From reading all the TR's for Blanca/Ellingwood/Little Bear I started to get a VERY subtle hint/feeling that hiking up and down the Lake Como Rd was less than enjoyable, so I began looking for alternate ways to approach these peaks that would avoid the dreadful road. From looking at topo maps of the area I saw a trail that started at the Zapata Falls TH and headed up to South Zapata Lake. This trail piqued my interest and got my hopes up about finding a nice route for Ellingwood and Blanca that would avoid the Lake Como Rd. I started searching for any TR's for this approach to these awesome peaks and through all my searching I found only two. One epic TR on SP and one here on 14ers.com . In the SP TR they climbed what they named the “Crossfire Couloir” and encountered Class 4/5 climbing above the snow in the couloir. In the TR here on 14ers.com they climbed what they called the “C2” couloir which is the next couloir to the right/west of the “Crossfire”.
The Zapata Falls TH which is at 9100' elev is easily reached by any 2WD and is a great alternative to parking at 8800' on the Como Rd. Plus if you are planning on doing both Blanca and Ellingwood in a day, although this route this saves you only 100' elev gain (mainly due to the fact that you have to re-climb Ellingwood Pt) it saves you about 4 – 4.5mi (depending on whether you take the C2 Couloir or the couloir I took) compared to parking at 8800' on the Como Rd.
I started at around 7AM on a beautiful morning with nary a shower/thunderstorm in the forecast.
View up South Zapata Creek. Pt13471 is on the left with Twin Peaks on the right. Zapata Falls is in the canyon down to the left.
Beautiful views of Great Sand Dunes and the Crestones to the North.
The trail starts out as a very wide and rocky track for the first ¼ mile or so until you reach the well signed right turn for the South Zapata Lake Trail. Straight takes you to Zapata Falls. The South Zapata Lake Trail splits right and switchbacks to the west as you begin your climb up the edge of the valley.
The trail levels off for awhile and from here I had great views up the valley at the pyramidal in shape PT13471.
Soon I crossed South Zapata Creek and then the trail steepened considerably as it switchbacked further up on the east side of the valley. As I gained elevation I got my first glimpse of Ellingwood Pt at the head of the valley.
First glimpse of Ellingwood Pt at head of valley
After climbing steeply for awhile the trail leveled off a bit and traversed along a really cool shelf below some cliffs. Soon I crossed a small creek coming down California Gulch.
Right after California Gulch the trail begins a disappointing 200ft descent down into the valley to avoid a large talus field along the canyon edge. Soon after I began climbing again I crossed the North Fork South Zapata Creek. I spent the next 1.5mi mainly in the trees with only views up towards the cliffs to my East. Then the trail crosses South Zapata Creek, I neared treeline, and my first up close and personal view of Ellingwood Pt.
Ellingwood Pt 14,042' C2 couloir in center just to the right of the lowest notch in the ridge.
I followed the trail to South Zapata Lake as Ellingwood Pt lorded over me at the head of the basin. The “Crossfire Couloir” is just left of center of the photo above (it's the lowest notch/couloir in the ridge). The “C2 Couloir” is the one that is just to the right of it with snow visible to the top of it. I suspected that due to the warm weather the snow hadn't frozen the night before and the prospect of climbing a couloir filled with mashed potatoes and postholing all along the way to the top would be less than fun. Here’s what the C2 Couloir looks like when dry and snow free.
Snow free C2 Couloir/gully from painless4u2 TR
So I looked at my Topomap app on my IPhone and noticed that there was another couloir further up in the basin to my right that looked like it had a good chance of being dry and doable without too much extra effort. So from South Zapata Lake I headed West up grassy slopes towards a small basin and tarn below Twin Peaks. Once I crested the small ridge at ~12,640' I was very pleased to see that this couloir was nice and dry.
Couloir looking nice and dry.
It was a pleasant ascent of the couloir with only a little bit of looseness encountered. I was able to occasionally follow a use trail.
Looking East towards Ellingwood Pt
Looking back down the couloir into the South Zapata Basin
From the top of the couloir I got my first view of the Pioneer Basin and Blanca Peak
View of Pioneer Basin, Ellingwood Pt and Blanca Peak
I decided to traverse the slopes below the many bumps along the ridge to Ellingwood Pt, it probably would've been better to just stay on the ridge as the rock would have been more solid. It took me about an hour to make it to Ellingwood's north ridge. Here I got my first view of the Huerfano Basin and of centennial California Peak (13,849')
Huerfano Basin with Mt Lindsey - 14,042' looking nice.
Centennial California Peak - 13,849' is in the background center.
Ellingwood's North Ridge
Little Bear Peak is looking mighty fine
The first 2/3 of Ellingwood Pt's North Ridge is fairly easy at Class 2 with stable talus. When I got closer to the top it increased to very fun Class 3 scrambling.
Final Class 3 portion of Ellingwood's North Ridge
View back across the Crossfire Ridge. Pioneer Lake (L) Twin Peaks (C) South Zapata Lake (R)
Once I reached Ellingwood's summit I got the classic view of Blanca Peak and a great view of Little Bear towering above Crater Lake
Blanca Peak's incredible North Face
Little Bear and Crater Lake
10min after I reached the summit who other than Glenn Randall (gprandall) came hiking up Ellingwood's normal route. We talked for about 45min or so and two other hikers reached the summit in the meantime. Glenn was continuing his 14er “sunrise/sunset from the summit” project and was planning on spending the next 8hrs on Ellingwood’s summit waiting for sunset. Anyways, I wanted to do the high traverse to Blanca but hadn't researched the route recently. So, since I had pretty good cell reception on the summit of Ellingwood, I looked up the route description on my IPhone and got the beta/pics I needed to find the high traverse route to Blanca.
47min after beginning the traverse to Blanca I reached its airy summit
Looking North from Blanca's summit
With astounding views in all directions.
Huerfano Peak and Mt. Lindsey
Winchell Lakes still icy
I chilled on the summit for 30min or so while two other hikers summited. They had started from the 8800' TH and were just going to summit Blanca Peak. Chatted with them for awhile and even took a couple of pictures for them with my IPhone and immediately emailed the photos to them from my phone since cell coverage was so good.
Then I began the traverse back to Ellingwood Pt and 40min later I re-summited Ellingwood Pt. Talked with Glenn for a couple minutes again and left him on Ellingwood's summit as he waited to take sunset photos. I then headed back down Ellingwood's North Ridge back to the C2 Couloir. Here I descended down the couloir, staying on easy rock on the East side of the snow for as long as possible till I couldn’t avoid the snow any longer. Put on my micro spikes and pulled out my ice axe and glissaded down to the basin. This saved me a lot of time not having to do the traverse back to the dry gully/couloir I had ascended in the morning.
Looking back up the C2 Couloir
Here I crossed the tundra to a use trail and began my descent to South Zapata Lake. The sky at this time was a beautiful/rich blue and I wish I could've paused and enjoyed the moment forever. I hung out at the lake soaking in the incredible views for 30min or so.
Gorgeous view above South Zapata Lake
Can I just pause this moment please?
Last view of Ellingwood Pt
The descent down the South Zapata Creek Trail was pleasant (except for the annoying 200' I had to regain) and I ran into two really cool guys from New Jersey who were camping at the Zapata CG. They very kindly offered me a delicious steak wrap they had made earlier. Chatted with them for 15min or so and then continued down the trail.
Sunset view of South Zapata Creek valley
Sunset view of Great Sand Dunes and Crestones/Kit Carson
What a wonderful day and a enjoyable “less traveled by” way to do Blanca/Ellingwood w/o having to suffer on the Lake Como Rd. I highly recommend it to any and all.
That night I ate dinner in Ft Garland and then drove to the Music Pass TH for a climb of Tijeras Peak I did the following day. Conditions on “the ramp” for Tijeras are it still has snow and if it didn’t freeze the night before you’ll posthole in “mashed potatoes” all the way up it. After attempting the snow I ended up bypassing the snow by climbing up the super-fun Class 4 rib along the left side of the ramp. In two spots I had to climb along the rock/snow/ice interface because of a lack of good footholds on the rock rib. I’ll post a photo of the conditions on the ramp tonight.
Tijeras Peak the next day, as seen from Music Pass
My love of the Sangres deepens more and more each time I climb in them.
My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
Caution: The information contained in this report may not be accurate and should not be the only resource used in preparation for your climb. Failure to have the necessary experience, physical conditioning, supplies or equipment can result in injury or death. 14ers.com and the author(s) of this report provide no warranties, either express or implied, that the information provided is accurate or reliable. By using the information provided, you agree to indemnify and hold harmless 14ers.com and the report author(s) with respect to any claims and demands against them, including any attorney fees and expenses. Please read the 14ers.com Safety and Disclaimer pages for more information.