Peak(s):  High Dune - 8,650 feet
Blanca Peak  -  14,345 feet
Date Posted:  10/17/2012
Modified:  11/08/2012
Date Climbed:   10/15/2012
Author:  emohr
Additional Members:   jlarson630
 Blanca Peak  


Blanca Peak: A Southern Colorado Adventure

"The successful man will profit from his mistakes and try again in a different way."
-Charles Darnegie


Fall Break at The Colorado School of Mines is a pretty special annual event to the students here in Golden. We never get Labor Day off, so this is the first real break of the Fall. More importantly, the last break to do anything fun outside

So while some finished homework, studied for tests, and played the Lon-Capa drinking game, Jake and I decided to soak in some of the last good weather days of Colorado. We weren't really sure where we wanted to go, but we wanted to do it all; climb, hike, fish, and whatever else we could fit in

Ben was in Iceland for this Fall Break, so it was just Jake and myself from our apartment, and Jake's slack lining buddy Stephanie, who brought her friend Lauren

The Plan:

1) Saturday - Go down to the Sand Dunes
2) Sunday - __________
3) Monday - __________
4) Tuesday - Come back to Golden

We thought the lovely San Luis Valley would hold provide suffient adventure for our 4 days of freedom. You got the Dunes, some 14ers in the Sangres, some big rocks to climb at Penitente, and some fishing along the way. Throughout the trip, we were able to fill in the gaps however we pleased, with no particular agenda in mind

I was especially eager to get back down to the Southern Sangres because I wasn't able to summit Blanca Peak last year during Fall Break with my buddy Ben. The trip can be found "Hee-ahh" (here). The only real notes about that trip were that I got the ol' Xterra up to about 8'800 on "bumpy" The Lake Como Road on a Friday, camped Friday Night along the Road, slept in till noon on Saturday (D'oh!), turned back from Blanca at about 5PM with the sun setting and the snow getting deeper. It was my first failed summit attempt, but at the time, I was pretty hesitant of my snow experience. It felt like the right decision to turn back. We were post holing for half a mile, and the wind was picking up. Not a good combo on such a rarely traveled peak

Ben and I Near Blanca in October 2011

I left the Lake Como demoralized and found myself skipping any trip reports about Little Bear, Blanca, or Ellingwood. Any mention of the area just reminds me of cold feet, sunburnt faces, and an unsuccessful summit. *sighhhhh*

So perhaps this was going to be a trip where I could go back and get another chance at achieving one of these intimidating peaks. The forecast for the weekend was snowy across most of the state, so I wasn't sure a summit would be possible with my lack of mountaineering knowledge/equipment/experience. Either way, I knew we could find some fun at The Great Sand Dunes, and Jake mentioned some climbing near Alamosa called Penitente Canyon

Day 1: Snowy Dunes and Big Rocks

We loaded up the Xterra with a rope, our 14er essentials, some non-alcoholic beverages, and hunger for the outdoors. Left Golden at 6AM and made it to 285 in jiffy

We cruised along the cloud covered Sawatch and Sangre Mountains throughout the morning and made it to the impressive Sand Dunes of Colorado by 9:45. The cool 35 degree air greeted us along with snow flakes at the Visitor Center. Looking towards the South, we could see the storm over the Blanca area. *gulp*

Hmmm. That's a bit of snow there!

Instead of heading up to the stormy Lake Como area, we decided to go after a different summit; High Dune(8,650') inside the Sand Dunes Park

I've been to the Dunes dozens of times, but each time I go I keep asking myself, "Where am I?". It looks Tatooine desert with some Lord of the Rings Mountains in the backdrop. And the day we were there it was snowing as well. It made for a pretty surreal setting as we made our way up the slippery slopes

The World's Largest Playground. True Story

It was surprising to see so many people out on the Dunes in the snowy wind. We even met a nice couple from Delaware on the Summit of High Dune that took our picture

Summit of High Dune, 8,650 feet

After a successful summit, we treated ourselves by running down the Dunes as fast as we could. We ran down the slopes with grace as we greeted people going up. It was time for us to get back to the car though. The snow was definitely picking up

We got to the Xterra and decided to head West across the San Luis Valley towards Penitente Canyon for some rock climbing. There didn't seem to be nearly as many clouds to the West as there were on the Sangres. The weather for the next two days was supposed to be sunny, so we had high hopes we could come back to the mountains in a few days and there would be a little less snow

Making our way along the San Luis Valley was quick and uneventful, and had no problem finding Penitente. We drove through the camping area and were just astounded by the boulders and rock formations we found. It was just a rock climbers dream

Finding a camping spot was not a problem, and we quickly setup camp so we could go explore the area

Hiking along the trail that leads to the routes of Penitente had some fun bouldering and exploring

Looking Up At Some Penitente Routes

We look across the Valley to see the storm breaking a bit over The Sangres

Looking East Towards The Sangres

That night we made ourselves a cozy little fire at camp, and reminisced about the day, unraveled the mysteries of The Universe, and learned an important lesson from a certain "Plucky Ducky". We planned on climbing the next morning, and went to sleep eager for the opportunity

Day 2: Big Rocks and Bumpy Roads

We were awoken Sunday morning by the sun in a cloudless sky. We could tell it was going to be a good day

After looking for a spot to setup camp, we found a nice area off the trail that gave us some fun 5.8ish climbing. We soaked in the rays, had some lunch, and treated ourselves with some ice cold, Rocky Mountain, non-alcoholic beverages

Jake Leading A Route

The lazy day rolled on as we explored more of Penitente in search of routes and chairs in the rocks. We were very successful in finding both. At one point we could get a view of the Blanca Group from our wall. It looked like a lot of the snow had melted, and we still had 2 days before we had to be back. Going up Lake Como Road was a suggestion that was thrown out, and we decided that would be our next destination

Our Next Destination

I had been on The Lake Como Road twice before this, and knew that that road was not messin around. My Xterra has taken me up all my 4WD 14ers without a problem, but Lake Como Road is a whoooole different ball game.

"A stock 4WD will not make it and will be damaged. Believe the hype, this is a nasty road."
-Bill Middlebrook

Making it up to "The Jeepers Creepers Sign" at 8,800' last year was quite an accomplishment, but I found out that the road gets noticeably smoother past this sign.

This year I was lucky enough to have three bright engineers with me to help me navigate the treacherous road. Jake used his vast rock knowledge, Stephanie did all the heavy lifting, and Lauren made sure to keep reminding me "Pin it to win it!"

Our "Crux" of the Road

We finally had to stop on the road because it just got too ridiculous. Along the road we found a nice camping spot at about 10,000' that looks out to the West. After making some dinner, we fell asleep in the tent at about 11

Watching the Sunset From Our Campsite

Day 3: Ascent of Blanca Peak

The initial plan was to be awake at 6 on Monday Morning to head up into the Lake Como Basin. We were tired, and people in our tent were feeling especially chatty the night before, so we slept in a little bit and hit the trail at about 8

We quickly made our way up the road to Lake Como without any problems. After doing so many dry Sawatch Peaks over the last couple of weeks, I hadn't really had a life changing climb since Mt. Sneffles back in August. But when Little Bear poked it's head over the trees to first come into view, my love for the mountains was instantly reignited. It's snowy face towers above Lake Como and just makes the palms sweaty looking at it. I've seen hundreds of pictures and reports on Little Bear, and I plan on saving it for one of my last. It is truly one of the most intimidating peaks I've ever seen

View of Little Bear Across Lake Como

Advancing past Lake Como was quick and there didn't seem to be much snow. A group from Tennessee had already made their way up to The Blue Lakes, so our path through the snow was set out in front of us.

Everything was going smoothly until we passed Crater Lake, the highest lake in the basin. The snow started to get noticeably deeper (5-10") and the steep route made it difficult to navigate up. We made it to the saddle in between Ellingwood and Blanca where we were able to get a little beta from two of the Tennessee hikers in front of us. They said it was exposed, slick, and getting windy AKA conditions only Jake and I would risk going in to get a summit. Stephanie and Lauren decided to head back down to the lower lakes to warm up their feet and get out of the wind.

Jake and I pressed on up the final ridge to Blanca's Summit

Looking Towards Ellingwood from Blanca's Ridge

Crestone Group In The Distance

Jake With Ellingwood in the Bakcground

Making our way up the snowy slope of Blanca was a moment in my life where I truly felt alive. I could look to my left and see a few hundred feet of exposure, look to my right and see snowy chutes leading all the way back to the base of Blanca, and only snowy rocks in front of me. The climbing wasn't too technical, but the exposure and slippery rocks are what made the climb so exhilarating. My hands shook as I felt around the snow covered slopes for exposed rock. Jake at one point leads the route and gives me the beta of "Yeah it's pretty exposed up this way, so as long as you can avoid that, you'll be good." Sounds easy enough!

Pushing Up The Steep Slopes

After a half hour of this sphincter-clenching climbing, we made it to the glorious summit

Summit View to the North

Summit View to the East

It felt great to come back to this area after having to turn around on Blanca last year. My heart was racing while I stared off into the Sangres, not because of physical exertion, but because I felt alive. Coming up was tough and had some sketchy moments, and I knew we still had to descend the slick slopes, which would be even more dangerous. In this moment, the only thing that matters to me is the 6 inches in front of my face and the next step I'm about to make. I'm not thinking about school, the election, work, or anything. This is when I truly reach my "happy place" in the world

26th and 20th Summit!

Looking Back towards Blanca from Crater Lake

Coming down Blanca's summit was so difficult because our momentum was coming downhill, so the snow would only help our momentum and send us sliding down the slopes. Luckily Jake and I were able to carefully navigate our way down the slopes and out of the wind to Crater Lake where we met up with the girls



Descending from the lakes had some great views and we bumped into the four folks from Tennessee who were climbing Blanca as well. We took pictures for each others groups, and wished them a safe journey back home.

Our Group Below Ellingwood and Blanca

We stopped at Lake Como so Jake and I could fly fish for a bit and soak in some of the Sun's rays. Absolutely no luck fishing, but a snowman was made!

Lake Como

Blanca The Snowman with Little Bear in the Back

Our camp welcomed us with another gorgeous sunset. A fire was made, and we reminisced about our recent adventures. Falling asleep after that hike was not a problem for our group

Sunset On Monday

Day 4: Comin' Back Home

Tired, stinky, hungry, we awoke on Tuesday with the plans of headin' on home. Coming back down the Lake Como Road was almost as fun as going up!

Ohhh The Places We've Been

Curious about the "Alien Watch Tower" on the way back along Highway 17, we stopped to check it out. Turns out it costs $5. We figured there was nothing in that old shed that would be worth $5 to look at

Gettin Frisky in Salida

To finish up our awesome adventure, Jake and I were able to do some fly fishing along the South Platte near Fairplay. Perfect way to wrap up our unforgettable Colorado adventure
One Last Stop On The South Platte


Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):

 Comments or Questions

Annual Trip
10/17/2012 21:57
Can't wait to go back next year for Ellingwood...and a stop off at the UFO watchtower


the dunes, como, waterfalls, fishing, mountains...
10/17/2012 22:36
... even a SNOWMAN! Way to get it all in dude... You've been all over the map this year Eric. Nice job, keep it up. See you on Facebook - haha


10/18/2012 01:32
Nice job on the pics and a fun weekend outing. Odd ratio you have going on there.

You can always tell if somebody goes to Mines (mainly 'cuz they'll be certain to tell you right off the bat)


10/18/2012 02:32
...on a successful climb under difficult conditions!


Picture #8
10/18/2012 04:09
I know that route! ... it is called ”Tanks for the Huecos” in Penitente... probably my favorite route in the area. Excellent TR! thanks for bringing back great memories of Penitente Canyon.


Fall Break
10/19/2012 04:16
Mines gets Fall Break now ???? Back in my time there (early 90s) there was nothing until Thanksgiving. Now I just sound old. Nice trip report !


”Non-Alcoholic” Beverages
10/19/2012 22:31
Uh-huh, sure.

Glad you had a successful trip up and down the road, not to mention the Blanca summit.


10/22/2012 00:36
Blanca is also one of my favorites. It's nice to hear about other people who truly enjoy what the mountains have to offer

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