Blanca Peak (NF) and Ellingwood with descent of NW Ridge, Colorado
Participants: Gary and Lynn Clark
Blanca and Ellingwood, although being some of the closest 14ers to Los
Alamos, remained on our "unticked" list. I started hearing about the North
Face route on Blanca several years ago, and this provided the motivation to
go back to the area. This time we wouldn't have to endure the Lake Como
four-wheel drive road that just about destroyed our vehicle the last time
we visited the range, since the approach to the North Face is via Huerfano
Creek to the North.
We finished the substantial driving approach late on the 3rd, after a
misadventure regarding a vehicle breakdown north of Questa. There are
times a cell phone pays for itself, and this was one. We called the people
who were coming down from Denver to meet us for the climb, and arranged (1)
for them to come rescue us; (2) for a wrecker to come get our van, and (3)
for a garage in Alamosa to take ownership of it and begin repairs while we
were on the climb.
The hike into the Huerfano basin was relatively short but adventurous,
since the trail is poorly developed. We did a substantial creek crossing,
then quickly lost the 'trail' and bushwhacked most of the way to the head
of the Huerfano basin, to camp close to the base of the North Face. The
weather was wet. Next morning dawned partly cloudy, and we began the
approach through fog and low clouds, which persisted the entire day. We
did the direct approach to the face: up a short snow couloir onto a rock
band that was tricky but did not require a rope, then directly up snow
slopes to the toe of the indistinct buttress where the route starts. An
easier but longer approach goes up the valley to the west, then traverses
back to the base of the face. This would avoid the first rock bands.
Gaining the base of the face around 6:30, we quickly discovered the nature
of the climb - exposed, tricky, but never difficult climbing on marginal
rock with very few cracks for protection or anchors. We mostly climbed
simultaneously - not by choice, but because this is about all you can do
when you can't put in an anchor. Sometimes we climbed for more than an
hour at a time, occasionally finding a point of protection, until finally
reaching a decent belay spot where I would stop to bring up Lynn and
collect the gear. We had no real route description, just a dotted line
drawn on a photo of the face in Dawson's book. As he predicted, we ran
into some "5.6 up there somewhere". The "somewhere" was about half way up
the face. This was actually the best part of the climb - a good belay
stance below a steep dihedral that afforded reasonable protection.
Unfortunately, it was over quickly (about 40'), then it was back to picking
our way up the rather amorphous face on 4th and lower 5th class rock for
many hundreds of feet. I realized we had it was almost over when I looked
up to see a dog peering over the edge at me! We arrived on the West Ridge
to an amazing site - on the order of 40 people strung out on the regular
route that comes up from Lake Como to the SW.
Resting briefly on the ridge while answering the predictable questions from
passers-by, we concluded that it would be irresponsible to go on to the
summit, since the descent was clearly going to take a very long time, and
the weather pattern was for serious thunderstorms by mid afternoon. We
kept gazing up at the summit while we refueled, and finally said, "to hell
with it, let's be irresponsible". We left everything behind and went to
the summit and back in about 30 minutes, the main difficulty being finding
opportunities to pass the throngs of people, several of whom told us this
was their first mountain.
Now came the crux of the trip: the descent. The most logical choice seemed
to be the NE Ridge, but Dawson's book advised against this. He recommended
going over the top of Ellingwood, then down its NW Ridge, which had the
added benefit of bagging two 14er summits. This we did, which went quickly
and without incident until we neared the saddle NW of Ellingwood. Here
there is a most improbable looking down-climb, with no evidence of rappel
anchors. We wasted an hour looking for an alternative as it began to
lightly rain, then finally committed to down-climbing it 5th class - the
leader placing pro for the second. As usually is the case, it turned out
to be "not so bad", and we reached the saddle in about 4 pitches.
The descent from the saddle looked hideous. It WAS hideous. Having no
choice, we continued down-climbing many hundreds of feet, placing pro where
possible. The climbing was not difficult, but it was loose, tricky, and
horribly exposed. Finally a "point of no return" was reached, where
downclimbing wasn't reasonable, and a rappell would take us where we
wouldn't be able to reclimb if if turned out to be a dead end. We had only
a single 50m rope. We had planned to depend on our trip partner's rope,
but they had turned back at the base of the face early in the morning,
wisely deducing that one of them did not have sufficient experience for the
Finding anchors was difficult, and we left a major array of hardware behind
in the three rappells that finally got us to easier ground, and then the
snow. We kicked steps down steep snow, very happy we'd brought axes. In
fact, my steps collapsed at one point and I ended up hanging from the axe
head, supported by the shaft that I had been thrusting full-length with
Our friends had come up from camp with food and water to meet us at the
base of the descent. We just had time to hike back to the tents and crawl
in before the intermittent rain turned into a downpour and lightning show
that lasted until well after dark. Had this storm begun earlier in the day,
we'd have been toast.
Grade IV, 5.6 Alpine. 4:00p wakeup, summit Blanca 1:00p, summit Ellingwood
2:15p, back to camp 7:30p.
The route is a fine adventure
if all members have solid alpine skills - despite the moderate
technical rating (IV, 5.6), you will be making tricky moves with
little or no protection on poor rock, where every hold must be
tested (and sometimes created). If one person falls, both will
take huge falls.
Helmets are mandatory. Even if
you don't knock rocks off, the rope will. Don't think of going
on the face if someone is already on it.
A small rack (10-15 pieces)
suffices, since there aren't many cracks, anyway.
Use mountain boots so you can
kick the holds to test them. Rock shoes would be dangerous.
The route is committing. The
weather did not clear with the morning sun, and we would
probably have bailed off after a pitch or two had descent seemed
Reaching the top of the route
is about half the effort and time. On a bad weather day,
consider bailing to the Lake Como side, where you could bivouac
and maybe even beg some food from the people camped there. The
next day you could climb Ellingwood and finish the long descent
to the North.