| Blanca-Ellingwood Day Trip: 31 Aug10
Flew in this time, so stayed at the Best Western in Alamosa. Suitable place on the main drag on the west side of town with pool and hot tub.
Getting there: The best rental vehicle I could get this time was a 4WD Ford Explorer--which is not a particularly suitable vehicle for Lake Como Road. The drive to the paved road turn-off took about 20 minutes via US 160, then 3 miles north on CO 150 to the turn off. This starts as an easy drive at 8,000', then becomes progressively rougher. 2WD passenger vehicles will likely need to park about 2 miles in. Standard street 4WD vehicles can go 3-4 miles. The Ford explorer could not take an obstacle at 9,500', so I had to back down to 9,400' (4 miles in). High ground clearance off-road vehicles, with some driver skill, can make it to somewhere between 10,200' and 10,500'. At 10,500' (Jaws 1) there is an effective rock blockade that will require a heavily modified vehicle, driver skill, and some significant risk to cross. There will be successive and significant road challenges ahead, so unless one simply wants to test a tricked-out vehicle and driver against the road, I would consider 10,500' the practicable limit for a stock off-road, high ground clearance, 4WD vehicle.
The hike in from 9,400' to Lake Como at 11,750' took about two hours in the predawn darkness and over the rough underfoot conditions. I arrived at the lake at first light. Strong, moist winds were blowing out of the San Luis Valley--obscuring and condensing on the peaks. As I learned later, this created 1/4" of ice and a few inches of snow above 13K. Above the lake lay two headwall structures. These look a bit intimidating at first, but they are easily navigable and are cairned. The Tuesday of my hike I expected it to be a light day. In fact, there were only two other parties on the mountain that day and the first party aborted their summit attempt due to icy conditions.
After Lake Como, you will easily transit Blue Lakes and, finally, Crater Lake at the base of the Blanca massif. Above Crater Lake you will be looking at a steep talus ascent. Again, it appears to be more intimidating than actual. On final approach to the summit you can either ride the ridge with exposure to the east, or stay below the ridge to the west. The ice and snow required careful route finding among the series of ledges near the summit and crampons would have been welcome--but my trekking pole served adequately. Ice and snow on this peak raise difficulty and risk significantly. Once on the cold, windy, and intermittently cloudy summit, Little Bear, Ellingwood, Lindsey, and the beautiful surroundings came into full view.
I expected the traverse to Ellingwood to take at least 90 minutes, but it only took about 45 minutes. Given the icy conditions on the NW face of Blanca I chose to descend directly down the top of the ridge, with some exposure to the east. Toward the saddle, the sun had melted the ice and things went much quicker. I traversed the west side of the ridge at roughly 13,600'. There are intermittent cairns, but you can just select your own route--crossing ribs, washes and ledges enroute. This is mostly a Class 2 traverse, with a bit of Class 3 scrambling from time-to-time. Nothing especially difficult. Likewise, on ascent of Ellingwood, the bark is worse than the bite. Pictures look a bit intimidating, but it is just a standard Class 2 ascent with a small amount of scrambling near the top. On descent from Ellingwood, you will need to carry back toward the saddle to avoid the difficulties of very steep loose material. You may choose the line of your own comfort.
This double is a long day if you don't have a vehicle that can get above 10K or don't overnight. It is not so much the elevation gain as it is total distance and poor underfoot conditions on much of the road. The western slopes really heat up on summer afternoons, so make sure you have adequate fluid for departure. I went through two liters of fluid for the day.
All-in-all, a beautiful day.
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View of approach from Lake Como area
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