| Sierra Blanca POW!
Who: Brittany Walker (MBSC), Tom Runcie (SquirrelyMurphey), Brennan Metzler (KansasBoarder), Dave and Keith from Assassin Films.
What: Ascent of Ellingwood Point and Blanca Peaks from 8800' on the Lake Como Road
When: April 25th 2010
Where: Sierra Blanca Group, Sangre de Cristo Mountains
Why: 7" fresh reported @ 10,750, considerably more above...
Brittany sent out an old fashion Facebook request for partners Saturday afternoon. She wanted to climb and ski Ellingwood and Blanca, two of the seven remaining 14ers on her project. And she wanted to ski them in POW.
Last week's storm brought a much needed fresh coat of snow to the entire Sangre de Cristo range, with reports of up to a few FEET of white gold around the Crestones.
The nearest Snotel site to the Sierra Blanca group showed seven inches new...at 10,750 feet. Both Brittany and myself had been on the summit of Little Bear within the last two weeks, and knew that Ellingwood Point would go from its summit. However, a strong wind had been continually blasting the upper flanks of Blanca throughout the previous few days, so neither of us knew what to expect. Hopeful for summit descents, the crew assembled at the Lake Como 2WD TH at 3am.
Well, the four intelligent members of our group assembled pre-midnight to grab a quick nap. I made the interesting choice to follow up a solid day of skiing pow at the Corn Harvest @ Loveland with an energy drink and a post-midnight drive. My stomach didn't let me forget that choice the entire day.
Our rigs made the familiar bounce up to 8800 feet, where snowcover forced us to pull off. We began skinning under the incredible luminary display of the San Luis Valley sky shortly after 4am. The ascent into the canyon went quickly, as the crew of five yearned for the day ahead. We passed a group of two brave gentlemen hoping to climb Little Bear. They didn't have snowshoes or skis, a choice that would transform their already challenging day into a different realm. As the pre-dawn glow began to fill the eastern sky, we found ourselves on the final upward traverse to Lake Como.
A familiar site; Dave breaking trail under the watch of Little Bear Peak.
We took a quick food and water break at Lake Como, forced back into motion by pretty darn cold temperatures and a consistent breeze. Despite having toured through this exact area less than two weeks prior, I found myself mesmerized by the valley's transformation by the storm. The trees were coated thick, the towering rock walls glazed with sparkling rhyme, any sign of previous entrance by man buffed away. But damn was it cold.
Early morning spin-drifts on Ellingwood:
Passing beneath the aesthetic Baby Thunder Couloir:
Dave and Tom pause to plot a course through the upper Lake Como Basin. Tom considers the potential of Ellingwood's West Ridge:
Brittany skinning above 13k. Despite the welcome presence of direct sunlight, our party remained buried in shells and layers:
Keith plowing through the ground-blizzard @ 13,300. Keith carried a heavy pack of pro-camera gear to capture the days events for Assassin's new film. Despite poor-circulation and frozen limbs, he found the will to remain in the valley for our lengthy climbs of the two peaks:
After regrouping in the basin from which Keith would shoot, we elected to skin and boot towards the Ellingwood-Blanca saddle, contouring beneath the crags up to Ellingwood's SE ridge. This route, while less direct than a boot straight up to the summit, would minimize our exposure to slides from the recent snow. As I began to struggle to skin up the steeper flanks and frozen under-layers, Tom and Dave took the reigns and blasted a track. Considering Tom had never climbed a 14er, his efforts were supreme....and necessary for our group's success. Ditto for Dave, the silent killer of vert.
Tom and Brittany enjoying a nice bootpack to Ellingwood's summit:
The summit of Ellingwood was a conflicted experience. Despite the jaw-dropping beauty of the neighboring peaks, we were already decently fatigued from the climb and tired of being blasted by cold winds. We snapped a few pics and called down to a snow-caved Keith, who setup the camera to capture some footage of the descent. The good news was that Blanca would be skiable from the summit, with a pretty short section of billy-goating.
Blanca (left), our line (middle) and Little Bear stand tall over the San Luis Valley:
I elected to descend first, directly from the nose skier's right of the summit. The pitch was steep and held a subtle rollover into the main chute. I made a couple of jump-turns directly on the nose and a pocket broke away. Debris from the small slab funneled down the chute and passed over cliffs 1000 feet below our position. Strange, I wasn't too afraid, shocked or gripped. My chosen line had kept me safe, though I couldn't help feeling weird that I had broken some snow loose in a position where it was less than ideal. I'm not attempting to trivialize that snow broke around me in a bad place. I'm also not trying to dramatize a situation. The facts are that I rode an exposed loaded nose and gravity did what it should have. I learned from the experience....perhaps a better term is that I had a solid reality check, a reinforcement of how quickly things can turn on you in the hills. If you want to discuss the release please send me a message, I will fill in any details as best I can.
The good news was that the pocket had failed to step down, or even gather more storm snow on its way to the valley floor. I slid down the exposed crust and made a few powder turns to a safe zone on the left wall.
Tom dropped next, skiers left funnel from my entrance. His experience in big mountain terrain was obvious - knocking out powerful fall-line turns.
With cameras rolling (Brittany is the focus of a new segment for Assassin Films), Brittany dropped into the same line.
We regrouped in our safe zone and one at a time descended to Keith in the bottom of the basin. While our first lines weren't without their hiccups, we were excited to have descended Ellingwood...in POW!
At this point it was just before noon. We grabbed as many calories and swigs of water as our stomachs would allow (some more than others), and made another quick transition of gear. The wind remained consistent - reminding us that we would have to remain cold until we got back to treeline.
The new snow afforded a skin track high on Blanca's North Ridge. Once again, Tom and Dave stepped up and killed it. Honestly, I'm not accustomed to bringing up the rear of a group and am so thankful to have had those guys out front. I have yet to become efficient skinning steep terrain on my split board. My day on the two summits would have been difficult or damn near impossible without those two and Brittany putting a solid track in ahead of me. THANKS AGAIN, Y'ALL!
Following some exposed ridge climbing, we found ourselves on another summit. Despite thickening clouds and a persistent wind, the views from Blanca were sublime.
Interesting light on Ellingwood
We strapped in and made our way down Blanca's steep and rocky northwest face. Jump turns and traverses were the name of the game for the first few hundred vert.
Brittany negotiates the upper pitches of Blanca.
We re-grouped at the top of a couple of fall line chutes that lead into a long face down to Keith. At this point it was damn near three and he had been patiently going numb for damn near six hours. No time to wait for sucker-holes in the thick ceiling. Tom descended first, fluidly linking big turns all the way down. Next, Brittany took over and knocked out 800' of silky goodness in the low light. Finally, I descended, enjoying the rewards of a big day in the hills (and my chosen equipment).
Soon we found ourselves high-fiving and packing up gear with Keith. The exit is a blur in my mind, though certainly not without its moments. We were able to ski/skin to the exit of the Lake Como Canyon. Then, it was a deceivingly long (where the hell did all the switchbacks come from) path back to the trucks.
Thanks to the whole crew for a solid day in the hlls. Congrats to Brittany on two more peaks, FIVE MORE GIRL! Congrats also to Tom, his first two 14ers in incredible style. Dave and Keith, great to meet you guys and good luck with the last few days of filming (and summer of edits).
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):