Checking boxes en route to a Blanca winter ascent

Route Stats:
Route: Started at 8800’ on Lake Como road and snowshoed up to camp overnight at the Lake Como Shack (Casa de Como as Jamie calls it) at 11,640’. The next morning we followed the Holbrook creek summer trail and continued above Blue lakes avoiding steep gullies and traveling on rock bands whenever we could and were alert while traversing slopes holding any snow cover of significance. We descended almost the same route to the shack, packed up and descended the road and drove back home the same evening.
Crew: Jamie and Prakash
Distance and Elevation Gained:
Day 1 Approach ~2.5 miles and ~2850’
Day 2 Climb and Descent ~8.5 miles and 2700’ gained

Climbing a CO 14er in the winter challenges me more than it used to a few years ago. Gawking at how swole I am at the gym and lazing around rock / ice crags sipping tea and eating biscuits seem to do an okay job of conditioning the body. They don’t seem to condition one’s mind adequately though, for the slog filled, trench building, wind howling, snot dripping, slope loading, joint taxing, sanity testing exercise that’s the winter 14er, especially on snowshoes.

I’m aware of my shortcomings and while bookmarking MLK weekend for a winter 14er at a party at Kevin / Sarah’s sweet digs in Denver I wanted to be conservative in my peak/route selection and approach to the trip unless the weather forecast offered up a gem of a day like we received for our Sneffels trip last year – https://lostinmerica.wordpress.com/mt-sneffels-in-winter/. As the weekend approached Joel’s (Open Snow) skier-tuned forecast boasted “three storms in 6 days”, the kind of jizz skiers in the state drooled about and winter 14er hikers dreaded from the level of the neuron all the way up to the grey lumps in their heads. However, taken together with NOAA’s forecast it seemed the 1st and 2nd storms might miss directly hitting the Sangres leaving only wisps of moisture there. With storm 1 leaving on Sunday morning and the next one arriving Monday night there seemed to be a window in the Sangres. Some wind 15 – 20mph was expected on what we’d pick for our summit day (windchills of -10F) and a 20% chance snow before 11AM but that’s a reasonable enough forecast for a CO winter 14er nut to go out climbing. Not the gem of a forecast I was hoping for, but reasonable. As always Divi let me go off and chase my list offering even to cook my replenishment meal upon my return… the first box was checked! While the forecast cemented itself I traded texts and calls with Jamie bargaining away from something involved like Wilson / El Diente (which was our original idea) and Crestone Needle which would both have needed better weather in my mind. Instead we settled on Blanca as a 2-day trip. This, I thought would be more manageable for my mind that was “out of shape”, for my grey lumps that seemed unfit for mental winter 14er combat following months of easy crag climbing for a few hours followed by (insert creature comfort). I decided to bring snowshoes (ugh) to share in Jamie’s trenching burden, not knowing how much trenching there might be involved.

At 5AM on Saturday morning Jamie showed up at my door and we drove to the Lake Como road with frequent stops to eat and excrete. Through experience I’ve found that good salty calorific food and a well textured terrific poop are second to none when it comes to enhancing performance on a winter 14er and Jamie and I checked the second and third boxes on the way to making this a successful trip. We made it up to 8800’ on Lake Como road which when snow covered seemed a far less nerve-wracking drive than in the summer. My scar tissue cajoled me not to continue any further up the road since I’d not just once before been caught gunning the gas on a snow covered 4WD road to a winter 14er trailhead. WallE thanked me for this wisdom and box 4 was checked as we made it safely to the trailhead.

We began the hike up the road at about 11AM with overnight packs. We hoped to find the shack at lake Como unoccupied but carried my 2-person tent just in case. A hundred feet up the road at another parking pull-off we found a SUV and a further few hundred yards up found its owner hiking down. He’d contemplated a LB-Blanca traverse attempt that morning but was stormed off Little Bear. He’d decided to hike back out but shared some beta. The road was packed down by sled and snowshoe tracks all the way to Holbrook canyon and there was a bit of a trench all the way to the shack that eased our travel.

We were at the shack setting up by 3:30PM. Jamie went out to break some of our trail up to blue lakes the next morning while I melted snow for dinner and the next day and barricaded the door / window of the shack (the shack is now door-less, FYI…) with my tent fly. I devoured some spicy cajun pasta and beef chunks – each of those claim to be packaged for 2 people so it only made sense that I inhaled one of each.

We went to bed around 9PM and slept fitfully until 5:30AM. We rose, I pooped and dilly-dallied around with making a hot MH breakfast packet of bacon and eggs (this was mostly my necessary creature comfort and not Jamie’s so he was good to go way earlier than I) and coca tea until at 7AM Jamie likely lost his patience and headed out to re-break our trail which we suspected the wind covered overnight. At 7:15AM I (finally) hustled behind him remembering how important it was to the success of a winter 14er attempt, to get the hell out of camp (check box #5). I caught up to Jamie in the trees and I continued re-breaking his trail from the previous evening up the Holbrook drainage choosing the lowest angle snow slope we could find of all route options. Jamie’s tracks ended where the terrain opened up and we broke fresh trail (6” to a foot sometimes more) to the blue lakes.

Our trail strayed out onto the middle of blue lakes away from the snow slopes flanking the SW ridge on Ellingwood point and the LB West ridge. We then took an ascending traverse left below a large knob staying way climber’s right of the summer route and circled back around to Crater lake. Again, to get past Crater lake we stayed as far climber’s right as possible away from slopes on Ellingwood point that could possibly slide.

The wind really picked up at Crater lake and the cold really set in. We stopped to put on a puffy, face masks and drink coca tea (yum, check box #6) I picked up in Peru last year. Sufficiently warmed up we began heading up for a band of rock that would take us up to the ridge without having to boot up the snow leading to the saddle.

Booting up deep snow punctuated by Boulders (with a snowshoe descent to look forward to) really was my favorite Sunday morning activity right after church gossip. The fact that the wind was beating the ever loving snot out onto our faces was secondary. That said it was great to be consistently gaining elevation without worrying about terrain eval. Looking down at our route…

We gained the ridge at roughly 14,100’…

There was one icy class 3 move on the ridge crest that was a bit of a pleasant surprise (for the descent Jamie found an easier chimney he used to circumvent what he was calling Prakash’s block of death)… Jamie is seen approaching the point where we got on the ridge.

The summit ridge was sunny and the wind was actually blowing with less intensity up here than on the way up to the ridge…

I was soon on the summit of my 35th winter 14er. Lindsey…

Little Bear was socked in a bit …

And Ellingwood takes the $10 2nd prize in the beauty contest…

Jamie followed shortly afterwards and my silly iPhone battery crapped out so I unfortunately couldn’t get a pic of his mug on his 65th winter centennial summit… strong work, buddy!

We stayed on the summit for just a few minutes, ate some food and back-tracked down the mountain as fast as we could since it started getting stormy again. Blowing snow covered our tracks the entire way back to our snowshoe stash at the base of the rock band and all the way down the drainage. We retraced our ascent route most of the way back uneventfully until we ran into Greg in the forest. He was breaking trail for his next day’s ascent of B/E with Kevin and Sarah. We walked back with him to the shack, chatted with the three of them for a bit, packed our crap and headed off down the road. The jeep waited faithfully and after stopping for a couple chicken sandwiches first at a Walsenburg gas station and then the Pueblo ihop (check box #7 for solid post-climb fodder) we were back home at 2:30AM. I’m glad to have Blanca crossed off my list. The next afternoon Divi’s promised recovery meal was found in the fridge. Awesome! I think I might be coming down with the winter 14er sickness again. Perhaps I should go play with my Lego set instead before it’s too late.

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