Blanca Peak and Ellingwood Point
Blanca Peak is the majesty of the southern Sangre de Cristo mountains (within Colorado state), and is the 4th highest mountain in the entire state. Ellingwood Point is a close neighbour and the ridge hike between the two mountains offer a decent challenge. After some debate whether Ellingwood Point is merely a spur of Blanca (the distance is only 0,5 mile between the two peaks), Ellingwood Point is now safely considered a fourteener with sufficient rise (342 feet) and is ranked as the 42nd highest mountain in Colorado.
Blanca Peak has the third highest primary factor in the Colorado rockies, with a minimum drop of 5326 feet before you can climb a higher mountain. Only Mt. Elbert (of course) and Pikes Peak have a higher rise.
Although various climbing routes to Blanca exists, the common approach is from lake Como. Even if the NW side of Blanca looks steep and scary, hiking up is easy and there is no exposure. The cairned trail up to Blanca is easier than the (unmarked) trail up to Ellingwood, which runs up talus and scree.
Note: Class ratings are in reference to YDS (Yosemite Decimal System).
For simplicity, this page assumes that both peaks is climbed on the same trip. The hike from lake Como to Crater lake is class 1. The route up to Ellingwood Point is not described in any guide books, and is ranked as class 3. The descent from Ellingwood Point towards the Ellingwood - Blanca basin is class 2+. The ridge hike up to Blanca is class 2.
Lake Como - Ellingwood Point - Blanca Peak (summer/autumn)
From Alamosa, follow highway 160 eastbound for approx. 26 miles. Exit northbound on highway 150 (towards the Great Sand Dunes National Monument) and follow this road for 3 miles. Exit right onto a dirt road which is the official lake Como trailhead.
The dirt road is officially known as the toughest road in Colorado, and your concern for the car will determine where you want to park. In general, a 4WD vehicle should be able to drive a mile or two before the road becomes downright ugly. If you make it through a rough section of loose rock and adult obstacles just after the first (short) downhill on the road, your chances of making it to the top of the switchbacks are good. After the switchbacks, the jeep road (overstatement) crosses the Holbrook creek and from here on to lake Como, you're still driving only because that's what you came here to do. There should be no misunderstanding about the road after checking out the following web pages:
Highway 150/Lake Como - Crater Lake
You've parked somewhere between highway 150 and Lake Como, and I assume you plan to camp by the lake. Although it is very doable for fit hikers to hike Blanca Peak, Ellingwood Point or Little Bear Peak from highway 150 and be back down the same day, spending the night up at the lake is the common approach. Hike the remaining distance up to lake Como (11,740 feet) and find campsite either by the lake, or continue up to a campsite area just a little further east (follow the jeep road up to approx. 11,900 feet, next to the gully leading to the Little Bear Peak ridge)
From your campsite, follow the quite visible pack trail all the way to Crater Lake. From here, you have Ellingwood Point up to your left, Blanca Peak up to your right, and the Ellingwood-Blanca saddle straight ahead.
Ellingwood Point up a class 3 couloir
From Crater Lake, you should easily see a distinct couloir that runs up towards Ellingwood Point and tops out on the ridge, just below the summit's west side. The beginning of the couloir is a little steep and awkward (class 3) and is easier in dry conditions than in wet. The couloir gradually loses depth and the upper section is a talus slope, where one can climb on solid rock on the couloir's left hand side. From the top of the couloir, a very short class 3 section must be climbed before you are on the summit ridge, with the summit nearby. This route is not described in any of the guidebooks referenced above. Which is quite strange, as many will find this route much better than the standard (unmarked) talus/scree slope up to the summit.
Down from Ellingwood Point on the class 2+ talus slope
From the summit, head east towards the second (lower) summit and pick up a vague trail that runs down Ellingwood's south slopes. We could not find any cairns down this route, but the more you head in the direction of the Ellingwood- Blanca saddle, the safer you are. If you plan to return to camp, find the shortest and safest route down. If you plan to continue towards Blanca Peak, maintain your elevation and aim for the saddle.
Up Blanca Peak on the regular trail
The Blanca trail runs from Crater Lake and is cairned upwards. It is not really a trail since this is a large boulderfield, but you should be able to follow it upwards. After the first steep section (where the trail switchbacks), at least two cairned routes take you to the saddle. The rightmost "trail" have the most direct approach, taking you high onto the saddle, while the leftmost trail takes you to the saddle's lowest point. From the saddle, the hike up to Blanca is class 2/2+ if you stay away from the ridge drop. If you want to hike alongside the ridge drop, you have some class 3 moves ahead of you, along with some solid exposure. Hike down the same way you went up.
The mission for this project was for Petter to collect fourteener #52, #53 and #54 (Little Bear, Ellingwood Point and Mt. Lindsey). Petter had already climbed Blanca Peak, so this would be his second visit on the peak. With 54 fourteeners, he would be seeded in next year's Colorado Mountain Club's lottery for a visit to Culebra Peak. The 55th and last fourteener, residing on private property. I was glad for the opportunity to come along and test my psyche in rough nature.
I had some concerns about acute mountain sickness, which I never managed to escape from on earlier trips to the rockies. But Petter was convinced that I must have done something wrong earlier, and it would turn out good this time. To be on the safe side, I started taking Diamox a few days before we hit the mountains. Little Bear Peak, our first goal, also caused a few concerns in my dreams. Some ranked Little Bear as the most dangerous fourteener of all, due to the falling rock hazard in the "Hourglass" - a funnel where rocks accelerate and do harm when hitting people. Technically, this mountain was a class 4 mountain. I assumed that I would be able to cope with the technical part, and the rest would be up to fate.
We stayed a couple of nights just outside Denver before we headed towards the Sangres. Bear Peak in Boulder (8461'/2579m) was the only altitude preparation I got before we headed up to Lake Como. We parked the Suzuki 4WD just after the first downhill on the Lake Como road. I was more than happy to walk the remaining distance. Even with a heavy backpack. The road was terrible. On top of the switchbacks, a modified Jeep Wrangler with two guys from Arizona caught up with us. This car looked like it was eating the road, and I had never seen driving like this before. After crossing the Holbrook creek, we caught up with them, as they were figuring out how to advance over the large cliffs that came out of the road. "Jaws", as these obstacles are called among the 4WD enthusiasts. I don't know if this point was "Jaws I" or "Jaws II", but I couldn't understand how they would get the car up.
The road never seemed to end, but finally we made it to Lake Como and settled a campsite a little higher up in the valley. Further down we could hear the roar of the Jeep Wrangler arriving the lake. In addition to this Jeep, three other vehicles had made it to the lake. All Jeeps, two of them Cherokees. And probably modified for high clearance, all of them. We arrived our campsite just over 4 hours after we parked the car. I "collapsed" at the campsite, as the altitude sickness had set in at approx. 3000m. When the tent was up, I crawled into my sleeping bag, incapabable of digesting food or making conversation.
5:30AM the next morning, Petter woke me up and wondered if I was ready to climb Little Bear. To my suprise, the headache was gone, but I was a little worried about climbing higher so soon. Fortunately, Charlie and Dan in the neighbour campsite was also heading to Little Bear, so Petter joined their team. When Petter returned to the camp 11:30AM, after a successful climb on Little Bear, I was feeling all better. Petter told me the story about his backpack that was hit by a rock and fell 400 feet. Both his camera and GPS survived the fall. Amazingly enough. In the meantime, I had grown restless and wanted to hike. When he returned I asked he was up for Ellingwood, and after a short meal, we were on our way to Ellingwood Point.
We expected to find a cairned route to Ellingwood, but found none. Instead, we noticed a distinct couloir that seem to lead nearly all the way to the top, and decided that it should be explored. After the initial section where climbing was required, we could walk without handholds all the way to the ridge, just below Ellingwood Point summit. After a short section of minor scrambling, Petter celebrated his second fourteener in a day, and I could cherish my first on this trip. We had also problems finding the regular trail down. Every time we thought we were on the trail, we lost it. We considered doing Blanca Peak, once being this high, but I voted no. The headache had come back and I was longing for the sleeping bag. This time, I recovered in a few hours, and things were looking better. I had for sure grown custom to life at 3600m. Total hiking time up and down Ellingwood was 4,5 hours.
The next morning, we once again hiked into the valley and climbed Blanca Peak. The north slopes of Blanca had scared me when I watched Blanca from Ellingwood, but on closer contact, there were no scary parts at all. Another example of how your eyes can play tricks on you. We stayed on the ridge all the way up and down, enjoying the view of the steep sides down to Huerfano valley. The view from Blanca was superb. It was interesting to watch the Little Bear - Blanca ridge, which I had heard so much about. We hiked Blanca Peak up and down in 4,5 hours. After hiking Blanca, we broke camp and headed down the endless Lake Como road. On the way down we were passed by a jogger who apparently had ran up and down all three summits, including the entire Lake Como road. In 8 hours, total. That's fast. Our next stop would be Mt. Lindsey, and to get there, we would have to drive the long way to Huerfano valley trailhead.
Next hike: Mt. Lindsey, 4280m
Move cursor to read notes, and click on the images to see full version.
Some of the thumbnails may have been cropped to fit the format
Views, The Lake Como road and the campsite