Driving anywhere in the southern portion of the San Louis Valley you can clearly see the magnificent and gigantic Blanca massif. It is unlike anything else 14er-wise in Colorado. Most 14ers are strewn within a sea of other high peaks and are in a sense, awash in the chaotic landscape of alpine gigantism.
Blanca is quite different in the fact that it suddenly juts out of the floor of the nearly featureless and flat San Louis Valley. It ”looks” more like one would envision a mountain in that its mass, height, and sheer dizzying volume is overwhelming in contrast to its rather flat-lined host valley. Mt. Massive may be…well…more massive, but Blanca sure looks way huger!
The Blanca massif is unique among Colorado 14ers as it most surprisingly juts from the San Louis Valley. It puts the “mass” in massif and anchors the Sangre de Cristo Range.
Don and I left the Denver area late morning on Friday. For this trip we were using his full size, Professional Grade GMC Sierra pickup with an off road package. We arrived at Como Lake Road about 2ish and began the miserable journey up as high as we could go in his pickup. At about 3:30 we finally felt we had reached the limits of the Sierra and its driver. We had made it to 9,500 feet on the road and found a suitable place to park. We changed into our hiking gear, hoisted our packs, and off we went up (about 2,300 feet) towards Como Lake.
I will not spend much time describing Como Lake Road. Everything you have heard about is true. Its sucks…a lot. Its is hot, steep, dusty, and mostly uninteresting.
Don takes an editorial shot of the Como Lake Road sign
We arrived, after traversing the the Como Lake Road in the full heat of afternoon at around 5:30 pm. We quickly found a beautiful, large, and protected camping spot near the lake and the old cabin.
Our camp sight near the old cabin. Its one of the best sites we have had at a 14er trailhead.
We quickly set up our tents, filtered water, and completed all the other stuff we needed to accomplish before nightfall. We didn't have long as the sun set soon after our arrival.
To our surprise Como Lake provided another treat of light and subject matter. As the sun set it light up the valley leading to Blanca, Ellingwood, and Little Bear Peaks with such incredible light that both Don and I paused our activities to capture this beauty before it was gone.
The sunset on Little Bear (tallest point on ridge) with Como Lake in the foreground was astounding
Don and I rehydrated out Bag-O-Meals, ate, and then tended to some last minute evening chores before turning in for the night. The forecast for the next day was bluebird as it had been for the entire week and days to follow. We decided there was really no reason to wake up at our usual 4:30 – 5 am. So we planned to get up at 5:30. It was almost like sleeping in late.
One thing that we (mostly me) had not taken into account was the dehydration we had suffered as a result of our hot and steep hike up Como Lake Road. This would haunt me somewhat on summit day. I simply did not drink enough after arriving at camp to make up for what had been lost Friday afternoon. This set me (us) up for a bit of misery on Saturday as we climbed Blanca. I am usually more cognizant of my fluids, but for some reason on this trip that wisdom escaped me.
We woke up on Saturday as planned and puttered around camp getting ready for our climb. We were still in no particular hurry. It appeared no one else was in a hurry either as the typical early morning activity one finds at a 14er trail head was absent. There were plenty of people at the lake…but not many were up and around even by 7:15 am, when we finally hit the trail.
The aspect of the early morning light within the valley leading to Blanca is perhaps the best I have ever seen. The rugged cliffs, multitude of varied lakes, and the clear skies provided us with intense photographic subject matter.
The Blue Lakes area at about 12,200 feet. Lakes of glass and azure skies.
We both trudged up the standard route towards Blanca. We would pass, and then be passed by a pair of hikers we met the night before on our ascent up Como Lake Road. Larry and his son Jonathan had travelled from Texas to bag Blanca and Ellingwood. They were great company and we leapfrogged them all day to the summit.
The lower headwall leading up to the Blue Lakes. Ellingwood is bathed in morning light background left.
The trail wound up two substantial and steep headwalls. The first leading to Blue Lakes and the second dropping us off at Crater Lake. Crater lake is a fascinating geological specimen. I would guess that many people hike past this area without a second glance.
As we hiked back down on our return we noticed that a HUGE block approximately 8 stories high (just an estimate, it was really really huge though) was sitting in the valley. Its hard to miss. Looking up we could see a perfectly shaped area in the valley wall where it had peeled out of and ultimately crashed to the floor. That must have been a hell of a crash. The top of the block shattered on impact and sent debris far across the valley. The trail traverses directly through the debris field.
This huge block used to be part of the ridge above. Its previous perch is quite apparent. This block was probably 8 stories high.
Another look at the fallen block with Crater Lake behind. Shattered debris is visible right of the block.
This geologic leviathan is worth a stop and examination next time you happen to be in the area. I wonder what the sound and the splash was like when the block hit Crater Lake…
Don and I continued to hike steeply up above Crater Lake towards the saddle that connects Blanca and Ellingwood Peaks. The trail above Crater Lake can get a little hard to find. There seem to be several “braided” trails above the lake and across the ledges. There are cairns and nylon whiskers to mark the way but they are somewhat discontinuous. However, it is relatively straight forward where you need to go. Basically up to the saddle but stay toward the Blanca side. Don’t head for the center of the saddle. You will just make the hike unnecessarily longer.
Looking up at the connecting saddle between Ellingwood (out of frame to left) and Blanca Peaks near the ledges. Blanca is actually to the left of the high point on the ridge but not visible here.
There is probably a visible trail leading from the ledges to the saddle but we followed a more amorphous path and headed into the steeper terrain to hit the saddle higher up on the ridge towards Blanca. This route “cut-the-corner” and traded off a shorter hike for steeper terrain.
Looking over towards Ellingwood from about halfway up Blanca’s ridge. Ellingwood is so steep and abrupt from this aspect that it gave me mild vertigo just looking at it.
The fun starts when you hit Blanca’s Northwest ridge as the hiking class changes from class 1/2 to a healthy class 2/3 with exposure. Its a lot of fun scrambling on the solid rock with good handholds.There is a trail that runs on or very near the actual ridge crest. Don and I generally followed the ridge but did not necessarily follow the trail per se. We chose to follow what appeared to us to be the best route balancing climbing class, exposure, and routing towards the summit. It was a lot of fun with incredible views. It is not difficult but, you do need to watch your step as one bad move and you are headed downhill.
Don takes a quick break from the steep and rocky ridge route to Blanca’s summit
Don and I both made Blanca’s summit at about 11 am. No one else was on the summit at that time and Don and I celebrated! This was my 40th 14er summit (in 54 total 14er ascents) and Don’s 30th. We high-fived, knucked, and smiled until our faces ached. The weather was perfect blue-bird. The 360 degree views were perhaps the best I have seen from a 14er. Looking out over the San Louis Valley from 14,345 feet just can’t be beat.
Just a portion of the great views. There is plenty to see. Little Bear is the high point along ridge foreground. Como Lake, nestled in the valley, is visible in the distance surrounded by trees towards the center right of the image.
It had been a while since we had a summit to ourselves. And this was a fine summit to be on. Soon the Texan’s, Larry and Jonathan made their way up the ridge. We all talked, compared stories and took some time to rest and refuel. I still hadn't realized it yet, but by now, after 4 hours of climbing I was pretty dehydrated. I pulled out my peanut butter and jelly sandwich took a single bite and decided eating it was not a good idea. My appetite was gone. I was able to drink. I felt ok but still not quite right.
Larry and his son Jonathan negotiate the final narrow ridge to Blanca’s summit
Mount Lindsey and Iron Nipple to the East of the Blanca Massif
Don, left and me, right. 14er number 30 and number 40 respectively
On the way down the mountain Don and I decided that we would climb Ellingwood another day. We had considered climbing both peaks as they are traditionally done together. But after seeing it from Blanca’s ridge and our low motivation at that point we bailed and happily decided to head back to camp.
Parts of the route below the summit are really quite steep and exposed
The trip back down the valley was uneventful except for dehydration induced stumbling here and there. We arrived back in camp around 3ish.
When we got to our campsite we found we had some new neighbors. A guy in some hugely modified Jeep Cherokee and his buddy. We learned later their names were Walt and Bruce. We were beat. Tired, hot, dehydrated, hungry, and very grumpy.
Don and I sat down to eat and drink, I was still feeling a bit “punky” so I ate slowly. I filtered more water and drank a liter in no time and readied some more. Right after we were getting settled a whole bunch of Jeeps, Toyotas, and other vehicles started arriving. Probably about 5 or 6 of them and they appeared to know Walt and Bruce. Don and I began to think that instead of spending the night we perhaps should clear out before it got too rowdy as it appeared it might with all the new arrivals.
But…we went with the flow and the other vehicles cleared out and left. Don and I were just too beat to hike out anyway. We could have, but it would have sucked.
As it turns out we ended up spending the evening with Walt and Bruce (who had stayed), and another climber named Shane. Bruce and Walt were some of the most friendly and hospitable people I had met in a while. We hung out around a campfire, ate dinner, and shared stories. It was truly a blast. It was great to meet them both and spend time around the campfire cracking ourselves up. Thank you both for your hospitality and company.
We finally crashed around 9:30 that night. The next morning Don and I woke up around 7. Ate, packed our gear, said our goodbyes to Bruce and Walt and headed back down the road.
On the way home we had a HUGE burrito lunch at the Huerfano Cafe in Walsenburg. I can not tell you how good it was to eat a hot fresh meal. It was great to eat something that did not come out of a wrapper or bag and was not a bar, goop, or freeze dried. No beer though. After lunch Don and I headed back to Denver.
This has been a great season. Beautiful peaks. Great friends. Fantastic pictures. And the completion of my 40 X 50 14er Challenge. Now I can relax a bit…