Ascent of Blanca Peak on 2014-08-08

Climber: William Musser

Others in Party:Daniel Musser
Marc Holder
Miguel Garcia
Hernan Lopez
Date:Friday, August 8, 2014
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
    Motorized Transport to Trailhead:4x4 Vehicle
Peak:Blanca Peak
    Elevation:14345 ft / 4372 m

Ascent Trip Report

I planned our annual backpacking trip with the intent to bag 3 14ers in the area (Lindsey, Blanca, and Ellingwood). Once again, I took a group of fit and experienced backpackers with a wide range of ages. My youngest son at 18, another hiker that was well seasoned in cross fit training in his mid 30s; one of my mountaineering buddies that has completed many technical summits including Aconcagua (about 40 years old); me in my 50s and one of my odest backpacking buds who is now in his mid 60s. Of course things never quite go as planned. We ended up with rental car issues and drove from Denver and instead of hitting the trailhead at 4PM as planned; and we did not actually get the SUV parked until around 5:30 PM. We ended up with the 5 of us in a 4 wheel drive Ford Expedition. We initially parked the SUV at elevation 8,100 only a little further than the cars below us and then Hernan gently nudged the 4 wheel vehicle upslope a little more while we hiked up. The uncertainty of turn around places above that worried us. We later proved you can get a 4 wheel drive heavy SUV another mile up the road but more on that later.

Marc, who has historically been one of the strongest hiker-backpackers in our group over the years had some medical issues and was not able to train properly and was soon to celebrate his 67th birthday this week. For the first time ever while backpacking with me (over 12 years of trips) we saw him struggle. Hernan had surgery on his wrist and a benign tumor pushing in on his lungs affecting him. Miguel had some knee tendon issues and altitude sickness, Daniel was initially doing fine, and I was nursing a rolled ankle from the week before. Not the best way to start a late high altitude hike straight off a plane from sea level.

We had to push to get to Lake Como (our designated camping site) before dark but Marc tapped out early and we stopped at a campsite at 10,000 feet. We could have made it but our normally very strong friend was having issues and falling far behind. Fortunately, there are many more places to stop and camp along the way than I expected including before and after the area where the creek crosses the rugged jeep trail. The spot at 10,000 feet or a little past the 2.5 mile marker could support at least 6 tents!

The next morning we were way behind schedule and worried about Marc getting more calories and sugar in his diet. We left camp and were moving better but at the creek crossing a black bear disrupted our water gathering. This bear was far too habituated to people and walked up to within 15 feet of us. The roadway to Lake Como is not only a legendary 4 wheel drive "prove your man card" type deal but one nasty summit approach for hikers as there are rocks and rocks and rocks that wear down your feet, ankles, and knees.

At Lake Como, Marc was surprised that he was tapped out again and he decided to set up camp and not hike to the summit. This was the first time ever that I had seen him like this, as he had in the past pushed me to the summit of peaks when I was on my last reserve. A few more years on him and the lack of training for the trip really knocked his socks off. Hernan and I hung our bear bags from a sloped spruce tree and made sure our food was safe. Marc and Miguel and a neighboring backpacking duo hung from another nearby tree all of us about 100 yards from our camp. We left Marc to watch the camp and headed up to the glacial lakes above with our day packs.

The remaining 4 us made good time passing people and not being passed. Miguel nursed his knee and I wore a thick ankle brace and my steel shank mountaineering boots to ensure I did not further roll that ankle. And I used poles. The terrain is relentless on the way up. Rocks and more rocks. The upper glacial lakes and cirques are beautiful- as beautiful as any I have hiked in Colorado and the ridge up Ellingwood Point is impressive along the sawtooth ridge. All of the literature talks of an easy class 2 slope up the heavy talus pile but we lost the trail of cairns to follow it and ended up following larger cairns that take you directly to the saddle between Ellingwood and Blanca. Everyone we talked to up there complained of the same problem finding the class 2 route. Good luck finding the class 2 trail discussed in Roach's book 14ers of CO or the route on By summitting Blanca along its connecting ridge with Ellingwood the route becomes Class 3. One group coming down claimed that ridge had some class 4 but after having used this direct route I would argue that there is not any class 4 at all. It is mostly class 2+ with scattered easy class 3. But certainly the class 3 has some exposure but you can make all the moves without having to be on a class 4 fall simply by staying slightly right of the cliff face on the ridge the entire way - so call it class 3.

At the top of the summit, you can finally find the class 2 route and cairns and we did take it part of the way down but with my rolled ankle, the class 3 rock allowed me to take weight off my feet and use my arms and was far more comfortable. Since it is only class 3 you can descend those sections along the cliff edge facing outward at all times and we preferred staying off the class 2 ankle breakers.

By now, My son Daniel and Miguel both were experiencing AMS and their headaches forced them to descend quickly and they left me behind. Hernan hung with me and made sure I picked my way down with my brace and poles until we rejoined at the upper lake. By the time we made it back to Lake Como, my son was asleep in his tent so fatigued from AMS he could not eat dinner. That is where we found Marc and our neighboring backpackers distraught that their bear bags were ripped from the trees and all of the food eaten! With two of our Florida party having headaches from AMS, one, Miguel, with a worsened knee, 2 of the guys now without food, and one struggling in general, we made the decision not to stay and climb Ellingwood. The plan was to get up the next morning and attack it from the classic class 3 scramble from the waterfall. So we gathered out remaining food and once again Hernan and I tied up ALL of the remaining food of ours and our neighbors for a morning breakfast and early morning retreat.

In the morning we found our food safe but the black bear under the bags trying to figure out how to get at it too. He had already eaten 3 bags of food from the neighbors from Wisconsin, and one of our food bags. To get him to leave we had to gather up everyone and toss rocks in the air so that the ground around him was pelted like huge hail stones and he finally scampered away.

Then we hiked all the way to the car. Marc now acclimating and finally with enough carbs in his system hiked down with my son and Hernan without incident but bummed he missed his first 14er on a trip with me (he had already bagged Whitney, Langley, Missouri, Belford, and Harvard in CA and CO with me on previous trips). Miguel now became the issue as he had aggravated his injured knee and his rate of decline was a third of the other backpackers. He looked demoralized coming in the last mile of cobblestone hell but I stayed with him each step to make sure he got down fine when all of a sudden we saw a non jeep, big SUV parked way up slope where mostly only 4x4 jeep type vehicles were parked. I called out to Miguel, "Look man, someone actually got a Ford SUV all the way up here" when suddenly Hernan, Daniel and Marc jumped out and laughed. They had gotten down so much earlier that the played around with the 4 wheel drive settings on the Expedition and somehow nudged it it more than a mile further up the road than where we left it (at around elevation 8,800 feet just inside the Rio Grande National Forest Boundary) and saved Miguel another hour of abuse on his knee. We owed Hernan big time for this relief!

Summary Total Data
    Total Elevation Gain:6625 ft / 2018 m
    Total Elevation Loss:5825 ft / 1774 m
    Round-Trip Distance:15.1 mi / 24.3 km
    Grade/Class:1,2, 2+, 3
    Quality:9 (on a subjective 1-10 scale)
    Route Conditions:
Road Hike, Maintained Trail, Unmaintained Trail, Open Country, Stream Ford, Scramble
    Gear Used:
Ski Poles, Tent Camp
    Weather:Pleasant, Breezy, Clear
70F at valley and 50F at summit
Ascent Statistics
    Gain on way in:6485 ft / 1976 m
        Gain Breakdown:Net: 6345 ft / 1934 m; Extra: 140 ft / 42m
    Loss on way in:140 ft / 42 m
    Distance:8.1 mi / 13 km
    Route:Lake Como Trail to Traverse Ridge
    Start Trailhead:Blanca Jeep Road  8000 ft / 2438 m
    Time:1 Days 
Descent Statistics
    Loss on way out:5685 ft / 1732 m
        Loss Breakdown:Net: 5545 ft / 1690 m; Extra: 140 ft / 42m
    Gain on way out:140 ft / 42 m
    Distance:7 mi / 11.3 km
    End Trailhead:Blanca Jeep Road  8800 ft / 2682 m
    Time:1 Days 

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