Wednesday, August 20, 2003 The second week after Scottsdale started school was the week before Reid and Cole started college. My schools had all opened as planned and things were running smoothly. So the timing presented a small window for us to get away. We planned the trip and then I became quite ill. On top of that, the Bronco developed some mechanical problems. And then Reid and Cole also got sick. I was so sick that I had to cancel our warm-up hike to San Francisco Peaks the Saturday prior and was beginning to believe that we would have to cancel our Colorado trip altogether. As the time drew near, we decided that we would go no matter what, but that our adventure might turn into a simple car camping trip in an area that did not require a four-wheel drive to access. But in the end, we took our chances and went for our goal of climbing in the Sierra Blanca Mountains of the Sangre de Cristo Range.
The Sierra Blancas are located much further east than any of the Colorado mountains we have climbed previously. Instead of driving up through the four-corners region toward Cortez and Durango, we took I-40 East to Albuquerque, and then headed North to Santa Fe and on to Alamosa. From there it was just a short drive on up into the mountains. The Sangres are very different than the San Juans where we have done most of our climbing in the past. Unlike the San Juans, which are surrounded by forested foothills, the Sangres remind me more of the mountains in southern Arizona that rise up sharply from the desert floor. Of course the mountains of Colorado are much higher in elevation, rising from a desert plateau of about 7,000 feet to the high peaks above 14,000 feet.
The dirt road (if you can call it that) up into the mountains is actually quite famous among four-wheeler enthusiasts. It is known as the most difficult 4x4 trail in the entire state of Colorado. The guidebook suggests parking low on the road at about 8,000 feet before the going gets too bad, and hiking most of it to avoid auto body damage, costly drive-train repairs, or the need for an expensive tow. It adds that an average 4x4 combined with good driving skill can make it a couple of miles beyond the 2-wheel drive parking to about 10,000 feet. As we headed up the trail, we began to understand its reputation. It was very steep and full of large cobbles, boulders, deep ruts, and loose gravel. Cars, trucks, and SUVs were pulled off the side at various points along the way where the drivers had apparently decided they had enough and the road had become too rough. A couple times I had one of the boys get out of the Bronco and spot me as I wound our way through difficult obstacles that became hard to see from the driver’s seat. The Bronco has a pretty large hood that blocks the view of the road immediately in front of the vehicle. When you come up over a steep rise, you can’t see the road at all. The potential of a roll from the steep cross-slope was a little frightening in a couple of places. More than once I felt tires slip, or lift off the ground and expected our upward progress to come to an end. But the old Bronco kept going and we finally topped out at our 10,000-foot goal.
It’s probably a very good thing we stopped where we did. After turning off the engine, we could hear the coolant boiling under the hood. Fortunately we didn’t get any hose failure or any leaks. We took a minute to eat a snack, change into our mountain boots, close up the truck, put on sunscreen, and heft our packs onto our backs, before heading up the rest of the trail on foot.
The road continues on from our chosen parking spot another 3 miles to Como Lake and then to the Blue Lakes at over 12,000 feet elevation. But the upper portion of the road is definitely reserved for specially equipped off-road vehicles that can climb up 4-foot high rock walls. A Jeep was already parked at the same spot where we decided to stop, and we squeezed in next to it just off the road. There was one other vehicle, a lifted pick-up truck that had gone a little higher. But it had stopped at the first really difficult obstacle that the four-wheel enthusiasts refer to as “Jaws.” It looked like Jaws had taken a bite out of this truck, as there were large scrapes and fresh oil on the rock. There is actually a metal plaque mounted in the side of a large rock in memory of someone who died trying to drive this road.
From trip accounts that I read while planning our adventure, it sounds like it is not uncommon for climbers and back packers to come across 4x4 clubs winching, towing each other, and grinding their way up over the really difficult obstacles in the trail all the way to Como Lake at timberline and even a little ways beyond. We were fortunate that there were no such groups or vehicles along the trail while we were there. Although I suppose it may have been an interesting sight to see.
We arrived at Como Lake as it became dark, but continued about another half-mile on up to timberline and the Blue Lakes. The hard part was finding a place flat enough to set up tents. After scouting around in the dark, we settled on a spot that wasn’t ideal, but it was adequate. The whole area was very rough and rocky. Reid and Cole shared one of the North Face tents, while I took the smaller Eureka tent by myself. By adjusting my body position around the various lumps under the floor of my tent, I managed to get comfortable enough to fall asleep quickly.
Thursday, August 21, 2003 We all woke up shortly after first light the next morning and were rewarded to a view out the door of our tents of the sunlight as it started to turn the tops of the peaks from a dark looming mass into brilliant fiery jewels against a deep azure sky. None of us had much of an appetite. I think we were all feeling a little queasy from mild altitude sickness. Coming from about 1200 feet in the Phoenix area to over 12,000 feet in such a short period of time is quite a change for the body to adjust. So we did not bother with starting up the stove to cook breakfast, but instead put some snack type food and power bars in our daypacks. We did have to stop and take time to replenish our water bottles before heading on up the trail towards the peaks of our dreams.
The trail meandered beyond the Blue Lakes and then switch-backed up a cliff area along side a waterfall. At the top of the waterfall, the trail continued on to Crater Lake and Blanca Peak. Our first objective was Ellingwood Peak via the West Ridge – a much less frequented route as it requires a bit more route finding skill and involves rock scrambling high on the ridge with a respectable amount of exposure to long and steep drop-offs on both sides. So we left the trail and picked what appeared to be the most likely path up through some more cliffs and talus slopes to a saddle on the ridge. For the most part, we stayed with the ridge all the way to the summit. We enjoyed some pretty amazing climbing with really fantastic views. At times it appeared the climbing would become very difficult, but there was always a reasonable path up the rock. In a couple places the ridge was like a knife blade with a shear drop of a thousand feet or more to the basins below on both sides. But the most significant hazard we encountered was loose rock, so we made our way carefully along the ridge, testing the precariously perched rocks on the ridge crest, as we trusted our full weight to them.
As we enjoyed the view, we were able to spot a pair of climbers far off in the distance on the Little Bear/Blanca Peak ridge, running almost parallel to us. From time to time, their tiny figures were silhouetted against the skyline. Our Class III climb was fairly mild compared to theirs, which included unprotected Class IV and even some low Class V climbing with great exposure. It was fun to watch their progress. Another group was heading straight up the talus slopes of the west face and north ridge of Blanca Peak. They all reached the summit of Blanca at about the same time that we reached the 14,042-foot Summit of Ellingwood and we could hear their summit celebrations. We learned later that one of the climbers summiting on Blanca had just completed climbing all 54 official Colorado Fourteeners and so the summit celebration was even more animated than typical.
After a short stay on top of Ellingwood, we started down at an angle across the southwest face of Ellingwood toward the saddle with Blanca Peak. That is where we crossed paths with some of the other climbers and learned about the reason for the boisterous celebration a short while before atop Blanca. At the saddle, we stopped for a short rest and something to eat. By now it was getting close to noon and the typical summer cycle of high mountain weather was bringing in thicker clouds threatening the possibility of afternoon thunderstorms. Cole is very susceptible to the altitude, and although had done quite well all morning, his headache had become unbearable. When his headache didn’t improve after taking a break, (We were still at about 13,500 feet) Cole wisely decided to call it a day. Altitude sickness is not something worth taking a risk on.
Knowing that this was very possibly the only time we would ever be in these mountains and have the opportunity, Reid and I decided to attempt Blanca Peak. At 14,345 feet, Blanca is the highest peak in the Sangre de Cristo Range and the fourth highest mountain in the State of Colorado. So while Cole headed down toward Crater Lake in the basin, Reid and I started our scramble up almost 1,000 feet to the summit of Blanca. By this time, we were the only ones remaining on the mountain.
Scrambling up the steep, loose and seemingly endless scree on the west face and North Ridge of Blanca made us appreciate our earlier ridge climb of Ellingwood even more. Ascending up an endless sea of loose rock is more of a grind and a chore than a climbing experience. The thin air, combined with lingering illness, headaches, and tired aching muscles, made it that much more of an unpleasant task. The changing weather had us worried. We kept a watch out for signs of thunderheads, listening for the distant clap of thunder, and staying alert for the flash of any lightning, anticipating that, in the interest of good judgment and safety, we might be forced to abandon our final summit push at any time. A high mountain is the last place you want to be in a thunderstorm.
About two-thirds of the way up from the saddle, it started raining, and then it snowed. But the precipitation was light and did not last long. So Reid and I put on our outer shells and continued making our way upward, and finally summited at about 2:00 in the afternoon. We shared a fantastic view and the satisfaction of having accomplished something that for us had been a significant mental as well as physical challenge.
But the climb wasn’t over yet. One of the hard parts still lay ahead, so after a short rest and time for summit photos, we faced the long difficult chore of getting ourselves back down the mountain. My weak knees and tired leg muscles were not very dependable as the loose rock shifted beneath my feet, testing my agility and balance, and leaving me to stumble and fall more than once. One of my spills was a real out-of-control tumble. At one point in the fall, a large rock shifted up and my hand went down where the rock had been. In my mind’s eye, I could see the rock coming back down as my weight shifted again and smashing my hand. But somehow the rock and my hand missed each other. Fortunately I landed more on my rucksack than directly on my person and no permanent damage was done, just a few minor scrapes and bruises. The descent down what was beginning to feel like the world’s tallest pile of loose rock and gravel became nothing short of tortuous and seemed as if it would never end. Each and every step became very painful. Focusing on the task at hand, continuing to move one foot in front of the other, pushing aside the pain, and ignoring the enormity of the task, we kept plodding on. Eventually we reached the basin and hiked on down what was becoming more and more of a real trail until we met up with Cole at his resting and waiting spot along side Crater Lake.
We still had quite a hike in front of us down the band of cliffs alongside the waterfall and to the far side of the Blue Lakes where our campsite was located. We were blessed to find everything intact back at camp. We had seen several marmots during our travels of the day and had grown concerned of what they might be doing during our absence to our tents and packs in search of an easy snack. The marmots were all looking round and well fed, putting on their supply of fat for the long winter season that will start in just a month or two in these high alpine mountains. On a previous trip to the San Miguel Mountains, Reid and I actually had a marmot visit us inside our tent, while we were in it! – Pretty bold.
Of course at this point, filtering more water, starting up the stove, and cooking dinner were real chores. What am I saying? Just moving was a major chore. But we pushed our bodies through the pain to accomplish these housekeeping tasks and enjoyed a simple supper before retiring to our sleeping bags in our tents.
Friday, August 22, 2003 This morning was another beautiful day, and in spite of yesterday’s activities I did not feel pain or soreness. The worst casualty had been Cole’s feet from the blisters he got during the first half-mile of our hike on the very first day. Knowing what lay ahead, we got up early, packed up and headed out. Once again, breakfast consisted mostly of snack type food eaten along the trail. It was Friday and with such a long difficult drive back down the mountain with very few safe places for two vehicles to pass each other, we wanted to increase our odds of getting off the mountain before any large weekend groups of 4x4 enthusiasts started up it. We did meet a few people on their way up, but they had all parked lower on the road and were hiking. Either we picked a quiet weekend or the groups came after we left. The truck that had been parked a little higher on the road and the Jeep that we had parked next to were both gone. Our Bronco was the highest vehicle on the mountain at that time. Once again, we put it in low gear and let the Bronco do its stuff, this time heading down the difficult 4x4 trail. It was nice not to walk any farther than we had to up or down that rough trail and we were grateful for the Bronco and felt blessed that we did not have any car trouble. For the most part our drive back across Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona was long and uneventful. It started raining hard not too long after we were down off the mountain, but that abated as we headed south out of Colorado and got further into New Mexico. We stopped in Santa Fe for lunch at a Blake’s Lot-a-Burger, and at Del Taco in Payson for Dinner. It was about 10:00 p.m. when we rolled into home – very tired, but very happy for a wonderfully successful adventure.
I’m not sure my body is going to allow me to continue the tradition of these climbing trips too many more times. But I sure feel blessed for the wonderful experiences I’ve had so far. I feel very blessed that the Lord created such a beautiful world and that He gave me a gift of being able to receive so much joy and happiness from it. Just being in the mountains renews my soul.