After being turned around on Blanca by poor weather and physical conditioning two years ago for spring break, Angi and I decided we would give it a shot. We were conditioned rather well from our recent winter ascents, and the weather had been unseasonably warm, so we expected decent weather and snowpack.
The forecast for the entire week was warm with afternoon thunderstorms, and with the additional avalanche danger later in the afternoon, we wanted to be on the move early. We left Boulder at 5am, and after a little incident where I thought I had gotten gas, but actually drove off with a still-emtpy tank, we arrived in Blanca, Colorado at 10am. The view of Blanca Massif from this vantage point is astounding. The peaks rise almost 7,000 feet above the vast, perfectly flat San Luis Valley. I find this to be the largest looking fourteener I have seen.
We parked the car just as the road began to steepen, at about 8,500'. Surprisingly, we saw another climber beginning the arduous ascent up to Como Lake. We chatted for a bit, and were happy to find he would be attempting Ellingwood Point, and Little Bear Peak, so we would hopefully have some solitude.
We headed off up the road, and quickly found ourselves wearing shorts and tee shirts. I could not imagine this climb in summer heat! I would recommend leaving early, even in spring, to avoid the heat at low elevations, and to avoid soft snow on the road above. As the road began to switchback we rose high above the valley floor. We could see some clouds brewing across the valley, but they did not seem threatening at this point.
After a few hours of trudging up the rocky, dry road, we found ourselves cresting a hill, and dropping into Holbrook Canyon at about 10,000'. Since the slope now faced north, the road was covered in a few feet of snow, so we stopped for a break and to put on our snowshoes. Although some rock hopping and dirt was involved, we continued all the way to the lake by snowshoe.
Near 11,000', I began to get very worried about the weather. I did not want to be rained on before camping before winter camping for two nights. While we had ponchos, I did not want to get wet, so we headed up the switchbacking road as fast as we could. Behind us, we could see large clouds brewing, and a dust storm racing across the valley below.
Of course, all of our haste was to no avail, as we were caught by the storm, but we were greeted with snow, rather than rain. At this point I remembered the CAIC forecast had put the snow level at 9,500', so we never had to worry about rain. All of our efforts to outrun the storm had been wasted effort. After five hours we reached the lake, exhausted.
Similar to my experience last time at Como Lake in March, nighttime temperatures were barely below freezing, and in my new Bibler Tempest winter tent, Angi and I had a quite comfortable, but short night. We awoke at 2am, and due to severe laziness, headed off into the moonless, night at 4am.
The night was extremely dark. The clouds from the evening Strom lingered into the night, so even with all the snowcover, we could only make out what our headlamps would illuminate. Since I had not found the road leaving Como Lake last time, and had gotten off route, we made sure to find the road, which took a bit of work in the darkness.
Although the road passes by the north side of the lake, it heads up into the trees on the southeast side of the lake, and contours around the slopes below Little Bear's steep, imposing west face. After pausing to check the map, compass, and GPS a few times, we found ourselves in early twilight and fog at Blue Lakes at 5am.
The climb from Blue Lakes is quite steep, and the obvious gully in the center seemed a bit dicey avalance wise, so we opted to head up the rock to the left of the gully. The rock was not as steep as it looked and was somewhat solid, so we make quick, but careful progress by headlamp as the fog closed in around us.
After following some rather large carins, we ascended into the basin at Crater Lake, and quickly found ourselves in the small basin at 13,000'. It was now about 7am, and while the sun was helping, we could only see a few hundred feet in the clouds, and it had begun to snow a bit harder, and the wind had picked up. We began the steep talus ascent, but quickly found the weather to be too much.
We had a short discussion, but we got a couple of very strong gusts with blowing snow so we came to a consensus quickly and decided to descend. A thousand feet below, we saw sunshine and clear skies in the valley below, but clouds still surrounded the summit. After stopping for some alpine bouldering, We were back at the tent by 9am, and since we had brought enough food for an extra day, we decided we would hope for better weather, and try to summit the following day.
After a very lazy day hanging around the tent, we were again greeted by snowshowers in the afternoon. When we awoke at 3am, we could not see any stars, so I assumed we were in for similar conditions. However, when we left the tent at 5am, we could see the silhouette of Little Bear, and we realized the cloud level was much higher. My hopes were up, but I was a little worried about time, if the sun would be shining. We quickly headed up the the route which we now knew from he day before.
Since the snow had been quite hard and icy up high, we chose to leave our snowshoes at Blue Lakes, and would return before the snow above became soft. We risked postholing on the descent, but it would not be a problem if we returned before about noon. Since we knew the route, and were intentionally moving quickly, we found ourselves looking up the final talus pitch, 1,300 vertical feet, to the summit at 7:30.
Some of the rock was very steep, and there were sections which were rock free, and we had to chop steps out of the icy snow. This made for slow, hard work for the leader, while the person behind got cold just standing there, and had to have ice sprayed into their face. Now on continuous talus, we slowly climbed toward the upper portion of the Ellingwood-Blanca saddle.
I repeatedly checked the altimeter on my GPS to see how we were doing, since the sun had already hit some of the east facing portions of Ellingwood Point, and would soon hit the snow in the valley below. While the snow was quite firm and icy, I was not comfortable glissaiding on snow which had been warmed by the sun, due to avalanche potential. If we took too long, we would have to downclimb our ascent route, which would eat up even more of our time, and we would risk postholing past crater lake to return to our snowshoes.
By 9am we had reached 14,000', and were peering over Ellingwood's summit. We were very close to the top, but we were greeted by a scary rock buttress near Blanca's summit. This ridge is rated class 2, but it seems the easy rock to the summit is ice and snow covered, making the only possibly routes over or around the buttress much more difficult.
We chose a small chimney near the ridge. It was within my climbing ability, but looking down Blanca's steep west face made it an interesting position. Angi had trouble and I had to dangle a boot down and haul her out. At this point, she had become very concerned about both falling off the mountain and more importantly, downclimbing it.
Since the difficulties were now over, we headed the last few feet to the summit and pondered our situation. We had made the mistake of climbing above the ability of someone in the party, and were now faced with some serious downclimbing to reach the easier talus field below. Angi was pretty shaken up, and I was hoping this would not blow up into a severe problem. We usually eat lunch on the summit, but it was windy, and we were in a pretty bad situation, so regardless of our growing hunger, lunch would have to wait.
We gingerly headed down, and found a way to traverse most of the difficult problems with the buttress. We were moving very slowly, and it took us an hour to descend down to 14,000'. It was now 10:30, and the sun had been shining for some time on portions of the valley below, and I was getting increasingly concerned. Once we had reached the talus field on Blanca's west face, we plunge stepped down the edges of the steep snowfields. The snow was still very firm, so we glissaided some short sections, minimizing our avalanche potential.
Soon we were overlooking the descent into the basin above crater lakes. This sections is possibly the steepest of the entire route, and we were not interesting in downclimbing, and the snow was still firm, so we glissaided. As I had worried, however, the snow in the basin had become quite wet. These are similar conditions to those that killed a climber in an avalanche on La Plata Peak a week prior to our trip.
Fortunately, all went off without a hitch and after some postholing in the quickly warming snow, we found ourselves back at our snowshoes, and we finally sat down for lunch. We talked about what had happened, why it happened, and how it was a bummer we did not really enjoy our time on the summit. Although we had our reservations, as we descended our sense of accomplishment continued to grow as it seemed everything would be okay and we would soon be back at the tent.
We happily collapsed in the tent nine hours after our departure the morning before. We ran out of fuel in the stove just as dinner was finishing, but since we had a few liters of water on hand we were not too concerned. The next day we were off down the trail at 8am to avoid any troubles with soft snow below, especially with our fully loaded packs. when we returned to the car, we saw what seemed to be nose prints around the doors. Perhaps a coyote or two had been sniffing around?
And since no spring break is complete without getting sand in all of your gear, we headed down to Great Sand Dunes National Park. After a snowy night in the noisy campground, we hiked to the top of the High Dune in a snow squall, and headed home for some much needed rest.