Little Bear Peak, Blanca Peak, & Ellingwood Point
Trail: To Little Bear -West Ridge III (Hourglass), To Blanca Peak - Little Bear/Blanca Ridge, To Ellingwood Point - South Face III
Class 5.0-5.2, ~11 miles, ~ 6000 ft elevation gain
September 18th, 2004
What can I say? It's been a great summer for climbing. I have finished 16 separate 14er's, reclimbed one 14er, climbed three 13er's, one 12er, learned rock climbing, rappelling, gone on a couple rock climbs, and backpacked a few times. Until last week only one thing was missing. Little Bear. I don't mean just Little Bear which wouldn't have been a big deal by itself but I wanted the Little Bear-Blanca Traverse. I successfully completed the Elk range 14er's and the Maroon Bells Traverse but this trip was my ultimate goal. I would have liked to do the Crestone Traverse but that was less pressing as I have already climbed the Needle and 90 percent of the Peak.
The story behind this trip can be found in the looking for climbing partners section of 14erWorld.com. I have been trolling for partners for this ridge since July and had been turned down by several people including my Elk range partner. Most everyone said, not yet, I'd prefer to wait on that one. I understood that but it still frustrated me. I felt confident and ready.
During July Dave Hale emailed me and told me Dave Gibson had Labor day plans for this traverse. I replied that all he had to do was contact me and I would drop anything to join him. We had some on and off contact and then Labor Day came and went without the traverse. I figured that the trip was off and resigned myself to wait until next year. As luck would have it I received an email from Dave G. last week which basically asked who was still interested for the upcoming weekend. I pounced and said I wouldn't miss it. As the week progressed I obsessively watched the weather and prayed for a good day. I kept telling myself it wouldn't happen so I wouldn't be to disappointed if we were forced back by late summer storms.
By Thursday it looked like everything would work out. I invited my friend Brian Morsony to come along as he wanted to climb Ellingwood and Blanca. My wife also decided she'd join us. Originally there were to be four of us attempting the traverse but at the last minute sleep deprivation and illness kept one person from coming. Our group was to consist of myself, Dave Gibson (a computer science professor and Air Force colonel with all the 14er's completed), Dave Hale (A biology professor with 50 14er's under his belt), and Brian Freiburger (A biology instructor, Air Force Major, and rock climber). All of these guys were coming from Colorado Springs and would get to Lake Como long before my group. Dave Hale kindly volunteered to mark the trail from the lake with orange flags so we could find their campsite.
Jen, Brian, and I left at around 2:30 Friday and headed towards Blanca, CO. The drive went smoothly and even with traffic we made it in just over 4.5 hours. We weren't sure how far up the road we could make it as the Lake Como Road has a horrid reputation. I remembered someone replying to a post of mine that they made it 1.8 miles in a Honda CRV so I figured I could make it at least 2 miles in my Tacoma. The road itself gains about 3500 feet to the lake in ~5.3 miles so we were hoping to cut 2.5 miles and a 1000 or so feet off of the hike.
As it turns out the road is overrated. The drivable portion is way easier than the South Colony Lakes Road. It just happens that when you reach one of the infamous 'JAWS' on the road you aren't going any farther in any stock vehicle. The road is actually a moderate 4WD road with intermittent and insurmountable obstacles. We stopped about a mile or so before JAWS 1 to avoid parking problems. By the time we had gathered our bags and started moving it was 8:30. We had cut about 1300 ft and 2.5 miles off of the approach which was better than nothing. The hike took place in the dark and since our little LED Petzls only illuminated the ground close to us we never got to see how far we had left to go. We trudged up with our heavy packs and arrived at Lake Como around 10:00. Almost immediately I noticed an orange flag. I started following them, taking them down as I passed, until we came to a double flagged location. At this point we turned into the woods and continued following the flags until we reached a site with three tents. I heard a voice say 'Jared?". I replied that it was me. The voice said 'I'll say hi in the morning, were planning for a 5:30 start, have a good night'.
Brian, Jen, and I happily set up our two tents and passed out.
My watch alarm failed to wake me at 4:30 as planned and I overslept until 5:10.
I went about my usual morning routine which consists of drinking a liter of coffee followed by two hard boiled eggs, a power bar, and a 32 ounce bottle of Gatorade. I then wandered over introduced myself to everyone. Since the beta's for the route proclaimed rope to be more of a hindrance than a I help I took the rope and harness I had brought out of my bag. After a few minutes everyone was ready to go. My wife said she and Brian were going to wake back up in an hour or so and aim for Blanca. Jen and I agreed to turn on our radios at 9:00 and touch base at that point. I kissed Jen goodbye and headed out. It was 5:30.
Dave H. had set three stones across the path the night before so we had no trouble finding the turn off point for Little Bear. As we headed up the initial gully I chatted with Dave H. for awhile. It turns out he had a post-doc in Maine and lived near a spot I have vacationed frequently.
I am used to being a good bit faster than everyone and was surprised that I was working to keep up with these guys. It would turn out that this was the first trip I was on where I brought up the rear for a good bit of it. I actually really liked this, it forced me to push myself and made me confident that we could all escape nasty situations quickly.
We quickly gained the ridge below the hourglass.
We arrived at the hourglass somewhere near 7:00. I changed into a pair of rock shoes at this point and we all donned helmets. We decided that two people would go in parallel at a time. The two Daves headed up first until they reached a ledge and then Brian and I made our way up. We repeated this process and quickly made our way out of the Hourglass. There was a long rope in the middle but none of us used it.
I think this route is WAY overrated as far as climbing goes. I could see how miserable and dangerous water or ice would make it but dry it was a piece of cake. I'll preface that by saying you should be comfortable with class 4 but if you are then don't even consider letting this route make you nervous. All of us were up it in a matter of minutes. Once at the top however I saw where the real danger on this route comes from. Any rock knocked down picks up incredible speed and funnels right down with amazing power. If you climb this don't start until people are no longer above you. I don't know that a helmet would be enough to save you if a rock hit you.
We all gained the peak of Little Bear at 7:34 for an ascent time of two hours and 4 minutes. We spent a few minutes eating and snapping pictures and set off at 7:50. The connecting ridge looked awe inspiring.
The initial descent off of Little Bear had some of the hairiest moves of the entire traverse. It is initially a class 4 descent with ever increasing exposure. Below is a shot of the butt scootch method we used to get down
Once through the initial down-climb we got a good look at what we had in front of us.
I don't remember the exact order of the pictures so I'll just type up the traverse report and leave the pictures below it.
Right after the descent came what I considered the creepiest move of the entire trip. We all had to contour down off of the descent and make a massively exposed contour around a rock. This move basically required contouring around a little tower with a minimum of holds while sort of hanging your butt out over a sheer cliff. Think of the ledge on Pyramid with less holds and foot room, the rock pushing you out, and a 1000+ foot drop under you. Needless to say I skipped the pictures here.
The traverse itself was great. There were a number of lower class 5 moves on it and the exposure almost never relented in the first half. We spent allot of time carefully picking our route. Most of the time this amounted to staying on the ridge crest but occasionally we had to skirt to either side. I'd also say there were a few sections where we crawled rather than walked. The exposure up here made Capitol Peak's knife edge look like a cake walk. The ridges stayed narrow and the drop-offs more shear. Allot of the times the moves required downclimbing right next to precipitous drops. It was really invigorating. After the first nasty move the whole thing was so surreal and beautiful that I just enjoyed the heck out of every minute. I was happy to be with this group too. They were all good natured guys and strong climbers. This added to my amusement and comfort level.
The whole time we were traversing there were a couple of groups of people on Little Bear. They stayed there for more than an hour and I'm not sure if they were watching us or considering the traverse.
After about the halfway point the exposure dwindled and the ridge broadened. We still had to do the occasional 5th class move to contour around obstacles but it wasn't as frightening.
At 9:00 I called Jen. I made my way up to a slightly wider point and waved my hands so she could see me.
We all kept on and came to one last 70 ft section above what roach calls a horrific chimney. This little ledge was supposed to have the worst exposure of the route but it didn't bother me that much. I'm not saying that I didn't crawl some but after the whole relentless traverse I was getting accustomed to the exposure.
After the last major bit of exposure we contoured above a gully and started up towards Blanca. Here is a look back shot.
We arrived at Blanca at 10:40 for a total traverse time of 2 hours and 50 minutes. I think we could have gone more quickly but we spent allot of time hanging out and taking pictures. As luck would have it Jen and Brian were summating at exactly the same time.
Dave G., Me, Dave H., and Brian F.
Jen and Brian
We all hung out for a long time. We relaxed and ate and took a few pictures. The picture for Blanca on my Sangre de Cristo page shows some of the cool lakes visible from the peak.
I should add that I put my boots back on near the part of the traverse where you cross a scree&talus gully. I'd really recommend bringing a pair of rock shoes. The climbing is non-stop and having the added traction really increased my comfort level.
After a bit both Daves, both Brians, and myself headed towards Ellingwood. Jen didn't fee like going for it and headed down. The four of us who crossed the ridge hauled over to Ellingwood and arrived in 43 minutes. My friend Brian didn't try to keep pace and headed over solo. After a very short rest on Ellingwood we all headed down. I passed Brian and checked that everything was OK, he was heading over with two other guys we had met on the peak and said to go on back to camp.
I radioed Jen and asked for her to wait at the upper lake so we could walk back together. The walk back was beautiful and uneventful. Some clouds had moved in, threatened, and gone away. We got back to camp, packed up, and waited for Brian to return. When he got back we relaxed some and said our goodbyes to the everyone.
As it turned out we caught up with Dave H., Dave G., and Brian F. near their truck. They offered to take us back to ours which was a mile farther down. I volunteered to take the back so Jen and Brian could sit in the truck. I was happy to get the equivalent of a bumper car/ rollercoaster ride for free :) Once back at the Tacoma we said goodbye again and set out for home.
Here is a neat shot I took on the way home.
This trip was great. It was unlike any of my previous trips. The traverse made everything in the Elks and the Maroon Bells Traverse absolutely pale in comparison. It was longer, harder, and way more exposed. I think it requires a high comfort level to attempt this. After this I feel comfortable settling back to Sawatchers as this years 14er season winds down.
New Pictures Added June 2007
Back To My 14'ers Page