Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Tour de Blanca Massif

Peaks:  Blanca Peak  -  14,345 feet
Ellingwood Point  -  14,042 feet
Little Bear Peak  -  14,037 feet
 Post Date:  07/03/2012

 Tour de Blanca Massif-    

The Blanca Massif has a bit of a checkered past in my mountaineering history. The summits of these peaks have eluded me since my first attempt back in 2003. In August of 2003, I attempted to climb Blanca but was turned back about 300 feet blow the summit because my dog almost got hit with loose rock several times and I decided it wasn't worth it (in retrospect, I should have left him at home). To make matters worse, search and rescue enlisted my help in carrying a body off of the base of Little Bear. When I finally returned last year in late April, I made a summit bid on Little Bear but was turned back just below the Hourglass because of unfavorable snow conditions. When I once again began the long slog up the Lake Como Road, I was hoping that the third time would be a charm.

I made it to Lake Como in the early afternoon of Sunday July 1 and set up camp on the south side of the lake. I had forgotten just how stunning the scenery in this area was. It almost made the road up there worth it.
Image #1: Little Bear Peak from Lake Como
Little Bear Peak from Lake ComoView Larger Image
Another thing I must have forgotten were the mosquitoes. Pumping water was rather unpleasant given the cloud of mosquitoes that swarmed around me. Don't forget the bug spray! The one cool insect that I saw was white-lined sphinx moth. At first I thought it was a hummingbird sipping from some flowers but I quickly realized that it wasn't a bird but a large insect behaving just like a hummingbird. Very neat.

I wanted to try and hit all three peaks in one go. I did not want to have to come up that road again anytime soon. On Monday July 2, I left my campsite just after 5:15am and headed to the base of Little Bear's Northwest Face.
Image #2: NW Face of Little Bear
NW Face of Little BearView Larger Image
Image #3: The route up the NW Face
The route up the NW FaceView Larger Image
I'd never climbed a route with so much sustained Class 4 climbing, so I was a little anxious about the route I'd chosen. In the end, I was very pleased that I went this way as it may have been the most fun I've ever had on a 14er route. The lower headwall by the "Black Hand" was the only spot I briefly got into a jam and had to do a few unprotected Class 5.2-5.4 moves in order to reach the Class 3 terrain without descending. I should have gone up to the right of the "hand " or up the gully to the left of it. I went up immediately to the left of it and end up just about it on the tougher terrain. Once into the Class 3 gully, the climbing for the nest several hundred feet was quite easy and pleasant. I was briefly startled by some small rockfall about my and notice 3 juvenile and 3 adult bighorn sheep RUNNING across the Class 4 terrain above me. Amazing. At about 13,700', the rock started to steepen again to Class 4 but was solid and fun to climb. I soon reached the ridge and head up to the summit of Little Bear, reaching it just before 7:30am, about 2 hours and 10 minutes after leaving camp. The views were extraordinary.
Image #4: View of Dunes and Crestone group from summit of Little Bear
View of Dunes and Crestone group from summit of Little BearView Larger Image
The weather was looking good, so after a short break on the summit, I headed back down the ridge to traverse to Blanca. The ridge traverse to Blanca is remarkable narrow in spots and has tremendous exposure along most of it, but isn't particularly difficult if you keep your head, stay on route and have descent rock skills. The only thing the I found slightly disconcerting was that the rock on the ridge has fracture lines running all through it. Even even seemingly solid blocks and holds looks as if they could break away at any time. Nonetheless, I checked everything I used and nothing came loose on me.
Image #5: Start of traverse to Blanca
Start of traverse to BlancaView Larger Image
Image #6: Looking back toward Little Bear on Traverse
Looking back toward Little Bear on TraverseView Larger Image
Image #7: Ellingwood Point from Traverse
Ellingwood Point from TraverseView Larger Image
Apart from a few sections with a particularly high pucker-factor that had me on hands and kness, I moved pretty well and was on the summit of Blanca at 9:40am, 2 hours after I left the summit of Little Bear. I enjoyed a snack and a 20 minute rest before sizing up my next goal, Ellingwood Point. I descended Blanca right along the ridge leading to the saddle it shared with Ellingwood. I wanted to take the high traversing route in order to keep as much elevation as possible and had little trouble following it. When I reached the face of Ellingwood, I was unable to find the standard route and just worked my way up toward the ridgeline. Lucky, some nice folks descending Ellingwood motioned me to them and pointed out the best approach to the summit. At 11am, was was happily standing on the summit of Ellingwood Point, having summited my final remainingSangre de Cristo fourteener.
Image #8: West side of Little Bear from summit of Blanca
West side of Little Bear from summit of BlancaView Larger Image
The clouds were already starting to build, so I was soon heading down the mountain toward Lake Como. I once again ended up of route and descended a gully straight down Ellingwood that passed by an old mine entrance. By the time I passed Crater Lake, I could hear the rumble of thunder. I made it back to camp at 12:45, took 45 minutes to rest and pack, and headed down the road. I was beat when I finally got to my car but very please that I'd finally managed to get the the tops of the mountains.

Very Happy I owe TMathews a special thanks as his .gpx and detailed description of the NW Face of Little Bear and the traverse to Blanca were invaluable.

Rolling Eyes My wife has insisted I mention that I climb pretty fast so don't assume that you'd also climb the NW Face or complete the traverse in 2 hours. These are definitely places that you don't want to be caught in a storm, so build in a bit of a time cushion.

My GPS Tracks/Waypoints on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):

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