| Sangre de Cristo: 5 in 4
This is my trip report for the summits of Blanca, Ellingwood, Little Bear, Lindsey, and Culebra in that order. This being my first report, you should know I consider myself a novice climber, with my toughest (and first) 14er climb up to now being Long's Peak. Besides observing all the established climbing and safety rules I have an additional rule for myself which I obviously refer to as rule #1: no unnecessary risks.
My original plan was to leave Longmont at noon but it ends up being 1pm, then I loose another hour in Denver on a personal detour so I'm already 2 hrs behind schedule. The daylight cushion I'd given myself is already gone and I know my 4banger Jeep isn't going make up for it in the highway, worse yet, it's really windy and I'm going against it. Progress is painfully slow so I decide to play some 80's and 90's music to pass the time, that would prove to be a mistake…
I finally make it to Lake Como road around 7pm, and it's time for the Jeep to shine, no issues until around 8,800 ft (right where Bill M. says the road turns nasty), I fail on the first attempt and figure maybe this is a good spot to park it, I take a closer look and figure it's worth trying again, success. If you can make it past this spot then it's easy driving until 9,800 except for a single spot where you have the option to hug either the left or right sides to cross, I went right and made it just fine, looks worse than it really is. At 9,800 I have to stop to let some hikers through and lose all my momentum…I'm done. I park at a safe spot and decide it's time to walk.
Boots on the ground at 8pm, 9,800 ft. I figured I have roughly 1.5 hrs of daylight left and roughly three miles to go. I chose a good spot to park it turns out as no more than a quarter mile there's a really rough turn that I don't think the jeep could have navigated, keep this in mind for later in the report…
I keep moving on but I'm starting to doubt if I'll make it before daylight, worse yet, it's dark enough that I can see lightning flashes behind me and the thunder isn't that far behind it. It's now 10:30 and no lake Como yet so I decide to camp and figure it out next day, another good call as the rain comes in as soon as I set up tent.
6am start, the original plan had me tackling Little Bear first but I changed it deciding to combo quickly and rest for the remainder of the day. As it turns out, I camped 150 yards away from the lake, it was just too dark for me to see it the previous night. Easy, beautiful hike through the lakes, columbines in full bloom along the cascade and all around easy trekking until crater lake. It gets a little rough from here on but still class 2. In my modified plan I was going to do Ellingwood first, but before I have time to think about this I find myself already in the saddle (nice surprise) but closer to Blanca, oh well, Blanca it is!
The climb up to Blanca I would consider a good intro to class 2, and you can even practice some class 3 moves along the ridge if you wish. On the summit at 8:45 and not a soul nearby. Windy and cool, white puffy clouds in the distance, there's no other place I'd rather be right then.
On the Blanca summit, Ellingwood is next
Ellingwood and the connecting ridge
I had already decided to traverse rather than climb down and up Ellingwood so let's go. The route down to the saddle is no different, Bill M.'s report is spot on (I did the 'easy' traverse) and other than a few simple class 3 moves no difficulties of any kind. once you reach the ridge again I would consider this climb easier than Blanca in terms of difficulty and with the added bonus of 300 vertical feet shorter.
On the summit at 10:45am, this is my 11th fourteener and for the first time no wind to speak of, absolutely gorgeous, peaceful and quiet. A cloud system is developing right in front of me so I decide to take a picture before I loose the scenery. I pull out my miniature tripod with retractable legs and set it on a stable rock. Note to self: next time you set up your camera on a rock with a cheap tripod, make sure it's surrounded by solid ground. Just as I hit the snapshot button on the remote I see the back leg is retracting…and there goes the camera! Plack! Smack! Pop! (insert your favorite Batman TV series action sequence here).
The only decent shot I got while on Ellingwood
As I approach to survey the damage, I expect to see (if I can even see that far) a couple hounded pieces of what used to be my HD camcorder, much to my surprise however it appears to still be in one piece after a 40 ft. fall. Rule #1 check: pass. OK, let's go retrieve the camera from the North face. "Drop protection enabled" says the screen when I open it, quick look reveals a single crack along the edge of the screen, I have no idea how it could have fallen that much and sustain so little damage.
Surveying the damage
From Blanca I was able to make out the Ellingwood trail and I made a mental map of it since I'd need it for the descent. Well, I think I suffered a memory fault because no more than 200 vertical feet down I lost it and never regained it until the ledges, I think my mistake was descending too quickly rather than staying near the ridge for a while (until the traverse option has you drop) and then descend. Well I guess I can say I took the scenic route.
Day 1 unfortunate song stuck in head: Glory of Love - Peter Cetera
I'm definitely nervous and exited about this one ("nice but scary…like Santa" my kids would say). The gully to gain the ridge looks daunting at first, but once you start making progress turns out to be no more difficult than Long's Trough. I chose to stay well to the right where the rock is more stable, good choice and no issues gaining the ridge. My guess is the left side would have been just as fine but I naturally tend to gravitate to the right since I'm left-brain dominant, I know, it makes no sense.
On top of the gully, looking down
Cool-beats-recalled-from-memory-to-reach-the-ridge-and-finally-remove-unfortunate-song-stuck-in-head-from-day-1: Deadmou5 & others
Let's talk about the ridge, pretty straight forward though once on the way back I would find out there are actually two well-defined (and cairned) routes, standing on the ridge's notch I saw a cairn trail roughly 50-70 ft. below the ridge line, this is what I followed going in and would have to say it's the more difficult route (still very much class 2 though)
To gain the easier route you literally need to climb onto the top of the ridge, you will not see any cairns right away but there are definite signs of human traffic, just look carefully and you'll find them, soon after that you'll notice the cairns, this route is a little closer to the ridge and drops only when necessary to keep it class 2. It also comes with the added bonus of stopping by the two other notches in the ridge with great views of the lakes along the Blanca trail.
Midway through the ridge
Looking down through one of the notches
One thing to note about the lower ridge trail, midway through it I came across a spot where one hardcore soul decided to spend the night, the ground looked freshly disturbed and was a perfectly flat rectangle in an otherwise rocky landscape, so anybody wishing to spend the night with the bear should follow the lower trail.
I don't recall at what time I made it to the bottom of the hourglass, but it was still fully in the shadow, "holy shit!" is my first reaction. There's a guy (forgot his name) that tells me there's a group of 4 who came from the northwest face at the top and no one else, so I have the entire hourglass to myself, he also says something to the effect of "putting your hands and feet on the wet rock and hoping they will hold…good luck" and he's gone. I take another look at the lower, narrow section, it's got water flowing on it and the rope which up until now I was counting on ends a good 30-50 ft. above it. Rule #1 check: fail. One slip here and you slide anywhere from 10-50 ft. to certain injury or worse. This is not looking good.
I'm already here, so I take my time and look for alternatives, it was probably only 5 minutes but it felt like an hour. Finally I see a route that hugs the left side of the wall, though once you commit to the left there's no leaving it. I perform my rule check and conclude it's too close to call, it's a calculated risk. Decision: take it 2-3 step at a time and re-evaluate, turn back if threshold is exceeded. That's exactly what I did, when on class 3 I usually look at a spot 10-15 ft. away and create a point A to B route, then repeat when I get there. Here, it's more like 3-4 steps. Fear and adrenaline kick in, and for some unknown reason Tears for Fears' Shout is banging in my head, I can live with that, especially the part about letting it all out. Felt like forever, but I make it. By the time I can slide towards the center I'm already at the rope's anchor, yup looks pretty solid to me, too bad I couldn't use it.
Decision time again left or right, Bill's report says the left is easier, so naturally I should follow that, but for some reason I keep looking right and somehow, once again, I gravitate to it. And by right I mean I really kept it right, I probably increased the difficulty a bit but I stayed on solid rock until about 50 ft. from the top and didn't cause a single rock fall, the last section I move fast (but safe) trying to keep my momentum on the loose rock, I finally reach the top at 10:30 without fully realizing what I have just accomplished, I'm physically and mentally exhausted, and it feels awesome!
I spent 5-10 minutes with the group of 4 on top when they decide to come down the hourglass, never got their names but double hats-off to the girl in the group, she was wearing TENIS SHOES!!! And before any of you out there start criticizing, let me just say she looked like she knew what she was doing, the clothes, gear, company, all giveaways…dang!
On the summit, looking at Blanca and Ellingwood
After another 30 minutes at the top I begin my descent, no need to change what worked for me on the way up so I stay as close to my original route as I can, when I reach the rope I can still see the group navigating the narrow section, so I take a seat, wait and study their moves, same way I came up, perhaps because they listened to me, but likely because it was the only sane way to go.
Soon they're gone and it's my turn, I'm still bummed I didn't get to use the rope on the way up so I decide to use it to lower me part of the way then swing over to the left (right as you now look down), I'm quickly reminded not to change a good thing, the rope above me loosens a rock and hits me right in the knee, nothing serious but a warning sign, don't get cute. 'Shout' returns but I'm paying too much attention to the rock to care what bangs in my head, could've been Kenny-G and I wouldn't care, I want to get out of here in one piece. When I reach the bottom I feel I sense of relief like never before, I'm at the bottom of the hourglass in one piece and only caused a single rock fall.
I decide to take a rest right where I'm at and I start thanking God, Allah, Buddha, Krishna, and any other deity I can think of, when all of a sudden I hear something above me, I look up and it's a rock coming straight at me, with no time to move I drop face down tuck in my arms and lead with my helmet, the rock tags me in the shoulder plate. That would be the warning, I take a couple of steps down and realize there's a nice cover spot right below where I had dropped, "I could've used this" I say to myself. Take another 2-3 steps down and now I'm hearing multiple things, this time as I look up there's a meteor shower of rocks all coming my way, I lunge at the hiding spot and turn myself into a marmot-sized human ball (realistically, there was enough room for 2-3 persons there, but for some reason I still felt like there wasn't enough room for me). Soon it's all over and I get the message, I'm solo and pushing my luck, I need to get out of the way. As soon as I say that a detachment from the gully adjacent to the hourglass (that you have to cross to get in/out of there) sends a very large rock down making a horrific buzzing sound 20-30 yards in front of me, I cross that talus field in olympic record-setting time and keep moving fast until I'm at the lake, it will then take several hours for the adrenaline to wear off.
It's getting late and I still need to get off Lake Como and head for the Lindsey TH when I hear the sound that brings a smile to any grown man, a rock crawler; better still, 4 rock crawlers in formation. Figuring I built enough credit on the way up from 9,800 ft. I ask them for a ride down to the Jeep, how could I pass this opportunity? I find myself riding with John and his absolutely awesome crawler, he's got years behind the wheel of these monsters and it shows, nothing stops us as we're on the lead, behind us is Robert (I think) and his Dad on the passenger side, funny fellow keeps saying we need to get to a liquor store and asks directions from passing hikers going into the lake, he asks me if I'm carrying any Vodka, I offer him a granola bar. I feel we're getting closer, yes, we pass the rough turn just above where the Jeep should be (remember this?) when we hear on the radio "Back up! back up! he's rolled it!!!" John puts the crawler in reverse and goes back up in hair raising speed, far quicker than I feel comfortable, we get there and the crawler behind us lays on its side with Robert's dad pinned against the rock. We fear the worse as his arm was outside the roll cage and could be crushed, but due to sheer luck (or a miracle) a large rock stopped the top of the roll cage from fully making contact with the ground, giving dad enough room to slide his arm back inside, he's banged up his right arm but otherwise fine, I find it ironic that the guy who keeps asking where the liquor store is could use some rubbing alcohol right about now.
I thank the crawler guys, load the Jeep, and head for Mt. Lindsey. Last minute I find out I don't have to take 160 east all the way back to Walsenburg, then 69 to Gardner. Rather, just before La Veta Pass I grab "Pass Creek Rd" which is clearly marked on 160 and it cuts on a NE direction, it dead ends on the paved road that Bill M.'s report mentions, hang a left and after a mile the paved road turns into the 580 dirt road, I think I just shaved about 1 hour driving time, very nice indeed. I reach the TH without any issues just before dark and once again I set up tent right as it starts raining. I meet Alex who is also planning on summiting the next morning, "see you there tomorrow", time to catch some very needed zzz's.
6:45 start, later than I wanted but had a hard time getting up. Progress is easy at first but slows as soon as I start gaining altitude my legs begin to complain for the first time but I tell them to keep moving, uneventful until 12,000 ft. when I reach treeline and the vast expanse of the subalpine tundra, absolutely gorgeous. I look up and it doesn't look good, gray clouds are approaching but no thunder or lightning, press on.
The climb up to 13,000 ft. just below the ridge kicks my butt, worse the clouds are right on top of me now, never having been caught up in bad weather before I sense bad things, rule #1 check fails. I check my cell and I have coverage, bring up NOAA and find there's an advisory for lightning and hail in my area, crap. Again, not having experience in these situations I panic and head down back to 12,000. I pass Ruth and Tony on the way down who decide to wait it out (she's got 40+ 14ers under her belt), not rookie me. Drizzle at first then rain, I find a rock-cave shelter and wait, I can see Ruth and Tony at roughly 12,500 and I'm waiting for them to make a move, 30-45 minutes pass by and they start moving, clouds dissipate and it's clear again, double-crap, I just descended 1,000 vertical feet for nothing.
Climb back up through the tundra and come across Alex who's already on the way down! Wow, you sir are a machine, "stay on the right side of the gully" he says and he's gone. I gain the ridge without incidents, easy climb up to the gully. I'm now really starting to hate scree, so I take Alex's advise. Much more stable but increased the difficulty to class 3, still I feel comfortable and prefer this to sliping and sliding on unstable rock. I reach the top of the gully, whaaaat! There's another one! That wasn't on Bill's report! Oh crap, yes it is I just chose to ignore it. Well, keep right and move on, slow but steady progress. Reach the false summit and it's time for the final push, I summit at 12:30 and I'm exhausted, I'm really feeling the extra 1,000 ft.
On Lindsey's summit, overlooking Little Bear, Blanca and Ellingwood from left to right
The descent is entirely uneventful except for the fact that I really want to get back to camp pack my stuff and move on to Culebra, my legs are really burning up now and I'm starting to think that maybe I should call it off, but 4 in 3 doesn't sound nearly as cool as 5 in 4 and so I head for the Cielo Vista Ranch. Back through Pass Creek Rd., Ft. Garland, San Luis, Chama and finally there around 8:00, just enough light to set up tent and have my only meal of the day: tomato chipotle pasta with chicken, not bad but this dehydrated stuff is starting to get old. I meet the rest of the group going up the next day, Todd, Gordy, Leslie, Connie, Gary and Ben. Among them they probably have close to 200 14ers, I'm definitely the rookie having just completed #13. Leslie and Connie convince me that I can use the extra 1,000 ft. credit from Lindsey and apply it tomorrow so rather than parking at four-way I should go all the way to the upper parking spot, sounds like a good idea to me...
5:20 wake up, bad night didn't get good rest with muscle pain in my back but the legs feel surprisingly refreshed, let's do it! 6am the gates open and like a horse race everyone wants to go first, I end up going last but somehow I'm one of the first after checking in at the cabin, on the drive up I keep thinking of certain folks (and fellow climbers) back home who are not going to let me have it if I take the Jeep to the upper parking, so I park at four-way and start my final climb, reach the upper parking just fine, this is going to be easy!
I'm not even half way up the climb to gain the ridge and I'm already sucking air, I'm drinking more water than I should (meaning I know I'm depleting my reserves) but nothing is helping, I'm taking shorter and shorter steps and not making much progress, after an eternity I finally gain the ridge. Either Leslie or Connie comes up and cheers me up, for the first time the whole trip I feel an urge to check the gps and see how high we are, 13,500 ft. That's the best news all day, there's only ~600 vertical feet left! "We'll be there in 45 minutes tops" I remember saying, what a fool.
Finally gain the top of the ridge and I can see the summit way out there in the distance, crap! This is not good, "I need more power" I say, "I'm giving it all she's got captain!" my legs respond. Midway through we come across a huge cairn, for some reason the first thought that pops into my head is 2001: A Space Oddessey, and I suddenly feel an urge to dance wildly around it. I realize I'm starting to get delusional so I slap myself, "focus on the task at hand".
After a second eternity I can almost feel the summit, Gary and Ben have been keeping me company through this portion but they've now taken off after a rest, so I'm solo but no worries the summit is right there, another 20-30 vertical feet, and I finally make it…
Not holy, just plain old cow (or perhaps even horse) SHIT!!! A false summit, now Culebra pops up in the distance, and for the first time I let myself think "I can't do this". I have nothing left physically, I've depleted all my energy reserves and I know I'm running low on water, I started with ~2.75 liters and I'm down to a few sips. From this point on it's all a psychological battle to get myself out there, and for the first time ever I feel the altitude, both my arms get tingly and I got a headache. I finally reach the summit at about 10am after the most grueling 3.5 hours of my (limited) climbing experience. Yes I feel relief and accomplishment but nowhere near that of the other peaks, the only thing I want to do is come down.
On Culebra's summit, the smile is mostly for the camera
I spend just a few minutes resting and having a snack, at this point I can personally vouch for Honey Stinger chews giving you a good boost of energy. Take a few pictures and ask anyone if they have any extra water they can spare, Gordy comes through for me and shares 500 ml (I was down to 50 ml at most). High fives and hand-shakes from the group, I apologize but I need to get myself down as I'm still feeling the altitude, as soon as I lose altitude I'm feeling better, still absolutely exhausted but at least I no longer feel sick. After a third and final eternity I reach the Jeep at four-way, Gordy and Todd are already there in far better shape than me, Gordy has the humanity to ask me if I'm alright or I need more water, dude you da man.
The return trip home to Longmont is entirely uneventful except for two biblical downpours in Walsenburg and C. Springs and a stop in Pueblo at Chipotle for some barbacoa soft tacos, a bag of chips, and lots, lots of iced tea.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):