August 30-Sept 1, 2006
Mark and I go way back. Not exactly dawn-of-time back, but he was working at STScI while I was in grad school at JHU. We met at the climbing wall one night and, subsequently, he introduced me to multi-pitch rock climbing at Seneca and to the woman that would later become my wife. We’ve drifted apart recently, but astronomy is a small world and things can only drift so far before they collapse again. Mark was on a 2 1/2 week Colorado tour and we agreed to hook up to “climb some hard 14ers and other adventures”. He left the details largely up to me. [cue evil laughter]
I’m not as passionate about climbing 14ers as a lot of other people, but I’m happy to climb them if they’re interesting. With my recent ascents of Mt. Sherman and Pikes Peak, I’ve completed the 14ers in the Front and Tenmile/Mosquito Ranges, so we’d need to travel farther afield for something new. I’ve also been itching to get out and take some late-summer time in the mountains to unwind from a busy, scattered summer. If said unwinding involved exploring new areas of the state, new mountain ranges, camping, and some challenging routes, so much the better!
Lake Como and the Little Bear-Blanca Traverse
If Mark wanted hard 14ers, we could do worse than the Blanca Massif in the Sangre de Cristos. Amy and I climbed Mt. Adams earlier this summer and it was a nice change from my more familiar mountains. Blanca Peak (14,345′) is a huge mountain, towering 7000′ over the flat San Luis Valley and dominantly visible for miles around. The fact that it’s the fourth highest peak in the state and is flanked by Little Bear (14,037′) and Ellingwood Point (14,042′) is icing on the cake. None of these peaks is easy and we could potentially bag three peaks in a single two-night trip. Como Lake is the common approach and base camp for these mountains, but getting there is no mean feat.
The Como Lake Road rises from 8000′ to 12,000′ in about 6 miles and is a nationally ranked 4×4 road, reportedly the hardest in Colorado. We managed to drive Mark’s rented Jeep Liberty about two miles up to 8800′ before the rocks got to be watermelon-sized and continuing any further was more than my nerves could take. The weather was hot, but we shouldered our packs and trudged up the brutally steep road. After a couple of miles, we passed a highly-modified jeep headed slowly down the road. Farther, it seemed amazing that anything with wheels could pass over the meter-high rock steps and loose gravel gullies that passed for a road. It was hard even to hike in this stuff with the ankle-turning loose rocks and steady, leg-killing grade. Still, there were recent tracks all the way up to Como Lake at 11,700′ and beyond.
We reached the lake and gratefully set up camp in a meadow at the north-eastern end. Mark deployed the tent and arranged camp while I scouted our route for tomorrow up Little Bear Peak to the start of the traverse. Technical difficulties with the Whisperlite forced us to scrounge firewood in the evening twilight and boil water over a small but efficient fire. The stars came out and we set alarms for 4am.
As Gerry Roach says in his popular guide book, there is nothing little about Little Bear. (Indeed, I wonder where Big Bear is.) The standard (easiest) route up the peak is solid 4th class and helmets are a very good idea. We got a cold, predawn start but were quickly sweating with exertion. The first bit of climb was up a couloir which would probably be lots of fun if it were full of snow. As it was, we slipped and picked our way through loose scree and broken rock to 12,600′ as first light painted the amazing vallies below.
After gaining the ridge, we hiked north east along easy trail to the west face of Little Bear. The Hourglass, an appropriately shaped gully of water-smoothed rock, started at 13,500′ and rose through a nice constriction. Three fixed ropes had been left in the gully and while not strictly neccessary, we were happy to use them in our ascent. We made good time and knocked loose only one small rock into the funnel below. Another few hundred feet of 4th class, high-altitude scrambling brought us to the jagged summit at 14,037′. It had taken us 3.5 hours to this point, but we were feeling good. Mark, unused to the altitude, was moving slowly, but moving confidently and well.
To the north east we could clearly see the dark mass of Blanca Peak and between us and it, a sinuous, razor-sharp connecting ridge. Roach lists four “classic” 14er traverses and this is reportedly the hardest of the lot. Go big or go home, right? It’s rated as 4th class with a few 5.2ish moves thrown in. I’ve done quite a number of ridge traverses, but this one promissed to be longer and meaner than most of them. Mark looked nervous but willing, so we girded our loins and set out.
The exact details of the traverse are a bit hazy to me now. According to the route beta it’s a mile and a quarter long and is rated at 5.2. It certainly felt that long and was at least solid 4th class most of the way. We carried a light, 30 meter rope and a minimal rack of passive gear to protect the harder moves, but never used any of it. Technically, it was never very hard and any competent rock climber can do the moves. But it was brutally continuous and required an amazing degree of mental and emotional focus. The hard moves, when they came, were usually steps across exposed ledges with a thousand feet of air under your heels. More typically, we walked, crawled, or slithered our way along foot-wide ridges with thousand foot drop-offs on both sides. I swear, it was even overhanging on both sides! We stopped frequently to catch our breaths and psyche ourselves up for the next trial.
The rock seemed solid enough, but huge cracks shot through everything and it looked very scary. I kept telling myself, “This is a 14er traverse. Hundreds of people come through here every year. Anything loose will have been pulled off years ago. You have nothing to worry about. Trust the rock!” Still, there were a couple of close calls. A toe hold broke on me while skirting around a large tower and only quick reflexes saved me from a relatively mild ten foot fall. Another time, while traversing around the same tower, a 200 pound rock cut loose just after I’d finished using it as a hand hold. The rock went tearing off into the valley, exploding like a bomb and filling the air with the sickening scent of rockfall. Only after the echoes had cleared did I notice that it had ripped two long scrapes down the inside of my left elbow. Mark had a close call as well when a palm-sized stone shifted under him and went skittering into the void, nearly taking him along as well.
And then there were the towers. The initial downclimb and knife-edge ridges were certainly the technical crux, but the ascent from the 13,650′ saddle to Blanca was guarded by at least four (six? eight? three dozen?) large, rounded towers. We would climb leadenly up one towerd and see that it dropped down a hundred feet to a notch with a dangerous, technical downclimb, only to rise again higher to the next tower. It never seemed to end! My GPS said we were only 0.25 miles from the long-anticipated summit of Blanca, but it seemed to take forever. At one point, when we thought we had surmounted all the obstacles except for the 3rd-class talus scramble to the summit, we discovered another knife-edge ridge. We were tired, annoyed, and emotionally drained. We just didn’t want to do it and were deathly afraid that we would slip and fall. I focussed all my energies and moved carefully across on two feet. Mark crawled. And it happened again on the next tower!
After four hours of total mental focus, we finally gained the summit and looked back at the ridge from hell. We were too drained to be giddy and too shaken by the experience to be triumphant. Mostly, we were just happy to be alive in this amazing place. And it was an amazing place: spectacular views in all directions, soaring ridges dropping away on all sides, no sign of foul weather, and the sure knowledge that it was an easy couple miles on class 1 and 2 trails back to camp. All thoughts of bagging Ellingwood Point were banished from our minds in favor of a campfire, dinner, and taking off our boots on level, safe ground.
Only it wasn’t easy and it wasn’t only two miles as I’d expected. We dropped down the north face of Blanca and quickly found that there wasn’t really a trail. There were cairns everywhere, but short segments of steep trail tended to come and go interspersed with steep, brutal talus. We were off-trail as often as on and made slow and painful progress down off the summit. Even off the steep stuff, the trail was incredibly elusive and painful.
At long last, we reached Crater Lake and the bone-fide trail; still rocky and rough, but at least well-defined. We trudged back and arrived at camp at 5:15, 12 hours after leaving it and much more dirty and tired. Lighting a fire this time was much harder for some reason, but we were eventually able to cook dinner and gratefully collapse. I slept out under the stars until 4am when a sudden rain storm drove me back inside the tent for another few hours of thorough, deep sleep.
We’d planned on sleeping in and lounging around the lake for a while, but a careless remark about huevos rancheros spurred us into a moderately early departure. The road on the way back down wasn’t quite as bad as the way up, but it was still no fun. In 2.5 hours, we reached the car and, by noon, we were sitting in the San Marco Restuarant in downtown Blanca, CO, enjoying burritos the size of our heads and enjoying the storm clouds gathering over the Blanca Massif.
It was a mighty, dangerous, mind-bending trip and I am exceedingly glad to have survived it. For now, my appetite for challenging ridge traverses has been fully filled and I will concentrate on other goals for a while.