I arrived at the Blank Gulch TH about 7:00 on Friday afternoon. It had already been along day. My flight had left Chicago at 12:30 and headed direct to Denver. Made it to Denver without any difficulties, but that all changed once I hit the rental car agency counter. An hour and a half later, I was finally headed down I70 on my way to Poncha Springs. After a quick stop at the grocery store in Buena Vista, I was finally at the TH. I was surprised how nice the road was into the TH. The rental Chevy Impala did not even bottom out once.
The alarm was set for 5:40, but the roar of the wind above camp woke me up long before day break. At first you could hear the wind howling above, but later that howl was followed by violent gusts hitting the tent. Apparently, the wind was coming from the northwest picking up speed while squeezing through the saddle and it headed right down the Angel of Shavano towards camp. I had real doubts whether or not I would be climbing Shavano as planned. However, sometime before day break the winds settled down and I awoke to a beautiful, clear, and calm morning.
At 6:15, my climbing partner and I were headed up the Colorado trail. A quarter of a mile later, we found the sign and turned NW towards Shavano. We found the register just a few hundred yards down the Shavano trail. Right around 10,600 the trail split and headed north. There was no sign and the trail that headed west was pretty faint. As we headed north up the blank gulch trail, it became hard to find at times because of snow covering it up and when the trail was free of snow, then it was covered with pine needles. We managed to stay on the trail without any problems until it turned back to the west. At around 11,300, the trees thinned and the mountain side was covered by 3 to 4 feet of snow all the way to the ridge crest. You could see tracks that had headed up the ridge, but we did our homework and knew that the trail stayed below the ridge all the way to the saddle. There were no tracks, but we hiked over the snow in the direction the trail had been headed . We were awarded after about 50 yards of this and found a dry trail all the way to about 12, 800‘. At sometime during all of this, the winds had started to pick back up. It was a gentle breeze at first, but just before entering the Angel of Shavano snowfield, the wind started to blow around 35 mph. The temperature dropped and the wind chill was now well below freezing.
As the rest of the route was now in view, we noticed that most people were headed towards the saddle between Shavano and point 13,617 on the east ridge. Even though this was a little steeper way to go, I assumed it was to stay off the south ridge and the pounding that the wind would deliver. We followed the other climbers and began our summit push. From about 13,200’ or so, we began post holing up to our knees while heading up the snowfields. About 80% of the remainder of the route was covered in snow and about 50% of that was soft deep snow. To top it all off, it began to snow pretty hard. At one point while less than 1,000’ below the summit, it became a near white out and we lost sight of both the summit of Shavano and point 13,617. Despite all of the poor weather and snow conditions, we finally made it to the summit. I was pretty drained and was not sure about heading to Tabeguache. When I looked out to the north/northwest and could not see Tabeguache, I figured my decision was made for me.
After about 2 minutes and almost getting blown off the summit block while taking a summit photo, it was time to head down and find some shelter. A couple hundred feet below the summit, we took cover behind some boulders for a much needed break. After having a snack and stowing the trekking poles in exchange for an ice axe, it was time to go. We caught a good glissade off the east ridge and down a couple hundred feet. Stand up, cross some rocks and rotten snow and then glissade a couple hundred feet and repeat. Finally, around 13,200 we found a glissade chute in the “Angel’s” left arm and were off. Less than 5 minutes later, we were below 11,900‘. I was finally having fun on this mountain! Time to start hiking again and now the wind was really blowing. Even with the wind at my back and heading down hill, I was still getting knocked around. I figure it was around 50 mph and ice that was being blown down the Angel gully was pelting us pretty hard.
Finally back in the trees around 11,600’ and turning east, the winds were not a factor. There really is no trail to follow and I had been warned not to head the wrong way and end up at the Angel of Shavano TH. With this in mind, we stayed just below the east ridge and did some minor bushwhacking. To my surprise, we found a lot of snow while in the trees. The good thing was that we would see the occasional foot print and figured we were headed the right way. Not long after, we intercepted the Blank Gulch/east slopes trail. However, things did not look that familiar and I was convinced that we were headed towards the wrong TH. We took up and easterly track and bushwhacked for about 1.25 miles. I really figured we would come out on the road headed up to the Blank Gulch TH, but as usual….I was wrong. The Colorado trail appeared and we headed south and less than 200 yards later, we were at the split for the Shavano/Colorado trail. As it turned out, we had paralleled the trail the entire time. Well, at least the last quarter mile back to the car was uneventful.