Blanca Peak: A Southern Colorado Adventure
"The successful man will profit from his mistakes and try again in a different way."
Fall Break at The Colorado School of Mines is a pretty special annual event to the students here in Golden. We never get Labor Day off, so this is the first real break of the Fall. More importantly, the last break to do anything fun outside
So while some finished homework, studied for tests, and played the Lon-Capa drinking game, Jake and I decided to soak in some of the last good weather days of Colorado. We weren't really sure where we wanted to go, but we wanted to do it all; climb, hike, fish, and whatever else we could fit in
Ben was in Iceland for this Fall Break, so it was just Jake and myself from our apartment, and Jake's slack lining buddy Stephanie, who brought her friend Lauren
1) Saturday - Go down to the Sand Dunes
2) Sunday - __________
3) Monday - __________
4) Tuesday - Come back to Golden
We thought the lovely San Luis Valley would hold provide suffient adventure for our 4 days of freedom. You got the Dunes, some 14ers in the Sangres, some big rocks to climb at Penitente, and some fishing along the way. Throughout the trip, we were able to fill in the gaps however we pleased, with no particular agenda in mind
I was especially eager to get back down to the Southern Sangres because I wasn't able to summit Blanca Peak last year during Fall Break with my buddy Ben. The trip can be found "Hee-ahh" (here). The only real notes about that trip were that I got the ol' Xterra up to about 8'800 on "bumpy" The Lake Como Road on a Friday, camped Friday Night along the Road, slept in till noon on Saturday (D'oh!), turned back from Blanca at about 5PM with the sun setting and the snow getting deeper. It was my first failed summit attempt, but at the time, I was pretty hesitant of my snow experience. It felt like the right decision to turn back. We were post holing for half a mile, and the wind was picking up. Not a good combo on such a rarely traveled peak
Ben and I Near Blanca in October 2011
I left the Lake Como demoralized and found myself skipping any trip reports about Little Bear, Blanca, or Ellingwood. Any mention of the area just reminds me of cold feet, sunburnt faces, and an unsuccessful summit. *sighhhhh*
So perhaps this was going to be a trip where I could go back and get another chance at achieving one of these intimidating peaks. The forecast for the weekend was snowy across most of the state, so I wasn't sure a summit would be possible with my lack of mountaineering knowledge/equipment/experience. Either way, I knew we could find some fun at The Great Sand Dunes, and Jake mentioned some climbing near Alamosa called Penitente Canyon
Day 1: Snowy Dunes and Big Rocks
We loaded up the Xterra with a rope, our 14er essentials, some non-alcoholic beverages, and hunger for the outdoors. Left Golden at 6AM and made it to 285 in jiffy
We cruised along the cloud covered Sawatch and Sangre Mountains throughout the morning and made it to the impressive Sand Dunes of Colorado by 9:45. The cool 35 degree air greeted us along with snow flakes at the Visitor Center. Looking towards the South, we could see the storm over the Blanca area. *gulp*
Hmmm. That's a bit of snow there!
Instead of heading up to the stormy Lake Como area, we decided to go after a different summit; High Dune(8,650') inside the Sand Dunes Park
I've been to the Dunes dozens of times, but each time I go I keep asking myself, "Where am I?". It looks Tatooine desert with some Lord of the Rings Mountains in the backdrop. And the day we were there it was snowing as well. It made for a pretty surreal setting as we made our way up the slippery slopes
The World's Largest Playground. True Story
It was surprising to see so many people out on the Dunes in the snowy wind. We even met a nice couple from Delaware on the Summit of High Dune that took our picture
Summit of High Dune, 8,650 feet
After a successful summit, we treated ourselves by running down the Dunes as fast as we could. We ran down the slopes with grace as we greeted people going up. It was time for us to get back to the car though. The snow was definitely picking up
We got to the Xterra and decided to head West across the San Luis Valley towards Penitente Canyon for some rock climbing. There didn't seem to be nearly as many clouds to the West as there were on the Sangres. The weather for the next two days was supposed to be sunny, so we had high hopes we could come back to the mountains in a few days and there would be a little less snow
Making our way along the San Luis Valley was quick and uneventful, and had no problem finding Penitente. We drove through the camping area and were just astounded by the boulders and rock formations we found. It was just a rock climbers dream
Finding a camping spot was not a problem, and we quickly setup camp so we could go explore the area
Hiking along the trail that leads to the routes of Penitente had some fun bouldering and exploring
Looking Up At Some Penitente Routes
We look across the Valley to see the storm breaking a bit over The Sangres
Looking East Towards The Sangres
That night we made ourselves a cozy little fire at camp, and reminisced about the day, unraveled the mysteries of The Universe, and learned an important lesson from a certain "Plucky Ducky". We planned on climbing the next morning, and went to sleep eager for the opportunity
Day 2: Big Rocks and Bumpy Roads
We were awoken Sunday morning by the sun in a cloudless sky. We could tell it was going to be a good day
After looking for a spot to setup camp, we found a nice area off the trail that gave us some fun 5.8ish climbing. We soaked in the rays, had some lunch, and treated ourselves with some ice cold, Rocky Mountain, non-alcoholic beverages
Jake Leading A Route
The lazy day rolled on as we explored more of Penitente in search of routes and chairs in the rocks. We were very successful in finding both. At one point we could get a view of the Blanca Group from our wall. It looked like a lot of the snow had melted, and we still had 2 days before we had to be back. Going up Lake Como Road was a suggestion that was thrown out, and we decided that would be our next destination
Our Next Destination
I had been on The Lake Como Road twice before this, and knew that that road was not messin around. My Xterra has taken me up all my 4WD 14ers without a problem, but Lake Como Road is a whoooole different ball game.
"A stock 4WD will not make it and will be damaged. Believe the hype, this is a nasty road."
Making it up to "The Jeepers Creepers Sign" at 8,800' last year was quite an accomplishment, but I found out that the road gets noticeably smoother past this sign.
This year I was lucky enough to have three bright engineers with me to help me navigate the treacherous road. Jake used his vast rock knowledge, Stephanie did all the heavy lifting, and Lauren made sure to keep reminding me "Pin it to win it!"
Our "Crux" of the Road
We finally had to stop on the road because it just got too ridiculous. Along the road we found a nice camping spot at about 10,000' that looks out to the West. After making some dinner, we fell asleep in the tent at about 11
Watching the Sunset From Our Campsite
Day 3: Ascent of Blanca Peak
The initial plan was to be awake at 6 on Monday Morning to head up into the Lake Como Basin. We were tired, and people in our tent were feeling especially chatty the night before, so we slept in a little bit and hit the trail at about 8
We quickly made our way up the road to Lake Como without any problems. After doing so many dry Sawatch Peaks over the last couple of weeks, I hadn't really had a life changing climb since Mt. Sneffles back in August. But when Little Bear poked it's head over the trees to first come into view, my love for the mountains was instantly reignited. It's snowy face towers above Lake Como and just makes the palms sweaty looking at it. I've seen hundreds of pictures and reports on Little Bear, and I plan on saving it for one of my last. It is truly one of the most intimidating peaks I've ever seen
View of Little Bear Across Lake Como
Advancing past Lake Como was quick and there didn't seem to be much snow. A group from Tennessee had already made their way up to The Blue Lakes, so our path through the snow was set out in front of us.
Everything was going smoothly until we passed Crater Lake, the highest lake in the basin. The snow started to get noticeably deeper (5-10") and the steep route made it difficult to navigate up. We made it to the saddle in between Ellingwood and Blanca where we were able to get a little beta from two of the Tennessee hikers in front of us. They said it was exposed, slick, and getting windy AKA conditions only Jake and I would risk going in to get a summit. Stephanie and Lauren decided to head back down to the lower lakes to warm up their feet and get out of the wind.
Jake and I pressed on up the final ridge to Blanca's Summit
Looking Towards Ellingwood from Blanca's Ridge
Crestone Group In The Distance
Jake With Ellingwood in the Bakcground
Making our way up the snowy slope of Blanca was a moment in my life where I truly felt alive. I could look to my left and see a few hundred feet of exposure, look to my right and see snowy chutes leading all the way back to the base of Blanca, and only snowy rocks in front of me. The climbing wasn't too technical, but the exposure and slippery rocks are what made the climb so exhilarating. My hands shook as I felt around the snow covered slopes for exposed rock. Jake at one point leads the route and gives me the beta of "Yeah it's pretty exposed up this way, so as long as you can avoid that, you'll be good." Sounds easy enough!
Pushing Up The Steep Slopes
After a half hour of this sphincter-clenching climbing, we made it to the glorious summit
Summit View to the North
Summit View to the East
It felt great to come back to this area after having to turn around on Blanca last year. My heart was racing while I stared off into the Sangres, not because of physical exertion, but because I felt alive. Coming up was tough and had some sketchy moments, and I knew we still had to descend the slick slopes, which would be even more dangerous. In this moment, the only thing that matters to me is the 6 inches in front of my face and the next step I'm about to make. I'm not thinking about school, the election, work, or anything. This is when I truly reach my "happy place" in the world
26th and 20th Summit!
Looking Back towards Blanca from Crater Lake
Coming down Blanca's summit was so difficult because our momentum was coming downhill, so the snow would only help our momentum and send us sliding down the slopes. Luckily Jake and I were able to carefully navigate our way down the slopes and out of the wind to Crater Lake where we met up with the girls
Descending from the lakes had some great views and we bumped into the four folks from Tennessee who were climbing Blanca as well. We took pictures for each others groups, and wished them a safe journey back home.
Our Group Below Ellingwood and Blanca
We stopped at Lake Como so Jake and I could fly fish for a bit and soak in some of the Sun's rays. Absolutely no luck fishing, but a snowman was made!
Blanca The Snowman with Little Bear in the Back
Our camp welcomed us with another gorgeous sunset. A fire was made, and we reminisced about our recent adventures. Falling asleep after that hike was not a problem for our group
Sunset On Monday
Day 4: Comin' Back Home
Tired, stinky, hungry, we awoke on Tuesday with the plans of headin' on home. Coming back down the Lake Como Road was almost as fun as going up!
Ohhh The Places We've Been
Curious about the "Alien Watch Tower" on the way back along Highway 17, we stopped to check it out. Turns out it costs $5. We figured there was nothing in that old shed that would be worth $5 to look at
Gettin Frisky in Salida
To finish up our awesome adventure, Jake and I were able to do some fly fishing along the South Platte near Fairplay. Perfect way to wrap up our unforgettable Colorado adventure
One Last Stop On The South Platte
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