| In the Sierra Blanca - Part 2: Ellingwood Point
Continued from In the Sierra Blanca - Part 1: Little Bear
Saturday May 15th
As I lay in my tent basking in the warm sun, I began to think about my options for the next day. Mike had just turned back on Blanca, and I doubted he would want to press any harder on Ellingwood the next day. I still really wanted to ski Snowmass, so I thought maybe we should pack up and either head to the Aspen area, or back to Denver. To my surprise, Mike was totally okay with giving Ellingwood a shot the next day.
I debated with myself for a while, but finally came to my senses and settled on going for a climb of Ellingwood. We had already backpacked into the lake - why not just hang out, enjoy the nice weather and the scenery, and finish off the 14ers in the Sangres? I made that decision and started drying out my gear. It wasn't too wet (other than my boots) but why not take advantage of the full, blazing sun at this high elevation.
Throughout the afternoon the other climbers in the basin filed through our camp, sharing their stories. The Baby Thunder crew had hopes of skiing the Hourglass, but didn't get an early enough start. Two others climbed the West Ridge of Little Bear, but turned back with the soft snow. Micah, Matt and Baz were all stoked about the wonderful weather and the hour and a half they spent on Ellingwood's summit with Britain and Husker. I think they might have enjoyed their ski/board descents as well – just a guess. Baz was downright angry that we didn't have any more energy for such games as "get the stick" and "throw the stick". Britain and Husker were last out that day, but they were also super excited about the summit. Their water purifier went out the day before, so we prepared some water for them. Our fuel ran out right before they arrived back at camp, so they spared some of theirs and we cooked some food. Trail magic at its finest.
After they left, Mike and I had the lake to ourselves for the night and entire next day. We didn't see a person until we met Larry late in the day on Monday. More on that later.
We gathered wood and made another fire, boiling some water to cook our oatmeal. Out of fuel, this was our last chance at cooking some hot food until we returned to civilization. Our spent 14ers.com route descriptions provided the necessary tinder. We had some gator-tinis (gin and powdered Gatorade) and that was tolerable. Whiskey would have been better, and beer better still.
Sunday May 16th
Four o'clock was the magic hour the day before, and why mess with success? We woke up to a black sky full of stars - a good omen for a good overnight freeze. The snow was much firmer, and we headed out on snowshoes at 4:30.
Climbing up through the numerous basins between Blanca and Ellingwood was pretty tiring. It doesn't look steep, but the ledges section is difficult on snowshoes. Descending was even a bit harder. But Mike and I made good time to the upper basin below the Blanca-Ellingwood saddle where we parted ways. Mike wasn't feeling up for a summit attempt, and was a little surprised that I was. 30 minutes passed and I heard on my walkie-talkie "you're a crazy SOB, Matt." I was thinking the same thing about him – the sun didn't hit the basin while he was sitting there waiting. He did some laps to keep warm and kill the time. I appreciated Mike waking up early and doing the first leg of this climb with me.
My general route
At this point I was questioning if I had the strength to finish the climb. The first part of the South Face was the steepest. I left the snowshoes and poles, and switched to crampons and ax.
Steep and uncertain
I found Britian's downclimb steps from the day before. He's shorter than me, so his down steps were just a little too long for my up steps. But, they were frozen solid and I made it work. Higher up into the climb I got into a good rhythm using the day old booter. Pretty soon I was at the level of the Blanca-Ellingwood saddle. I looked back to Blanca and saw that it was only about 500' above me. Little Bear didn't look very high either. Hmmm, was I nearing the summit? This is too easy – can't be. I went higher and the sun started to hit my route. With the sun came some wind, so I put on my jacket and climbed higher. Soon enough I was nearing the sub-peak and I knew I was close. I was hoping that the distance from the sub-peak to the true summit was short – it was!
At this point I was ecstatic about the summit and really happy about the weekend. Two fine summits in great weather on back to back days, all to myself. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy people, but summitting solo early in the morning is a special feeling. I felt like the whole world was just waking up, and I was there to greet it.
San Luis Valley
The views were spectacular again. Blanca, Little Bear, Lindsey, Spanish Peaks, Crestones, Sand Dunes, Kit Carson, and a bunch of peaks that I may never know studded the horizon.
The vast empty space of San Luis Valley was amazing itself. How many rattlesnakes were crawling out of their holes at 7 in the morning?
No reception on the summit, I was unable to phone in my progress. Poor Shelley would have to wait for my afternoon call from the bottom of the Lake Como Road. More on that later.
I had some cool shadows to play with in my pictures.
I strolled over to the sub-peak not sure if Mr. Middlebrook had recently added it to the checklist page. It's not on there, but I still like walking over to the lesser summits. I got my favorite picture of the weekend from here:
From the sub-peak
Time to head down to meet the Mike-cicle and head back to camp. Downclimbing Ellingwood was much easier than Little Bear, since it was not nearly as steep. I side-stepped down the upper portion and eventually got impatient. I sat down for a sloooooow glissage on the still frozen snow. Not a very fun glissade (I tore my pants and got a first-class wedgie – classroom bullies would be envious) but I made quick time down to my snowshoes. Mike and I celebrated with some cheese and other pleasantries. So far I had only had 2/3 of a clif energy block fruit chew package. The oatmeal from the previous night was still doing the job. We geared up and headed back down to camp.
The Mike-cicle Celebrating the Return of the Sun
Melting lake near the lower end
A side note on Little Bear vs Ellingwood: I use Dawson's guide to the 14ers as my secondary source for route descriptions (it used to be my primary source, but then I found 14ers.com). He rates both Little Bear and Ellingwood as intermediate snow climbs. I really can't understand that. Little Bear is steeper, has more likely consequences given a fall, and simply requires more vertical feet of climbing (as opposed to snowshoeing or hiking). Also, Little Bear has the long awkward traverse that demands some respect. Ellingwood has nothing similar to that. Maybe Dawson rates the climbs based simply on technical difficulty (both require an ax and crampons, but not ropes and other protection). Regardless, I just can't see these climbs being lumped into the same category. Lou Dawson is the man, but I beg to differ. Sorry – back to the story.
Back at camp we got our huge backpacks all ready to go for the painful hike out. One more simple hero shot in front of Little Bear with my gear on:
We started down on snowshoes, but took them off after ˝ a mile or so. Crossed the stream with no difficulty and pounded the road back to my car.
Time passed and foot-soreness grew. We started to see familiar signs as we neared the car. I saw the car first but didn't say anything. I wanted Mike to feel the same joy as I did when he saw the bumper and headlights. Relieved to be on our way back to civilization, we started to load up the car with our gear. We found some forgotten oreos that were a great treat. All set to go, I squeezed into the driver's seat and put the key into the ignition.
This is where Larry enters the story. Larry is a tow truck driver based out of Alamosa. We didn't chance upon Larry, we called him. Because my f-ing battery was dead. Unbelievable. All this preparation, planning, and carefulness, and here we are with a god-damn dead battery.
Serenity now, serenity now.
On the positive side, we had backpacking gear, safety equipment and some extra food. On the negative side the god-damn battery was dead. And we were out of cooking fuel. And our phones were dying. Mine had less than 10% of the battery remaining. I turned it off to preserve what was left, after calling my girlfriend and leaving this message:
"Hey Shelley, we are back to the car at 8800' on Lake Como Road and the battery is dead. I really don't know what to do. I guess we'll call a tow truck, but my phone is dying. In 10 minutes, we are so screwed."
Don't turn off your iPhone if you have less than 10% of your battery left. The Geniuses at Apple made it so you can't turn it back on with less than 10% of the battery. So I went from 10% battery life to no phone in about 2 seconds.
Mike still had less than 20% of his battery left, so he called AAA. They hooked us up with Larry from Layton's Towing and he left Alamosa right away. It took him 1.25 hours to drive the stupid road to our stupid car. He charges $125/hour, which is probably pretty reasonable.
We wondered if he could make it up the road. He assured us that his truck had made it to the last switchback on the road – we were at the first. Whew. We felt good that at least we could get a ride out of there that night, so we could get to a hotel, charge our phones, etc.
Then I wondered about having an All-Wheel Drive car. What if it wasn't just the battery? Is he bringing a flat bed up the road? Or would I just have to drag the car out and deal with the damage later? Oh man, this could get expensive.
Serenity now, serenity now.
We busied ourselves by sorting gear and packing the car neatly. Then we ate all of our food. Way to ration, survivalists.
Making the dead car useful
Eventually Larry showed up and it was time for the moment of truth. He whipped out the jump start battery pack thing and hooked it up to the car. "How much is that?" I asked. $280. The car started and I was quite relieved. I got my bill which read "Jump start ---- $375". Sweet. Mike offered to split the bill and I readily agreed.
Now all we had to do was drive the crappy road, then four hours of highway back to Denver.
The Sierra Blanca is no easy place. Mike was shut out, and we lost a day due to weather. One foolish mistake cost us hours and hundreds of dollars – other mistakes could cost much more. Nevertheless, it is a beautiful place, and one I hope to return to many times.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):