Sunday, 12 July 2009 19:08

Blanca Peak and Ellingwood Point - Introduction to the Sangres

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Blanca Peak has always mystified me. It is one of the most prominent mountains in Colorado - it towers over the San Luis Valley and the Great Sand Dunes National Park. It is easily one of the most impressive looking mountains in the State, from almost any angle. With that being said, it was quite exciting to finally get to climb it along with its neighbor, Ellingwood Point.

Here are some meaningful statistics from this adventure:

Blanca Peak - 14,345 ft. (ranked 4th highest in Colorado)

Ellingwood Point - 14,042 ft. (ranked 42nd highest in Colorado)

Total mileage: Approximately 10 miles

Elevation gain: 4,600 ft.

My friend Terry and I started our epic July climbs with a bang by heading down to the Sangres to tackle some of the most impressive mountains in the State. To accomplish this - we would need to backpack up a fairly long road to reach some high mountain lakes.

Terry picked me up at my house on Friday morning at about 7AM and we started the drive down to Walsenburg. Once we reached Walsenburg, we headed west over La Veta Pass and then through the towns of Fort Garland and Blanca. From Blanca, some pretty awesome views of the Blanca massif can be seen. Blanca is the highest one in the middle towards the back and Little Bear is the pointy one on the left.

Blanca Peak pano

Next we headed north towards the Great Sand Dunes and turned up towards Lake Como. The Lake Como road is one of the premier 4-wheeling roads in the State, as evidenced by the three Rubicons at the start of the road. We started up the road in Terry's Blazer and encountered what I believe to be some of the most intense off-roading I've ever seen. Terry was a total champ! He was able to maneuver up the crazy road over some impressive and daunting obstacles and got us to a large camping area at about 10,000 ft. Turns out Terry damaged his engine mounts in the process. Here is a nice article on the road we were driving on.

In 2010, I went up the same road with my friend David, and there are more photos of that adventure in my Little Bear report.

The road is full of obstacles called "Jaws" which we stopped just short of. We got out of the vehicle and started our backpacking adventure. My pack weighed in at 55 lbs and Terry's weighed 40 lbs. I guess I carried heavier food!?

Here is the overall route we took up the valley and eventually up to the top of the peaks:

Blanca Peak Route Map

The hike took us up past the infamous "Jaws" obstacles and eventually we landed at Lake Como. We passed Lake Como and continued up the valley towards Little Bear Peak, Ellingwood Point, and Blanca Peak. We finally stopped above tree-line at 12,200 feet to set-up our camp-site. Here is a nice panoramic photo of the view from our campsite:

Pano from camp

We were camped right next to a mini-waterfall that looked right up at Ellingwood Point. After we unpacked and got settled in, we decided to take a short hike further up the trail to one of the Blue Lakes. On the way there, I saw a small bird scurry past me. My first thought was, that bird can't fly! Then my second thought was, that's a baby bird! Sure enough, there were several small baby birds right in the area that were standing very still.

ptarmagin chicks

Then I spotted the mama bird - a full-grown Ptarmagin hiding in the brush:

ptarmagan

She got up and started running around me like a crazy lady (can't blame her - I was invading her space and she was protecting her chicks) and I took one more picture of her and continued up to the lake.

ptarmagan

At the lake, we were able to get more awesome views of Ellingwood Point (left of center) and the waterfall at the base of the headwall for the Blanca / Ellingwood Point saddle.

Blue Lake

From the lake you could see all the way up and down the valley, including nice views of Little Bear.

Little Bear Peak

On the way back to our camp-site, we encountered a very friendly Marmot hanging out on a rock. This whole area was full of marmots and we were very careful to hang our food bags in a tree to prevent Marmots from eating our food.

marmot

When we returned to camp, we both set-off to prepare dinner. Terry boiled some water for his freeze-dried meal and I opened up a can of tomatoes, chicken, and green chilies. I got out my pre-chopped onion and sauteed everything together and made some yummy burritos. My pack may have weighed a lot, but I got to eat well, so it was worth it.

We saw that rain was on the way so we prepared our area for rain and got into Terry's tent. The rain was fairly heavy and lightning was off-and-on the rest of the evening. I was particularly uncomfortable being so high during a lightning storm, but we survived... We set the alarm for 4:30 AM and went to sleep.

At about 1AM I woke up to the loud sound of rocks falling. I think a goat knocked down some rocks in the valley, which sounded like fireworks in the middle of the night. At 4:30 we both got up and prepared for the climb. I ate some breakfast bars and Terry boiled more water for another freeze-dried meal. In the process he melted some plastic on his stove on accident. Fortunately, it appeared that his stove was still functional. We started up the trail around 5:30 AM as the sun was just beginning to light up the valley. Shortly after we began, we reached one of the upper lakes. The lake was pretty cool because it was reflecting the light that had just started to shine on Little Bear - right of center.

Upper Blue Lake Pano 1

The lakes were really calm and provided some nice views.

Upper Blue Lake

We continued up the trail and began the steel climb up snow fields and boulders. We followed cairns towards the saddle between Ellingwood Point and Blanca and heard the sound of rocks falling above us. A pair of Mountain Goats were doing the traverse from Blanca to Ellingwood above us!

Mountain Goat

Terry finally reached the trail connecting Blanca and Ellingwood just below the saddle and he led us up towards Ellingwood.

Terry on route

Finally we reached the saddle between Blanca and Ellingwood and were afforded the first very impressive views of the morning. We could begin to make out Crestone Needle (the pointy mountain peaking through left of center).

Huerfano Valley

I also took a 300 degree pano from here, which turned out really nicely. On the right you can see the Lake Como valley from where we came from, and on the left you can see the Huerfano River valley and Mount Lindsey, which I climbed last weekend.

Blanca Peak splits Huerfano and Lake Como valley

We continued up Ellingwood Point and kept looking back behind us in awe of the sheer size of Blanca Peak. It really is impressive. Here's some panos of Blanca and Little Bear, across the valley from us:

Blanca and Little Bear

While I was taken by all of the views and therefore occupied by photo-taking, Terry was making great progress towards the top of Ellingwood. He couldn't see it, but unfortunately he was not the first to summit Ellingwood today. The goats were!

Goat on Ellingwood

Goats on Ellingwood

As Terry approached the summit, the goats left and Terry was afforded solitude once more on Ellingwood. Here's Terry with the moon above him as he took in the views from atop Ellingwood:

Terry on Ellingwood

As I reached the false summit of Ellingwood, I looked to my right (north) and saw an impressive ridge connecting Ellingwood to California Peak. If you look closely at this pano, you can see something really cool...

California Peak ridge

... goats!

Here's a zoomed in view of the Goats! They were doing the traverse down the spiny ridge. It was really amazing seeing wildlife this high.

Goat detail

I finally reached the summit and Terry was already taking pictures. He took this one of me as I was also taking photos:

Matt on Ellingwood

Here's a 360 pano from Ellingwood. Under the sun is Lindsey, and left of Terry is Little Bear and finally Blanca:

Ellingwood Point pano

Terry and I stayed on top for about 20 minutes, watching groups of people summit Blanca and Little Bear across the valley. We refueled and began the traverse over to Blanca. This was a fairly sketchy route, perhaps because we stayed pretty high on the airy ridge. To our east was a sheer drop-off of at least 1,000 feet. The route required some careful footholds, ledge-walking, and even an icy couloir. Terry went down the icy couloir first, acting like Spiderman on the edge. I decided to around the ice and then right through it, using my hand to pick up ice and snow and throwing it out of my way. We started up Blanca and passed one gentleman coming over from Blanca. Looking back at Ellingwood, you can see the route we took, basically right down the ridge and up again towards Blanca.

ellingwood

The scramble up Blanca was fairly straightforward class 2+ climbing and I eventually reached the summit. Terry summited about 10 minutes later and we both began to take pictures like crazy. The weather was absolutely perfect - no wind. Terry took my summit shots, and then we both started walking around the summit block in search of great photos.

Matt Payne on Blanca Peak

I took my normal 360 pano...

Blanca 360 Pano

...and then took some higher detail panos of Lindsey Peak and the Winchell lakes to our Southeast.

 

Lindsey and lakes pano

Here's a zoomed in view of one of the Winchell lakes:
Winchell Lakes

Then I took a very detailed set of photos of Little Bear and the traverse from Little Bear to Blanca - one of the hardest traverses in the State. You can also see Lake Como in the valley to the right of Little Bear.

Little Bear Peak

After hanging out on the summit for awhile, we decided to head back down, which turned out to be fairly uneventful except for the awesome views. We eventually got back down to the waterfall, which I had to take a picture of!

waterfall

When we got back to camp, we both decided it would make sense to just pack-out today, so we packed up our camp and headed back down towards Terry's vehicle. At Como Lake, we encounted a large group of 4-wheelers, one of which we followed down most of the trail to watch him go over the Jaws obstacles. His Willy's Jeep made the Jaws look more like baby teeth:

Jeep

Jeep

The hike back down to the car was fairly uneventful after seeing the Willys.

We then drove into Blanca to have some good food to prepare us for the drive home.

Additional Info

  • Trip Date: July 11, 2009
  • Yosemite Decimal Class: Class 3: Scrambling with increased exposure. A rope can be carried but is usually not required. Falls are not always fatal.
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Matt Payne

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