.

devo, I suppose I enjoyed myself, even for the contradictory connotation of my report. Most any day on a 14er is enjoyable, just some of them offer more than others, I think.

James Scott
I remember
08/11/2010 14:52
doing this hike early on in my 14ers career. I was too raw to understand what a sucky road Como is- I actually kind of liked it, and the Blanca summit is still a favorite. Next time I walked the road, I learned to hate it. Thanks for taking me back to both of those days.

Better with a little snow
08/11/2010 15:34
I actually liked those climbs, when there was just enough snow to cement those loose rocks into place!

An honest account ...
08/11/2010 16:14
On your part ... that's one thing I always appreciate in your reports, Keith, you're not going to mince words. Obviously, by looking at my 14er list, I've been victim to that road more than once. 8) But, now I'm done, content with the multiple ascents in that valley, and thankful to be climbing in other locations. Thanks for posting ... your list is getting smaller! Happy trails!

Thanks for the report
08/11/2010 16:49
Had a chance to drive up that road about 3 weeks ago up to Jaws .5 and I was wondering how mamy more miles there was to the top if I decided to hike it. Thanks for info.

Hey Keith
08/11/2010 18:26
Hey this is michael, the youngest of the 3 with you on Blanca! Thanks for helping us to find some sort of trail on Ellingwood. Good hiking with you and good luck on your last few 14ers.

08/11/2010 21:29
I didn't have a whole lot of fun up there either Keith, I think maybe the road put me in a ”mood” Nice report!

If you'd do it over again...
08/12/2010 03:02
Enjoyed your report. I'd like to suggest alternatives to the dreaded Como Rd., which I have yet to experience (and never intend to). The SW ridge to Little Bear is long but avoids the road AND the hourglass. The north route to Blanca via Huerfano River, past the gash (but not the gash route) to Winchell Lakes and up an east ramp will get you Blanca. Very scenic and remote.
Now, we're about to attempt Ellingwood from S. Zapata Lake on the NW next week to finish off all the Sangres but Culebra. All without that stinkin' road!

08/12/2010 20:02
It's funny, I lost BOTH of my running boards on that road.

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