| Lake Como or Bust!
My goal for this trip were Blanca and Ellingwood Peaks, weather and fitness permitting. As I had been in the area for a few days staying above 7,500ft, I had been able to acclimatize better and felt much stronger than earlier in the week when I climbed Kit Carson and Challenger Peaks, so I figured the latter would be less of an issue now.
Located southeast of the Kit Carson and Challenger, Blanca Peak and its neighbors Ellingwood and Little Bear Peaks soar over the San Luis Valley and along with the Crestones, provide a stunning, contrasting backdrop to the Great Sand Dunes, north of Alamosa. This is especially true when fresh snow caps their summits.
As viewed from Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge, the Blanca massif towers up above the richly colored grasslands of the Rio Grande wetlands and is striking when bathed in late afternoon sunlight. I believe Blanca is that highest peak in the middle of the group to the right of the photo.
The original plan was to hike in on day one, set up camp near or above Lake Como and go for both Blanca and Ellingwood early the next morning.
After hearing of the bear activity in the campgrounds over the several days before I was to hike up, I opted to just dayhike the peaks from the base of the road and avoid the potential problems with Yogi getting into my tent, etc. This meant I’d be climbing up the infamous Lake Como Road from around 8,000ft. For those of you who are not aware, this road is prized as a Four-Wheelers playground and a popular spot for heavily modified 4x4s and ATVs to test their mettle against its harder obstacles found higher up the road and is one of the rougher “roads” in the state, and I use the term ‘road’ loosely.
To prepare for my now epic dayhike, I lightened my pack, removed all my camping and overnight gear and planned to hit the “trailhead” very early on Friday morning. To save weight, I figured I’d carry 2 liters of water and get the rest in the creeks and streams working my way up.
Given that the roundtrip would be roughly 16 miles with 6,500+ gain, and wanting to be off the summits by 11AM, I figured I’d need to start early. As I contemplated this trip, I compared it the amount of effort needed to climb Mt. Whitney in one day (22mi/6100+ft gain), so figured I’d start by at least 3AM if not earlier to be sure. I picked 2AM.
There was also a new moon occurring in the next 24hrs, so I could count on no help from the man in the moon to guide me up the trail. So, waking up at 1:15AM, and arriving at the bottom of the road in the pitch black night I started out into the darkness. I felt strong, averaging 200+ ft more per hour than I did earlier in the week up Willow Creek, and I was determined to get up there before weather moved in.
As I got up roughly +1600ft, there was a fork in the Lake Como road; with the main road taking a 90 degree turn to the right and another section continuing straight ahead. I pondered what to do first, then chose to keep right. There was also the words “CREW” spelled on the ground made from small stones with an arrow pointing to the right (as of July 30, 2011 anyway). I thought this was the way, though at the time, was not sure what “CREW” referred to.
This is a shot of where the CREW sign is in daylight (and the first switchback). Note the small arrow to the left of the photo: TURN RIGHT here!
Note the sky in the second photo - I took these as I was hiking down later in the afternoon.
After walking up another quarter of a mile, I saw the following Forest Sign which warned that the road was closed to Motor Vehicles, which perplexed me as this road was such a popular destination for 4x4s.
I sat for several minutes wondering what to do, thinking I must then be on the wrong road.
I backtracked and then went up the other direction, losing another 300-400ft of elevation. After hiking up this for a few hundred yards, I thought the road looked too narrow and overgrown and not as heavily traveled as it should have been, and figured it was a private drive. Rather than being met by an armed angry landowner in the middle of the night, I considered my options.
I was now confused and thought there was a major turn-off that I had missed. Not knowing for sure which way to go and not wanting to hike all the way up a road which was a wrong way, wasting my legs for tomorrow (my last day here), I reluctantly turned around to head back to my car. I was back at my car before 5:00AM. Man, what a waste of a morning I was thinking.
As soon as I got back I called all the Forest Service Personnel and Rangers in the area to get some more color on the path up to Lake Como. Few of those I spoke with knew what I was referring to with regard to the Forest Service sign or the CREW lettering.
After a few more calls and inquiries made on this site, I discovered that the U.S. Forest sign was aimed at warning vehicles to stay on the road only and just not to venture off the actual road into the brush. Apparently there was trail work being done on the trail higher up and several individuals had gotten confused which way to go (I know how they felt!).
So, the CREW sign gave the trail crew guidance on getting up the road to the basin.
So, with that settled I now aimed for repeating this on Saturday morning to go up. Given the recent bear activity, I thought it wise to get some bear spray, something I normally haven’t used in Colorado. Montana, Wyoming, yes, but not here…
With a sense of déjà vu, and with a good night’s sleep behind me, I arrived at the bottom of the road on Saturday morning at 1:30AM this time, felt fresh and with a few bites of a Powerbar, was ready to go and off hiking up the road under the light of my headlamp. There wasn’t another soul to be seen nor heard.
I was determined to get up this road! This was roughly the view I had for about four hours in the darkness.
Shortly after beginning, I heard the howls, yelps and blood curdling screams of a pack of Coyotes, seemingly gathered nearby, something that ordinarily would not have given me any pause. However, after reading the recent article about the pack of coyotes that killed a hiker walking alone in Canada, this made be a bit nervous. Mountain Lions, Bears, now coyotes…I felt like I was off to see the Wizard…
I knew exactly where to go now, so the first couple of miles went quickly. However, things seemed to be going too smoothly, this would soon change.
As my senses were on already on DEFCON 1, any little movement or noise this morning quickly caught my undivided attention. I heard something “heavy” moving in the brush along side the road, not far into the bush. An angry coyote sneaking up on me? A Bear? Bigfoot?...whatever it was I was armed and popped the safety off my bear spray…well, nothing happened and I didn’t hear anything any longer. I sat silent, waiting. A bat flew past my head as if to give me the signal ALL CLEAR. I moved on.
After taking care of some business, I had laid my poles on the road making some adjustments, before bending down to pick them up. As I kneeled down into the night to pick them up, all I could think about was the advice I’ve always read about never bending down when a mountain lion is near so as not to appear like easy prey and try to appear large. …So, as I bent down and grabbed the poles, all at once with the suddenness of a firecracker going off, I heard this incredibly loud hiss and muffled shrill! I had no idea what it was, though was suspecting a mountain lion which had been quietly stalking me! Simultaneously, I jumped back and yelled, my hand instinctively reaching for my Benchmade knife strapped to my chest as I slowly turned around to see what was there... Nothing.
I soon realized it was not a predator, but that I triggered the bear spray on my belt when I kneeled down and subsequently shot myself with it point blank. It was about 2:45AM, I am standing in a cloud of oleoresin capsicum. Of course, there was no wind to dissipate it away. The stream hit me on two places; my pant leg and inside my short shirt sleeve up into my armpit and onto my chest.
I was able to move away from the cloud of pepper spray pretty quickly and after washing my mouth and nose out, the burning stopped shortly thereafter, though I would have a nice stain on my thigh which upon every rest stop, the vapors of which would rise and sting my eyes and nose like a thousand burning pins and bring about short-lived coughing fits. This little episode took about 20 minutes to recover from, at least from a nasopharyngeal perspective. I used up some of my precious water to flush my face. Feeling like an idiot, I continued up.
As I walked up, however, I realized all was not right. My leg was starting to feel tingly and my right side of my body which received the brunt of the ‘attack’ was downright on fire. With each stream crossing (not many until the basin) I doused my upper body in cold water to dull the pain. It only temporarily helped and this continued the remainder of the climb. As you walk towards the basin, there are several lakes, which from my current viewpoint, each providing a moment of cooling off, so I took the opportunity when reaching each one to douse the fire that felt like was consuming my body. This constant stopping ate up valuable time, but unfortunately was necessary. I continued on.
Along the road, I passed several vehicles that made it up as far as they could, parked here and there from the 8,000ft mark to maybe 10,500ft or so. The road got more hardcore after this point. I also saw an occasional body part from unsuspecting vehicles that bit off more than they could chew.
Walking up the road up in the dark, my headlamp attracted just about every moth in southern Colorado and made me feel quite popular as various species of flying insect accompanied me up the hill. In turn, I think this congregation of insects around my head attracted several bats to come feast on them. It was an interesting morning...
Lake Como Road becomes much of the hike up and you will become intimately familiar with it. There will be about 4000ft of gain before reaching the lake; This is more gain than some 14er routes have and the road itself can be considered a Class 2 climb in some spots, for hikers! After walking this road all the way to 12,200ft, any truck/driver combination that gets to the basin has my respect.
Lake Como arrives first, around which you’ll find several campsites, and presumably, given recent reports, several enthusiastic, well-fed black bears. The Blue Lakes are next, followed by a small lake which is connected to Crater Lake, a teal colored body of water which was stunning to behold in the morning light.
Moving on, despite the feeling that someone had a blowtorch to my right torso, I felt strong, was making good time and by sunrise, I was above Crater Lake looking at the alpine cirque in front of both peaks.
Ellingwood is more visible at this point, Blanca being a bit more shy, not revealing itself until you are close. Blue lakes were below me reflecting the predawn sky. Winds were calm and the chirps of pika and marmot reverberated in the basin below.
After some minor routefinding targeting a spot a bit to the right of the Blanca and Ellingwood saddle, I made my way up through the talus to ridge. I chose Blanca first
and moved towards to the right side of the headwall leading up to the ridge. Cairns mark much of the way, but be warned that there are several “routes” some more direct than others, while others might be steeper and less direct. Choose your route wisely here. The consequences of wrong route are not that severe, but will definitely add to you time climbing and diminish your enjoyment as you navigate over sliding boulders and rough, loose terrain.
Reaching the ridge was a good psychological moment as you are very close now. The route up Ellingwood is right in front of you looking north. Views from the ridge were wonderful as I was able to look down into both valleys at this junction.
The remaining climb up to Blanca looked straightforward, and generally consisted of Class 2+, easy Class 3 rock depending on how far you were in relation to the ridge. Nothing stood between me and the summit.
It was easy to stay away from any major exposure here on most of the route, just stay to the right going up (left coming down). Towards the top, there is some ‘airiness’ but nothing that last too long. After surmounting a minor false summit or two and using some careful foot placement, I found myself on the top of Blanca and from what I could gather was the first one on top today. It was about 8:30AM.
As expected, the summit view from the top was spectacular. The Little Bear-Blanca ridge was entirely visible to the southwest, while Ellingwood’s ridge dominated the northern view.
On top I had my eagerly anticipated Summit Snickers and considered climbing Ellingwood next as I enjoyed the summit for a few minutes taking it all in.
The hour was early, the weather seemed ok, though there were some faint clouds forming and I felt solid, despite the burning feeling still impacting my right side.
As I downclimbed Blanca, I reached the saddle and more clouds were forming. Several other folks were now coming up, most of whom camped near the lake the night before, some with some good bear stories to relay, including a couple of guys who mentioned a bear was sitting in their tent earlier and another who mentioned that a bear ran off with their sleeping bag. I suppose that bear will have a particularly comfortable hibernation this winter.
As I moved to the start point to head up Ellingwood, it was about 10:00AM and clouds started to move over Ellingwood’s summit in a disconcerting fashion. I really wanted to go up, I was here and full of energy. I sat a few minutes to see if it was merely some transient wisps moving over, but it seemed to continue, and looking up the climb, though probably not too hard, would have taken a good 60-90 minutes to get up and down to get back where I stood, plus the time it would take to get back down below treeline, sheltered from any pending electrical storms. The pain was also getting somewhat intense and I wanted to get that treated.
I reluctantly opted to head down and do Ellingwood another day.
Moving past Crater Lake again, in the morning light was quite nice and reminded me of the colors of lakes in New Zealand
In the photo below, note the orange stain from the bear spray on my leg. A good deal of pain is still hiding behind that posed grimace.
Coming up upon what I think were the Blue lakes was equally stunning, but in a different way, as they were almost perfect mirrors for the terrain around them. Virtual postcards.
About 45 minutes into my hike down, I started to hear thunder and saw the first lighting bolts hitting nearby peaks. While I felt nervous to still be above treeline, I felt far better having decided to move down rather than climbing up.
The Lakes gained quite a bit of color from this morning. Note the two modified trucks up top. Both had roll cages, diamondplating, removed doors, etc.
Looking back over Little Bear, the skies indeed were turning angry and within the next hour, thunder would become more frequent. I was hoping many of the people I saw also decided to head down. By the time I was at the trailhead later, the peaks behind me and the Great Sand Dunes would be enveloped in a dark thunderstorm.
As I headed down the road, I was treated to some Four Wheeling action as a few folks were testing their mettle (and metal) against the Lake Como Road.
I happened to run into them as they tackled “Jaws 2.5” one of the more difficult sections of the road. There was one Jeep and three Toyotas in various stages of modification. Each had a couple of spotters helping them navigate the road.
As the road itself becomes such an integral part of this climb, here are some shots of the road that you’ll experience walking up. You will become very close with the road...
Lastly, for those inquiring minds, As soon as I reached my car, I made a beeline to the pharmacy to get something for this burning. I was contemplating either the local Fire Department or Police Station as I figured they’d have first aid experience with pepper spray if this didn’t work. (As MUni Rider can testify to!)
They recommended some soap and water and aloe gel with lidocaine. As it turned out, after some more research, I found whole milk and Dawn dish soap was rumored to work better, so I bought some and spent the next two hours washing myself in Milk and Dawn! Luckily, by the time I was in bed, the pain subsided enough to permit me to sleep. However, the acute pain lasted over 15 hours – longer than the entire climb up and down.
The total trip took about 12.5 hrs trailhead to trailhead, or I should say car to car, since I wasn’t really sure where the trailhead began. The walk up and down the road was really no worse than other trailhead roads I've walked up, maybe a bit longer, but the scenery along the road was nice and made for a good physical challenge and test of endurance to get up!
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):