| Blanca Winter Summit Ski: A long night at 13k
Lake Como Road from 9,760'
Blanca's NW slopes
-Elevation Climbed: 4,700'
-Mileage RT: 11.5 miles
Fritz and I have had our eyes on getting some Sangre peaks skied this year due to the favorable weather pattern. Up until this weekend, it had only been Humboldt so far. The snow pack saw significant setting over the first week of March, giving us the go for some more. The choice wasn't easy… Crestone Peak was clearly skiable as a strong group bagged it the previous weekend. Kit looks money snow coverage wise. Needle was in, but that line should wait until we get some more peaks under our belt. Recent beta on Ellingwood point provided clarity, lets go get the Blanca group. I thought it would be possible to get all three with descents of Blanca and Ellingwood on Saturday, then Little Bear on Sunday. This turned out to not be in the cards, not even close…
After an easy 3.5 hour drive, Fritz and I reached the Lake Como road at 10pm. He then proceeded to put his 4runner to full use all the way to 9,760' were snow drifts made forward progress sketchy. We shouldered our packs, realizing we were in for a long approach. After the trip (when wet) mine weighed 95 lbs, no joke. Why would you possibly need that much gear each for a three day trip? You don't, we took too much freaking crap, inexperience. I think I had it a little easier with a true backpacking pack. Fritz carried two day packs tied together with shoulder straps meant for no more than 40 lbs, damb that smarts.
This is what 95 lbs packs look like
It took us 4 hours to get up to the cabin. That's a crawl. About half a mile from the lake, I took off ahead to get some water melted and make hot coco. Wasn't sure if the cabin would be available, as another party was parked along the road. Luckly, it was. The other group was tent camping prepping for a Denali climb. Fritz showed up about half an hour later. After some hot coco, we hit the sack.
Sleeping was easy after that approach
We woke at 8:30am, 4 hours of sleep in the bag feeling strong. Snow was melted and hot breakfast served.
Morning prep work
Being my third trip to Lake Como, I was was familiar with the views. Winter adds something special though, it's a whole different world.
Fritz skinning across frozen Lake Como, Little Bear looms
Through the trees
The skinning was easy on the refrozen crusts and we quickly made it up to the first steeper section of the climb.
Nearing the headwall
We took our first food break in the middle of the headwall. Fritz booted most of it while I skinned. The weather was nice, although somewhat overcast. We were working with a forecast calling for 10% chance of snow. Finding the route through the rolling boulder and talus fields in this section of the hike is pretty obvious with daylight.
Above the headwall in complicated terrain which would prove to unnavigable in zero visibility
After a traverse to the North of a large boulder which apparently fell of the Little Bear / Blanca traverse, we reached the bottom of Blanca NW face. I was feeling really strong at this point and felt that Ellingwood would happen, but Fritz was not in the same boat. He was apparently pretty dehydrated and the ridiculous pack from the night before took its toll. Progress slowed…
Reaching the bottom of Blanca's NW face
Some snow climbing through the lower cliff bands was a blast. Conditions were super stable and axe belays were bomb proof. Flurries started but temps remained warm. The view of Little Bear was astounding.
Climbing through ledges on Blanca's lower NW face
The terrain mellowed out and we decided to take a lunch break. At the same time the flurries became hard driving snow. In half an hour 2 inches of fresh snow covered the talus. After some serious discussion and rapid hydration we decided to turn back. Both our skis were off the packs and ready for some turns. As if to draw us into the dragon's layer, the clouds cleared and coaxed us into continuing the climb. We had three and a half hours to summit from near 13k and ski down before dark, which seemed reasonable at the time.
This was why we thought the 1 inch forecasted storm was over
The snow provided easy booting on high 30 degree terrain until we reached the upper ledges below the summit.
Fritz following my boot up the face
The view of the upper ledges and shallow couloirs below the summit
About 100 feet from the summit, I noticed another band of moisture was rolling in over the San Luis Valley. I alerted Fritz, who was a good 50 feet below to make sure he saw the storm too. Once again, I dropped my skis and prepared to abort the climb. However after evaluating the situation, it was clear skiing down was not an option for Fritz at this point, as he was amongst sparsely covered talus. Going back down to the snow would take as long for him as coming up to my position, where I found a ski escape through one of the three main shallow couloirs from the summit area. So, I waited for a bit. In a minute or so, I knew he would not get to me anytime soon, so I charged to the summit without the ski gear.
My summit mug shot
I could see Fritz below. By this time, he was just getting to my skis which was where we converged after my brief descent on foot. After discussing the distance to the summit which took me 3 minutes to ascend and the fact that it was ski able from the top, we decided to go the extra bit and complete the goal. Our desires and goals got in the way of smart decision making.
Fritz climbs around boulders en route to Blanca's summit
Within 20 feet of the summit, we got our next clue we shouldn't be at 14k. BUZZZZ in my left ear from my metal edged skis. After about 3 seconds, I realized what it was and turned to Fritz 5 feet behind me. "You hear the electricity! @$%& get on the snow, get on the snow!!!" We both dove into a 45 degree snowfield, placing axe belays mid flight. Once I had my feet set, I removed the axe and lay flat on the non-conductive fluff. It was intense. The buzzing was so apparent. Like a radio, we were tuned to free flowing electricity, tuned to nature. So many things ran through my mind. "Hey, you hear it anymore? ……. "no" ….. "you hear it anymore" ….. "no again." We both placed our axes to rock and still didn't hear anything. We scrambled to the top and geared up.
Fritz: topped out on Blanca
The ski exit from the snow covered summit was a talus hop scotch.
Skiing off Blanca's summit
The ski route down the ledges was continous but boney.
Skiing through the upper ledges of Blanca's NW face
The new snow provided for very good skiing conditions once we were out on the main face snowfield. If only we had light this would be a memorable powder descent. Unfortunately, extremely low visibility set in before we got off the face and we both forgot our headlamps at camp. Through the heavy snow and darkness, I was just able to follow our boot track down to a traverse which took us out under Ellingwood. As I skied into an open snowfield, vertigo struck like a mac truck without warning. I lost all grip on my balance and the world flipped upside down. After grabbing for earth, I regained my barings. Clearly we needed to take things much slower. From then on we skied side by side, using each other as reference points in the sea of white and black. We did a pretty darn good job of getting ourselves off the upper mountain all things considered. Once within the complex boulder fields below Ellingwood's south face we evaluated the situation. We knew there were several cliffbands which would not be good to fall from in the vincinty, we had no visibility and avalanche danger was rising. We made a descion, build a shelter and wait for sunrise.
I was concerned about finding enough snow for a snowcave. Using my probe pole, I surveyed all the likely areas in our vicinity for deep snow. Eventually, I found a windlip over a gully which seemed promising. My 270 cm probe went all the way into the snow across an area large enough for two people. Digging commenced…
Shelter is cheap in deep snow, just add 1.5 hours of hard digging
On one of my breaks I set the skis and pole up so our position would be clear to anyone trying to locate us, if it would come to that.
X marks the spot
The cave turned out okay. It was 7' deep, 4' wide and 3' tall. The door was just slightly larger than our two packs stuffed together. We plugged the drafts with whatever gear worked. Eating and drinking was the next priority as food and water = warmth. After a long night of shivering and a brief sleeping episode, we woke to light. Sleeping in a small snow cave like this gets you soaked to the bone. During the night, we tried in vain to warm our cores with a short hike, but the wind chill was too overpowering, sending us back into the shelter.
At first light, we packed up the shovels and probes and got the hell out of there.
The cave. The orange ball is an orange against the back wall
The ski out was offered so much reward. A stove and cabin were so close, so close…
Skiing out to Como Lake
After drinking two liters of boiling hot coco and cytomax energy drink, eating two hot backpackers pantry meals and packing up, we headed out of the Sangres. Lessons were learned and another mountain experience was behind us. This should raise serious questions about our gear selection and our push on with approaching darkness and heavy snowfall. Hopefully someone will learn from our mistakes, not have to experience them first hand as we did.
Packing out of the Blanca group
For Fritz report, see here...