| Blanca via Gash Ridge
I began this climb on Saturday, June 23. My only set objective was to climb Blanca via Gash Ridge. Beyond that, I had no firm plans. This was actually a huge mistake. More on that later.
I arrived at the Lily Lake trail head at perhaps 2pm. My plan at that point was to simply start hiking and see how far I could get before it got dark. The trail back into the basin is scenic and well defined; a few stream hops and I was at treeline (in the vicinity of some old mining equipment) looking up at the first section of elevation gain in the ascent. This is where most people elect to to camp before attempting this climb. At that point, I wasn't sold on the Ellingwood North Ridge as a descent route. I wasn't sure I would be passing back thru this area, so I was obliged to begin the climb with a full pack; tent, down bag, pad, stove, everything.
The first stage of the climb is a scramble up to the top of an obvious, unnamed subpeak which lies to the east of Blanca's summit. Some route descriptions have you hiking to the saddle to the east of this highpoint and then ascending it's east ridge, but this would have required crossing perhaps a half-mile of snow which was posthole -soft in the afternoon sun. I elected to scramble up the north ridge. This was a great climb on solid rock, completely snow-free.
As I topped out this sub-peak, I remember thinking I was making great time. The timestamp on my photos from here say it was 7:30. I estimated I had perhaps 90 minutes of sunlight remaining. I thought perhaps I could top out Blanca that evening and bivvy on the summit. This was of course laughably optimistic. Gash Ridge is a difficult route. It has it's share of loose rock and hard moves. It requires careful, methodical climbing to be done safely. As I moved along, the impairment of the weight of all the gear in my pack became more and more apparent in my mind. And I knew the crux was still ahead of me. I began to wonder if it would even be possible for me to do the last steep climbing section of the route with this weight. As I started to lose the daylight, I considered my options. Besides being tricky, this route is also very committing . Without the ability to rappel (I didn't bring a rope) escape from the ridge appeared impossible. I had a solid hour of forward progress that would likely take twice as long to undo by headlamp if I decided to retreat. And as I dropped into the notch just before the Gash, the sun disappeared completely and I decided moving forward was no longer wise. As it happens, this notch, perhaps 40 yards east of the Gash proper, is probably the best spot on the whole ridge in which to bivouac. The most important feature was actually a patch of snow, the top of a longcouloir dropping to the south, which I could melt for water. I moved some rocks around and even managed to get my tent up. I cooked some food, took some long-exposure photos, tried to sleep on the sharp, broken rocks. (One of which put a hole in the floor of my tent. I'm glad I ditched my thermarest in the car.) It was a long, lonely night. But the weather was completely clear, and aside from some wind which came up at about 2am, it stayed mild.
I was up at perhaps six, but I took my time packing up my things; I wanted as much light as possible for the climbing ahead of me. The short section of climbing out of my bivvy notch, directly preceding the Gash, which had stymied me the previous evening proved relatively simple to overcome in direct sun. It is accurate that the crux of the route is the climb down into the Gash, but only because it's a downclimb . The pitons on which people rappel are simple to find on a ramp on climber-left from the ridge, but in my opinion you're better off simply doing the 3 or 4-move downclimb. However, I would still recommend rappel gear on this route if you plan on descending the Ellingwood North Ridge route.
From the Gash, the climbing up to Blanca summit was classic 4th class occasional 5.0 jugging. The route is obvious (stick to the ridge) and the rock tends to be solid, much more so than on the flat ridge below/behind. If there were a runner-up for the crux, it would be a 30' section of face moves about half-way up between the Gash and the summit. It may be possible to bypass this by leaving the ridge early and moving out onto the face to climber-left, but you would be off route in this man's opinion.
I topped out at 7:30am. On the summit, I made breakfast, hot cocoa, melted water, extensively photographed a marmot keenly interested in my cream of wheat. It became clear that the Little Bear traverse was not in the cards, since there didn't seem to be an easy way to get back to the Huerfano river basin from that direction. In fact, the only reasonable descent seemed to be the Ellingwood North Ridge. So I decided to traverse to Ellingwood Point. This proved strenuous, but after my ascent route, it was child's play in terms of difficulty. At this point in the season, it did require a couple of snowfield crossings, on which it would have been nice to have crampons. (I did have my axe.)
The downclimb of Ellingwood North Ridge was long and tedious. I took my time because I was starting to feel fatigued, and it took me close to two hours to descend to the saddle. Once there, I was able to find four sets of rappel anchors, but the supposed downclimb eluded me completely. I searched for something like 90 minutes, but I was never able to locate anything I was remotely close to comfortable downclimbing. As I searched, storm clouds started to build in the Lily Lake basin. At the first sign of lightning, I took the only option that seemed remotely reasonable; I descended from the saddle into the drainage to the west. This was directly away from thetrail head and my car, but with the weather, I didn't see any other option. At the time, I had no idea what this drainage was or where it would take me. It turns out it was the valley containing the Zapata Lake trail. I hiked it out to that trail head (it took four hours or so) then caught a ride with some very nice people to the Sand Dunes ranger station. From there, I was able to call my girlfriend (a saint) who drove down from Boulder, picked me up at two in the morning, and drove me back around to the Lily Lake trail head and my car.
1) Have a plan. Even when improvising, evaluate all options to their conclusion. No more 'I'll get to the top, then see what happens.'
2) Carrying your phone and a credit card is probably worth the weight if there is any chance at all you'll end up somewhere other than where you started. Also, if you're like me and you have a cell phone, consider writing down a few key phone numbers and putting them in your first aid kit. When I got to the ranger station, I discovered I didn't even know my own girlfriend's phone number.
3) It may have been possible, from the Ellingwood North Ridge saddle, to ascend to point 13,618, then do a high traverse around to the area of California Peak and descend from there. The only map I had was the USGS Blanca Peak quad, which actually cuts off a portion of this route. Given the weather, I probably wouldn't have attempted it, but having a more complete map would have at least allowed for a more informed decision.
4) A half rope and my harness would have only been a few more pounds.
View my full flickr set from the trip here:
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):