Peak(s):  Blanca Peak  -  14,345 feet
Ellingwood Point  -  14,042 feet
Little Bear Peak  -  14,037 feet
Date Posted:  07/07/2020
Date Climbed:   07/03/2020
Author:  calebmatteson
 Unexpected Courage on the Little Bear-Blanca Traverse  

Little Bear-Blanca Traverse and Ellingwood Peak Trip Report: Unexpected Courage on the Little Bear-Blanca Traverse

Preparation and Approach to Lake Como

We parked the car very early into the Lake Como Road drive. The road, being arguably the hardest 4wd road in Colorado, gave me certain strong apprehensions. I felt my logic straightforward: the only car I would feel comfortable driving up that hellish road would be someone else’s. To the mild chagrin of my climbing partners, this added a few extra miles to the round-trip. Anyhow we parked at Lake Como Road around 3:00 PM and began our hike. The team consisted of myself: Caleb [author], and my two compatriots each named Alex. For simplicity’s sake each will be referred to by their surnames. Granquist is an excellent mountaineer who I’ve climbed with extensively. I trust that guy more than I trust myself; he’s saved my life a few times out here. Lawson I didn’t personally know, but he had Granquist’s endorsement so I felt comfortable bringing him along. A Californian, Lawson quickly proved himself a capable climber in our native Rocky Mountains. Fun fact: he was at sea level in San Diego two days before this trip.

We made quick progress on Lake Como Road with our overnight packs; we passed the abandoned Jeep Cherokee and other landmarks, arriving at Lake Como at 6:00 PM. We did not track the route via GPS but from our maps we estimated roughly an 10.5 mile approach with ~3,700 feet of elevation difference. Here finally at Lake Como we were greeted by a welcoming swarm of mosquitoes, Fourth of July campers and a beautiful view of the cliffs that guard the Blanca massif. We made camp at one of the established sites that were spread around the lake. After filtering water and having a dinner of fig bars and sausage, we hit the sleeping bags early at 8:30 PM. Our bedtime was necessitated to avoid the mosquito swarm but more importantly to try to maximize whatever meager sleep awaited us before the upcoming big day. With alarms set for 4:30 AM we rested.

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View of the Blanca Massif from the highway.
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Granquist at the Jeep Cherokee. Tried to start the car; keys were still in it.
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Base camp and bagel (I think that's what Granquist is eating) at Lake Como.
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Mosquito Glamour Shot featuring Granquist.

Climbing Little Bear

We managed to be on trail by 4:45 AM and at the base of the gully leading towards the Little Bear ridge by 5:00 AM. The gully proved to be an effective warm-up for the rockfall we would be wary of the rest of the climb. Our group spread out at the entrance to the gully: Lawson climbing up at left, myself at center and Granquist at right. The gully tapered as it rose towards the ridgeline and eventually we were forced into a single file. We kept maybe 30 meters between each climber, as a preventative measure against death by loose rock. The geological makeup of the gully was dominated by larger and more stable rock at the bottom and the granite was progressively more rotten as we ascended. It was easy to mitigate however: the sides of the gully were solid and had solid holds. We reached the top of the gully as the sun was coming up over the mountains. As we drank our Gatorade and ate our breakfast we enjoyed some pink ridgelines: alpenglow at its finest.

The traverse over to the hourglass of Little Bear was well-cairned and rather uneventful. It was standard class two walk on the side of the Little Bear ridge with excellent views of the surrounding basin. We couldn’t see the hourglass at first but as we wrapped our way around the ridge the distinctive dark rock came into sight. I found it to look more like an upside-down delta than an hourglass, but it was unmistakable nonetheless. We arrived at the base of the hourglass early enough such that we were the first climbers of the day, our arrival at 7:00 AM. Maybe 10 minutes behind us was a group of two, the second team of climbers for the day: Jason and Jill. We opted to stay at the bottom of the hourglass and coordinate our climb with them. In coordination, we hoped to help mitigate the rockfall danger that makes the hourglass feature especially famous. We would climb a portion and give the pair of climbers a shout when we hit the top of the pitch, such that there was only one group of climbers at any given time in the hourglass. The feature was incredibly fun and a great warm-up for the climbing we’d experience later. I’d say it was maybe 4 or 5 pitches of class 4 and maybe low class 5 climbing over smooth granite. No especially fancy moves or interesting sections. Water in the center of the route limited our options but the climb remained altogether arguably trivial. The rope and anchor of the hourglass, documented in almost all trip reports, appeared bomber to my inspections. Appearances however have a tendency to be deceiving and we remained wary. My team and I opted to keep things spicy and free climb the route with little assistance from the rope. There were not many loose rocks per say, but whenever one was loosed it would tumble down the entire length of the hourglass. If there were more climbers on the route, and if they failed to coordinate, I could easily see how someone could get brained by a small loose boulder. After the hourglass there was a small, maybe 10 meter, class four pitch in a chimney. Afterwards it was a simple class 2 or 3 scramble to the summit. We made summit of Little Bear at 7:45 AM and began to acquaint ourselves with the group that came in right behind us: Jason and Jill. They told us that they also intended on doing the Little Bear-Blanca Traverse and so we decided to stick together on the ridge; an exquisite impromptu team. Jason’s experience and confidence became legendary while Jill’s positive mindset helped keep the team in high spirits.

Looking over at the connecting ridge and the behemoth Blanca, it was certainly stunning. More than a little nerve-wracking as well. Examining the route from my home desktop was one thing, but to see the route in real life was incomparable. I traced out the ridgeline with my hand in the air and felt my heart beat in my chest. If any member of my team died on this climb, it would be my fault—I suggested the route, I brought them here. It was a sobering thought. I just had to trust we were up for the challenge.

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Lawson climbing the scree at the base of the Little Bear gully. The sides proved bomber.
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Granquist at the top of the gully, looking strong.
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The boys beginning our hike over to the hourglass from the top of the gully.
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At the base of the hourglass climb, looking up. The rope is pictured. In reality, it was maybe 4 ropes each fisherman-knotted together.
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Towards the top of the hourglass.
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Lawson and Granquist in the chimney right before the summit. Looking stoked.
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The Little Bear-Blanca ridgeline, from Little Bear.

Little Bear-Blanca Traverse

We walked off of the north edge of Little Bear into the veritable void. To make it through the route, it was imperative to focus like I had never had to focus before. One had to put on blinders to every part of the route except for the moves and rocks immediately ahead of them. Disregard the exposure, keep finding the next hold, and execute the move. Then onto the next.

The downclimb from the summit to the ridge is considered by some to be the crux of the route. I would say that it is indeed the longest portion of difficult class 4-5 moves on the route, with nowhere to rest comfortably. Pure stress until we reached the ridge. By far the most important part of climbing here was the mental game. The downclimb was made easier for me; I stand at 6’2” and long reach was vital for a few portions. My two partners, Lawson and Granquist have a few inches on me (yes they are huge) and the beta I gave as the lead climber here suited them well. Needless to say, however, the downclimb was in my opinion the hardest portion of moves of the whole route. The exposure wasn’t as horrible as it would soon become, but still enough to seriously freak me out.

After the downclimb from Little Bear, the rest of the route seemed relatively repetitive, for a lack of a better word. There were maybe three canonical pitches that we encountered often. First, and most frightening, was a traversing climb around a gendarme or other interfering feature. It involved climbing around an obstacle on the ridgeline, done in lieu of climbing over. Although these were usually short pitches, no more than twenty feet, the exposure was nuts: there was simply nothing under our feet. It was a straight two-thousand foot fall to the bottom of the valley. The holds for these moves were bomber but harder to find, not as obvious as the other easier class four sections. It was sometimes hard to peer around corners. Needless to say we tested every hold before trusting it, and I did my best to never commit more than ¼ of my weight to any hold. Jason lead with vigor, smiling and unbothered as the rest of us made peace with God before we committed to the first hold. We soon learned that Jason was a pure exposure beast and an excellent climber; arguably the best I’ve ever been with.

Second and equally frightening were the “catwalk” sections. These altogether simple portions of the route involved at worst a class two move, and at the most simple were walkable. The issue was that at portions along the catwalk our shoulders were more broad than the knife-edge we were standing on. It was hard to convince oneself that the rock on these portions was not rotten. Any ridge that narrow has to be heavily eroded. There had to be gaps, overhangs and other features that could break off with the slightest weight. Ignoring this horrible reality, I encountered only a few wobbly rocks with many solid alternatives. By the end I was brave enough to simply walk across. Jason nearly skipped across while the rest of the team, including myself, started off in a bear crawl and eventually gained the numbness necessary to walk. Without the exposure these sections would almost be trivial.

Third were the portions of the climb in which we were forced to climb and immediately downclimb a tower. These were the seemingly safest portions of the route; it was easier and more natural to ignore exposure while simply ascending, and the downclimbs proved more often than not to be trivial. It was quite fun to stand on top of these towers like one of those classic photos you see of the climbers of old. Rest on top of these towers proved vital as well—there was always at least a little space on top of these gendarmes, and it was a good place to rest/water/snack. Most importantly it gave one a moment to reset one's mental game for the next series of challenges.

The simplest portion of the route was a simple skree/class three pitch as we winded around the first tower of Blanca towards the end of the route. It was a walk, and we soon missed the exposure.

Both myself and my partners agreed that the route appeared to simplify as we went along. It may have been simply a forced adaptation to our circumstances, but nonetheless was refreshing. The risks along the entire route were very real however; I remember Lawson dropped his Nalgene water bottle near Captain Bivwacky and the bottle shattered very visibly below us. I personally have dropped many a Nalgene and never once have I seen a Nalgene shatter, much less to that extent. It was hard to avoid seeing it as prophetic, and it was a harsh reminder of the serious nature of the route. One rotten rock in almost any section of the route would spell death. But through encouragement, excellent teamwork, and exquisite climbing we were able to make it through to Blanca. We felt like real climbers. At the top of Blanca we shared a collective sigh of relief but, ambivalently, there was also a strong feeling of nostalgia that the traverse was now over. I almost didn’t want it to end. It was the type of route so epic that even with the danger, the beauty and awesomeness made it worth it a thousand times over. We made the summit of Blanca at 11:00 AM; it took us roughly three hours to make the traverse, going slowly and carefully.

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Granquist followed by Lawson making some technical moves on the downclimb from Little Bear to the ridgeline.
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Towards the end of the downclimb. Jill (very tiny) is almost at the ridge.
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Jason skirting a tower and grinning like a madman, example of canonical scary pitch one. Look at that drop; straight to the valley floor.
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I was too scared to take out my phone on any of the truly terrifying catwalks, but here is an example of a milder one with Granquist crushing it. Canonical scary pitch two.
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Jason and Jill resting on a tower; example of scary canonical pitch number three.
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At the end of the climb, pictured are Granquist and myself.

From Blanca to Ellingwood

Feeling strong at the top of Blanca, we decided to swing over the saddle and hit Ellingwood Peak. We stuck on the ridgeline and managed only a few class four moves which now were barely a thought. Hell had been raised merely a few hours ago; we could stand the heat. We made the summit of Ellingwood at 12:30 PM, which was maybe an hour and fifteen minutes from when we left the summit of Blanca. The views of the connecting ridge here too were stunning. Noting darker clouds rolling in from the north, we took a few pictures at the summit of Ellingwood and began skirting down the skree towards the valley floor.

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Blanca and Little Bear from Ellingwood Summit.

Descent from Ellingwood and Exit

It started raining when we made it to the base of Blanca and Ellingwood and we tried warning a few teams that were just starting their ascent. Convinced they could move quickly, they continued their climbs. To affirm our fears thunderstorms soon followed the rain—by the time we had hit the first lakes in the basin thunder was rolling across the entire valley. I hope the teams still up on Blanca and Ellingwood were able to weather the storm. We reached our tents at about 3:00 PM. By that time the storm had rained enough to cause a small river to go through the dead center of my tent. All of my gear: my sleeping bag, pad, clothes, were all soaked through. We were forced to extend our day and hike out that night. Yet again I was so glad that I was with climbers strong enough to adapt. We reached the car by 7:30 PM and I drove us back to Denver, arriving at 1:00 AM. One of the longest and best days of my life.

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Tired and rainy, right before we got back to camp. Last picture of the day.



Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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 Comments or Questions
TomPierce
Well done, well written
07/07/2020 08:48
Caleb & team,

Well done, congrats! Really enjoyed your report and writing style,

-Tom


laforge296

Congratulations!
07/09/2020 11:47
Congratulations on this amazing accomplishment. Thank You for the exceptional trip report.

- Brent


Barb1957
4WD
07/15/2020 09:14
If you have a 4 wheel drive do you think you can drive to Lake Como?


jkdavis15
Best Climb Yet!
07/15/2020 11:15
It was an unexpected pleasure to meet up and climb with such a fun group. Thanks for helping me relive it with the well written report and photos


artnpen
Excellent Work
07/16/2020 13:27
Great report on what looks like a great trip!
Congrats


mountainmanic
Small World
07/21/2020 14:43
Nice write up! What a day! You guys all crushed it!

Tell Alex I said Hi from his neighbor, Nick.



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