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Blanca Peak
Elevation: 14,345 feet
Climbed: Sep 2, 2006
Mountain Range: Sangre de Cristo Range
Colorado Rank: 4th
Class Rating: 2
Latitude: 37.577491
Longitude: -105.485649

Trip Report

Sep 2, 2006
After my first climb in the Sangre de Cristo range on August 5, 2006, I was looking forward to my second Sangres trip. I decided to backpack in and camp at Lake Como, then tackle Blanca Peak and Ellingwood Point, although not necessarily in that order.

I left Colorado Springs after 1:30 PM on Friday, September 1, traveling south on I-25 to Walsenburg. Leaving the interstate, I followed Highway 160 west over La Veta Pass and past the towns of Fort Garland and Blanca. Turning north on Colorado 150, I traveled 3.2 miles before turning right on an unmarked dirt road.

The first mile or two of this road is smooth dirt. Beyond that point loose cobbles cover the road as it begins to climb. I drove on the cobbles for a while, but then decided to park and begin my hike toward Lake Como. There were three other vehicles parked in the same vicinity.

It was close to 5 PM by the time I started hiking up the road. With the late hour and the cloud cover over the San Luis Valley, the beginning of the hike was not particularly hot, as it can be in that area of Colorado. Very soon I met two hikers coming down the road and learned that there were only two other vehicles higher on the road, each of which had driven further before parking.

Soon after leaving the hikers, it started to rain. I huddled under a tree while I put on my rain gear, then continued my hike up the road in the rain. The rain kept falling for a while, but did stop after a bit, so I pulled off the rain gear and continued up the darkening road.

It soon became clear that I had no chance of getting to Lake Como before nightfall. The footing on the road was often loose and I was not making good time. Strapping on a headlamp, I was able to continue up the road in the darkness.

At one point I sat down on a boulder in the road to take a break. When I got up to move again, I looked back at the way I had come and took off in the opposite direction. Immediately the road started to descend and curve to the right, and the moon, which had previously risen on my right, was now on my left. I retraced my steps to the resting point, but I was sure the way I had gone was not the way I had come up the road. Again I turned and began descending the road. Eventually the road turned and reconnected to the section I had originally ascended. I was on a loop. I continued until I looped back to my resting point, looked hard in the blackness, and noticed that the road turned sharply to the left and went up the mountain. I took the sharp turn and was back on course, with a quarter-moon shining on my right, southern side.

Making poor time on the dark road, I finally came upon Lake Como sometime after 9:30 PM. A dog barked and a light shone near another tent that was camped along the lake. I explored the area around the lake in the darkness and found a suitable place for my tent. I glanced at my watch as I was setting up the tent and saw it was now around 10:00 PM. Finishing with tent chores, I plopped into the tent, fairly exhausted and ready to rest.

I spent my typical night in the tent, either awake or dozing lightly. Around 1 AM I heard another group of folks arrive at the lake. It turns out that I wasn't the only one hiking in the dark that night. In fact, I learned the next day that a couple with the dog had only arrived an hour or less before I reached Lake Como. Eventually I fell asleep, sleeping my soundest in the early morning hours. I awoke sometime after 6:30 AM or so. In the blackness of the night before, I could see a mountain and ridge just south of Lake Como. Emerging from my tent that morning, Little Bear, a steep, Class 4, 14,037-feet-high mountain, was staring me in the face. After gathering my stuff and taking a few photos of the lake and Little Bear's steep north face, I began hiking up the road above Lake Como.

At the second in a series of lakes named Blue Lakes, I caught up with four young hikers who I first met outside my tent that morning. They were considering taking the Class 3 Southwest Ridge route to Ellingwood Point. I was also contemplating that route, which I had marked on my map and loaded into my GPS unit. I left the four hikers, crossed a stream, and started up the slope north of the stream. I soon found a faint trail that traversed and climbed toward the ridge. I called down to the party of four and let them know about the trail, then continued up the steep slope. Down below, I saw that the four were committing to the ridge, as they, too, crossed the stream and started up the slope.

Stashing my trekking poles on my pack, I climbed the rest of the way to the top of the ridge. The ridge looked gnarly and long. Some sections were visually imposing and I questioned my resolve. However, the ridge was solid and not tremendously exposed, so I continued ascending the ridge.

At times, obstructions blocked my way on the ridge, as rock formations jutted steeply in front of me, rising to meet the sky. Initially, the obstructions caused me to pause and consider my future. However, there were only two options available; climb up and over the obstruction or retreat and down-climb the ridge. Avoiding the obstruction was not possible.

I began climbing up and over the ridge obstructions. As I climbed, I discovered the rock was solid and hand- and foot-holds were plentiful. The climbing was fun and exhilarating. While the ridge was high, it was not particularly difficult. In fact, it turned out to be the best and most satisfying climbing of the day.

As I climbed higher, I noticed that clouds were gathering. Looking across the valley to the south, Little Bear was partially shrouded in clouds, as was Blanca Peak to the southeast. Stopping only long enough to snap a few photos, I continued along the ridge top toward Ellingwood Point. I was exploring the options I had before me if the weather continued to roll in.

By the time I reached the summit of Ellingwood Point, it was 11:30 AM, four hours after leaving camp. The weather had not worsened, and may even have improved slightly. I was alone on the summit, with the four young climbers somewhere on the ridge below me, out of sight. After using my portable tripod to shoot a summit photo, I started down the south face of Ellingwood.

As I descended the south face, the weather actually began to clear. Clouds dissipated and deep blue skies began to reappear. Blanca Peak was now my next destination.

The route was difficult to follow as I attempted to descend the south face of Ellingwood and connect to the trail that climbed Blanca's northwest face. The solid rock on the ridge had given way to loose, angular talus. At times I seemed to be on a trail of sorts, though more often I was just making my own route down and across the face. I could see a trail cutting through the talus far below and I was aiming for that general location.

Eventually I made my way to the trail I had seen, which I tried to follow toward the ridge northwest of Blanca. Skirting a few cliff bands, I targeted the ridge as my destination. Apparently, the Class 2 trail I was seeking didn't follow the top of the ridge, because I soon found myself navigating the ridge on Class 3 terrain. However, at times I'd drop off the ridge and find myself on Class 2 talus trails again. I found a definitive route hard to follow, which would come into play on my descent, as well.

The views from the Blanca ridge were terrific, with Mount Lindsey in my face to the west. To the southwest, the Spanish Peaks were banded with clouds. And far to the north, Kit Carson, the Crestones, and Humboldt Peak were piercing the sky. Persistence soon paid off, however, and I was on top of Blanca Peak. I marveled at the ferocious ridge between Blanca and Little Bear, which is one of Colorado's four great fourteener traverses. Time had become a blur since leaving the summit of Ellingwood, but I noticed it was now about 3 PM and certainly time to get off the mountain.

As I began my descent, I was able to follow a trail through the talus. This trail was not anywhere close to the ridge route I had followed up the mountain. I hoped for a quicker descent, but soon found myself descending hopelessly-loose talus. Although I surfed on talus for a while, it looked as though I was descending toward some cliff bands I wanted to avoid. In addition, I felt I wasn't treading lightly enough on the mountain, so I tried several times to traverse to more solid terrain, only to soon find more loose talus. In this manner, I had a slow and unpleasant descent, finding myself missing the solid rock I climbed earlier in the morning.

Once I reached the bottom of the cliff bands, the trail solidified. Tufted orange trail markers began to mark the trail as it switched back and forth down the mountain. Lower still, I found a better-defined trail that intersected a segment that headed off toward Ellingwood. Here I also found the couple with the dog, whose tent and light I had seen the night before when I arrived at Lake Como. They had a cellular phone signal, so I borrowed their phone to call my spouse. I was hammered and wanted to crash in my tent one more night, and I didn't want Search and Rescue looking for me when I didn't report back that night. I was still quite a ways from my tent, but knowing I didn't have to hike out that night, any urgency of time had faded. I enjoyed my remaining hike back to Lake Como, noticing several flat, distinctive levels in the valley as I descended. Each level contained its own mountain lake, followed by a trickling cascade of water flowing down to the next level. Each of these lakes constituted the series called Blue Lakes.

As I neared Lake Como, I saw the spot where a climber that morning was leaving the Blanca-Ellingwood trail for a notch in the ridge below Little Bear. This standard route for Little Bear is marked with a cairn, which I had not noticed earlier in the day. Beyond the cairn was a faint trail through the talus, then it disappeared from view.

Making the last right-hand turn to bring Lake Como into view, I noticed one of several abandoned log buildings from times past. Only the log walls remained. At the east end of Lake Como, I saw, to my amazement, two Jeep Cherokees with raised suspensions. It had seemed impossible to navigate some of the obstacles of Como Lake Road with a full-sized, four-wheel-drive vehicle, but they had obviously done it. When I spoke with one of the persons in their party, he said they had a 3 1/2 hour detour at one of the obstructions, plus undercarriage and body damage, but that it was "all good."

I reached my tent on the northwest side of Lake Como, dropped my pack and slipped out of my hiking boots into some flip-flops. Noticing that some weather was rolling in, I slipped on my rain jacket and headed to the lake shore to pump some filtered water into my water bottles. While I pumped, small hail began to hit me, blown by wind coming down the valley and across the lake from the east. I discovered that not much water was being pumped into the bottle, so I did an on-the-spot cleaning of the filter and resumed pumping. By the time I finished and headed for my tent, the storm was beginning to intensify. I quickly slipped inside my tent, pulled socks over my cold feet, put on a fleece jacket, and pulled on a stocking cap. Sliding into my sleeping bag, I listened to the storm's fury raging outside.

Wind and hail blasted the side of my tent, as I occasionally reached up to steady the single tent pole along the ridge line of my tent, a one-person North Face Canyonlands model. Reclining in my sleeping bag, with my head on my pack, I closed my eyes and listened to thunder roaring through the thin mountain air. Bright flashes of light ripped through the blackening sky, penetrating my closed eyelids and startling me repeatedly, as I then counted the seconds until the thunder rolled. The lightning was about 1/2 mile away.

As I tried to peak under the rain fly, I saw that the ground was now covered in white. I thought of the few hikers still on the mountain when the storm hit and wondered how they were faring. I was glad to be in the shelter of my tent and not hiking down the road in the darkness, aided only by my headlamp.

The second night in my tent was less restful that the first, as I spent much of the night awake. The storm had abated after an hour or so; eventually, the sky cleared and I opened my tent. I flipped the rain fly open and unzipped the screen door, spending much of the rest of the night looking at Little Bear's looming west ridge and listening to the sounds of the night. In the dark hours of the morning, I finally shut the tent and dozed.

The next morning was chilly but clear. I tore down the tent, letting the fly and tent dry a bit in the morning sun. I sat on the slightly-sloping rocks near my tent, scanning the north side of Little Bear's ridge with my binoculars. I spotted a couple of climbers heading for the notch in the ridge. Other climbers moved around Lake Como's shores as they prepared for their day's climbs of either Ellingwood, Blanca, or Little Bear. The Jeep Cherokees' engines roared to life and soon started down the road for civilization.

The hike out was long, but easier than the hike in. I left Lake Como about 10 AM. My right foot bothered me some, as it did the day before as I concluded my climb of Blanca. All in all, though, things held together fairly well. It seemed like it took a long time before the lower stretches of Como Lake Road came into view far below, and almost as long before I finally reached my truck about 1 PM.

Slipping out of my hiking boots into my tennis shoes felt like welcome relief. Though my feet were relieved, it wasn't until driving home that I realized the effect that cold, driving wind and hail had imparted on my toe the night before. That same toe had suffered frostbite at 13,000 feet on Pikes Peak in January 2006 and had lost feeling, only some of which had returned. I knew that toe may have become more susceptible to future injury, but I wasn't prepared for how easily it succumbed a second time. I hadn't been exposed to exceptional cold, nor had the exposure duration been very long, yet the toe still reacted. The numbness had returned to the exact same degree as in January. It will be interesting to see if the toe recovers to the same extent it did after the initial frostbite episode.

As I exited the final stretch of Como Lake Road, I couldn't get enough of the vistas surrounding me. Driving south on Colorado 150 and east on Highway 160, I stopped frequently to identify the high peaks, which were threatened again by storm clouds ranging from dark black to billowing white. Mount Lindsey rose almost independently, looming just east of the others. It was perhaps a reminder that at least one more trip to the region was inevitable.


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