June 20 and September 19, 2015
Sierra Blanca Massif includes Little Bear Peak (14,037′), Ellingwood Point (14,042′), Mt. Lindsey (14,042′), and Blanca Peak (14,345′), Colorado’s fourth highest. It is in the Sangre de Cristo range of South-Central Colorado. The standard route is accessed from the San Luis Valley. Trip planning at 14ers.com.
From 8,000′ on Lake Como Road, gain 6,500′ over 8.5 miles to the summit of Blanca Peak (14,345′). The mileage varies by how far your wheels make it up Lake Como Road. It is considered one of the most difficult in Colorado.
Lake Como Road rises about 6 miles to Blue Lakes, but most of it is extremely rocky and barricaded with massive obstacles (Jaws 1-4) that are impassable to most. Cars make it about 1.5 miles. 4wd SUV’s and trucks go little more than 3 miles. Beyond that, a modified jeep, ATV, or rock crawler is required to get to Lake Como. There is at least one memorial where a 4wd rolled off the cliff. I saw two enduro bikes at Lake Como and wished I had my KTM 350 XCF-W.
After lunch in a Blanca diner, Russ and I started the hike near 8,000′, making for a 17 mile round trip. Our plan had us camping at Lake Como Friday night and summiting Blanca Peak and Ellingwood Point on Saturday, June 20.
Little Bear – Blanca – Ellingwood Group on left; Mt. Lindsey on right
In summer, San Luis Valley is warm and dry with full exposure to the sun. It is a death march up the steep Lake Como road switchbacks for miles with no tree cover until near 10,000′. The road is deeply rutted by 4 wd traffic and runoff. The ruts consist of boulders. On either side, there is mostly stable gravel or sand. In long sections, the entire road is white talus, where we walk the tops of boulders. Because the ground is so poor, it takes constant focus always 8′ ahead to avoid an ankle turn.
At tree cover, the grade eases as we ascend along a ridge above Holbrook Creek. Water sources are inaccessible for the first half of the climb until we cross Holbrook Creek. I carried a Platypus and two 750 ml soft flasks. I needed 3 liters to get to Lake Como. Above Holbrook Creek there, is a rusting hulk of a truck that ran off the road. We found wild raspberries. Only the smallest remained from the pickings of bear. I ate what I could grab while watching for ursine competitors.
We reached 11,750′ Lake Como after 4 pm and pitched tent just above the lake. On the west side of the lake we met a solo climber from Louisiana. He was sleeping open air and worried about bear reports. He planned to hole up in a nearby wooden shack if the bear visited.
The trail around Lake Como was under water. Snow melt roared down Holbrook Creek. Just above camp, snow patches covered the trail.
Lake Como elevation 11,750′
Lake Como campsite
Falls above Lake Como
Saturday morning, we left our gear in camp and set out. It is a 3-mile hike from Lake Como to the summit of Blanca Peak. After 20 minutes, we punched through tree line into the Blue Lakes basin. We ran into a drove of bighorn sheep. We veered off path to avoid the herd and sloshed through snow and headwaters of Holbrook Creek. We pass Blue Lakes on the north side and rejoined the trail at its inlet.
Bighorn Sheep 12,000′
Above Blue Lakes, we ascended switchbacks through talus along a cascade from Crater Lake. Ellington Point in view. Blanca Peak still hidden to the southeast. The trail intermittently disappeared under snow, water and ice bridges.
Bighorn Sheep at 12,000′
Crater Lake 12,800′
Winter 2015 snow was epic in the Rockies. Crater Lake was glacial. And, so was the ledges. Snow fields canted 45 degrees over the trail, creating ice slides that terminated 200′ below in the thawing lake. We had left our ice gear behind. Using trail runners, we kicked toeholds across a 40′ stretch of frozen snow. As we crossed the first, we realized we could never arrest a fall. A slip could easily end in death. When we came to a second, steeper ice chute, we could not kick reliable toe holds. From here, we could see the switchbacks to the northwest ridge of Blanca Peak. Most of it covered in snow. It could not be done safely without spikes and ice axe. We turned around at 13,000′ and descended.
The Ledges 13,000′
The Ledges 13,000′ – switchbacks to the Northwest Ridge
If you read enough of 14ers.com, you learn the hard lessons taught by others who fell to their deaths in the Rocky Mountains, including fairly recents ones on Little Bear and Long’s Peak. We would finish after the snow melt.
On September 20, I returned and summited Blanca Peak and Ellingwood Point. The crux of the climb up Blanca begins at the northwest ridge. From the ledges, the route looks steep, airy and loose. Up close, it is not. Blanca is well marked by cairns, and the rock is solid. It is bouldering with some three point reaches between large boulders. A difficult class 2. There is no exposure on the northwest ridge.
As I made my way up the switchbacks and northwest ridge, I was in and out of wispy clouds. The eastern sun shined vertically through what remained on the summit. The lighthikers.com home page is a panorama staring into the sun from Blanca Peak.
Saddle ridges connect Blanca to Ellingwood Point to the north and Little Bear to the West. The saddles make the combination of Blanca-Ellingwood Point a class 3 and Blanca-Little Bear a class 4. Both saddles descend over 300′ before rising to the neighboring prominence. I did not have gas in the tank for Little Bear. Traversing to Ellingwood Point, I took the standard route below the saddle because I like earth under my feet.
At the summit of Ellingwood Point, I met 4 climbers who had come up the north ridge via South Zapata Creek. Two had completed the PCT in 2014. Their plan was to take the saddle to Blanca. I left the summit via standard route but quickly lost site of the cairns.
The crux of the climb up Ellingwood is frequently invisible but for the cairns. The south face is criss-crossed by false trails. Some are marked by small stacks of rock. All end in steep, loose scree. Before I realized it, I was too far west. After scrambling down 500′, I could see others on-route to the south. I turned southeast and rejoined the trail. Reading trip reports on 14er.com, I found plenty veterans warning about route-finding on Ellingwood and some head-scratching over others who made my mistake.
View to Crater Lake from the Northwest Ridge 13,750′
South and west view from Blanca Peak (14,345′) to Little Bear Peak (14,037′)
View from Blanca Peak to the southeast
View from the Northwest Ridge to Ellingwood Point (14,042′)
View from 14,042′ summit of Ellingwood Point to Blanca Peak
View from Ellingwood Point (14,042′) to Blanca Peak (14,435′) and Little Bear Peak (14,037′)
Great Sand Dunes northwest of Blanca Peak