Blanca Peak, CO- Elevation 14,345- 10/08/04
Blanca Peak is one of four sacred Navajo peaks according to Roach's guide book. It's in the Sangre De Cristo range which means blood of Christ in Spanish. I do believe this peak is sacred in some way, as I felt compelled to reflect on my existence in the universe while trying to survive in this place.
Elevation gain about 5000 ft. Class II+, more like class III near the top with the ice and snow conditions. Total hiking time was 14.5 hours. Round trip mileage was about 10 miles. Left Denver 5:10 am, it was 39 degrees, got 3 hours of sleep. Drove down I25 to Walsenburg then took highway 160 west. Turned north on 150 going towards the Great Sand Dunes and after the 3 mile road marker turned right on an unmarked dirt road that said entering public land. It took 3.5 hours to reach this point and another 45 minutes to drive 3.3 miles up the dirt road which did turn out to be the Lake Como road. The first two miles of the road are passable for most 2WDR cars. Mileage to the trailhead was about 220 miles and I took highway 285 through Buena Vista coming home which was about 240 miles.
The Blanca group viewed from highway 160 around the town of Blanca. There are four 14ers here, Little Bear on the left, then Ellingwood, Blanca and Lindsey on the far right by herself.
I parked right before this sign around 9000 feet elevation and started hiking about 9:40 am, it was 47 degrees at the trailhead. I had hoped to drive up further and could have for at least another mile but figured it was almost as fast to hike since the road was so bad. Later I would regret that decision.
As usual I took my time and tried to shoot some cool pictures like this one.
I was surprised the aspens still had leaves on them but then realized I was a couple hundred miles south of where I had been hiking lately; what an unexpected treat.
Just as the guide book says around 10,200 the road becomes impassable for most vehicles including 4x4's. There are huge lines of rock blocking the road here and in many other places up the road. Unless you have a jacked up 4x4 and live for this kind of stuff it just isn't worth trying to go past this point. I guess this road has the reputation for being one of the worst in the country and is even rougher than many foot trails I've been on.
I found these two roofless log cabins on the road somewhere around 11,000 and got my first look at Little Bear which is another 14er, one of the toughest, and one I wouldn't do without a partner and probably some rope too.
On the right in this picture is a plaque on the rock in memory of someone. My guess is this person died here, most likely in a 4 wheeling accident. I know there is a vehicle somewhere on this road that went over the edge but I didn't see it.
After 3 hours I finally arrive at Lake Como 11,200 ft and met some guys who were camping out there. They were from Dallas and making the hike a few day camping/fishing trip. They planned to hike Blanca the next day. They probably thought I was crazy trying this hike in one day, but its all the time I have to do it.
Getting close to the tree line I can finally see another 14er Ellingwood Point. To the right of Ellingwood is Blanca which I could still not see very well. Those two summits are only about half a mile apart, both class II+ hikes, and I had planned to hike both of them today. It was about this time that I started to see vultures circling above me. I wondered if there was something that died in this valley, or if they thought I might be a future meal. Thinking about it I really do feel out of place in this lost wilderness. Close, yet so far away from civilization.
Once the road ended around 12,200 you start a rocky intermittent trail passing a few lakes and headed towards the saddle between Blanca and Ellingwood. From here I took this picture which is part of the traverse between Blanca and Little Bear. That hike is class V and I can see why, this part looks really difficult.
Real icicles, not like the ones you put on the Christmas tree.
Somewhere near the saddle I took this picture looking back at the valley and the highest lake in it. It was absolutely beautiful, you could also see Alamosa in the amazingly flat valley below.
Finally on the Ellingwood Blanca Saddle this is a look over to Ellingwood Point which is about 300 feet lower than Blanca but still a 14er. This side of Ellingwood was facing south and therefore practically snow-free. Although it looked like a difficult class III hike (suppose to be class II+) I would say it would have been easier than Blanca given the conditions. Nevertheless my primary goal today was the mighty Blanca which is the 4th highest in Colorado so I went for it first.
A look to the east at Mt Lindsey, another class II+ 14er which is suppose to be a beautiful and challenging hike.
A self portrait of my future. This is the ridge I would have to hike up to make the Blanca summit. Its quite steep below the ridge and lots of snow. On the east side of the ridge is a cliff so don't look down.
Within a couple hundred feet of the summit it started to look a little hairy, I had already been using my ice axe to keep my balance and pull myself up in spots, and also to self arrest in case I slipped on this steep terrain.
Looking back towards the valley you can see just how steep the face of Blanca is, for this reason I stayed on the ridge which may not have been the easiest route.
Almost at the top this is looking back down the ridge at my footsteps. On the right side is that cliff like edge I was talking about. If you fall down that there is no stopping for over 1000 feet. If you fall the other way good luck trying to stop before you get sliced or smashed up. That is why I put the crampons on to be safe. In some ways it is more dangerous in these new snow/ice conditions than if there were several feet of snow.
A look up the final face of the summit. There was nothing easy about this, and it was much harder than it looked from below. I was already on the ridge so I could not get to the couloir on the right of the picture; to the left was the cliff. I went straight up and had to use the ice axe to pull myself up in several spots. It was a bit sketchy and I decided I would not go back down that way.
Finally on the summit at 5:30 about 3 hours later than planned. Ellingwood looks like a class IV climb from this perspective, alas I would not have time to do it today. In the upper right of the picture you can see another part of the Sange De Cristo Range, which is the Crestone group containing 5 more 14ers. I could make out Crestone Peak and Needle from here.
Here is a look west along the class V ridge connecting Little Bear.
Finally a summit scroll. I haven't seen one of these in a while since they usually seem to be buried in snow after mid Sept.
A look south at Spanish Peaks and Cuelbra is somewhere in there too.
What a long strange trip its been, and I'm only halfway done!
The mandatory self protrait on the summit with Ellingwood in the background.
I made some equipment adjustments and started to descend the snow couloir around 6:00. Here is the route I decided to take down. It was very steep just like it looks but there would be no steep rocky sections to climb down. Instead I would struggle to find footholds and keep from sliding which wasn't much better. One crampon came off as I was descending the rocky snow filled face of Blanca and I lost a glove when I was putting the crampon back on. The glove tumbled down about 1,000 feet in a direction I couldn't go in. Bummer, I was lucky enough to have a liner in my left glove which I took out and reversed for my right hand.
The sun seemed to drop out of the sky as I was still at 14,000 feet on the very steep section of Blanca when I was starting to lose daylight. I guess it is getting darker being later in the season. It took a while to get back to the ridge to find my tracks and by the time I got down to the highest lake in the valley about 13,000 it was completely dark. I stumbled around in the dark losing the trail several times and having to descend some steep cliff sections at one point to regain the trail. I was so tired having only gotten 3 hours of sleep I considered many times getting out my emergency shelter and crashing for the night, but I kept thinking of that guy that froze on Longs peak in early Sept. I'd just have to suffer and force myself to get back to the jeep or at least Como Lake where those 3 guys were camped out. Finally after more than an hour of fumbling around above the treeline I found the trail again and made it back to the 4x4 road. I knew I could find my way back from here but was exhausted and almost out of water and food for the first time ever on a hike. I ate a powergel with caffeine, which gave me a boost all the way back to Como lake but later dehydrated me. The 3 guys from Dallas were already in their tents, but I let them know I was alive since they were probably wondering what happened to me. I also advised them to be very careful on Blanca if they don't have ice climbing gear and maybe even try Ellingwood instead. I hope they made it ok. I think it was 9:30 when I got back to Como Lake. Right after that I ran out of water and had to get some from a stream, which I mixed with iodine tablets to filter. I have never had to do that, and really felt like I was in survival mode. Good thing I got those tablets because I was really dehydrated and getting a little crazy in the head. I didn't make it back to the jeep til 12:10 and crashed out. Before I went to sleep I tried to wind down and relax by looking at the stars but they kept moving on me. At first I thought it was a plane or UFO (there is a UFO watchtower about 20 miles from here) but then I realized my vision was distorted from following the headlamp for nearly 6 hours on the trail. I was so beat and tired it took almost as long to make it down the trail as up. I have got a lot of reconsidering to do on how I hike these 14ers, and what changes I need to make to be safer and minimize the impact on my body, if I'm going to keep doing this.
When I woke up in the morning it was 27 degrees and I don't know how I would have made it overnight above the tree line in that emergency shelter, although I did have hand/toe warmers and plenty of layers. I drove back via highway 285 and took this picture of the Blanca group from the west. Little Bear is on the right, then Blanca, then Ellingwood. In this picture the peaks were hazy, as was my mind, and I was wondering if it was all just a dream.