Blanca Peak - 14,345 feet
Ellingwood Point - 14,042 feet
Blanca Peak - 14,345 feet
Ellingwood Point - 14,042 feet
|Lake Como Road: So Nice, It Was Worth Doing Twice! X(|
We bring you this interruption in the Class 3 Climbs for the Cringing series of trip reports to talk about what I am content to call my last new fourteeners of 2019. I still have a half-written report on Sneffels' SW Ridge that I will return to soon(ish...), but before that, I felt it worthwhile to write a report that harkens back to the reason I started writing trip reports in the first place: providing beta on How Not to Do Fourteeners.
Let me start with a follow-up to the "Date Climbed" field and why it is necessary to elaborate: I climbed Ellingwood Point, the real focus of this write-up, on 9/21. I climbed Blanca on 9/18. I was hoping to climb them both in the same day via the traverse. I knew that with my documented inability to move faster than a Walking Dead zombie with rotted-off legs, it would take me all day and perhaps all night, but I had heard enough stories about the Lake Como Road that it seemed worthwhile to me to pick a nice day, bring extra batteries for my headlamp, and get the most (toe)bang for my buck.
Unfortunately, my usual paranoia about being underdressed for the cruelty of the elements at 14,000' evaded me as I loaded up Booger, my Subaru Outback, on Tuesday evening. I'd just climbed Sneffels the preceding Friday and been more than fine with my usual summer gear, itself more than most climbers I encounter wear. Blanca is also in the southern part of the state; I'd be fine!
I hadn't taken into account that I'd need to start waaaaaay earlier here than I would on Sneffels (3 a.m. was when I left Booger in her spot 1.5 miles from Highway 150 and promptly started hobbling over the baby-head rocks that congregate menacingly in the middle of the so-called road), that there would be water close enough to the road in some places to cool things off considerably, or that - and this was a critical oversight - the approach to Blanca and Ellingwood comes in from the west. Guess where most of the wind in Colorado also blows in from! And guess how much cover you have from it once you get above treeline! Hint: it's roughly the same as the Broncos' chances of making it to the Super Bowl this year!!!
I didn't get this shot until I was coming back down, but the fact that it had clouded up so thoroughly didn't help, either.
My fingers and toes were already starting to tingle by the time I reached Blanca's ridge, and while I thought about turning back multiple times, I'd had my sights set on Colorado's fourth-highest peak for a long time and was determined to slug it out all the way. Helping my decision here was the fact that the only adverse conditions were airborne; I'd tiptoed past some water on the ledges, but once above them, the route was dry. Also, the packed-down quality of the trail even through the talus sections as well as the obvious and even spacing of the cairns makes routefinding a no-brainer, even for a dolt like me (more on that to come), so I knew I'd feel like a proper twit if I had to walk all the way back down that road with nothing to show for my efforts but a vigorous 16.5 mile hike.
But seriously...the National Weather Service promised a nice day! You lying jerkfaces, blowing sunshine up my behind like that!
I didn't let conditions stop me from baring my chest, however...I paid good money for that anti-boob job, dangit!
That I spent more time shivering in the shelter than I did enjoying the lofty summit for the ~15-20 minutes I was on it sealed the deal: Blanca was going to be my only fourteener summit that day. I picked my way across the ridge, regained feeling in my toes around 13,200', and was able to shuck my jacket as well as drink my "summit" beer to commemorate Colorado fourteener #40 once I returned to Lake Como. The buzz helped for about the first mile or two down; the rest brought on a gradual souring of my mood to the point where, if anyone between 8800' and where I parked heard loud cries of vicious invective - of the kind that would make even the most battle-hardened Marines clutch their pearls - directed at the Lake Como Road between 5:30 and 6:13 p.m. (the time of my return to Booger*) last Wednesday evening...my apologies.
"No way am I going back for Ellingwood this year," I told myself firmly as I headed back to Denver faster than the local cops probably would've liked. "It's getting cold enough that the water is turning to ice soon, I'll need time for my legs to forget how much fun that road is, and anyway, 40 is such a nice, round number on which to leave my count for the rest of the year! So what if I had really hoped to get 10 in this season, only got 9, and am thinking the rest on my list are going to be a little icier than I want to contend with until next July or so!"
That last sentence is likely explanation enough for why only three days later, I was once again saddling up Booger (as much as one can saddle up an SUV...) and fighting Friday afternoon traffic through the hellscape of construction between Castle Rock and Monument with nightmare visions of Lake Como in my crosshairs. My knees had decided on our last outing that Booger could totally crawl up past at least that last stretch of baby heads to 8800'; while she handled it like such a champ that I have no doubt in her abilities to do so (later confirmed when I saw her clone, down to the snot color and everything, parked that high on my way down), her driver was hyperventilating hard enough that we only got 2.6 miles off the pavement before backing into to an unoccupied pull-off.
Maybe it's because I did shave that mile off my ascent; maybe it's because I knew what to expect; maybe it's because I'd dressed for success in my Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man ski jacket, lift operator gloves, and thick socks; most likely it's all of the above, but while the road was no less abysmal the second time around, I made Lake Como itself in record time (for me, at any rate).
The only complication was that I'd apparently underestimated the amount of salt in the soup I'd had the night before and thus consumed a liter of water before I reached the lake, but that was okay, I reassured myself. There were water sources aplenty between the lake and the trail junction for Blanca and Ellingwood. I refilled my bottle at one of them somewhere near 13,000', then started chugging the cool, fresh liquid straightaway, before returning to my pack to fish out the water purification drops I had stashed in there. This, too, was okay, I told myself. I was well above the last of the campsites, and it wasn't like there was any mining activity in the area...oh, wait, except for all those old mining bores uphill that the route description explicitly said to look for. Oops...guess I'd need to invest in some Imodium-D on my way home.
Not the stream I drank from, but you get an idea of how enticing it might look after the wheeze-fest that is the road. Will update if this turns into my third fourteener-induced emergency medical services visit.
Though the split is not well-marked, I was able to identify the mine hole that at least marked my way as some sort of penance for having potentially poisoned me, and I was surprised how intuitive the route-finding was after I passed it. The cairns aren't always obvious, but as long as you stick to the middle of the slope going up to the ridge - the shallowest angle - you'll be on the right path. Cairns and trail segments are abundant and clear once you're on the ridge, and it didn't seem long before I had Ellingwood's highest Point in my sights.
Taken on the way down. If you continue straight across the slope past the circled cairn instead of switchbacking around to the next ones up, you'll have more or less a direct path to where you're supposed to go.
I had to pause 3' below that point to catch my breath. But that, too, was okay, I again told myself. Savor this moment - this is going to be my last new fourteener of 2019 for sure. Once I'd savored enough, I pushed onto the top. I tried to then tell myself that at least I would have another chance to savor my last blah blah blah, but it was hard to drown out my own cursing over having just peaked what I sincerely hoped was my last false fourteener summit of 2019.
[Residual cursing redacted.]
I reached the real summit a full hour earlier than I'd reached Blanca's days before, but despite my more favorable position in regards to sun-catching compared to Wednesday's conquest as well as my heftier layers, I was still inclined to linger only long enough to sign the summit register, marvel at the unsharpened pencil someone had left in it (at least the pen had ink!), and take some pictures of myself as well as the surroundings. Even if it hadn't been chilly on the summit, I would've held off on drinking my beer; I wanted as many of my wits about me as I could hold onto between the summit and something resembling a trail.
And furthermore, what an apparent waste of perfectly good duct tape!
And yet. Despite being no more impaired than is typical for 14,000', I still managed to bungle the descent, and so efficiently, too! The bottom line for what follows is this: stick to the ridgeline. Even if it means you have to go back up and over the false summit. Under absolutely no circumstances should you follow what looks like a trail of sorts below and around the side of the false summit that then curves back in the direction of the real summit, for that will take you down too quickly. Worse still, it will continue weaving its way down in what looks like a legit set of switchbacks, so that by the time you realize you are several gullies away from where you need to be, you may be looking just a few yards down into some nasty-looking cliffs.
If you find yourself somewhere above center-left of this photo, you done messed up.
I was prepared at that point to climb all. the. way. back up to the ridge, though I obviously didn't want to. Fortunately, I managed to find passage over a rib to the next gully over via a short set of narrow, loose-rock covered ledges that were nonetheless navigable via careful foot placement and decent handholds. I did have to scramble up scree a short ways to reach what looked like a promising notch to the next gully still; my luck held and then some, for not only did that notch provide just the access I'd hoped for, I could also see a series of cairns atop the rocks across from me!
I did not let those cairns out of my sight until I was back below the route description's poisonous mine hole, at which point they kinda peter out, leaving you to Choose Your Own Adventure across mostly-stable-but-sometimes-not rock in the direction of the main trail. Happily, though, there's apparently a limit to the trouble even I can get into in one day, and I soon found myself back on the no-brainer portion of the route, listening to music through my earbuds and taking advantage of the strangely but wonderfully empty trail (I only saw a handful of people all day) to riff on the lyrics out loud: "Bang-bang, Maxwell's silver ice axe came down upon his heeeeeeead..."
One Lake Como beer to celebrate 2019 fourteener #10, my last of the season, and I was on my way back to Booger. My knees affirmed that the extra mile of driving up was well worth it, though I did find myself once again hurling curses at the road as I urged Booger down it at an average of 3 mph; a joint-saver, maybe, but not a time-saver, for those pondering the walk vs. drive calculus.
And now I need to try and figure out what to do with the rest of that six-pack I'd bought for my birthday back in March that I am only now halfway through...it would seem that dumping my ex nearly seven years ago quashed just about all my need for alcohol.
As far as HikesInGeologicTime fourteeners go, this one was a classic - thrills, chills, and false summits. Still, I did manage to persevere and meet my 2019 goals despite a solid attempt to derail them off a cliff at the last second, so I can at least feel good about that. Plus, this is the first time in *years* that I've been able to call it good on a season without already having a revenge trip in mind - most prior seasons have ended in late October to sometime in November with me sucking wind and trying to shake feeling back into my hands and feet as I stared despairingly at a summit that seemed to sneer at me from hundreds if not thousands of vertical feet above, eventually and morosely concluding that it was better to tuck tail and run so that all my digits and I could reach that peak another day.
This year, I have an autumn of Type I hikes on which I can bring my real camera with minimal fear for its safety now that it's no longer under warranty, maybe some low thirteeners, and then there is the planned December summit of Bierstadt so I can finally earn a fourteener snowflake, even if it does seem like cheating to do it that way. Plus, now I'll have two or three seasons to ponder how I can channel my creative impulses 100% into my artistic endeavors with no diversions into my route-finding!
*To put in context just how eyebrow-raising a 15+ hour RT time is even for me, I did the Barr Trail in 14h41m and Whitney (also as a single day) in 14h46m, and both of those were before I started taking testosterone, which has improved my times a bit! So yeah...this outing is a long and painful one.
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