MOUNTAINS: Ellingwood Point (14,042'), Blanca Peak (14,345') ROUTES: Southwest Ridge on Ellingwood, standard traverse to Blanca RT GAIN: ~6,100' RT DISTANCE: ~14.5 miles RT TIME: ~14.25 hours total CLIMBERS: Rob (RJansen77), Dillon (dillonsarnelli), Emma (EmmaM), Jodi (Globehugger), Karthik (TheOtherIndian), Andrew (awknox), Eric (lostsheep5), Derek (Derek), Clay (Claybird), Jeff (SurfNTurf)
Video by Andrew. Photos by Jeff, Clay, Dillon and Rob.
As with most climbs, the idea was formed over a beer. OK, several beers. Hazy and excited conversations at the January Denver happy hour turned into a full-blown itinerary a few days later for Blanca and Ellingwood, and before I knew it the group had ballooned to 10 members: Me, Dillon, Rob, Derek, Clay, Karthik, Andrew, Emma, Jodi and Eric. It was basically a non-official 14ers.com Winter Gathering.
Browsing trip reports, I noticed there wasn’t anything available about Ellingwood’s Southwest Ridge in winter. Gerry Roach refers to it as “pure fun” and “one of Colorado’s finest ridges.” Interest piqued! We didn’t know what to expect, but in a low snow year we thought it might be doable. We agreed to check it out and stick to the standard route if it looked overly sketchy. That cautious mindset didn’t do us much good. I know I’m not only speaking for myself when I say the ridge dominated my thoughts for most of the week.
The logistics of getting 10 people from three different towns to Blanca, Colo. and a winter backcountry camp, as you might imagine, proved quite the undertaking in itself. What felt like a couple thousand PMs later, the Denver crew took off at 8 a.m. Saturday morning. We picked up Eric in Colorado Springs on the way and met Emma and Jodi, coming from Salida, at the start of the Lake Como Road.
Group meeting below the Blanca Massif.
We were able to squeeze into two trucks – sort of – and reach a pullout at 8,800’. The driving portion of our journey was over. We started up the road as one big group at about 2 p.m. We quickly got strung out, but one after another we reached frozen Lake Como around sunset. The road has many sections of avoidable ice. Snowshoes and traction devices weren’t necessary. We met Dancesatmoonrise, muzik83 and oldschool coming down from their successful Ellingwood summit shortly before the lake and they provided excellent beta.
Our gear. And Emma. Helmet for safety!
Me, hiking up the Lake Como Road.
We set up camp mostly in the dark, then Andrew got a fire going and those of us with cell service obsessively checked NFL scores. Hey Ryan – how about those Niners? Bedtime came around 9:30 for most, with alarms set for 5:30 a.m.
Goodnight, Little Bear.
Camp at Lake Como. By this point, it was something like 35-7 Patriots.
The goal was to leave camp at 6:30. We only missed that mark by 10 minutes! Truly a miraculous feat for a group of 10. One by one, we set off across Lake Como. Andrew decided this was a good time to ask, "Hey, have you ever seen the movie King Arthur?" I was going slow to protect against slipping until I heard the ice settle with a “whumpf,” at which point I left a trail of flames as I raced to the far shore.
Setting off across the groaning Lake Como.
We stuck mostly together until Blue Lakes at 12,500’. Those of us who’d long been dreaming of the Southwest Ridge weren’t disappointed. It looked dry enough that we stashed our 30-meter rope and small rack, which Eric had graciously donated to the cause. Andrew, Rob, Dillon, Emma and I opted to take the snow-filled Y-shaped couloir to gain the ridge. Crampons went on for the first time since July, to my utter glee.
Andrew: "But seriously, remember that scene in King Arthur?"
Meanwhile, Eric, Clay, Derek and Karthik set off to meet their own individual goals. Jodi had stayed in camp because of an illness. Eric’s successful day is chronicled here.
The Y Couloir was pure fun. We didn’t have a slope meter, but I’d put it in the 35- to 40-degree range. About 500 feet later we were basking in the sun on the ridge proper, staring up at our destination. Emma had issues with her crampons and fell a bit behind, while Rob and Andrew both suffered from cold feet. They waited as long as they could, but had to get moving before Emma topped out on the couloir. Rob, Andrew and Dillon got about a 10-minute head start, while I waited for Emma. The two mini-groups would maintain that separation until the summit, while almost always keeping each other in line of sight.
The Y Couloir to gain the SW Ridge is left of center.
Andrew, Dillon and me, nearing the top of the couloir.
Crampons, ice axes and great snow, oh my.
A look at the task at hand.
Emma starting the climb.
Andrew starting on the first major obstacle, a headwall climbed from the left.
A look at the start of the exposure, which basically never relents.
Dillon enjoying a lofty perch.
The Southwest Ridge lived up to Roach’s praise. It was long, sustained, exposed Class 3. Comparable ridges I’ve done generally have breaks of Class 2 walking or areas to hide from the exposure. Not so here. Knife edges led to steep climbs which led to knife edges. Snow was present on the route despite the dry year and made two or three moves that would have been cake in the summer very pucker-inducing. Higher on the route we did have to cross a couple sketchy areas of unconsolidated snow and bulletproof ice requiring the utmost care.
I distinctly remember one move where I was hanging over gaping exposure, clinging to fingerholds and kicking steps with all my might in hard ice. Needless to say, this was one of those climbs where you focus on your holds and not what’s beckoning beneath your feet. We were able to scramble across most of the knife edges, but there was one every single one of us had to butt-scoot across. Pride be damned.
We stayed for the most part on the ridge crest. The 14ers.com route description for the route is fairly accurate. Past the “horn” high on the route, there were many options to reach the summit ridge and I think all five of us chose a different line. We completed the ridge without a rope, though there were a couple moves where protection would have been nice. It’s a personal decision.
Inching closer to the summit.
A look back from high on the ridge.
One of the last major obstacles.
Emma scooting across the last of a few knife edges on the route.
The walkable-but-still-exposed summit ridge finally yielded to the summit. Andrew, Rob and Dillon were waiting and had already taken a “group” summit shot. Peckerheads. Emma came up a few minutes behind me. Eric was also on the summit, finishing his preparations for a ski descent.
Rob, Andrew and Dillon summit. Eric's waiting on top.
A look at the first three summiters, from Blanca-ish.
Clay had a great view.
Rob, Dillon, Andrew (L-R).
Proof I was also on top.
Lindsey, the Spanish Peaks and Blanca from Ellingwood's summit.
Little Bear lookin' fine. Apparently another group topped out via LB's own Southwest Ridge route the same day.
Eric, about to begin his summit ski descent. Check out his TR, too!
The ridge had taken much longer than expected (we summited at about 11-11:15 a.m.). I hadn’t slept well the night before and hadn’t been eating or drinking nearly enough because of the attention-grabbing ridge. I initially decided to just go down, while Dillon, Andrew and Rob would continue toward Blanca. I caught a second wind during the descent, however, and gave Blanca a go. My second wind fizzled out before it had really even began. I clawed my way up to 14,100’, but I just didn’t have the energy for the remaining 200-300 feet.
The climbing was extremely tedious. Loose talus mixed with knee-deep postholing mixed with bulletproof ice. I’d really recommend crampons or at least microspikes if the current conditions hold. My boots skittered dangerously across the ice more than once, and a slip probably would have meant a long, rough ride over talus. Anyway, I was mentally and physically drained from the ridge, I hadn’t been eating or drinking, the wind had picked up, I was concerned about time and I wanted to ensure I had enough energy to get down and hike out. I think my decision to turn around so close to the summit was a good one –- I’ve never felt so gassed on a mountain -- but I have the feeling I’ll end up kicking myself for it.
Rob, Andrew and Dillon (L-R) on Blanca's summit.
Andrew, Rob and Dillon caught up to me on the descent. We carefully glissaded a few short sections. Eric was waiting for us at the rope stash and the five of us straggled into camp at about 3:30. The snow from 13,000’ to Lake Como was reminiscent of a mid-May afternoon: wet and miserable. We postholed so much it broke my gaiters – and Andrew’s, too.
The hike out was absolutely gorgeous in the afternoon sun.
We broke camp as fast as we could. People started down the road at various intervals between 3:45 and 4:15. I made sure to be the last one out and I reached the trucks in the final remnants of daylight at about 6:15-6:30.
All in all, it was a fantastic weekend. Almost everyone accomplished their goals, and most importantly everyone got back home safely. Now, bring on the snow! This fake-winter stuff is getting out of hand. The refresher on couloir climbing has got me fiending like an addict.
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