Peak(s):  Blanca Peak  -  14,345 feet
Date Posted:  02/01/2011
Date Climbed:   01/23/2011
Author:  Dancesatmoonrise
 Winter Daytrip: Mt. Blanca  

Winter Daytrip: Mt. Blanca

Route: Como Road approach
Date: January 23, 2011
Length: 15.5 miles RT
Vertical: 6500 feet
Total time: 13 hours
Ascent Party: Benners, Pioletski, Zambo, Dancesatmoonrise

The Blanca Massif at dawn, January 23, 2011.

After a great trip on La Plata last weekend, Ben and I decide to put something together for the upcoming weekend. With high avalanche hazard in the northern and central mountains, the Sangres look like the most viable option. I really want Little Bear via the SW ridge, with the South Little Bear/Little Bear traverse. It's become sort of a preoccupation this winter. Ben and Matt (Pioletski) would prefer Blanca/Ellingwood, so they can ski EP.

The weather window is not perfect. Saturday calls for high winds. Sunday is cold but less windy. The jet wants to hang around; so common in winter. We decide to postpone for Sunday: cold is better than wind. The SLB/LB traverse requires good weather, and low winds. There's a strong hint in the GFS models that giving the little bear one more week could actually work out. So we decide on Blanca/Ellingwood. I'm hoping to get recon shots of the SLB/LB traverse while we're up there.

Como at 9400.

Ah, yes, how quickly we forget the misery of Como. Hoofing it from around 8100, I'm reminded that the Como Road is one of the few places on the planet where walking feels better than driving. At least going in.

Waning gibbous moonset over the San Luis Valley.


Below the Lake.

Gentlemen. (Photo: Pioletski)

David and Ben. (Photo: Pioletski)


Lake Como. (Photo: Pioletski)

Lunch on the sunny shores of beautiful Lake Como.

Matt crosses the Lake. Little Bear looms impressive. (Photo: Benners.)

First headwall


Little Bear's NW face: We gaze wistfully at the left rib of the gully just left of the summit. Another day...

Looking down.

Looking up.

Evaluating the Blanca/Ellingwood cirque, the scree at right center is loose debris over snow, so it's not an option. Not to mention how it got there. The snow to the left is extremely hard in places; breakable windslab in others. We take a line left and around, staying to the driest areas.

The Line.

The view from near the large rock at left in the last photo.

Looking up to Blanca.

It's late in the day. Concerns about getting a summit prove correct. We wanted both, but would be happy with one at this hour. Winter is tough. The snow isn't helping, alternating between fall-apart sugar and bulletproof slab, and everything in between. The scree isn't frozen in place; unusual for this time of year. Matt and Ben forego the ski descent of Ellingwood, opting just to climb it.

If we can make our respective summits by 3:30 pm, that puts us below the critical areas before dark. It's tough when you're this close, but we're well prepared. For that matter, I recall seeing plenty of vacancy signs on the cabins down at Lake Como Resort, just a thousand verts below. The accommodations aren't much, but the rates are surprisingly cheap this time of year.

The rock in the center of the cirque is fairly dry 3rd class, making a nice winter line.

Matt, Ben, and David approach the large rock.

Ellingwood looking magnificent under moody skies.

A look down at the talus field below Blanca.

The scree has just enough unconsolidated snow to make travel a tad treacherous. Best to rock hop when possible, but the rock is not entirely frozen, and some is loose. Unusual for January.

Finally on the ridge.

The last 300 verts beckons.

The summit always feels like the end of the trip, for the moment, until considering the hardest half still lies ahead. Still, it's nice to finally be here. Hello, again, Blanca!

Lindsey, seen from Blanca's summit ridge.

The impeccable Huerfano drainage to the north.

Looking west down impressive cuts in the massif.

Finally, that recon shot. Little Bear is seen as the high point just left of center; South Little Bear is at the other end of the ridge further left.
The entire east aspect of the SLB/LB traverse is visible. It looks doable.

Crestones looking mighty fine from Blanca's summit.

Wonderful to bag a summit this fine winter day. Time to settle up with the clock and scrub off some verts.

Heading home...

Looking back...

Meanwhile, the other half of the team goes for Ellingwood Point. (Photo: Benners)

Ben and David. (Photo: Pioletski.)

Matt pushes for the summit. (Photo: Benners.)

Jim descends Blanca. (Photo: Benners.)

Matt and David. (Photo: Benners.) (Ben, this is one nice shot, bro!)

One mountain, three alpinists. (Can you see them at far right?)

"Base camp."

Love those spikes: Descending the lower cirque.

The Ellingwood team descends.

The winds start to get a little rough.

I'm disappointed to learn the guys are forced to turn back 300 feet from the EP summit. I'd been elated to think we'd all made our respective summits. We have to put it into perspective: though cold and windy, we're doing pretty well for a winter's day high above Como.

Last light sure is beautiful in the alpine.

I'm quietly thrilled that my partners gave Ellingwood a solid attempt. We know we'll be headed back by headlamp, but that's pretty much a given in winter. I watch as Ben makes first turns down from our 13,200 perch.

Bathed in late-day glow, Benners clicks in and fires up the afterburners.

David and I take up the rear, dreaming about IPA, following the glow in the west.

Blessing? Or curse? The headlamp is both the bane and the joy of winter travel.

Headlamp: Alpinist's aegis, Mountaineer's badge of merit; Friend, companion, salvation, sine qua non. Is it not two ounces of solid gold? And what price, winter, in its absence?

Soon we're below the lake. Winter 14er sixteen, in the bag. Gratitude on this long day.

I'm alone, quietly taking up the rear. The stars are beautiful. The Como Road is a bit spooky, well after dark. Every now and then I hear the soft hushed rustle of something following behind, just this side of the threshold of human hearing...

...and before long, we're at the cars, tipping a beer, the guys calling wives, tossing gear, heading home, down the bumpy Como Road, from yet another full day's winter sojourn into Colorado's noble 14ers.

We didn't get everything we wanted today, but winter is like that, especially approaching some of the harder 14ers. This season is starting to become a lesson in how to be content attempting a mountain, without necessarily summiting. I was fortunate to get Blanca today, and feel some disappointment for my partners not getting Ellingwood. I personally wanted both. But did I really think this was our last trip up the Como Road in winter? I hope not.

Then there's that nagging little dance I keep doing with Little Bear - like I said, the season is becoming a lesson in contentment sans summit. A good lesson to get familiar with...


Thanks for reading.

And thanks to Ben, Matt, and David for another great all-day trip.


 Comments or Questions

02/07/2011 03:42
Thank you for an awesome, beautiful, and very inspiring TR!! I dream of busting out a day like this someday. If you tag Blanca in January and forgo/turn back on Ellingwood, that's certainly not a defeat in my eyes. I've never met any of you guys but I recognized a few of the user names, and you guys are doing some great stuff. Keep on rocking and send more of these our way!! (And don't worry, the mountains won't be going anywhere in our lifetimes)


thanks for sharing!
02/12/2011 19:51
Wonderful report gentlemen! Congrats on a nice winter climb. Love the pics. Keep up the inspirational work!


Way to go Jim!
02/05/2011 17:08
You set a new standard in photography on Great read too. Thanks for sharing. Bernie


Nice Work
02/01/2011 22:36
That is a long day. Nice work and excellent photos.


02/01/2011 22:50
No Ridge of Unintended Consequences this time? Solid work fellas.


Nicely Written, Jim
02/01/2011 23:44
You've once again put together a top notch TR, complete with some of the best photography on this site. Looking back on this day still festers some disappointment in me, but knowing our group had the strength of mind to make the right choice and turn back brings satisfaction of a different kind. Thanks for a memorable day out, gents.


06/02/2011 14:57
That second to last shot is spooky. Sweet report again Jim. Nice work to all. Can't wait to get back there in May!


Dances At Moon Rise Strikes Again
02/02/2011 00:16
As always, you put the rest of us to shame with your photography, Jim. Awesome shots! I especially like (of course I am biased) the one of the 3 of us high on Ellingwood.

Anyways, thanks for the day out, and looking forward to seeing the Little Bear report.


02/02/2011 00:25
Your perseverance is highly admirable. The line between when to push on and when to turn back gets awfully blurry sometimes.


02/02/2011 00:29
Wow, okay it is great to have the whole party summit and all, but what a beautiful day you had! Your persistence was definitely rewarded, great job all.


02/02/2011 00:53
Thanks, all.

It was a tough day but the company was great! Thanks again, gents.


Ain't that the truth !
02/02/2011 01:31
”Ah, yes, how quickly we forget the misery of Como. Hoofing it from around 8100, Iím reminded that the Como Road is one of the few places on the planet where walking feels better than driving. At least going in. ”

So true, so true ! I'd rather poke myself in the eye with a fork than to walk that road again. Oh yeah, wait, I still need Little Bear....


02/02/2011 02:15
You guys are machines, and doing an excellent job of reminding me that I'm fat and out of shape....keep it up!!


Thanks Jim!
02/02/2011 02:57
Nice writeup. Great day, even if we didn't all summit. As you point out, we'll be back!


Great job.
02/02/2011 03:05
Why did you turn around on Ellingwood so close to the summit? Because it was too late, or were there some objective hazards? (just curious if there was some badness up at top).

Wishing I was there...


02/02/2011 03:26
Matt, Ben, and David were going for EP. They turned around based on calculations of time to summit and to get back down. They'd figured at the rate they were travelling, it would have them still above critical areas after last light. I believe it was a synchronous decision - turns out we all got down to Crater lake within about 15 minutes of each other, so timing was pretty much spot on. It was windy and cold, but I had my down jacket in the pack (plus a down vest and Gortex shell, heavy mitts, etc) and could easily have waited there. I would have loved it if they went for it, and they probably could have. Still, we had the headwall below to take by headlamp as it was.

”Experience is a great teacher. If you survive her lessons.”

I think we knew where the edge was, and took it to 90% of the limit. As Matt says, above, ”We'll be back.” I can think of plenty of things that would be less fun than being in the B/E cirque again this winter.

As to the objective hazards, you'll have to ask Ben and Matt. The line I took on Blanca was so dry, there was fairly low avy concern. My personal main concern was negotiating difficult steep talus - which I did not want to do in the dark. So for me, running over and tagging Ellingwood, after Blanca, was not an option.

By the way, I admire your stamina and sticking with it on your winter ascents this year. Congrats! Let's get a group together for something in the Sawatch soon...


02/02/2011 05:42
how did it look from the road?


02/02/2011 06:21
It is difficult to see the hourglass on this route.


Great stuff
02/02/2011 06:25
Loved the photos as usual sir. You actually make the climb look feasible for those of us that dread winter conditions. Great job. 8)


02/02/2011 12:06
Great report. I always enjoy reading through your reports....the pictures are always awesome too. Good job, I look forward to making this hike someday. (It will most likely be in the summer though.)


Crazy stuff
02/02/2011 16:10
13hrs?? Wow! and I know Dancesatmoonrise is a fast climber. Cant even imagen how long it would take me to bag that peak in winter. Great report guys.


Squatters Rights
02/02/2011 16:13
Gee. I think Matt and I have habitated that cabin enough we can claim squatters rights. We thought of having a mule or a jeep bring us up a wood burning stove in the summer!

Congrats on you guy's summit and we greatly appreciate the remenants of your tracks as we decended off of Blanca after Traversing to Little Bear and leaving our snowshoes not far from como lake. Postholing sucks and what was left just saved us that many post holes.

PS. As a 14er skier less accomplished in that realm than your partners, I can see why they didn't have the drive to grab the summit. After you lug the skis that far and realize you don't get to use them the way you wanted, it is hard to want to push for something like that.

See you at the top!


Reason for Turning Around
02/02/2011 17:59
What Jim said is right on, we had climbed 500' in an hour and a half from our ski stash and still had 350' to go with less than an hour of daylight remaining, so easy calculation. The reason the going was so slow was the snow on Ellingwood; breakable crust on top of unconsolidated sugar snow with loose talus underneath. Instability wasn't a huge concern, it was more just the group consensus that descending that slope in the dark sounded less than appealing.


02/02/2011 18:38
Great pictures and fantastic day's work!!


From a newb's perspective...
02/02/2011 20:06
...good gawd that looks burly! Sweet photography. Seriously makes me wish I had the experience, the gear, and the cajones do something like this! Great report.


You guys have...
02/03/2011 05:22
amazing stamina! That is one long haul with loads of verts. What an amazing effort. Sorry to hear the 3 didn't get EP. What a disappointment. But what a day in the mnts. and glad you got in and out safe.
Great report and photos Jim. You've got a gift.

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