The goal of this trip was originally to climb Little Bear with a group of 14ers.com members. Lord Helmet (Brian) and I left Denver around 3:00 pm on May 16, arriving about a mile up on Como Lake Road at around 8ish. The plan was to hike up the road, meet up with the rest of our climbing partners, and wake up early and hit Ellingwood Point early Saturday morning, with a possible traverse to Blanca if conditions permitted. Little Bear would wait until Sunday morning, when the rest of our group showed up. I’d never been up the infamous Como Lake road, but I’d heard stories associated with it that are usually accompanied by groans! True to its reputation, I soon learned why I typically bring approach shoes for hellish hikes in. Unfortunately for my feet, my ice/alpine boots were all I had and I did not bring moleskin for blisters. It was a recipe for pain. I met up with SPer Natasha and John further up the road. Natasha was having some gear issues and it just seemed like it was not their weekend to be up there. She persevered for quite a while, and finally decided that the Blanca group would have to wait a while. I bid my farewells to them and continued my slog up the road. I was fortunate enough to grab a few shots of a magnificent sunset over the San Luis Valley!
The rest of the hike was uneventful slogging and working my way up the insidious road by moonlight, which was an added bonus, all things considered. Upon arrival at Como Lake, I set up my tent near Brian, filtered water and hit the sack for an alpine start up Ellingwood Point.
The morning showered us with some light snow as Brian’s alarm went off around 4:00 am. I woke up and realized I had somehow kicked the mouthpiece off of my camelback hose which left a nice little frosty puddle at my feet. Ah well, I’d just have to filter water again! I drained the water out of the tent and proceeded to check the damage my not so trail-broken ice boots had inflicted upon my feet. Indeed, there were two very large blisters on my heels. I checked my pack for some tape or something to wrap them with, but the best I could find were band-aids. It would have to do. Soon after I filtered water and got the blood flowing in my limbs, we were off for Ellingwood around 5:00 am. The evening freeze had made the snow quite hard, so we carried snowshoes on our packs thinking we would use them after the climb as things warmed up.
Soon, our cloud shrouded objective came into sight. Brian and I had not talked about which route we would take up Ellingwood, but I think we both think alike when we look for routes that are a bit ‘off the beaten path’. After reaching a rocky outcropping, we stashed our snowshoes for later and scoped out the lower slopes of Ellingwood Point. We both eyed a very prominent couloir that neither of us recalled seeing in any guidebooks. However, there it was, beckoning us with it’s misty heights.
We made our way to the base of this couloir and attached our crampons and pulled out our ice axes. The snow was fantastic and consolidated. There was a layer of about 4-5 inches of fresh atop a hard back that accepted our kicking boots. This couloir reminded me a lot of Skywalker Couloir up South Arapaho Peak.
Soon, we were making fine headway up this little known gem. The views were opening up little by little, as the clouds raced by overhead.
Upwards we toiled, immensely enjoying the unexpected gem of a couloir! Me heading up.
Brian nearing the top of the couloir
It steepened significantly near the top, as I turned around to view what we had just done and what outstanding conditions we were in. I don’t know the exact incline of this couloir, but I would say it started at roughly 40 degrees and steepened to somewhere around 55 degrees, give or take. It was very steep at the top!
Looking down the couloir from the top
We sat down for a snack break and chatted about this ridge that we were on. We knew this ridge was rated as class III rock in the summer and that we would be dealing with some hefty exposure. Sprinkle some snow on it and we were in for a very spicy climb!
A look at part of the ridge we were about to get on.
I was surprised by the amount of new snow we encountered. It made some standard rock scrambling into an endeavor of extremely careful navigation.
Looking down from the first ridge crest to the top of the couloir we just climbed
After arriving at the top of a ridge crest, the mighty Ellingwood Point gave us a tease of what was in store.
We made our way carefully over more rock, descending to cross some snow filled ravines when we encountered cornices or the rock was too sketchy to scramble upon.
Ellingwoods’ neighbors also made an appearance out of the clouds around this time.
Slowly and carefully, we were pulling closer to our objective. We really had no idea if this route would even go in these conditions. Adrenaline was maxed out as we pursued this fine alpine route. I put aside all thoughts of my wounded feet and concentrated solely on the task before us.
Looking back at our steps across and up another ravine
If the snow conditions had not been perfect, we would have turned around and probably climbed the standard route. There were a few more instances where we backed off of some rock and down climbed to bypass some rock towers and buttresses. The snow was still outstanding.
A short video showing part of the climb. This is me traversing a snow slope.
(I bet you turned your head for this one, didn't ya? =) )
After this part, we again reached the ridge for more scrambling. Myself edging along the ridge.
As we neared the summit, the clouds had begun breaking up and the sun was intermittently poking through the cloud breaks. While it was great to feel the sun, the snow was also soaking it up. We knew it could quickly turn from ideal to nightmarish conditions and that we needed to get off of these snow slopes. Already we had observed one ravine slough off it’s new layer of snow. It was time to summit or turn around.
Looking back along the ridge
Finally, after some tricky climbing, we were within about 200 vertical feet from the summit. But we had reached a quandary. We could see the final ravine was heavily corniced. It was much too steep to traverse across at the altitude we were at. The final corniced ridge.
To descend would mean to go down at least 600 feet to cross the ravine and onto a rock ramp, thereby we would try and gain the summit by scrambling back up on the buttress. It looked sketchy, but doable. The problem was that we could not see on top of the corniced ravine to tell whether or not there was a rock ridge behind the cornice that would allow us to cross safely. To get to this vantage point, another crest on the ridge needed to be climbed. The problem was that we felt we could get up this part just fine, but if we could not safely cross the cornice, the down climb and retracing of our steps would be extremely tedious and downright scary. We sat and contemplated all of our options for about twenty minutes. Brian decided he would check it out, and I would wait and hear the report: To continue on, or to admit defeat and follow our steps back. We knew that if we reached the summit, there would be no tricky down-climbing on softening snow on precarious slopes, as we would be able to descend the standard route.
Brian carefully climbed up this last crest of the ridge, and I watched him with anxious eyes and held my breath.
He reached a vantage point at the top of the ridge crest and viewed the corniced area. He turned around and yelled, “It GOES!!! There is exposed rock to the left of it!” My relief was immediate and euphoric. I quickly scrambled up to join him and we viewed the cornice and our pathway to the top. Again, Brian pushed on ahead over the cornice and carefully began scaling the summit block.
I soon crossed when he was halfway to the summit. As I started my final push, I saw him disappear over the top. I sincerely hoped this was not a false summit and that we had truly made it. Brian attains the summit ridge!
My hopes were not to be denied! As I pulled myself atop the summit ridge, I was completely smitten with the incredible sense of accomplishment of what we had just done! I carefully made my way across the exposed summit ridge to join Brian on the summit proper. Me traversing the summit ridge
We high-fived and sat down to eat a well deserved lunch and bask in the beauty of the Sangre de Cristo mountains.
A few summit shots Brian on the summit of Ellingwood Point, Little Bear in the background
Blanca and the ridge traverse from Ellingwood Point. Spanish Peaks in the background.
Myself on Ellingwood Point summit!
After about an hour on the summit, we descended the standard, class II route. The climb was by no means over, but in comparison to what we had just done, we felt a huge sense of relief!
Looking down the standard route from the summit. Mt Lindsey and Iron Nipple dominate the background
After a few hundred feet, the glissading fun began!
During our descent, we watched some skiers descending Blanca and head through the valley back to Lake Como. For us, it was an uneventful trek back to the lake. An exhilerating day in the Sangre de Cristo mountains!
A final shot showing the couloir we ascended (far lower left) and the ridge we climbed.