| Ellingwood-Blanca Loop
Sunday, Aug. 19, 2007
PRE-HIKE FUEL UP
Before immersing ourselves in the wilderness for a few days, we enjoyed one last taste of civilization at the San Luis Brewery in Alamosa. We ate big burgers and washed them down with bitter India pale ales. After stuffing ourselves, we headed back across the wide, desert-like valley toward the infamous Blanca Peak Road to Como Lake (aka Lake Como).
THE "ROAD" TO LAKE COMO
One sentence in "Colorado Backroads & 4-Wheel Drive Trails," by Charles A. Wells, describes the Blanca Peak Road as "The hardest trail in this book." Then, there are these two: "This trail is nationally known as perhaps the best hard-core trail in Colorado. The trail has many challenging obstacles that test the most experienced drivers and best equipment."
Right off the bat, the road was rocky and bouncy. It didn't appear rough, but the river rock really jostled us around. Slowly, the challenges of the road unfolded. Subarus and lesser SUVs (or less-skilled or less-brave drivers) fell by the wayside one by one.
The road had quite a few sections that were surprisingly technical, and they required very careful tire placement. The dirt-covered boulders were slick and the gravel was loose. To add to the challenge, some sections were kind of steep. Not to mention, there were some serious drop-offs to one side or the other at times.
On more than one occasion I had to make multiple attempts to get up obstacles. Some were quite challenging, and I had to pull out some rarely used cards from my 4x4ing experience.
And then, around 10,100 feet, I rounded a corner and started up a steep section. Halfway up I encountered some really loose rock and just started flinging gravel and burning rubber on rocks. For some reason Li'l Pepe just couldn't get up the damn thing (lockers would've been extremely helpful). To add, there was one large boulder on the left and a very steep drop-off on the right, so gunning it like hell wasn't really an option. Rather than push things, I decided the switchback just behind us was a good place to park. It was a good thing we decided to back down, too, because seconds later two caravans of trucks came down the trail.
In general, from the beginning to where we stopped, I'd say the road was as rough as the road to South Colony Lakes. Some sections may have been more technically challenging.
THE HIKE TO COMO LAKE
10 minutes into our hike we passed the "water holes" or "puddles" people always talk about. I was glad we didn't continue up the road much further, as it got much rougher. I probably wouldn't have crossed through the puddles anyway. However, I did see another Xterra -- a brutha' from anotha' mutha' -- just past the puddles, which was nice to see.
Hiking up the road wasn't very exciting, although it was kind of cool to see "Jaws 1," "Jaws 2" and "Jaws 3" up close. But if you ask me, there are really at least six or more tough sections. Jaws 2, I think it was, is adorned with a plaque, memorializing someone that died on that section. I think most drivers feel the need to tackle the rock on the left, rather than go straight up it, but that tilts the truck pretty far out, and there's a healthy drop-off to the left.
After reading Jamienellis' trip report (w/Chicago Transplant), my goal was to find a campsite above the lake, near where they camped. Their spot seemed like a good place to make basecamp for all three mountains.
Near the turn-off for Little Bear Peak, at about 11,900 feet, we headed left and found an excellent spot just 50 yards from the road/trail. It was probably one of the best campsites we've ever had. There were plenty of tent sites, water was nearby, and just 100 yards away (a level hike away) was a nice slab of rock for sitting and cooking. I even found a nice place to hang a bear bag.
Is it just me, or does our tent look like a spaceship from Star Wars?
Washed out in the background of this photo, Little Bear's gully loomed above us. It appeared to be too steep to climb.
After getting all our crap organized and set up, we read a little about our climbing routes and then we pretty much crashed. The calm, babbling creek nearby was just the white noise that I needed. But that peace didn't last. In the middle of the night a cacophony of sound woke me up faster than any alarm clock ever has. My ears opened as wide as my eyes and I heard one of the loudest, most violent rockslides ever. As I listened, I tried to visualize what was happening. It sounded like large boulders, at least the size of washing machines, were tumbling down gullies and exploding against other rocks. Then I heard large splashes (when they plunged into ponds). The kind of splash you'd hear from a 400-pound person jumping off a high dive. These noises lasted for a good 30 seconds. I knew we were well away from any danger, but it was still enough to get my heart pumping. It took me a couple hours to fall back asleep.
The alarm went off at 4:45 a.m., and even though I was tired, it was kind of a relief. I wanted to get a move-on.
I boiled water for Jen's oatmeal and my instant coffee. The instant coffee was pretty good, I might add. And it went well with my chocolate Pop-Tart.
While I was sipping my java, Jen was talking about something or other. I didn't really hear what she was saying, as I was still coming into consciousness, but I did hear a "galloping" noise in the woods just beyond us. It was an odd sound to hear, and it didn't fit my "model" of our given situation. It didn't register in my mind that animals usually don't gallop through the woods in complete darkness. After I heard two "waves" of the curious sound, I noted how much bass it had. Kind of like a subwoofer in the woods. Gears turned in the brain and I snapped at Jen to be quiet. We listened, and we heard the strange noise once more. It was a really deep, grunting/huffing sound coming from the trees, just yards away from us. Our headlamps didn't penetrate deep enough into the darkness to see anything. Adrenaline spiked through my veins. As soon as we spotlighted our headlamps in the direction of the noise, it stopped and vanished.
What animal makes that deep of a sound? All I could think of was elk, moose or bear. But I don't think elk or moose are found in those parts. All I know is that it had to be a LARGE animal. We never actually saw a thing, but thank god it didn't move toward us.
Now I was awake and ready to climb. My veins were pumping with caffeine and adrenaline.
5:30 am: Even though I forgot to bring Ellingwood's Southwest Ridge route description, Jen and I decided to give it a go. We both remembered Jamienellis' description on how to get up the ridge, so we at least had a starting point. At the base of that "ledge," we noticed some other climbers up on the ridge above us.
After climbing up some scree we found a nice ramp up to the ridge.
Once on the ridge we climbed along its crest, but we wondered if we'd have to skirt around any gendarmes or other obstacles. At one point, it looked like the route went down to the left. As we went around the side the terrain got steeper and sketchier.
After some scouting, we both decided that the ridge crest was a better option than anything the side of the mountain had to offer. "Eff this, let's go up," we said.
Jen on the ridge:
That was about the time that we ran into Floyd, Astrobassman and slynn_13run from 14ers.com. Very cool people to run into.
Jen and Floyd on the ridge:
Jen seemed to be having the time of her life on that ridge. It would've taken quite a few smacks to the head to wipe that grin off her face. Having gotten away from that sketchy ledge on the left, I was stepping large and smiling easy on the ridge. Although, I wasn't prepared for all the exposure; that came as a surprise.
Some sections of Ellingwood's ridge reminded me of the "Knife Edge" on Capitol Peak. Very narrow, very exposed and very steep. While the really exposed sections were short, the ridge climb was much longer than Capitol.
Slynn_13run and Astrobassman on the ridge:
From there, we just continued up the high point of the ridge all the way to Ellingwood's summit. The few clouds above us were moving fast, and a healthy amount of fog rolled in. We wondered if we'd have a view from the summit.
Just below the summit, Floyd called me over for a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Not sure what it's called, but the fog was before us and the sun was to our backs. Basically, our bodies created a very large shadow on the fog, and our shadows were encircled with rainbow-like halos. The experience and sight was rather amazing, so the photo doesn't do it justice, but here's one I took:
At about 8:15 am we made Ellingwood's summit. It was fun to share some time with other 14ers.com peeps.
Jen and I started down toward Blanca first, with the intention of staying as high as possible on the ridge. All photos of this area make it look less steep than it is. From Ellingwood, Blanca looks almost unclimbable (without rope).
Blanca Peak, viewed from Ellingwood:
Blanca is Colorado's fourth highest peak and the highest peak in the Sangre de Cristo Range. Gerry Roach notes one interesting factoid about the mountain: "If you traveled south from Blanca, you would have to go all the way to the high volcanoes in central Mexico to find a higher peak."
Jen and I ended up staying high, and we found ourselves at the upper portion of the notch/gully in the ridge. From there we descended the gully and picked up the trail that skirts below the ridge. It took quite a bit of effort to gain Blanca's ridge. Multiple routes and cairns didn't help our cause.
At 9:45 we gained Blanca's summit, and we were rewarded with meeting another 14ers.com couple: dixonallred and Heidi. Very nice people.
The views from Blanca were SPECTACULAR!
Here's my cheesy summit shot:
And here's a shot of Jen and I, with Little Bear Peak behind us:
Hiking back down to camp, via the standard route, was longer than I expected. The ridge was much better.
Once we got back to camp (just before noon) we hit the sleeping bags. When the sun hit our tent it was like 150 degrees inside. When the clouds blocked the sun and/or the wind picked up, it was nice and cool. Because temps fluctuated so wildly, it was hard to take a nap.
Later in the evening we emerged from our tent and the hungry mosquitos were waiting for us. Our bug dope kept them from biting us, but they still swarmed just inches around our bodies.
At 4 pm the rain began to sprinkle and we wondered if the Sangres really had it in for us. At 5 pm it rained a little harder and we fled to the shelter of our tent. Luckily, the rain subsided and blue skies followed -- the way it should be in Colorado.
Time passed slowly and I wished I‘d brought some alcohol. We talked about a lot of things, which was nice, but we both yearned for some other sort of distraction, like cards or something.
Thoughts of Little Bear Peak weighed on my mind throughout the night, as it was in the plans for the following morning ...
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):