August 12-14, 2006
Ellingwood Point, Sangre de Cristos, Colorado
It began with a seemingly innocent idea: ascend Blanca and Ellingwood in such a way as to avoid the crowds and approach to Lake Como. Traditionally there are only two approaches into this area. The first, and clearly most used, is the Lake Como Approach, a wickedly rough five-mile long road. The other, a hike up the Huerfano River Basin, is commonly used to summit Lindsey and also ascend Blanca’s vertical northeast face.
Since I’m not a technical rock climber, the latter approach seemed out of the question. According to Roach, the easiest route from Huerfano is a 5.2, which (at the time) was more than I was willing to attempt. A quick look at a topo map of this region reveals the nature of these 14ers: vertical walls, cliffs, and large tracts of private land surrounding any alternate approach. However, my dad and I studied several topo maps from our Colorado Springs home, and found one potential weakness in the cliffs surrounding Ellingwood.
There appeared to be a gentle saddle directly above South Zapata Lake. We had been to the Zapata Falls area before while camping at the Sand Dunes, so this seemed like a legitimate possibility. Looking at our maps, a marked trail lead to South Zapata Lake, and from there, we would be on our own. Ellingwood’s slopes above Pioneer Lake appeared gentle; this innocent idea was quickly taking form. We already had climbed the easier routes up the Crestones/Kit Carson and the “Northern Couloir” route up Lindsey, so how difficult could this be?
We arrived at the 9,000 ft. South Zapata Lake trailhead at noon on Saturday, August 12. With our full packs, we began what we expected to be a leisurely five mile hike to the lake. We followed this well-maintained trail from the pinon foothills at the San Luis Valley floor to the 12,100 ft. lake. Although the trail was steeper than anticipated, the approach was straight-forward and relatively easy (as opposed to the Cottonwood approach to the Crestones). Once at the lake, we set-up our camp in the vast alpine meadows. To our pleasant surprise, we saw seven big-horn sheep about 30 yards from our camp.
We also received our first full view of our “gentle saddle,” which now appeared to be a ridiculously steep rock face, marked with a prominent couloir directly in the center. This view was not dismaying, but rather, exciting. Climbing this rock face might prove to a real thrill, and possibly, beyond my climbing abilities. We scanned the route with my binoculars, and the saddle/ridge above this rock wall seemed to be guarded with cliffs; however, that was an issue for tomorrow!
Before I headed to my sleeping bag, I took a quick jog through the alpine meadow for some last-minute Pikes Peak Ascent training. I figured that spending several days above tree-line would help me in the race, which was now less than a week away.
My alarm jolted us up at 5:20; however, we sluggishly awoke and ate breakfast, and were hiking by 7:30. From the base of the imposing wall above us, we decided to climb some large rock slabs to the right of the dark couloir (which I am going to refer to as the “Crossfire Couloir”). According to our plan, we would then drop into the Crossfire Couloir, and gain the ridge from there. The first hundred feet of vertical consisted of large talus. This terrain began to remind me of the miserable “west face” route up Castle Peak, which I had climbed the week before. However, our route quickly solidified into large rock slabs. I intended to stay in class 3 terrain, but the quality of the scrambling lured me deeper into steeper rock. To be honest, I have never climbed a sustained fourth or fifth class route, so I really have no idea how technically difficult these slabs were. Many sections were certainly steeper than the rock we encountered in the Crestones.
Before long, we had wandered deep into this slab region, and our easy exit point was now far below us. To both our right and left, small cliffs hindered easy retreat from this route, so we continued climbing. As we approached the summit of this wall, the rock transformed from gorgeous slabs to rotten, muddy scree. We climbed over a large rib and found ourselves on a small ledge.
We cautiously followed this increasingly narrowing ledge to a small crack that lead to the summit ridge! For the last few minutes we had been feeling quite dismayed (at the thought of backtracking); however, this crack instantly changed my mood. I climbed up the wide crack only to find even greater disappointment. Directly in front of me was a large overhanging boulder…not my climb. To my right was a vertical face…again, out of my league. Finally, toward my left was an angled slab; however, it was very steep and exposed…too risky. I headed down.
At this point a summit of both Ellingwood and Blanca seemed doubtful. We still had to gain the ridge, ascend Ellingwood, traverse to Blanca, traverse back to Ellingwood, and down-climb the mighty crossfire couloir. Nevertheless, we retreated from our lofty ledges, down-climbed several slabs, and traversed into the crossfire couloir.
The couloir was clear of snow, yet abundant in steep scree. Ascending this loose slope was actually quite a challenge in that every step dislodged a slew of rocks upon my father. A few larger rocks (or boulders) managed to crash their way to the base of the slope. Contact with one of these beasts would certainly have been fatal. Thankfully we survived, and after several minutes of the scree, we again approached the ridge. My dad and I split paths at this point. I headed toward the darker rock on the left (the crossfire couloir), while my father continued in the scree to the right. I ascended what I’ll call a fourth class wall and finally reached the ridge’s summit! I scrambled along this ridge and watched my father climb a six foot vertical rock out of his path. We succeeded in attaining the ridge; however, this was only about one-half of the distance and elevation to Ellingwood.
I figure that our dead-end path and subsequent down-climbing cost us at least an hour, maybe an hour and a half, as it was now 10:30ish.
At this point, to our shock, we met two other climbers. They were not climbing Ellingwood; rather, they were simply day-hiking in the area. Apparently, they managed to backpack (or rather bushwhack) up Pioneer Creek over two days. (Pioneer Creek runs between the Como and South Zapata Canyons.) In place of a trail, they said, there was thick brush and endless downed trees. We continued hiking up several hundred feet of solid talus as we contemplated the chances of seeing other human beings in such remote terrain. From our location we had a prime view of Ellingwood; however, it was not an expected view. According to our original plan, we would easily ascend the saddle, and from there, traverse across gradual slopes to the summit. The contour lines on our map made this slope appear to be about as steep as the standard approach up Blanca from Lake Como. To our surprise, the slopes guarding Ellingwood appeared to be very steep and covered in cliffs. From here we only had one option: Ellingwood’s North Ridge. We wanted to avoid this route solely because of its class 5.2 rating. I had read Roach’s description of this route several weeks earlier, but I had already forgot everything about it. I assumed the crux of this route was gaining the north ridge from the Huerfano valley. I remember seeing that face from Lindsey, and it certainly looked like a fifth class climb! From our vantage, the ridge looked slightly exposed, but not un-climbable.
Upon attaining the north ridge, we received and airy view of the Huerfano valley and Mt. Lindsey. We scrambled along this ridge for quite a ways, half expecting to find a rock tower blocking our progress. Luckily, such a formation was never encountered; however, an even more dangerous foe lurked among these remote peaks. Thunder echoed throughout the mountain valleys, and it appeared as if it was already raining directly east of Lindsey. We rushed to the summit, enjoyed the dynamite view for an entire 30 seconds, signed our names, and quickly climbed down.
Blanca was now totally out of the question, as the weather made us uneasy. Reaching the summit was encouraging, but we still had 2500 rocky vertical feet between us and our camp.
We scurried back down the north ridge as the sky to the east continued to darken. After we reached the low point on Crossfire Ridge (the ridge between Ellingwood’s north ridge and unnamed point 13,534), which was the point at which we gained the ridge, we were directly above an unnamed lake in Pioneer Basin. Seeing as the weather was holding, we descended to this lake for lunch. As I devoured an exquisite PB&J sandwich, I decided the class 5.2 “North Ridge” route was more like a really exposed, steep class 3. Roach says “This obtuse route is only for exposure-hardened scramblers,” and I clearly agree! However, he also says the crux of the route encompasses the last hundred yards to the summit. Unless we found another way to the top, I’m sure we did not climb anything that steep. Scrambling on the bottom of “freeway,” the standard route up the second flatiron in Boulder (class 4) seems significantly more difficult. Anyway, we finished lunch, and since we were in an adventuresome mood, we decided to descend a different way to South Zapata Lake. We figured our Ellingwood expedition was nearly over; an alternate descent route might provide some excitement. Our adventure was far from over; now, it had just begun…
By now, one would think we would have learned our lesson regarding routes and topographic maps; well, we hadn’t. Our map clearly depicted a “gradual” saddle above Pioneer Lake on Crossfire Ridge. This saddle would theoretically lead to the upper, unnamed lake in the South Zapata Lake area. We began traversing across a talus field toward this saddle; however, our lunch break gave the storms above Lindsey a chance to catch back up to us. Light rain began to fall as the wind picked up. About half way from our lunch spot and the saddle it began to hail. The hailstones were not gigantic, only about pea-sized, or large enough to really sting after a direct hit on the ear! Well, we continued through the storm; however, the hail seemed to be intensifying as the pellets danced from boulder to boulder. The hail became so heavy we had to hide behind a large boulder, and I put my pack over my head and neck (I was already wearing a helmet.) Just when we thought it couldn’t get much worse, an enormous bolt of lightning ripped across the sky between us and Little Bear Peak. We now huddled away from each other in the “lightning squat” position. Since this wasn’t accomplishing much, and we were beginning to get wet and really annoyed at the hail, we continued our traverse to the saddle. As I stood up, a piercing pain shot through my stomach. I accidentally had stabbed myself with my knife. How carefully are you reading? Actually, I have no idea what caused this pain, but it was abnormally unpleasant. Luckily, I had a several Tums in my pack, but I couldn’t find them in the hail.
So I sucked it up. Now we hiked through the hail and pain and we finally reached the saddle! Well, let’s say the saddle was a real disappointment. As I held my aching abdomen, I peered over the ridge to see what I expected to be a grassy slope heading to the unnamed lake. Instead, it was a steep couloir in which I was unable to see the bottom of. But that’s not the bad part…after an hour or so of heavy hail, the couloir was filled deep with ice, as it was the natural funnel for the pesky precipitation. Before we could complain about the situation at hand, another jagged bolt of lighting struck somewhere in our vicinity. However, now we were directly on Crossfire Ridge at approximately 13,000 ft., which is not a choice location in an electrical storm. We hurried down the slope we had just climbed, and quickly found ourselves at Pioneer Lake. By now the hail had ceased, and we began to dry. It was probably around 2:00 and we contemplated our next move. Well, we didn’t contemplate very long, as we began to hike down Pioneer
Our reasoning (or lack thereof) in this rash move seemed good at the time. We were afraid the new couloir above us might not melt in the next few hours. More storms could arrive. The unclimbed route above may lead to a 30 ft. vertical drop; who knows? Our safest bet would be to climb back to the Crossfire Couloir (since we had already climbed it); however, this route would likely also be filled with hail. My father was carrying the car keys, so we decided to hike out Pioneer canyon and then traverse toward the South Zapata trailhead. We could sleep in the car and then retrieve our gear on Monday morning. Yeah, it seemed like a sound plan then.
On the bright side, my stomach pain was improving and the sun was now shining. We left the tundra and entered a vast talus field. To our amazement, there was a strong trail through the rock field. We made great time through this area, as we laughed about the two other hikers who “bushwhacked” up this canyon. Before long we were traversing across a hillside in an evergreen forest when the trail literally vanished. A stone cairn marked this spot, but we couldn’t find in what direction the trail continued. In a matter of minutes, we too were bushwhacking! At this point I found the rusted head of a sledgehammer, but I would have much rather found a decent trail (or any trail for that matter.) From here on out began the arduous descent of Pioneer canyon…
The lower we dropped in elevation, the thicker the vegetation became. Naturally, our progress slowed…a lot! Pioneer Creek flows in a relatively narrow gorge, flanked by respectable cliffs on both of its sides. Thick briar-like weeds grew along the banks of the creek; however, we did not want to stray too far away from the creek in fear of impassible cliffs. So, instead of heading straight down the canyon as initially planned, we made little forward progress as we went up and down the canyon sides, dodging brush and rock formations. This type of travel took minutes to make mere yards of down-stream progress. While navigating the thorns of brush and thistle, we stumbled upon several wild raspberry plants. This was a pleasant surprise, as we were now getting pretty low on food. My father and I had each begun the morning with two PB&J sandwiches, two power bars, an apple, a small box of raisins, and three bottles of water. Well, now I only had the apple and raisins, while my dad had a power bar and a sandwich. However, the sun was still visible, so we continued bloodying our legs through the sharp brush. After seemingly forever in such pleasant terrain, we left the brush and found ourselves in deep evergreen forest. The canopy of this forest was thick enough to block nearly all light to the forest floor. Besides inches of soft decaying organic matter, this forest floor was ubiquitous in mushrooms. I must have seen at least fifty different ‘shroom varieties, including several dinner-plate sized monstrosities. Although I was a bit hungry, the thought of hallucinations and possibly death kept me away from the fungi. As the sun continued to get closer to the western horizon, the number of fallen trees significantly increased. The two other hikers we met earlier apparently were not mistaken. Soon, trees completely littered the forest floor, making progress ridiculously slow. As an added bonus, all of the trees were super slick due to the storms earlier in the day.
Throughout these deep woods, facsimiles of trails appeared and disappeared. Maybe at one time there was a trail through this area; however, eons of growth had almost completely erased it. We must have crossed Pioneer Creek well over a dozen times hoping for an improvement in fallen tree conditions. No such luck. It was now around 8:00 and becoming rapidly darker. We ate the apple and sandwich, and quickly tried to utilize the remaining light. At this point I took quite a bit a verbal abuse from my father. Earlier in the day I was making fun of the fact that he had packed his headlamp for our day hike. “We’ll be back at camp by 2:00.” Well, he didn’t bring the light, and I sure wished we had. One hour and 10,000 fallen trees later, we decided to call it a night.
Earlier in the afternoon, we expected to be sleeping in our car or enjoying a meal at the Great Sand Dunes Oasis Restaurant by this time. We seriously thought we would have time to descend the canyon, eat dinner, buy some cheap flashlights, and possibly hike five miles in the dark to our camp. Instead, we were miles from the base of the canyon, it was dark, and all of our clothes were soaking wet. We hiked a couple of hundred feet above the creek and found a relatively flat spot of ground on a small mesa. We surveyed our supplies: lots of wet clothing, no tent, no sleeping bags, an emergency blanket, fire starters, one power bar, one ounce of raisins, and a few ounces of water. We made a small fire and huddled around it for three hours. We managed to dry our pants and jackets; however, after hours above the fire, my dad’s socks were still soaked. We slept on the emergency blanket, which at least protected us from any ground moisture. We threw my almost-dry poncho over us, and then…shivered. Although uncomfortable, we both managed to get some sleep, and we were hiking by 6:30 Monday morning. We devoured the power bar, raisins, and most of the remaining water.
As stated earlier, one would think we’d learned our lesson regarding topo maps; well, think again. From our location on the mesa, we could see three ridges to the northwest, and we saw what we believed to be the South Zapata area at ridge three. So instead of hiking to Colorado 150, and then to South Zapata, we traversed. Well, to make an already long story shorter, there were many more than three ridges. Four hours and miles of pinon pines later, we reached the car!
Victory! Well, maybe not, our gear was still ten miles (roundtrip) away. By this time we were both quite hungry and thirsty, so we headed to the Oasis Restaurant and had a cheeseburger. Reenergized, we drove back to the trailhead. It was now past noon on Monday (we expected to be almost home by now!) The trip back to South Zapata Lake was pretty mundane. We found our camp nearly intact, except our remaining food had been stolen by the locals. Looking at the tooth marks in my apple, I assume the thieves were marmots.
They also ate half a baguette of sourdough bread. Oh well, I had a cheeseburger. We packed up our tent and sleeping bags and headed back to the trailhead. Fifty-four hours and many blisters since we left the car Saturday, we finished our adventure. In the words of Stevie Ray Vaughan, “We got stranded, caught in the crossfire.”