A Wintery Memorial Day in the Sierra Blanca

Ellingwood Point (14042)
Blanca Peak (14345)

05/24/2008 to 05/25/2008

Distance: ~9.14 miles
Vertical Gain: ~5400 feet
Climbed With: Brian Murray, Ryan Gregg

We had originally planned to head for the Lake Como road on Friday evening, camping down low and then hiking up the road early on Saturday morning. Instead we left Denver on Saturday morning and drove up the road to Jaws .5 (the large parking area) and then backpacking from there to the lake. Though it takes almost as long, it's a lot less work this way.

Blanca Peak shrouded in clouds as we approached Lake Como.
We arrived at the lake after a bit under 2 hours. The conditions were cloudy and cold, with the wind blowing rather hard at times. There was fresh snow from the storm that had gone through late the previous week. Given how many people were along the Lake Como road down low, we were expecting the lake to be crowded, but it appeared that we were the only ones when we got there. As it turned out, there was one person there, staying the cabin, and he generously offered to let us share it with him. We pumped some water, got ourselves prepared to leave early the next morning, and went to bed fairly early.

We got up bright and early at 3:45, broke down our stuff in the tent a bit, and were hiking by 4:30. The moon was bright, but the clouds were still hanging thickly over the high peaks, and sometimes they'd extend far enough to block out the moon. We hadn't brought snowshoes, so it was quite taxing breaking trail through the fresh snow. There were places where the old snow was obvious, and because it had been frozen solid before the new snow fell, it was very supportive and we tried to walk on it wherever possible.

This is what passed for a sunrise during our climb of Blanca and Ellingwood. Both summits are shrouded in clouds, as they would remain for much of the day.
For sunrise we just got an orange glow between the Blanca-Ellingwood saddle because the peaks were still shrouded in clouds. In fact, if anything, they were becoming even more hidden as the clouds swirled around. Some of the slope traverses at this point became quite difficult because they had collected a lot of the fresh snow. They snow wasn't a slide hazard, just a post-holing pain. Once we got to the upper basin we had to decide how we would proceed.

We opted to head up the largest gully through the cliffs and aim towards a notch in the ridge that was just past the difficult part of the traverse. Though we couldn't see it when we decided this, we had briefly seen it when the clouds lifted for a minute or two earlier. It was around this point that the wind became truly fierce--30-40 mph sustained winds with gusts of up to 50 mph or so. And while it wasn't snowing, some snow was getting blown by the wind and stinging the face and eyes. Nonetheless, we made steady progress and reached the notch in the ridge before long.

Brian approaches the summit of Ellingwood Point in tough winter conditions. Notice the rime on those rocks... as much as 6 inches in some places!
The notch wasn't a very good destination because you couldn't follow the ridge directly from there because it was a bit cliffy. Not that you'd want to follow the ridge anyway with the winds like that. We gave a wide berth to the cornices forming along the ridge as we followed below it on the windward side. By this point we were in an area where rime ice had formed on the rocks--more than six inches in some places. Finally, though, I arrived at my 50th 14er summit around 8:15am. Brian arrived about 5 minutes later, and Ryan made it 5-10 minutes after Brian. We managed to have a few snacks, but it was rather cold for to stick around for very long.

We descended by alternating between glissades and traverses. The slope was a mix of the soft fresh snow and the rock solid older layer of snow. Unfortunately, with the way we descended we ended up having to traverse the rock solid snow which required a lot of steps to be kicked and occasionally I had to use my ice axe to carve out some steps. At one point I slipped on the solid snow and started sliding, but I managed to self-arrest quickly, so it wasn't a problem.

Ryan pauses near the low point of our traverse from Ellingwood to Blanca. Ellingwood's summit is behind him on the left.

This panoramic shot shows what conditions were like. Up among the high peaks it was cloudy and socked in. Down in the valley you can see the boundary between summer and winter. In the distance we could see that the San Juans were nice and clear.
I had been going back and forth on whether or not to climb Blanca... I had climbed it previously and it seemed like pointless suffering to go up that day in those conditions with no views. Still, I felt strong and wanted to keep going. I went back and forth, but when we reached the low point I saw that it seemed to be clearing a bit and I decided to head up Blanca.

The climb was pretty straightforward most of the way. We were low on energy because we hadn't been able to eat for a while due to the conditions and our water had long since frozen. We pressed on though, and the sun was peeking in and out which got us pretty hot. We reached the ridge not far below the summit, but we still had to confront what Ryan and Brian both independently referred to as "the Hillary Step." In the summer it's not difficult to traverse this little difficulty to the left, but with the snow that wasn't a great plan. We opted to go up the crack, but it was filled with slippery snow--not enough to get a grip, mind you, just enough to be painful. We managed to surmount this great struggle and proceed to the summit. Again, I arrived first around 10:25, about 5 minutes ahead of Brian, with Ryan another 10-15 minutes behind.

The clouds cleared out for a while as we sat on Blanca's summit. This shot shows Ellingwood Point, California Peak, the Northern San Luis Valley and the Northern Sangre de Cristos. It looks like the Crestones were dealing with the same types of clouds that we were.
The clouds were still in and out, but mostly out by this point. That meant that the sun came out and it was generally warm enough to stay up there and enjoy the views and finally get some food. We also managed to melt our water and get some much needed hydration. The crux of the route was the descent of "the Hillary Step," and once that was behind us we got some great glissades. The sun was out for good by this time and we started getting pretty warm as we descended towards Lake Como. We had to delayer as the snow got slushy. It was remarkable how quickly that fresh new snow was melting.

Summit shot on Blanca Peak.

The clouds had cleared up a bit by the time we were making our way out of the upper basin and back towards Lake Como.
We lollygagged about once we got back to the cabin, lying on rocks in the sun for a while and drying some of our clothes. All good things must come to an end, so we started the painful walk back to the car. Boy was I glad that we weren't hiking down the rest of that God-forsaken "road."

The complete picture gallery from this climb can be found here.