| For the love...Part two
Oh, for the love of the Colorado Mountain tops!
“If you love life, don’t waste time, for time is what life is made up of.”
I thought my plan to hike 42 miles in two days was insane when Joe decided to contribute to the insanity. “Hey Joe, wanna hike into Chicago Basin via Purgatory and bypass the train?” “I’m in, but…you also need to complete the Little Bear Blanca traverse!” The short story is this; five days, seven peaks and one great traverse.
Inspiration is an integral part of climbing and from one mountain muse to another we challenge each other. Joe believes a Fourteener peak-bagger purist can’t claim to have climbed all the mountains if one hasn’t completed all four great traverses. Typically I will avoid temptation, unless I just can’t resist it. You see, I’ve climbed Blanca in winter and Little Bear in spring but the thought of connecting the two solo was daunting. Since meeting Wildman Joe, a little less than a month ago, I had genuine concerns about the technical challenges involved with a far-fetched goal to solo climb all Colorado’s 14ers in one year’s time. Last year Joe climbed Ellingwood to Blanca via Zapata Falls and the Crossfire Couloir so why not together, hike up the dreaded Como road, again, camp, maybe fish then attempt Little Bear’s Northwest face, cross the most difficult of the four great traverses and finish the day on Ellingwood? With proper planning of course, go with the flow and seeing what happens. Fascinating experiences await.
To say I was worried is an understatement. However, I see worry as a part of logic. When I worry, I am more focused and can instinctively predict the future. I will stare at maps all day long and lay out the best of plans but knowing is not enough for me, I must apply. And willing is not enough for me, I must do. After some much needed R&R in Durango we set off for Alamosa. My mighty steed “Roobie” with her 1” lift and rugged tires compliments of Hub the Great (thanks babe!) tackled the infamous Como road. I actually think she can make it to Jaws I but I found a sweet shaded spot for her at 8,900’, I knew she could do it. This now marks my fourth time up Como and I’ve noticed a pattern with the long beat down faces of everyone we pass. The road is tedious, relentless and unkind.
Today again, the weather is threatening but we welcome the shade. The mist cools my red face. We are in no hurry and decide on a leisurely pace. Immediately we cross paths with a hiker who asks, “Hey, you haven’t seen a greenish side-by-side golf cart looking vehicle along the road have you?” “Um, no, sorry.” This gentleman is certain where he parked, unfortunately he left the keys in what he thought was a safe cache but now it is gone. Who gets away with such a crime? Further up the road, a pack of Jeepers are stuck just after Jaws II so we watch as they hitch one vehicle to a tree and pull out, and with trailers attached! Amazing. What was not so amazing was all the litter strewn about. We pick up what we can and vow to get the remaining on the way out. The old shack at the top is filled with junk and I would like to karate chop the person(s) who trash this beautiful place. Wilderness rule #1 the Golden Rule: Pack in and pack out. If you can carry a full six pack up 3,000’, you most certainly can carry it back out empty, right? I suppose whomever litters amongst all this beauty stole that vehicle.
We set camp just east from Como Lake where Little Bear’s Northwest face growls at you. Joe rests in his tent and I decide to go fishing. I see absolutely no activity on the water but I know they’re in there. The stiff easterly wind and misty grey day suppresses all life except the prolific mosquitoes. After a couple relaxing but unsuccessful hours, I have no fish stories to tell and so we settle on a dinner of oatmeal, trail mix, protein bars, mate tea and a military MRE (meal ready to eat) consisting of vegetarian pasta, stale bread and peanut butter. I went to bed hungry. Nighttime falls and the violent wind comes in mountainous waves. From my tiny bivy window I can see the stars and Little Bears’ black silhouette.
Four a.m. comes too soon and we are slow to go because it is pitch black and bitterly cold. I have on every layer of clothing and am thankful I brought all the right stuff. My bivy was moist on the inside from overnight condensation but all my gear was hung properly this time and so I remained warm and dry. We agree that it would be best to have natural light in order to attempt Little Bear’s Northwest face so we hang out in Joe’s tent ‘til sunrise. This route is a sustained 4.0 climb with a couple sections, if you find them, hovering at 5.2 otherwise you could get into some tricky 5.4-5.5 moves. We both studied the route well and know to climb toward the Black Hand then angle right. Once above the Black Hand angle left for the first section of inverted rock. Then angle right again up a gully, then straight up toward the traverse while staying left, which we figure will be a nice wake up call for our second challenge of the day; The Little Bear-to-Blanca Great Traverse. By 0530 we are on our way. Near Blue Lake we run into a fellow and his two dogs and contemplate the safety of climbing Little Bear with dogs. He is definitely climbing Blanca to Ellingwood but after our report of LB's challenges he sticks with his original plan. As we finish our conversation, two climbers also attempting Little Bear catch up and inform us that they’re climbing the traditional gully leading to the West ridge and hourglass and I think this is good to separate since both aspects of the mountain are loose.
The Black Hand is easy to recognize. The first section of climbing is on large loose boulders at a steep angle. Once at the Black Hand the slope pitches steeply and the water polished granite has patches of thin frost that my gloves seem to stick to. Weird. Once above the Black Hand it is time for our first 5.2 pitch. As usual, Joe scrambles up no problem but his body language is proof that I will most certainly struggle. I examine the puzzle and try several routes. My hands only find one good hold meaning one point of contact and I am not comfortable at all. Then, “Crack, Boom, Tumble!” The two gentlemen in the gully ignite the most violent rock slide I’ve ever heard. The slide lasts a solid minute. I am frozen and filled with dread in fear they perhaps got swept away. Then I made the mistake of looking at the air beneath me. There is no way out for me. I tell Joe that I am freaking out. He extends a hand and tells me, “I got you!” I cry, “Are you sure?” I extend my hand and then pull away. I want to get over my fear. I want to climb to the top on my own power but sometimes you need a helping hand and now more than ever I am convinced that from hence forth I will never climb technical mountains solo ever again. I extend my trembling hand once more as Joe easily scoops me up. I am filled with apology and he claims, “That’s why we’re here, to help each other out.” Thanks Joe!
From past the Black Hand to Joe’s helping hand, the remaining task at hand was utterly exciting and exhausting. And speaking of hands and toes; they were frozen solid as the sun lazily crept up past Blanca’s behemoth head. She is a beast towering 300’ taller than her brother Bear. We find the right sided gully and make our way toward the next inverted section. Somehow I am calmer now, partly because I have no other choice but mostly because Joe didn’t make me feel weak for needing help. I take my time over the next tricky section and then the next and then the final pitch comes to view. Every step closer, confidence builds. We finally approach the knife edge and get a good taste of the traverse. We top out at 0715, just under two hours from camp and I think to myself that there is nothing little about Little Bear. On the summit now, we warm up in the morning sun but there is some creepy lingering fog. We get a glimpse of Lindsey for the first and final time and then look left to Blanca. The traverse is illuminated from the South and blackened to the North. More fog rolls in and I’m quietly praying that it isn’t freezing fog along the 13,000’ + traverse. We study the maps again and know to stay true to the ridge as often as possible with a few jaunts left until Captain Bivouaco in which case skirt right.
As expected, the most difficult section is the initial drop from Little Bear’s summit. I prefer to down climb technical with my face to the rock so I can dig my hands into cracks, then wiggle my feet around in search of a good foot hold. There was never a time where I didn’t have at least three points of contact. The safest route on the initial descent to the first knife edge was to stay true to the ridge. Capitol Peak is good practice for the long LB-Blanca knife edge. As we progress along the traverse the route is self-explanatory because there really are no alternatives. The indecent exposure at first is hard to get used to but as you progress becomes a welcomed challenge. The rock is much more stable than El Diente and the Bells but an unstable hold can be found. The knife edge occasionally is more of a small cat walk and tempts you to give it a try. I tell myself to keep my eye on the prize and allow the exposure to test the balance of my blazin’ toes. We approach Captain Bivouaco and decide on a slight down climb to the right then straight to the top. Once on top, the final push comes into view. Excitement swells the closer we get to Blanca; also the exposure eases. Time is a runaway; coming for you…I’m still baffled by how much time slips on by while climbing a mountain. A one mile traverse takes us exactly two hours.
Proudly, we stand atop Blanca and boast in triumph despite the melancholy of fog rolling about. Come back Mr. Sunshine! I decide to save my World Famous celebratory marshmallow sandwich for Ellingwood since Joe brought s’mores. I am in heaven with my feet firmly planted on Blanca’s summit while devouring a s’more, cold even; it’s the best s’more I’ve ever had. Joe and I, in just three weeks have successfully completed three of the four Colorado 14er Great Traverses! I take a good long, hard look at that traverse. How Great thou art. I pinch myself. Yep, this is real. At this moment I feel alive and surmise that mountaineering for me has become a story with no end. Two beautiful majestic mountains crowned and one to go.
The fog is so heavy now that while traversing over to Ellingwood, the entire Eastern sky is a pillowy white abyss. I blame fatigue and lack of oxygen on our next decision. We descend Blanca toward the connecting basin to 13,200 on a bed of giant sized marbles. It is impossible to find the connecting trail, where it appears all who attempt the crossing go willy nilly this way and that. No fun. We re-climb what we can and find the South ridge to Ellingwood where we run into the nice fellow and his two chipper dogs. He is surprised to see us expecting that with little doubt we’d attempt the Blanca to Ellingwood traverse considering our day’s achievements. Just when I think my legs have no more to give, we finally summit Ellingwood. I am amused at the phallic cairn on top. Clearly whoever has this much humor at 14,042 feet is also oxygen deprived. I devour my marshmallow sandwich and because of my oxygen deprivation forget all about my celebratory push-ups. Now there are just three 14ers left for me to complete my goal of 58 in one year. Or 57. Will I become an ABCer? All but Culebra? Hmmm. Most definitely, my final two will be the mighty, mighty Crestones with the final great traverse. Joe and I reminisce in our achievements together and solo. Joe is well on his way to complete his 58 and never in his Wildman dreams expected this much success in one summer.
Time to descend now. We sensed a bit of disappointment from our fellow climber and to make him proud decide to traverse back toward Blanca for our final descent and a grand slam of a day. An easier option to skirt west is available but in Wildman Joe and Blazin’ Toe Amy fashion, we like our rough ridges so up, up, up and away we go. What a hoot. I’d most certainly recommend to all future climbers to choose the ridge while traversing to Ellingwood or vice versa from Blanca, which is a good appetizer to the LB-Blanca traverse. Within 30 minutes we are at the saddle and with one last look behind, saunter down the long basin back toward our Como base camp with uncontainable jubilation and exaltation. Hip Hip Hooray! We once again run into our fellow climber and he is excited to report that the two that caused the rock slide are down safe. We are excited to inform him that he encouraged us to take the traverse back down. He is finally impressed.
Back at base camp now, we snack, we drink, we pack, pick up the litter and by ten past five o’clock, at last spot Roobie for a solid 12 hour day. A celebration is in order where we discuss, what’s next?
To be continued…
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