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!


Blogger KennethFach said...

I lived in Albuquerque for a couple years as a 9 year old, and remember dad and grandpa taking me for hikes in the Sangre De Cristo Mountains. To me, that region is God's Country. I only wish I could go back. I have been in Florida ever since almost.

6:34 AM  
Blogger cftbq said...

Hey, Kenneth--
Blanca is the monarch of the Sangres, and proved to be well worth my years of anticipation of climbing it. Hope you make it back "out west" for a trip of your own!

9:15 AM  

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