Ascent of Blanca Peak on 2010-09-04

Climber: Greg Slayden

Other People:Solo Ascent
Date:Saturday, September 4, 2010
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
    Motorized Transport to Trailhead:4x4 Vehicle
Peak:Blanca Peak
    Elevation:14345 ft / 4372 m

Ascent Trip Report

I woke up at 4 AM from my slumber in the back of my rental SUV, which had been parked on a deserted side road near North La Veta Pass. It was still dark and I groggily got in the driver’s seat and drove down to US 160 and headed west, eating some cereal and water for breakfast as I drove. There were no gas stations or mini-marts open in the tiny towns of Blanca and Fort Garland, so I went north on CO 150 figuring I’d make do with what I had. After a few miles I found the turn-off for the infamous Lake Como road, and started driving uphill.

It was still pretty much pitch-dark, and this made the driving more harrowing than usual. The first mile was OK, but soon after that the road degenerated into a rough boulder field. My rented Tahoe seemed to be doing OK in 4-wheel drive mode, but the lurching and banging was worrisome. There were almost unlimited places along the road where one could park, depending on how much car abuse you wanted to inflict, and I finally gave up at 8330 feet and pulled into a rocky field to my right. I hit some big rocks trying to back in, but the SUV seemed OK when I finally parked.

I got my daypack together and started hiking at 5:30, still in the dark. My first steps into the unstable talus of the road almost tripped me, tweaking my ankle—indeed, the jumble of rocks that made up the road was a pretty nasty surface for hiking, especially when you can’t see. I turned on my headlamp after this minor mishap, even though there was some pre-dawn lightness visible.

For the next few hours I just hiked the road uphill, seeing no one. It was nice to be doing this uphill in the cool, sunless morning, given the lack of tree cover for most of the way. I had no good map of the lower road, either, so I didn’t have much sense of my progress as the road twisted, turned, and switchbacked. I passed many cars parked off to the side, especially at first—just past my parking spot was a Subaru like mine at home, and past that a bunch of SUVs in fewer and fewer numbers. After a while there were no more parked cars as the road descended a little, passed some muddy spots, and started heading towards the peaks ahead. Notable landmarks where the various “Jaws” rock formations that presented incredible barriers to vehicle access, and I had a hard time believing they could be scaled.

As I hiked uphill I sometimes heard the sound of loud engines below me, which I figured were Jeeps making their way uphill—part of me hoped they would catch up and offer me a ride. But I never saw them, and I guess my 3 mph uphill speed was faster than they could get around the Jaws rocks.

I arrived at the Lake Como area by 8 AM and saw my first other people, campers milling about. I didn’t stop there, instead followed the road to the far end of the lake and had a nice break at 8:15 AM on a log in the cool shady morning. After some much needed food, I followed the road as it went up a very steep slope just above the lake in some sparse forest—apparently this was “Jaws 4”, but at the time it seemed impossible to me that any jeep could make it up that little cliff. After this the road meandered past pleasant meadows and a couple more pretty lakes, now above treeline, and the road ended at about 12,160 feet, where two Jeep Wranglers were parked next to some tents at Blue Lake. I was blown away that they had driven up this far. The campers there were stirring, and I expressed my admiration of their driving prowess.

This was the end of the road, though, and the route became a standard hiking trail at last. It crossed a little brook and then switchbacked up a steep slope to a high hanging talus basin with more blue lakes nestled among the rocks. I was now seeing many other hikers, presumably having started their hikes at Lake Como. I passed many of them as I hurried to get in as much vertical before the sun hit me, but I finally lost the race at 10 AM or so as the sun finally rose above all the crags above. The path started climbing towards the Blanca-Ellingwood col, but it became very indistinct and hard-to-follow in places. I followed cairns and some strange orange fiber-optic survey markers that presumably marked the route, but I (and a couple I was hiking near) kept losing the way by missing switchbacks. At one point I just clambered straight uphill until I hit a trail, and then followed that until it, too became lost. Eventually I found a series of dirt paths through the steep scree and talus that led uphill towards the col.

I was getting tired with the effort of the day so far, and the altitude, so I slowed down quite a bit once above 13,500 feet. I reached the ridge at last and took a rest, looking down the steep north face of the peak, and then started clambering up the craggy crest. There were a number of paths, many on the south side of the ridge, and once again it was not clear what the best route was. I needed a couple more short rests, but eventually neared the summit. Here a route seemed to go on the north side of the ridge, marked with cairns, but that led to a very sketchy traverse on loose dirt (with some tiny snowpatches, too), so I climbed back to the ridge crest as soon as I could.

Shortly after this I came to the junction of the Northwest Ridge (that I had been climbing) and the East Ridge (or Gash Ridge). This point marks the high point of Huerfano County, and lies maybe 100 feet north of the true summit. I stepped on every high rock at this point, and then ambled over to the true summit and its windbreak. It was 11:15 AM, my ascent having taken 5 hours and 45 minutes.

It was a cloudless, beautiful day with pretty light wind, and I enjoyed my usual summit tasks—eating some snacks, entering my name in the register, taking some photos, and taking in the view. It was nice to be alone on top—the register showed one party of two had been up earlier today, but it seemed I was ahead of the main mass of climbers. While hanging out I heard voices, and saw two climbers making their way towards me via the Blanca-Little Bear ridge. They soon arrived on the summit, where I congratulated them on doing that tough route as we chatted.

I stayed on top for 45 minutes, and finally said goodbye to the two climbers, and promptly ran into the vanguard of the next bunch of hikers at the Huerfano County high point. I tried explaining the significance of this point to this poor guy, who didn’t seem to care too much. , before starting down myself.

I decided that the best way down the ridge was to stay on the very crest, no matter what. The exposure was maybe a bit more, but the blocks were solid and the route unmistakable. There were now a fairly large number of hikers swarming uphill, in various stages of exhaustion, and I tried to give them route advice when I could—I don’t think too many took my advice to stay on the crest.

I returned to the Blanca-Ellingwood col and headed down. I had been thinking about Ellingwood, but the climb had already taken longer than I anticipated and I had a long way down. Doing Blanca as a day-hike is enough, I figured. So I made my way down the random talus of the upper basin, losing the trail many times and once even using my GPS to aim towards where I had been on the way up. Eventually I was on the main path and heading down past the Crater Lake and its smaller tarn (which I had thought was the main lake on the way up). On the steep slope on the way down to Blue Lake I took some photos of the improbable Jeeps at the end of the road, still the only vehicles up this far. It was now pretty hot and sunny in the meadows, and the open forest just below was not much better. Down at the main Lake Como area, at the west end of the lake, there were now about 5 Jeep Wranglers there, some of them perhaps responsible for the engines I had heard behind me on the way up. I chatted with one of the drivers, who agreed with me that “it shouldn’t be possible” to get cars here. I thought that they should film a Jeep commercial here, since it was apparently the only vehicle that could make it.

After a rest and a snack, I had a long, hot slog on a road downhill to my car. Part of me was hoping for a friendly 4-wheeler to offer me a lift, but I saw no moving vehicles the entire day above mine. It was just mile after mile of rough, rocky, dusty road, with only a short section in the middle in nice shady forest. There were now a great many backpackers heading uphill, though—it was Saturday of Labor Day weekend and I guess that many folks from the Front Range had left home this morning and were now hiking up to camp at Lake Como. I did not envy their hot uphill hike.

But even though I was going down, I was pretty fatigued—I was not yet fully acclimatized, I had not eaten much today, and the road was not a very inspiring route to hike. I took more rests than usual on the way down, getting pretty well bushed by the time the road straightened out and hit the sagebrush plains, which I knew meant that my car was near.

I arrived back at 8330 feet any my rented Tahoe at 5 PM, exactly 5 hours from the summit. I threw my pack in back, changed, put my GPS on my hood to get a fix for my trailhead, and started driving down the rough road, a bit easier in the daylight. Right after I turned on to the road I noticed my GPS on the hood, which I had to retrieve, lucky it didn’t fall off and get smashed.

I drove to the blessed pavement at CO 150 without incident, and was soon in Alamosa looking for a motel room. However, it turns out there was a big car show in town, plus it was Labor Day weekend, so the guy at the Best Western told me the town was totally full-up. So I had to drive to Monte Vista, where I was lucky to get a room at the Pecosa Inn, then shower, find some food, and finally get some well-earned sleep.

Doing Blanca as a day-hike is certainly possible for a strong hiker, but not a lot of fun—the main culprit is the road, which does not make for an attractive or enjoyable footpath. Also, it becomes very difficult to bag the other fourteeners in the area on a day-hike, if they are also on your peak list.
Summary Total Data
    Total Elevation Gain:25 ft / 7 m
    Total Elevation Loss:6015 ft / 1833 m
    Quality:5 (on a subjective 1-10 scale)
    Route Conditions:
Road Hike, Maintained Trail, Unmaintained Trail, Scramble
    Weather:Pleasant, Breezy, Clear
Ascent Statistics
    Gain on way in:25 ft / 7 m
    Route:NW Ridge
    Start Trailhead:14320 ft / 4364 m
Descent Statistics
    Loss on way out:6015 ft / 1833 m
    Route:Lake Como Road
    End Trailhead:Lake Como Road  8330 ft / 2538 m
Ascent Part of Trip: 2010 - Blanca

Complete Trip Sequence:
1Blanca Peak-Northeast Slope2010-09-04 a5570 ft / 1698 m
2Blanca Peak2010-09-04 b25 ft / 8 m
Total Trip Gain: 5595 ft / 1706 m    Total Trip Loss: 6095 ft / 1857 m
GPS Data for Ascent/Trip

 GPS Waypoints - Hover or click to see name and lat/long
Peaks:  climbed and  unclimbed by Greg Slayden
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Note: GPS Tracks may not be accurate, and may not show the best route. Do not follow this route blindly. Conditions change frequently. Use of a GPS unit in the outdoors, even with a pre-loaded track, is no substitute for experience and good judgment. accepts NO responsibility or liability from use of this data.

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