Sunday, September 12, 2010

Trip Report: Blanca Peak

This past weekend, Leni and I had planned to attempt summiting another 14er in southern Colorado.  Along for the ride this time were our friends, Shawn and Sandra, from right here in Los Alamos.  


When Friday morning hit, we loaded up the truck with all of our gear and the dogs:

Back of truck taken from front seat
The target: Blanca Peak.  Blanca is one of three 14ers in a large chunk of rock that shoots up from the southern Colorado plains, just 15 miles from Alamosa (roughly 3 hours from our home in Los Alamos).  Here's a picture of the rock chunk, officially referred to as the Blanca Massif, as taken from Alamosa:
Peaks from left to right: Ellingwood, Blanca, and Little Bear
This particular 14er was selected by Leni more for its access than the actual hike itself.  From Colorado State Highway 150, the access to all 3 14ers begins with a dirt/rock road called Como Lake Road.  This is at roughly 8,000 feet.

Como Lake, for your reference, is a small but beautiful lake up the mountains at about 12,000 feet.  The road is just over 5 miles long and treacherously rocky.  It is generally accepted that your typical 2WD vehicle will get about a mile up the road before having to park and walk the rest of the way to Como.  A stock 4WD vehcile can get farther, to about 3 miles and 10,200 feet.  Only heavily modified 4WD vehicles, like ours, have a snowball's chance in you-know-where to make it up to the lake.  If you know anything about my husband, you know that this challenge was quite possibly more motivating than a shot at summiting the peak at 14,345.  The idea of conquering the Como Lake Road was the reasoning behind the selection of Blanca.

We got to the trailhead between 3 and 4pm.  I wasn't watching the clock very closely on this trip.  As we started up, the road was littered with cars that had stopped and parked in order to avoid damage or breaking down.  Very quickly, it become rocky and bumpy, but the evergreen trees and aspens were beautiful.

The farther up we got, the fewer and farther between the parked cars were.  Fast approaching were the 3 major obstacles that we'd read about online and seen video of: Jaws 1, Jaws 2, and Jaws 3.  These were what kept most vehicles from completing the drive to Como.  

Jaws 1 was the lowest but the obstacle where we spent the most time.  On the first try over, our 4runner was high-centered with a popped front drive shaft (my terminology...want more info?  Talk to Leni).  Ultimately, Leni winched forward out of it and got the drive shaft back in place and could continue.

Upon his turn, Shawn had a little trouble in his truck too.

Prior to being winched out himself, Shawn got a hole in his transfer case and gear oil was leaking out.  The fix involved duct tape and the understanding that he might not make it too much farther up the trail.  

Next was Jaws 2.  This was much less difficult but the scariest part of the trip for me.  It was a couple rocks to get over.  The big trouble was that to the left of the trail was a cliff.  A wrong move could send a car and driver tumbling down the side of the mountain.  Evidence, posted in the rock by the obstacle, of just such a deadly accident did not make the situation better for me:

A memorial plaque for a gentleman who died here back in 2002
Luckily, Leni made it through Jaws 2 with little to no trouble, thanks to some excellent spotting assistance from Shawn.  Despite how stressful it was for me, I couldn't complain about the view:

Jaws 2 was just scary enough that Shawn wisely decided not to try to take his truck any higher up the road, given the damage his truck had already sustained.  It was getting on into evening at this point.  The new plan was for Leni and I to take our truck the rest of the way up to Como Lake.  Once there, we would drop our gear and I would stay at the campsite with the dogs while Leni went back to Jaws 2 to retrieve Shawn, Sandra, their two dogs, and their gear.  With the sun getting low on the horizon, time was of the essence.  

Leni and I got to Jaws 3 and it was more difficult than Jaws 2 had been but less stressful because there was not near as dangerous the drop-off if one was to tip over.  We were over with just a little rock stacking in just a couple attempts.

From Jaws 3, it was just a little farther to the lake.  When we arrived, most of the campsites were taken by campers who had hiked in earlier in the day.  Everyone was impressed that our truck had made it up that far.  

As planned, Leni dropped the dogs, the gear and me at one of the last spots available and went back for Shawn and Sandra.  There were just minutes of daylight left and my first order of business was to get a fire going.  I had very little wood and there was not enough sunlight left to scavenge for any in the woods.  But I got a little something going, hoping it would be enough to make larger when Leni got back with more wood from Shawn's truck.  After the piddly fire was going, I set up the tent (as well as I could in the dark) and waited for everyone to arrive.  It was probably an hour later when the crew got to camp.  We unloaded, set up the rest of camp, had dinner, and got to bed after discussing what would be "the plan" for Saturday's ascent.


When Leni and I hiked Mt. Lindsey earlier in the summer, we had a 5:30 AM departure because of the elevation and mileage we had to put behind us.  But having driven up as far as 12,000 the day before, this particular Saturday's departure needed not to be so early.  We decided that we'd let the first light wake us and then get on the trail as soon as possible after.  When the sun rose, we got up, ate some breakfast, got our packs and dogs ready, and got on the trail.  It was very cold (probably right at or just below freezing) but we were well-equipped.  

Just as the drive up had been the day before, the trail we hiked was quite rocky.  Within the first 15 or 20 minutes, we got our first close up view of Ellingwood and the saddle leading up to Blanca (right of Ellingwood), which was not yet visible.

Not too much farther up the trail was a beautiful waterfall:

Sandra and Shawn with dogs, Jack and Heidi
When we did Mt. Lindsey in July, it was mostly dirt trail with 2 prominent scree fields.  Blanca, however, was 99% scree field, which began at the waterfall, as you can see in the photo above.  Different from Mt. Lindsey,  however, was the slope.  Most times, the steepness was much more tolerable than Lindsey had been for me.  I could hike for up to a half hour at times before needing a break whereas on Lindsey, there were times when breaks were required after every few steps.

Above Como Lake, there were 4 or 5 other smaller alpine lakes as we rose higher and higher into the stepped basins.  They were beautiful and had very clear water.  

Looking back down on the lakes

Continuing the hike onward and upward
After about 2 hours or so, the trail was steepening and approaching the saddle between Blanca and Ellingwood. This was where hikers destined for different peaks parted ways.  The third peak in the massif, Little Bear, is a tougher hike  It is actually a technical climb and accessed differenly. has rated it as the 3rd most difficult 14er in the country.  I digress.  It is extremely common for hikers to summit Blanca or Ellingwood and then traverse through the saddle to bag the other one in the same day with little to no trouble. The four of us had expressed interest in doing so but didn't want to push oursevles too much and then let ourselves down if we later decided not to do both.  So the plan instead was to summit Blanca (because if you are only going to get one, it might as well be the highest!) and then decide at that point whether or not to go for Ellingwood.

By the time we got to the point just below the Blanca summit, the dogs were struggling.  The terrain was getting steeper as well.

 Although we had taken their packs off them to make things easier, it was clear that the dogs were reaching their limits.  Looking ahead to the Blanca summit, there was going to be a small amount of legit climbing (as opposed to hiking) involved so we decided that it was safest to prevent the dogs from going any higher.  We left our two with Shawn and Sandra and Leni and I proceeded to the summit alone.

Us on the summit with the Iron Nipple (left) and Mt. Lindsey (right) behind us
After a few minutes on the summit and signing the register, we climbed back down to hold onto the dogs so that Sandra and Shawn could make their way to and from the summit.

At this point, we decided that, given the broken toenails and split paw pads of the dogs, our bid for Ellingwood was not a good idea.  No one regretted it and it was nice to make the decision ourselves before things got worse.  Part of me was relieved because the traverse over to Ellingwood from Blanca looked rough.

Check out that knife-edge ridge on Ellingwood!
Blanca actually had a similar knife-edge ridge that we got somewhat close to on the way down.  Keeping the dogs away from it was a constant battle.  The journey down was somewhat uneventful although I think we may have taken a couple more breaks.  Those scree fields wreck havoc on the body in both directions but especially while going down.  We all needed the breaks, dogs included!

Sierra and Lucy resting with Jack back behind them
Leni pointing back toward Blanca Peak
After one more look back at Blanca, we pressed on back down the trail and before long, it was out of site.  We again passed those beautiful lakes.  Since so much of the trail was scree, the lakes were a welcomed landmark and reminder of how close we were getting back to our tents.

We returned to our campsite about 3:30 PM and settled down for a little rest before thinking about dinner.

Beautiful spot to camp
We enjoyed a dinner of tacos and some time around the fire for a couple hours before turning in to bed.  


On Sunday morning, we got up, had breakfast and packed up.  The goal was to get all the gear from both couples into our 4runner so that we could make one trip down to Jaws 2 to retrieve Shawn's truck.  Mission accomplished!  All the gear fit and Leni drove the mile (or so) down while Shawn, Sandra, and I walked with the dogs.  Since the trail was rough and rocky, we were always close to each other due to the fact that the truck couldn't move too swiftly.  We arrived at Jaws 2, got over it, and transfered Shawn and Sandra's stuff into their truck and continued down the trail.  Knowing the trouble it had caused on Friday, we were extra careful with the routes we selected in traversing over Jaws 1 and everyone made it over without incident.  

The damage to Shawn's transfer case was such that he could complete this slow drive down the Como Lake Road but would not be able to get up to highway speed once back on paved roads.  This being the case, we left them at the bottom of the dirt road and Leni and I drove the 15 miles into Alamosa for some needed items to fix the truck.  Or at least fix it enough :)  We made it back in about an hour and I joined Sandra in sitting to watch the guys work on the truck.

Shawn laying under and working on the truck
After 30 or 40 minutes, we were on the road with no trouble.  We caravaned together most of the way home but got separated at some point with only about a half hour left to go in the drive.  Sandra texted me later to let me know that they had gotten home safely with no leaks.  

I don't have a desire to ever make an attempt on Little Bear but I would like to go back and try for Ellingwood.  I won't take the dogs though.  The terrain is far too harsh for their feet.  I guess it is just another excuse to go back to the same area.  We are so blessed to have such wonderful mountains so close to our home!


Maggie: 2      Attempted 14ers: 0

Keep It Real!


  1. So proud to see you wearing helmets.

  2. Looks like another awesome weekend! The drive up did sound like a lot of fun :-)