Mountain: Little Bear Peak; Ellingwood Point and Blanca Peak Route:
Day 1: Lake Como approach
Day 2: Little Bear's Hourglass
Day 3: Ellingwood Point's South Face, Class III traverse to Blanca Peak's Northwest Ridge and return home RT Elevation: ~8,500' (over 3 days) RT Distance: ~15 Miles (over 3 days)
The flaming car on I-25 was just the start of our adventure. (photo by Speth)
Road Info: The Lake Como Road, which is officially named the Blanca Road, has a few parking areas along the route. In terms of four wheeling, the road gets progressively worse so drive until you start to feel uncomfortable and then pull over. The first mile of the road is flat and should accommodate any passenger vehicle (barring torrential rain fall). After approximately one mile, the road turns into baby heads, a collection of rounded rocks about the size of a cantaloupe. After a few hundred yards of baby heads, the road turns into a typical 4x4 road on which most SUV's should be able to drive to ~8,800'. I parked my '98 stock Jeep Cherokee around 8,860'. Around 9,000', there is a metal sign that states that the road has been adopted by the Creeper Jeepers Gang 4WD Club of Durango signaling the beginning of the switchbacks. The majority of SUV's should park at or before this location. Along the switchbacks portion of the road your parking options become limited to the corners of the actual switchback. After the switchbacks, the road requires modified vehicles to continue.
The Trail to Lake Como
The actual hike up the Blanca Road to Lake Como wasn't as bad as I had imagined. It's certainly a difficult jeep trail but not a terrible hike. There were a few sections where the rock was very loose but most of the road provided fairly stable hiking conditions.
Hiking up the switchbacks.
Speth poses on Jaws 0.5.
Extraterrestrial Visitors in the Night
Lake Como is a great place to witness UFO sightings.
After 4 hours of hiking, Speth and I made it to the lake, picked a campsite and cooked dinner as the sun was setting. As we were setting up camp, a Japanese man from Minnesota came over and introduced himself as "Kei". He said that he had been climbing on his 3 week vacation and had just climbed Grand Teton a few days prior. He planned to climb Litttle Bear in the morning. I invited him to join us for the climb but he said he would feel more comfortable doing the entire climb during the daylight. He also added that he wasn't used to the elevation and wouldn't be able to keep up with us. I highly doubted that.
We crawled into our tent to get some shut eye for an early Little Bear departure in the morning. We were exhausted after a long day of driving combined with the hike up the road to Lake Como. Around 11:00pm, I was awakened by the sound of thunder in the distance. At first I tried to ignore the booming noise but it kept getting louder and louder. I sat up in my tent, half asleep and peered across the lake to see a string of colorful flashing lights hovering above the water. It appeared to be a UFO, levitating across the water. Was I dreaming? I shook my head, slapped my face and fully woke up. A string of three jeeps were approaching Lake Como with blue headlights, red taillights, white KC Lights, and what appeared to be a strobe light. The reflection on the water made it look like some type of large, flashing alien spacecraft. I laughed. They followed the road around the lake yelling and playing loud music as they drove within 15' of other climbers tents who were camping near the road. The jeeps started to ascend the hill when suddenly, WHAM, one of the vehicles rolled back a few feet. The jeep revved it's engine and WHAM, WHAM. Speth woke from his sleep and pulled the ear plugs from his ears.
"What the hell is going on?"
"We're being abducted."
"Well that's just great."
On the 3rd try, the jeep ascended the hill followed by the other two jeeps. Finally they were gone. I laid down and started to drift back to sleep when I heard the sound of thunder once again. One of the jeeps was coming back down the hill and proceeded to drive all the way around the lake and head back down the road. So much for a good nights sleep.
At 2:45am, we awoke to the sound of our alarm. It's that moment when you're lying in your sleeping bag asking yourself, "do I really want to do this". "Yes!" I thought, "today is Little Bear!". Perhaps talking to yourself is a sign of mental instability? I mean, I'm already seeing UFO's in the middle night, so it might not be a surprise to anyone. As we were getting ready, the 3rd jeep returned up the trail, drove around the lake, lit up everyone's tent who was camped within 50' of the road and proceeded up towards the Blue Lakes.
Lesson learned: Do not camp near the road.
The next morning we found evidence along the trail of an alien spacecraft hovering too low to the ground.
Little Bear Peak
We started at 3:45am from Lake Como and spent one hour in the gully to gain the West ridge at 12,600' of elevation. From the notch in the ridge, we peered below into the darkness where we could see a headlamp starting up the loose gully from Lake Como. We continued the traverse along the West ridge for another hour. At 5:45am, we took a short break at the base of the Hourglass as we waited a few minutes for the sun to come up. We were the first ones there and we knew we would have the Hourglass all to ourselves. In the distance we could see the lone headlamp beginning the traverse from the notch in the ridge towards us.
At first light we climbed into the Hourglass. The lower section is Class III and we had little trouble working our way up to the crux. There were two ropes in the Hourglass (on 8/18/13) - a purple rope which appeared to be in pretty bad shape and an orange rope that was in good shape. The Hourglass had water running down it and little clumps of algae were growing in the cracks where the water ran, which made some of the hand holds very slippery. The Hourglass section itself lacks loose rock because it gets blasted on a daily basis. However, the rock in the Hourglass was rounded and smooth making it challenging to climb. I was able to climb the entire section without using the rope but I kept it between my arms and legs, just in case. Having not had the chance to inspect it, I considered the rope to be an emergency handhold at best.
Behold the Hourglass.
Speth ascending the Hourglass.
When Speth and I made it to the rope anchor, we looked back and saw a figure approaching the base of the Hourglass. It was the headlamp that had been following us in the dark for most of the morning. We took a seat above the rope anchor and signaled for the climber to ascend the Hourglass to join us. We sat perfectly still as we watched the figure scale quickly and smoothly through the Hourglass. Who was this mysterious climber, traveling alone through the darkness and gaining on us at every turn? As the figure approached I recognized the face, it was Kei from the night before.
"I thought you were going to wait until first light?", I asked.
"I didn't get much sleep last night."
"Yeah, I know what you mean."
Kei climbing the Hourglass.
Kei on the horizon just above the Hourglass.
The three of us continued our ascent towards the summit as we crossed the loose rock lying on the ledges. We felt more comfortable climbing up solid, Class III rock than we did sliding through the loose, Difficult Class II terrain that lay all around us. We continued to move up slowly and gently so as not to rain a meteor shower of rocks into the Hourglass directly below us.
Reenactment of the Hourglass ascent.
Little Bear Summit
When we reached the summit around 7:15am, it felt as though many hours of my life had passed since we left Lake Como. We breathed a sigh of relief as we watched the sunrise from the eye of the hurricane. Little Bear, the most hated and most feared of all the 14ers, is the one peak that I have always dreaded. About 2/3 of finishers claim that Little Bear was their hardest peak. Worse yet, I have never met anyone who actually said they enjoyed climbing the Hourglass route. As a result, I have always been reluctant to climb Little Bear, which is why I waited until I had finished all the Class III and every other Class IV before attempting it. And here I was sitting on top of this wonder, looking out for miles across the San Luis valley. What everyone says is true but in a way it isn't. Little Bear is beautiful and I certainly didn't hate sitting on top of her summit. We each sat quietly cherishing the moment as we watched the sunrise on this peaceful morning.
Kei and Speth enjoy the summit.
MonGoose and Speth on Little Bear's summit.
We felt like giants gazing for miles across the San Luis valley.
Little Bear Descent
After 30 minutes on the summit enjoying the beautiful morning, it was time to head down. Our adventure was only half over. We began the arduous task of downclimbing the nasty loose scree field with complete mindfulness of every step. Although we were unaware of who may be climbing below us, it was our responsibility to protect them from any rockfall we might cause.
Time to roll the dice.
Trying not to kick loose rocks on anyone in the Hourglass below.
When we arrived at the anchor point at the top of the Hourglass, we saw two climbers waiting at the base. Kei grabbed the orange rope, wrapped it behind his back holding on with both arms and quickly descended the Hourglass. Speth was next. I watched as he downclimbed for a bit before grabbing the rope in a similar method as Kei had done. Now it was my turn. I was determined to not use the rope. I downclimbed the rock facing in, keeping the rope with me just in case I needed an emergency handhold. I downclimbed to the crux of the Hourglass, a steep section about 10' long that has very few hand or foot holds. I had one difficult move left to make and I was nervous. There was water running down the rock, making the hand holds wet and slippery. My next move involved dropping down and hoping that my foot caught the hold. A fall in this section would be disasterous. I contemplated the move for a moment, my heart pounding as I weighed the situation. I was 50' away from safety, from completing Little Bear - the last of the Class IV standard routes. I was so close, why risk it now? I reached over and grabbed the orange rope with my right hand, using it as one handhold as I climbed down the shelf over this steep section in running water. I let go of the rope and climbed down the remainder of the Hourglass. The rope itself is a highly controversial topic but I will admit: I'm glad the rope was there.
Speth reads way too many comic books.
At the base of the Hourglass I felt a sense of relief. We were safe. We chatted with the two climbers who were heading up as they discussed their plans to traverse over to Blanca Peak. Our early morning strategy had worked as we (plus Kei) had the Hourglass and beyond all to ourselves for the entire morning. We traversed back across the ridge, seeing it for the first time in full daylight and then climbed down the loose gully back to Lake Como for a little R&R.
Now that we can see the gully, it's actually pretty nasty.
Analysis of Little Bear's Hourglass
With most 14ers, you have to make a mistake to get yourself into a bad situation. On Little Bear, you have to do everything right to avoid a bad situation. Little Bear Peak is a tough climb and I can certainly see why it competes with Capitol for the title of Colorado's toughest 14er. Capitol and Little Bear are in a category of their own and I feel there's a big gap between these two versus Pyramid, North Maroon and Mt Wilson. The previous Class IV routes I have done all had large hand and foot holds but Little Bear was different. Because of the constant water running down the Hourglass, the hand holds are very small and often you're grabbing with just a few fingers. The slope of the rock is what makes it Class IV but at times the hand holds feel more like a Class V route. Then there's the rope, offering an easy handhold any moment you may need it. The rope itself is highly controversial and often debated. Should there even be a rope? What is the condition of the rope? Is the rope safe? The answers to these questions are constantly changing. I would not recommend tying into the rope but I would recommend using it as a handhold if you need to on the way down, after you have had the opportunity to inspect it for yourself.
As others have stated, I cannot stress the importance of having this mountain to yourself which significantly reduces the danger of rockfall. If you're up there with 100 other people, someone is going to get hurt. It's really that simple.
In an effort to reduce the risk of rockfall, climbers should:
1) attempt the peak during an off day (weekday or at least a non-holiday weekend),
2) ask around the lake to coordinate start times with other climbers who are climbing Little Bear (combine groups if necessary or offset start times),
3) only attempt with a good weather window (any extra moisture adds water to the Hourglass),
4) arrive at the base of the Hourglass at first light (roughly 2 hours from Lake Como). If you are the first group climbing in the Hourglass, there will be no one to kick rocks on you during the ascent.
If you adhere to these principles and have previous Class IV experience, you'll put yourself in a good position to have a successful summit of Little Bear Peak.
Speth's Commentary on the Hourglass
"In the Hourglass and at what I would consider the crux, I spent maybe 3 or 4 minutes trying to work a 6-8 foot section and found it hard to get the right balance to move up and stay out of the stream of water coming down to my right. Every time I thought I could move up a step, my foot would have to sit on a knob that was covered in running water and I generally felt uncomfortable about slipping off the rock. Eventually I grabbed the rope and pulled myself up this small section in probably 10 or 15 seconds. Done deal. The remainder of the route was scrambling and not really airy. Pretty straight-forward and fun.
On the way back down, I used the rope for probably 40 feet, specifically back over the crux to easier terrain. I used a classical arm wrap style rappel and fully weighted the rope. As I was moving down, I ran my hands over one section and there was a nick in the rope, but the rope seemed new and I proceeded. In hindsight, I feel using the rope was probably lazy as I probably could have found a way to get up and down the difficult section without it. I'm not a technical rock climber, and there's no telling what kind of core damage the rope has suffered. Maybe it could have broken and sent me down to the bottom but fortunately, it didn't. I probably wouldn't use it again, but that sounds like a, "Do as I say, not as I do" and somewhat of a cop-out. Just my two cents."
Lake Como is a War Zone
They've Got the Guns, We've Got the Granola
We returned back to the lake, ate a quick lunch and crashed. I fell asleep in my hammock for a bit and then proceeded down to the lake for some fishing. The lake was filling up, about a dozen or so jeeps were camping around the lake combined with ~15 climbers. It sounded like a motorcross with dirt bikes, atv's and jeeps buzzing everywhere. I was about to go for a walk around the lake when the sound of gunshots rang out in the air. A few minutes passed and then another round of shots went off. The firing continued off and on for about an hour as our neighbors ~75 yards away were unloading into the hillside next to the lake. Another disadvantage of camping in an area that is vehicle accessible.
Jeeping at Lake Como!
Matthew Speth reporting Live from Lake Como.
(slight exaggeration about being able to attempt Blanca & Ellingwood).
Bring your fly rod, Lake Como is chalk full of hungry brookies.
We awoke at 3:00am for the second morning to begin our hike into the darkness toward Blanca and Ellingwood. It appears some trail work has been done as the trail no longer stays to the north of the first lake following Blue Lakes but instead goes to the south. In daylight, this is somewhat obvious but in the darkness, it was easy to miss. We kept going around the north side of the small lake and reconnected with the trail further up the hill before Crater Lake. We arrived at the fork in the road between Blanca and Ellingwood shortly after dawn.
Approaching the summit of Ellingwood Point with Mt Lindsey and Blanca Peak in the background.
The trail up Ellingwood Point was a fairly straight forward, Class II route. The trail leads to the ridge which offers spectacular views of a thousand feet of exposure on the northeast side as you peer into the valley that approaches Mt Lindsey. The views were breathtaking. We reached the summit of Ellingwood Point after 4 hours of hiking. There was no wind on the summit and the mountain was calm. With views of Mt Lindsey, Blanca Peak, Little Bear, the four valleys in between them all and the San Luis Valley in the distance, Ellingwood Point took my vote as the most scenic 14er summit. We peered across the valley as a crowd was already beginning to form on Blanca Peak. For now, Ellingwood Point was all ours.
HAFE is a serious condition.
On the summit of Ellingwood Point with Little Bear in the background.
You have absolutely no idea how hard it is to look this good.
Speth the rock star.
Upper Traverse from Ellingwood Point to Blanca Peak
The Class III traverse from Ellingwood Point over to Blanca Peak was pretty straight forward and after spending the previous day on Little Bear, it seemed pretty mellow. The views along the traverse were amazing and the rock was fairly solid, at least compared to the Hourglass. This route would make for a good first Class III experience, especially since there are multiple options to bail out by dropping down to the lower Class II traverse.
MonGoose on the traverse with Ellingwood Point in the background.
Speth traverses towards Blanca Peak.
We arrived on Blanca's summit and celebrated our 3rd 14er of the weekend, bringing to completion all of the 14ers in the Sangre de Cristo range. We met 14ers.com member JGarrison on the summit and talked to a few other folks about their adventures and loss of sleep back at the lake. Apparently, we weren't the only one.
Please kids, don't write on the summit rocks.
Speth and JGarrison on the summit of Blanca Peak.
Despite all of the graffiti on the summit, Blanca is a very nice peak. The skies turned dark to the east and we could see rain falling on Mt Lindsey. It was time to begin the descent back to our everyday lives. We prepared to race the rain storm back to the lake. Little did we know, a few more adventures lay in store.
The Long Road Home
We made it back to camp, ate a quick lunch and broke down the tent. Walking around the lake, we said goodbye to JGarrison and ran into an old buddy of mine, Jeff Yoder. We started down the road back to civilization as the afternoon thunderstorm from Mt Lindsey caught up to us.
A postcard for Speth's mom.
We got a short ways down the road when the skies opened up and the rain poured down. We threw on the rain gear and kept hiking, but the storm wasn't letting up. After 30 minutes, it became apparent that we were in for some significant rain. The road went from dry, to slippery, to wet, to muddy, to a river of chocolate milk flowing down the mountain.
The Lake Como road in a thunderstorm.
Singing in the rain.
Because I parked the jeep at 8,860', I was concerned about the 4-wheel drive down the remainder of the road. Luckily for us, it didn't rain as hard at the base of mountain (in the desert). We arrived at the jeep soaking wet with smiles on our faces and slowly drove down to the highway.
What a great trip! (photo by Speth)
This was an awesome trip which certainly lived up to the hype. Whether you're climbing Little Bear for the first time or just going for a stroll on Blanca and Ellingwood, you're in for a real adventure. I hope you enjoy the Blanca group as much as I have. Remember to go during off-peak days (pun intended), camp away from the road, wake up early and enjoy these amazing mountains. And most importantly, don't forget to pack your fishing rod.
See you soon, MonGoose
Looks like the family vacation to Lake Como didn't quite work out as planned. (photo by Speth)
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