Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Blanca Peak (14,349 ft.)

19 June, 2008: After having to abandon our attempt on Mt. Lindsey (14,047 ft.) in late May, both Trisha and I were anxious to get back to the mountains and get “fourteener season” actually started. In addition, a check of my statistics on listsofjohn.com a few days before had showed that I had climbed 99 distinct summits, so this was going to be my 100th mountain, and I wanted it to be an impressive one!

With most of Colorado’s mountain ranges, and their approach roads, still well buried under snow, we knew our choices were somewhat limited. Thus, it was right back to the same general area: the Blanca group, which promised not only less snow on the ground, but milder weather than anywhere else. It also just happens to be the closest thing we have left!

Blanca is the monarch of the Sangre de Cristo range. It’s Colorado’s fourth highest peak, and one of only three in the state with 5,000 feet of prominence. (To get from Blanca to the nearest higher peak, Mt. Harvard, you have to descend at least to the summit of Poncha Pass, at just barely 9,000 ft.) Blanca is also the only peak in Colorado that is the high point of three counties: Alamosa, Costilla, and Huerfano.

We knew it would be a long hike. We had no intention of trying to get anywhere near the end of the Lake Como road, widely acknowledged as the worst 4WD road anywhere in the state. Our plan was to proceed cautiously from the 2WD trailhead, which is at barely 8,000 feet, and start walking as soon as it got dicey.

That didn’t take long. According to the GPS, our makeshift “trailhead” was at 8,100 ft., only a fraction of a mile from the beginning of the road. Expecting this, we left home at about 10:15 pm MDT, and started hiking at 1:15 am.

The moon was full, and the temperature was a balmy 57 degrees when we set out. We wore our headlamps, but didn’t need them for a long time—until we came to sections of fairly dense trees. The trail/road starts out in a virtually tree-free desert, and then climbs through sparse and short junipers and pinions. The climb is steep right from the start, but we made good time, as it felt amazing to be hiking virtually in shirtsleeves in the middle of the night.

We passed one other vehicle, a Ford Blazer, parked at a switchback somewhere around 9,000 feet, but didn’t see anyone else all through the night. The excitement of the early morning came when we came to the point where vehicles on the road ford across Holbrook Creek (the creek which flows out of Como Lake). The only way to stay dry was to venture upstream, looking for a much narrower place to jump or rock-hop across the creek. I hadn’t known about this little wrinkle in advance; none of the standard guidebooks mention it. I guess they all figure that the overall roughness of the road is so bad that, if that doesn’t scare you off, nothing will.

But we quickly found a narrow section where overhanging willows allowed us to stabilize our positions on a couple of large boulders and step across without too much fuss. After that, the road really gets steep, as it turns more to the east and follows the north side of the creek up the drainage. We also encountered the huge imbedded rocks in the road which have been given the popular names of “Jaws 1” and “Jaws 2,” etc. Only seriously tricked-up vehicles have a prayer of getting over these obstacles (see photos), and we found plenty of evidence of leaked oil from vehicles which couldn’t manage to do it unscathed.

Dawn came before we got to the lake (at about 11,700 ft.), and we actually got to it just about the time the sun rose. We found one tent pitched on its western shore, the first evidence we had seen of anyone else in the basin. We crept quietly on by, put on some additional clothing, and both stretched out for a short nap before heading on.

From this point (the “4WD trailhead”), Blanca is only about a 5-mile round trip, with 2,600 feet or so of elevation gain. We, however, had already hiked five miles (which would have to be repeated on the way out), and climbed about 3,600 ft.

After a brief rest, we plodded on, not feeling too tired yet. As the awful jeep road gradually devolved into just a trail, we passed the string of lakes which lie above Lake Como in the gradually growing light. Coming up from the west, however, we still had no direct sunlight on us, and it would be quite a while before we did.

We began to encounter snowfields, and, thankfully, the morning chill meant that it was almost all very firm, allowing us to keep going in just our boots. We didn’t need the crampons until we got above the last of the lakes, Crater Lake, at just over 13,000 ft.

This was where things started to get a bit weird. The snow hid the trail in many places. When we did finally put on our crampons, we began to pick our path upward, not so much to try to re-connect with the visible segments of trail, as to stay on the snowfields, so we wouldn’t have to remove them. (It’s a rather time-consuming process.)

So, instead of aiming for a point on the Ellingwood Point-Blanca Peak ridge just right (south) of the saddle, we started climbing the most continuous line of snow we could see, heading for a much higher point on the ridge.

Not long after we started this, we spotted two guys below us, making rapid progress up. We watched enviously as they took off in the direction of Ellingwood; they were soon higher up than we were.

Finally, the snow steepened to the point that we decided we had made a strategic mistake. We could now see the point where the trail actually intersected the ridge, which was really the way we should have come up. So we changed course, and began making our way back to the ridge crest by the easiest path we could find. This involved a gently climbing traverse back to our left (north), not giving up any elevation, but, unfortunately, moving away from the summit, which was still off to our right.

We finally gained the ridge, but the two young guys had totally smoked us. Somewhere above 14,000 feet, we met them coming down as we went up. They had bagged both peaks before we could even get one! And they had done it without crampons, by sticking to the bare rocks and avoiding the snow as much as possible. Oh, well.

Once on the ridge, the going was indeed easier. The slope eased, plus there are actually cairns and clear wisps of trail all the way to the summit. We finally topped out at about 20 minutes to noon. For all out difficulties, the weather had held and we enjoyed beautiful sunshine with virtually no wind.

As Blanca Peak sits right in the middle of the Blanca group, with the three other fourteeners arrayed around it like points on a three-spoked wheel, it’s the ideal place to take dramatic pictures of the other three. I think I got at least decent ones of all of them. You'll notice in the photo album, however, that there is no real shot of Blanca. There's nowhere on this route from which to see the summit until you are practically on top of it!

After determining that, against our expectations, Trisha could not get cell phone service on the summit, to let Suzanne know of our progress and trailhead ETA, we finally headed down right on the stroke of noon. Once we reached the snowfields, we were able to get in four good segments of glissading. Thanks to this, the uppermost section of the climb, which had taken us nearly four hours going up, took only an hour and forty minutes going down. The snow was getting soft, but it still supported us well. Even when the slope was too shallow to slide, and we had to walk to the next glissade, we did almost no postholing.

Somewhat surprisingly, we weren’t really exhausted. Even with a stop for lunch, and several shorter ones to shed layers of clothing, we made decent time. The entire descent back to the car took only six hours. By the time the car came into sight, though, we were slowing down, and it was a welcome sight. We were back down to the desert on a hot summer afternoon, and the cool liquids in the cooler were very welcome. We had put in a long, hard day, but it was rewarding to have this impressive mountain checked off. That's fourteener number 34 for me, 31 for Trisha.

Pictures are at:


Long life and many peaks!

Friday, June 13, 2008

Esther Mount (9,540 ft.)
Mt. Heizer (9,076 ft.)

12 June, 2008: With a strained neck leaving Trisha in no condition for a 14er this week (plus snow, snow, snow nearly everywhere in the high country), we settled on teaming up to knock off a couple more of my El Paso County peaks. These two unranked peaks sit on the edge of Pike National Forest, above the town of Chipita Park.

The trailhead is right on Mountain Road, which is, in fact, the westernmost and uppermost town street in Chipita Park. We only had to drive about 100 yards off the pavement to get there. Knowing this would only be a half-day climb, we got a good and lazy start, and hit the trail at 7:18 am.

The first leg of the hike is a set of steep switchbacks which head west up the mountain face from the town. The trail climbs about 900 feet in half a mile before popping over a lip and basically leveling out. The view from here, at least out to the east, is eye-catching. Immediately after leveling out, we came to the junction with the Crowe Gulch trail. We headed right, north and west, gently uphill alongside the tiny stream which flows down the gulch. The trail starts out in an open meadow area, but soon heads back into the trees before climbing a small ridge, and merging with an old logging road.

We eventually found two places where the faint trail diverges (to the climber’s left) from the road, and at first we wondered which one to take. We took the trail, mostly to avoid giving up any elevation, and soon found that both these trail segments re-connect with the road after a few hundred yards. They also follow the poles of a power or utility line which is much straighter than the road.

After that, we finally trudged up a steep section of the road/trail to a ridge top. GPS measurements confirmed that we were only a short distance from the summit of Esther, and that we were both north and east of it. As the road led down from there (to the Crystal Creek Reservoir), we simply decided to bushwhack our way up the north slopes to the summit. The Pikes Peak Atlas shows a trail almost to the top on the north side, but we didn’t see one coming off the road.

We did eventually find a faint trail winding counter-clockwise up the mountain, but it petered out as we approached an outcropping of pillowy rocks which we thought to be the summit. After finding a crack in the cliffy north side of these rocks, we climbed to the high point via the much gentler south side, and there we discovered that the true summit was still a few dozen yards to the southeast, if only a little higher. Five minutes of traversing and a short climb got us to the true summit—which is much more choked with trees, and doesn’t offer nearly as good a set of views as the false summit! All the same, we had made it, so we phoned Suzanne to let her know that all was well.

We didn’t stay long, though, as a stiff and chilly wind (this is June, right?) had greeted us just as we made it to the top. I had been down to my t-shirt on the way up, but on the summit I put back on not only my long sleeves (Thanks to Michael and Susi for the cool new Under Armour!), but my windbreaker as well.

We did a slightly different bushwhack down the north side, and again encountered the faint trail. We followed it down, hoping to find the connection to the road which we had been unable to see on the way up. We discovered instead that we had missed it because it isn’t there! The trail disappears at both ends. Still, the timber was sparse and the slope easy, so we made it back to the road—at a point east of where we had left it—in less than ten minutes.

A few minutes later, we heard voices. They turned out to belong to a troop of Girl Scouts out on a guided hike from the reservoir. We chatted briefly with their leader before heading off again.

The wind had moderated, but clouds were beginning to roll in, so we both left all our clothes on as we made the easy descent back to the trail junction. Once there, we set off down the lower part of Crowe Gulch on a good trail, looking for the trail up the south slopes of Mt. Heizer.

We found it only a few yards from the Pikes Peak Highway, having dropped to about 8,560 ft. elevation. It’s not a maintained trail, hard to see in places, and it’s loose and rough, so we were soon working again. It also doesn’t go all the way to the summit. Thus, we were soon following our instincts again, looking for the easiest way to top out on the long summit ridge of Heizer.

The ridge sports two closed contours, and I had thought we would top out in between them. We actually gained the ridge crest north of both major points, and had to backtrack a short distance to the summit. We satisfied ourselves visually that the topo map was correct, and that the north point on which we were standing was slightly higher than the south point, which we could see clearly.

We decided to save distance by following the ridge north back to the trail, instead of retracing our steps. This worked out well, as the terrain is not really difficult. If I had realized in advance how poor the quality of the “trail” up was, I would probably have elected to go up this way too, but that’s hindsight. We were back at the trail junction in about 25 minutes.

By that time, the day warming, despite the partial cloudiness, and we finally got rid of some clothing and started looking more like summer hikers. Another 25 minutes sufficed to get us back to the trailhead. We got two little-visited summits in just a half-day hike! The pictures I took are at:


Long life and many peaks!