| Ellingwood Ski Descent
Skisotope and I arrived at the turnoff for the Lake Como road at 10:45 on Friday night, not knowing what to expect in terms of the road's conditions. I drive a Subaru Forester, and we learned rather quickly (as soon as the road shifted from dirt to loose rocks) that we would not be driving very far up the road—Subarus don't have the clearance and I didn't have the guts. We parked just after the scrub brush started and set up camp for the night. I was glad that I borrowed a friend's 0* bag when I woke up several hours later to the sound of snow hitting the tent.
The alarm went off at 4:30, and sometime after 5 we were on our way out of camp. About 30 minutes later, we began to realize just how far down the road we were… and how much longer we had to go. Hiking up loose rock in telemark boots is not the best way to start the day, and despite our frustration ("There is a part of Hell reserved for roads like this") we pressed on as fast as we could. As the sun rose, we both realized that we had started far too late for our intended route: the Ellingwood/Blanca combo. Fortunately, the view from the road across the San Luis valley was breathtaking:
Around 7 am we started to pass the 4X4's parked much higher up the road. Intense jealousy followed, along with a game plan to find one of those lucky people and convince/bribe them to drive us back down at the end of the day. From where the snow drifts started we were following the tracks of the two groups that had left before us:
Long hike from the car in the valley.
It wasn't until 8 that we reached the established skin track. Bootpacking for three hours had taken a toll on my energy level, but it felt good to be skinning instead of carrying the skis:
9 am found us at Lake Como, and we took a much needed break and admired the tracks going up to Little Bear:
Fortunately, the weather was impeccable. We were worried about the snow softening, but cold temperatures overnight and a light wind were keeping things stable.
Looking up the basin
The crux of the day came at Blue Lake, when both of us were feeling the long approach and questioning our ability to continue. However, the weather was holding and we hadn't come this far to turn around:
At Blue Lakes, Ellingwood still looks so far away...
Me skinning up the basin
Once we reached the top of the basin (approximately 11 am), it was decision time—take the established bootpack up Ellingwood or skin up the saddle for the traditional approach and then go for either peak. We chose Ellingwood (Blanca—we'll be back) and decided to give the established track a try. It was time to lash the skis back on.
About ˝ way up, we realized that the group that had established the track obviously had no fear of heights. I was running on fumes in terms of energy, but Skisotope was getting a second wind and I couldn't turn around, so I focused on counting my steps and not looking down. I also wished that whoever had kicked in the steps had made the distance between them slightly smaller, but it was better than having to bust our own trail.
Through the crux
At this point, we could see the other group skiing across the slope underneath the saddle.
The other group at the base of their ascent to Blanca
Getting closer to the top:
One step at a time
At the ridge, the exposure increased dramatically. Like the other group, this made for some tough decisions, and eventually we decided to pick our way up a version of their route. The snow was firm but the rocks were icy, and even though I was tired I made sure to check every boot placement and handhold before moving upward. A look down at the from the top ledge:
By the time we reached the last ridge before the top, and the entrance to the couloir/our descent route, we both agreed that reaching the true summit that day was not an option. It was 1:30, we were exhausted, our nerves were shot from the exposed ridge climb, and weather was rolling in from the west. Time to go.
Snow over the Crestones
We watched as the other group started up Blanca--clearly going the "take no prisoners" route.
View to Little Bear:
Based on the experience on the way up, we knew that in the south-facing couloir the snow conditions were going to be variable. Sure enough, it wavered between several inches of powder over a layer of hardpack/dust layer, and slushy corn.
Skisotope unpacking at the top:
Unpacking on the ledge
Making it look easy:
Some hard pack/dust layer ice underneath
Me, in my better moments:
The exit chute was narrow, and jump turns were necessary:
Happy to be at the bottom, we stopped for a much-needed break and intake of calories. The weather rolled in just as we hit the end of the Blue Lakes:
We watched as a member of the second group, which we had seen summiting Little Bear, hiked down towards the lake. It was perfect timing to try to get a ride home, and we packed up our things and made our way across Lake Como. We met up with WD and BurningtheBushes as they were regrouping. They kindly and mercifully agreed to drive us down to our car. Hallelujah! It would have been an incredibly painful walk otherwise.
A last look at our route (ascent = red, descent = blue):
We were dropped off at the car at 4:30, and we quickly packed up camp to head back to Boulder/Golden via 285. We made a quick stop for food in Alamosa and were back in Golden by 10 pm. Thank you, WD and BurningtheBushes, for driving us down—it was a lifesaver, especially for my feet. Wesley & co., thanks for kicking in that track, the "ridge of unknown consequences" was exactly that.
Lesson learned: the Lake Como road is a very, very long approach from 8,500 ft.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):