Saturday, September 24, 2011

A Blanca Day on Blanca

Most of the stuff I had read about Blanca Peak had people climbing it in a multi-day adventure, setting up camp at Lake Como. There were a couple of reasons I wasn't really too into this. The biggest was that I have been reading all summer about bear problems at Lake Como. I'm not big into camping in bear country, and neither is my wife, Gina. I also couldn't get over that the entire hike is about 15 miles. Although there is almost 6,000' elevation gain, that didn't strike me as an impossible task, to do the climb as a day-climb.

What a crazy long day. Gina had asked me in the morning what I thought it would be like. I told her, “It will be similar to climbing Shasta all in one day.” I was thinking more of the altitude gain, not really the climb. She looked at me rather dejectedly, and said “You didn’t have to tell me that.” We have climbed Shasta all in one day a few times – and it sucks. I really didn’t expect Blanca to be that bad, but I had no idea. Our original idea was to climb both Blanca and Ellingwood Point, but the conditions of the day would have their say so.

We managed to drive 3.4 miles up the Lake Como Road – considered one of the worst roads in Colorado – and started hiking at 4:30am. It was about 4 miles to the actual Lake Como up the road, which is well deserving of its notorious reputation. We had thought about stopping at the lake to eat, but neither of us wanted to stop and get cold, so we just pushed on.

We were following the footsteps of some other climbers through the snow, as the road petered out above the upper, smaller lakes. Soon we could see a party of three on the upper part of Blanca. They must have stayed overnight at the lake, and had left much earlier this morning. They were definitely much colder than we were.

They had broken trail for us though, and we followed their footsteps up the ledges above Crater Lake. There were some fantastic looking icicle formations here. The wind was blowing the snow though, and soon we were breaking our own trail, through some heavy drifts. It was hard, tiring work and my feet were getting very cold. I just had my regular hiking boots, and with no ice axe I felt utterly unprepared for winter conditions climbing. Gina was having more trouble than me, as following my larger footsteps she ended up postholing a lot more. As we reached above the ledges I made a bee-line for the snow that was in the sun. Up to this point, our whole climb had been in either the darkness or the shade, and we were feeling very chilly.

We stopped and rested as the sun finally hit us. Gina was having a big problem with her toes being cold. As we rested, a solo climber from below passed us by. I jealousy noticed he had an ice axe. We also noticed the party of three we had seen had turned around unsuccessful, and were now descending past us. We seriously thought about throwing in the towel. I was quite concerned about Gina’s toes, thinking that only by descending she would be able to warm them up. But my wife is quite a fighter, and didn’t want to give up just yet. We stayed and waited, and soon the sun was hitting us and warming us. There was one small last hill before us, until you get to the point where you have to decide to climb either Ellingwood or Blanca. Gina convinced me to keep going, just to see what it would look like when we got there. She wasn’t ready to quit.

I was thinking it would be nice to climb Ellingwood, because it isn’t as high and we could get done sooner. But the climber in front of us was climbing Blanca, and we didn’t want to break our own trail up Ellingwood, which looked complicated without being able to see the trail. So we followed the steps up Blanca. Soon we were high up Blanca and we knew there would be no turning around until we got to the summit. The weather was tolerable, and although it was getting late in the day we felt safe. It would be just Blanca Peak today, no time for Ellingwood. We will have to return someday for that one.

We hit the ridge leading to Blanca’s summit and were afforded spectacular views. To the east we could see Mt. Lindsey, another 14er we had climbed last year. It too, looked much different covered in snow. We continued up the ridge, being very careful. The rocks were covered in just enough snow to hide openings between the rocks, and we didn’t want to step in a crack and fall through snow, resulting in a twisted ankle or worse. So we just followed our lead climbers steps higher and higher. Soon we saw that he was on the summit.

He passed us on his way down and I thanked him for breaking trail. We asked how much farther and he said it was about 200 more vertical feet. After chatting for a few minutes we wished him well and continued. His steps stayed close to the ridge and we very good. There were a couple of places with a little exposure, but by staying on the right side of the ridge we were able to feel safe. Right up to the very last section, where you must traverse the eastern side of the ridge and ascend the final section.

This was a very steep section, made much more difficult because I didn’t have an ice axe, and didn’t think that the crampons (which I had packed in my backpack) would really do much good. The snow was wispy and sugary, not good for feeling safe. I was using 4 points of contact as I went up the last tricky sections. I’m sure the first section would be pretty hard without snow, on scree, and the last little sections was difficult too, as a fall would have been a little catastrophic as there was a bit of exposure to both sides. We managed to ascend them though, (and captured them on my GoPro helmet cam!) and soon we were standing on the summit. Our 37th Colorado 14er successfully climbed. It was 2pm, the latest we have ever summited a 14er.

On the descent I was having so many problems staying comfortable. The sun would hit me and I would heat up, then a cloud would cover the sun and I would be shivering. It was just a hassle. Parts of the descent went actually a little faster, I was able to use snowclimbing high steps in sections which is much easier than going down scree, but by this point I was exhausted and we went somewhat slowly down. By the time we reached the smaller lakes above Como, the snow had melted off already and we were pounding our feet on rock. I recognized hardly anything from our ascent, everything appeared different without its white covering.

We hoped to reach our truck before sundown, but soon it was apparent that would not be possible. The road seemed like it stretched much longer on our descent than it had on our ascent. It seemed like we would never get back and drink the Pepsi’s we had in the cooler waiting for us. Darkness overtook the mountain and I even had to dig out my headlamp to light the way. Finally, at 8pm, we arrived to where we parked. In total, a 15 ½ hour day – pretty much the same time it takes as climbing Shasta all in one day. I don’t think I’m going to use that as a comparison again.

I do think we could climb Ellingwood Point as a day-climb as well, maybe even on this trip depending on how we are feeling. But to do the combo - definitely this was not possible with the snowy conditions we faced, and maybe even without snow it would have been very difficult. As for Little Bear, forget it. That will definitely require an overnight stay, and to be climbing also with someone experienced with this intimidating route.

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