| The Blanca Group - from Lake Como
Believe what you hear about the Lake Como/Blanca Peak road: it is simply amazing, as in "I‘m amazed that anyone actually drives up this!" There is a parking area just off the highway, and another about a mile in, which still makes for a long hot hike up to the lake. From there, the road gets steadily worse, and then much worse. In a stock 4WD Jeep Grand Cherokee we carefully drove another few miles, to a big switchback where the road turns back to the northeast. From there, it was about a 2-hour hike to Lake Como. For me, the road was a moderate hike, with a gradual grade and ample shade. Of course, we stopped numerous times to observe the broken glass and burnt rubber at the assorted rock formations.
At Lake Como, there are numerous good campsites all around the lake. We camped up the road from the lake, on the hill just above the "off ramp" to the Little Bear West Ridge route. Since we were planning to do all three peaks, the location avoided having to reclaim the same ground each day. Up on the hill, there are numerous flat tent sites (some in the trees, some in the open), and a fire pit area suitable for a large group. Insect repellant is a must, as the mosquitoes are everywhere!
My hiking partner and I set out for Blanca Peak and Ellingwood Point the next morning. The basin is beautiful with many lakes. I lost track of which lake was which and went around the wrong side of one of them. That wasn't a problem however, as I easily regained the trail at the other end. For the most part the Blanca Peak trail is good, with adequate cairns and only occasionally challenging route finding. The very upper part of the Blanca trail traverses below the summit almost to the point where you think you‘re going to pass it, but then turns sharply upward to gain the summit.
The trip over to Ellingwood Point was fun. Based on route descriptions I'd read, I was planning to descend well down Blanca‘s face before starting up Ellingwood‘s face, but my partner had other ideas and kept looking for a path across the connecting ridge. His patience paid off and he eventually found a cairned route just below the ridge crest that cut across the cliffs. After sufficient reconnaissance, he radioed for me to join him. There was only one point of confusion when we encountered two conflicting cairns, one leading up and one leading down. We took the lower route, which ended up on a nice ledge. After traversing the ledge for a while, we scrambled up to the summit.
Descending from Ellingwood‘s summit, we again took different routes. I opted for a big arc, descending the face until I could join up with the Blanca trail, clearly visible from above. My partner traversed partly back the way we came, and descended more of Blanca‘s trail. We got our next big thrill a little later when a pair of F-16 fighter planes buzzed the basin and flew right over the Ellingwood-Blanca saddle. Very cool! (We talked later with a group that was on Blanca's summit for the "fly by", and they claimed the planes were lower than they were.)
That afternoon, I did some reconnaissance of the Little Bear West Ridge route, which started just across the road from our camp. There is a cairned route through the initial boulder field that is worth finding, but can easily be missed in the early morning light.
The next morning we set out for Little Bear. The ascent of the gully took about 30 minutes and was quite a warm-up! From the notch at the top of the gully, the climber‘s trail traverses the south side of the ridge, starting a little higher than we‘d thought. It is well cairned and a fairly straightforward hike. There are cairns at least every 30-40 feet. The view of Little Bear, with the very obvious "hourglass" gully, is striking even in the early morning. The trail comes in below the hourglass gully and with some moderate scrambling we arrived at the end of the fixed rope.
I‘d read about people not trusting the rope and initially decided to take their advice. The hourglass had water running down the middle, and the rope was certainly wet in spots. Again based on other trip reports, I started up the left side of the gully. I quickly encountered some very tough climbing, but slowly worked my way up. Eventually, both my partner and I ended up using the rope to ascend the remainder of the hourglass. Hauling ourselves up hand over hand, we found it fairly easy to "walk" up the gully.
Once we reached the sling anchor at the top of the rope, we got a bit confused. There was a large prow above us, with wide gullies to the left (north) and right (south). Which way to go? Simply because it looked like the most direct path to the summit, we both headed up the north gully. I went up the right side, while my partner went up the left. Eventually my partner‘s route ended and he worked his way over to where I was. Then my route ended and we both had to traverse back over to the south gully, which required some tricky maneuvers. In the south gully we found some cairns that helped guide our remaining scramble to the summit.
For me, the down climb of the upper gully was the most anxious time of the day. We started back down the south gully, thinking it would lead us to the top of the hourglass. Instead, it looked like it would lead us over a cliff of wet rock. So we traversed back over to the north gully and made our way back down to the sling anchor. By the time we arrived at the fixed rope, we had both decided to use it. My partner went first, facing uphill with the rope between his legs, and after lowering himself all the way down, he radioed for me to start my descent. For me, the easiest technique was to stand sideways with the rope in front of me. I was somewhat surprised at how many decent footholds were in the middle of the hourglass, but they were all wet and slippery.
From the bottom of the hourglass, it felt like a relatively routine hike back across the ridge and down the gully back to camp. We never saw anyone else on Little Bear that day, but met plenty of folks coming up the road after we broke camp, hiked out and drove home.