Ascent of Blanca Peak on 2015-07-04

Climber: Mihai Giurgiulescu

Others in Party:Gregg Randolph
Jake Frame
Keith Miller
Kara Kieffer
Date:Saturday, July 4, 2015
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
Peak:Blanca Peak
    Elevation:14345 ft / 4372 m

Ascent Trip Report

After the state highpoint Elbert, Blanca Peak was my most desired objective in Colorado for years on end. In addition to the distinction of being the only triple CoHP in the country, it classifies as an Ultra, a range highpoint and is considered to be the eastern boundary of the Dinetah, the traditional Navajo homeland (known as the Dawn or White Shell Mountain). The allure of sacred mountains is irresistible to me, and looking back on everything I've climbed so far, the top of all-time favorites list is dominated by summits of high spiritual significance. On 4 July 2015 I fulfilled the dream of adding Blanca to the list.

The evening of Thursday 2 July I got dropped off at Burbank airport after a full day at work. A change of planes in Phoenix meant that it was already 01:00 on 3 July by the time I landed in Denver. My friend drove down from Laramie, WY and picked me up, after which we headed straight down I-25 towards the southern part of the state. Following a bleary eyed meal at the IHOP in Pueblo and one hour of dozing off at a rest stop before Walsenburg, we crossed over La Veta Pass into San Luis Valley and stopped in the town of Alamosa for last minute provisions and a proper breakfast.

We then backtracked to Hwy 150, located the turnoff for the dirt road heading up toward Blanca and managed to drive in about 2 miles before parking the borrowed sedan to avoid any major damage to the undercarriage. According to my GPS, we started from an elevation of about 7930 ft. We shouldered our packs and began huffing it up the road. We passed a number of other backpacking parties as well as dayhikers walking back to their vehicles. There were a lot of cars, trucks and SUVs parked along the side of the road, eventually thinning out as the road got worse and worse.

Ominous dark clouds were enveloping the higher elevations when we started, leading to fears of having to hike in the rain, but these dissipated as we followed the road into the drainage of Holbrook Creek toward Como Lake. From about 10,000 on it got sunny and the temperature was pleasant. We passed abandoned cabins and were amazed to see modified jeep crawlers come and go past the 'jaws' sections of the road.

Even with a late start we reached Como Lake at 14:00. There were already many people camped there already, but we were lucky to find a good spot in a tree cluster close to the lake's outlet. With nothing else to do, we napped to catch up on the previous night's missed sleep. The remaining 3 members of our team showed up a few hours later, with just enough time to set up their tent and hammock before the afternoon thunderstorm. It dumped a good amount of rain for the short duration. In the fading light, the air was damp and cooling rapidly, so dinner was fast and everyone retreated to their sleeping bags early.

I woke up at 04:00 the next morning hoping for an early start, but the group didn't get going until about 05:50. The road contours Como Lake to the north and keeps climbing, eventually terminating near the upper Blue Lake at about 12,500. Incredibly, there were tire marks even here, and indeed on the way back we did see a dune buggy type of jeep slowly crawling down the mountain. From the end of the road, what used to be a maintained trail climbs up the left side of a waterfall, then passes a tarn and eventually Crater Lake, which was still frozen over. Though a use trail now, it is in incredibly good shape and well-marked with cairns.

Above Crater Lake, the route zigzags up the ledges, some of which were wet from snowmelt, then ascends a talus field up to the saddle between Blanca and Ellingwood at 13,700. I can't remember ever following a route so well-marked on a major mountain. We rested at the saddle, then headed straight up the Northwest Ridge. With the summit in sight, I caught my second wind and maintained a steady pace up the class 2 scramble. Two of my companions opted to stay right on top of the ridge, which gets more difficult at class 3 near the top, while I stayed just below the ridge on the north side of the peak. From about 14,200 the difficulties increase to class 2+ and there were even a couple of class 3 moves, but nothing requiring more than good stepping and holding.

I was elated to step on the summit at about 09:00, where several people were already enjoying the view. My companions arrived shortly, followed by other parties. The weather was fantastic and the views mind-blowing. The lower elevations to the south were under a solid cloud blanket, making it seem like we were on a floating island, but otherwise we could clearly see San Luis Valley, the nearby 14ers Little Bear, Ellingwood and Lindsey, along with countless other smaller peaks and the Crestone group to the north.

Our last 2 party members took a while in arriving, making the 3 of us impatient in getting down. We had decided to continue to Ellingwood and wanted to get going. The reason for waiting was perhaps silly: we wanted a group photo with all of us. As we were waiting, I made sure to descend about 25 ft down the Northeast Ridge and officially tag the rock pile marking the Huerfano CoHP. Our companions eventually showed up, we took our pictures, and when they let us know they would pass on Ellingwood, we quickly descended the ridge back to the saddle.

The Blanca-Ellingwood traverse looks very intimidating from either peak, but even here there is a well-marked route contouring the rock towers in the middle, then following the south slopes up to Ellingwood. The difficulty does not exceed class 2 except for one downclimb into a gully, which is class 3 and for which I had to take off my heavy pack while facing into the rock. The route gains the top of the ridge about 150 feet below the summit, and a look over the edge to the east reveals vertical drops with breathtaking exposure. Definitely not a place to fool around. However, the route stays below the ridge and simply following the cairns leads one straight to the summit. From there, Blanca rises majestically to the south, completely dominating the view. Its Northwest Ridge looks really difficult, though of course it is not.

We topped out at 11:00 and were anxious to descend, seeing the storm clouds already starting to gather. The only register of the day was on Ellingwood, I wanted to leave a message in the memory of Edward Earl on Blanca but had no way of doing so, while the Ellingwood one had very limited space. We retraced our steps to the exposed ridge, from where we dropped straight down the south slopes. We did not aim for the saddle, instead we continued following the line of fall, skirting a large snowfield, until we intercepted the use trail above the ledges. From there the rest of the descent was straightforward to Como Lake. Coincidentally, our group was reunited as soon as we hit the use trail - our friends happened to arrive from Blanca at exactly the same time.

We spent the rest of the afternoon back at camp napping, endured through the usual storm, then called it a night. We hiked out the next morning. My buddy who gave me a ride agreed to detour by Great Sand Dunes National Park on the drive back to Denver, a move we did not regret. There we hiked up High Dune for panoramic views of the dunes and surrounding mountains. I highly recommend a visit to the park for anyone in the area.

It was a fabulous trip with great weather and satisfying accomplishments. We had no problems with the notorious habituated bear at Como Lake - while there were many people there over the holiday weekend, the constant activity and the noises, especially from the off-roading crowd, must have kept it away. This was definitely one of the highlights of the year for me, and a life-list item with sacred Blanca.
Summary Total Data
    Total Elevation Gain:2785 ft / 848 m
    Total Elevation Loss:820 ft / 248 m
    Round-Trip Distance:3.6 mi / 5.8 km
    Route Conditions:
Unmaintained Trail, Snow on Ground, Scramble
    Gear Used:
Tent Camp
Ascent Statistics
    Gain on way in:2785 ft / 848 m
        Gain Breakdown:Net: 2585 ft / 788 m; Extra: 200 ft / 60m
    Loss on way in:200 ft / 60 m
    Distance:3.1 mi / 5 km
    Route:NW Ridge/Crater Lake
    Start Trailhead:Como Lake Base Camp  11760 ft / 3584 m
Descent Statistics
    Loss on way out:620 ft / 188 m
    Distance:0.5 mi / 0.7 km
    Route:NW Ridge
    End Trailhead:Blanca-Ellingwood Saddle  13725 ft / 4183 m
Ascent Part of Trip: Colorado 07-15 (2 nights total away from roads)

Complete Trip Sequence:
1Blanca Peak-Como Lake2015-07-034130 ft / 1259 m
2Blanca Peak2015-07-042785 ft / 849 m
3Blanca Peak - Northeast Slope2015-07-04 
4Ellingwood Point2015-07-04517 ft / 158 m
5Blanca Peak-Blanca Trailhead2015-07-053980 ft / 1213 m
6Great Dune2015-07-05720 ft / 219 m
Total Trip Gain: 12132 ft / 3698 m    Total Trip Loss: 12132 ft / 3697 m
GPS Data for Ascent/Trip

 GPS Waypoints - Hover or click to see name and lat/long
Peaks:  climbed and  unclimbed by Mihai Giurgiulescu
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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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