I have never been interested in the standard route. I am writing this report to aid other venturous climbers in a much more aesthetic and exciting way to climb these two mountains. I have never been up Lake Como road but I have also never heard a good thing about it. As I studied the north ridge route and sifted through trip reports I did not find many (there are a few older ones) that accurately depict this route (besides the route description which is pretty impartial). I found a lot of opinions, most over or under dramatizing it, so I want to find a happy median and try to explain the “crux’’ better.
In general, if you have experience and are comfortable with route finding, loose gullies, and class 3 this is a fantastic and FUN alternate route. If you do not have experience with all three of these things then stick to the standard route or be prepared to step out of your comfort zone.
Ellingwood Point (14,042′) Blanca Peak (14,345′)
North Ridge route from Zapata falls + Ellingwood to Blanca traverse
14.7 miles/6,572′ of gain
The first crux is the road in a two door Honda Civic Sport. Any other vehicle on the planet will be just fine but in my car I was doing about 1.5 mph. It is so bumpy. I picked up a German hitchhiker, transported him to the campground, and met Allison at the Zapata Falls trailhead at 9:30 p.m. Allison, from New York, is on a road trip, a road trip with potentially no end. She is a phenomenal human and I am so happy she decided to contact me via instagram to ask if I wanted to tackle some 14ers with her while she is in Colorado for a month. She is literally the perfect partner; fun, excited to be there, strong, kept pace, doesn’t complain, knows how to route find etc. etc. etc. She also has a strong running background further convincing me that runners are the best humans on this planet.
No sleep later and we were melting away dark miles at four in the morning. And by dark I mean a no moon partly cloudy black out. The trail is good and crosses Zapata Creek four times. The first creek crossing was raging and deep. In the pitch black even our head lamps could not spot a viable way across (daylight showed there is log further down stream). We removed our shoes and crossed the icy water, which always feels better to me than falling off slippery sticks and banging bones on perturbing rocks. I am awful at crossings, 9 out of 10 times I just cross barefoot. After the first creek crossing there is a massive spider web complete with a fist sized hairy spider blocking one of the switch backs. Make sure to scream really loud so your partner thinks there is a bear. The second creek crossing was running high (maybe all the rain) and appeared to be “flooding” the forest. With some searching and some gentle coaxing from Allison we found a way to cross with shoes on. The third and fourth crossings are smaller but still slippery.
By daylight we were in South Zapata Lake Basin, a beautiful quiet solitary place.
The trail eventually fades into the lake.
“The Crux” From the lake I immediately spotted the Crossfire Couloir (extra dangerous) and the C2 Couloir (dangerous). We headed east (left) around the lake on a very faint trail that weaves in and out of rocks and marsh land to the base of what the eye fools to be undoable. I made note to the southwest (right), the general vicinity of the C3 Couloir (unknown danger) and a grassy option to the west that gains the saddle of 13ers Twin Peaks (someday). The C3 Couloir is far away and it appears in order to get to it travel on loose rock is required. Loose rock is loose rock, I don’t know what C3 is like but C2 is the closer mess of sliding death so…..
From a distance C2 looks impossible but the one thing I have learned over the years is, it always looks impossible until it’s done. A metaphor for life and mountains.
Although this is well described and documented in the 14ers dot com route description, here’s a few more lines drawn on some photos.
As to be expected the C2 Couloir is steep and loose. I read one trip report that said you need rope, it should be labeled class 4/5, and it is 60 degrees at the top…not true, not true, not true. You gain about 1,100 feet in a very short distance and truthfully on the way up, it is not too bad. We were through it unscathed in about thirty minutes. I took note of the places where lots of different sized rock sat precariously a top dirt and we avoided those sections. The general method taken was stick to steep dirt in the center until a steep bench over to the right side allowed for some scrambling on more solid rock. The “soild” rock was still covered in loose rock and some hand and foot holds popped. Implying the trust nothing, test everything, stay close to your partner, and be light and nimble method worked great. Towards the top, the couloir narrows and steepens considerably (stay right at a large and obvious fork). A few moves and we neared the ridge where a marmot peered down on our foolish human ways.
Once we topped out on the ridge the views opened up as does a visual of the route to Ellingwood. We chose to stay on the ridge crest all the way to the summit. The ridge heads east and then south (so the west ridge turns into the north ridge). Besides one never ending field of talus the scrambling is fun and airy in places but never unmanageable. If you love class 3 scrambling on good rock as much as I do, enjoy the next hour or so of your life.
As the north ridge approaches its summit, things spice up a bit. I had read in many trip reports that this part contains a knife edge, is super exposed, and should be bypassed to meet up with the standard route. Why, I don’t know. The “knife edge” has a ramp on the right side and then one airy move around a large rock to the final climb where a few class three moves attain the summit. Any other way is asinine (get it).
We summited Ellingwood Point, my 50th Colorado 14er and Allison’s first Colorado 14er at 9:07 a.m. Clouds continued to engulf Little Bear and creep over Blanca so we decided to go for the traverse right away. However, the clouds in the immediate vicinity were rather superficial so I was not concerned. Shark fin Blanca Peak looks down right terrifying from Ellingwood but the traverse is really fun.
From the north you do not see any part of the standard route or the traverse to Blanca until standing on top of Ellingwood so the beginning part of the traverse is the trickiest. We stayed ridge proper all the way until the deep notch (low point in saddle) and did the class 3+ down climb variation into the gully. I liked this way as it seemed to avoid the looser mess below. Once in the gully we fubbed around, not spotting cairns (until the way back). After the white gully there is a maze of exposed ledges and class 3/4 climbing (depending on your line). I am not 100% sure of the route we took to get on Blanca’s northwest ridge but I believe we were too low. On the return, we stayed high and it was much more fun (and solid).
About 200 feet from the summit all we could see was cloud. This was the same time we passed the wise Goddess of Blanca Peak (GOBP) who was descending. Making small talk as I often do with people I encounter on mountains I asked her jokingly, “how’s the weather up there?” She muttered some nonsense that ended with, “you two look very unprepared.” Allison responded, “eh, I think we will be just fine” and then we continued to crack jokes about our under preparedness for the rest of the day. I am not sure what made us look so pathetic as we both donned helmets, layers, and packs of stuff but the Goddess deemed us unworthy of a Blanca summit. Against all odds, we made it in exactly one hour from Ellingwood’s quaint summit.
There were zero views to the west/southwest as the superficial cloud billowed above ruining any chance of seeing the Little Bear/Blanca traverse up close and personal. We ate food trying to fill our bellies but instead fed our tape worms. Seriously, how much do I need to eat to be full?
As Missy Elliot told us in her very informative song, “Work It” …..
Is it worth it, let me work it
I put my thing down, flip it and reverse it
Time to reverse the whole thing.
The re-ascent of Ellingwood was quick and more fun. We caught up to Goddess of Blanca Peak and I decided to smother her in kindness. We talked about Little Bear and she explained it is impossible to do unless you are a real mountaineer. She reiterated this several times. She then let us know, twelve times, that she is not a peak bagger but she had backpacked into Como to snag all three peaks. We exchanged photos and with a wish of luck from the GOBP off we descended back to the C2 couloir.
Prepared or not, down we went.
On the way back make note that C2 is NOT the lowest point in the ridge. The gullies that shoot down from the low point look extra incredibly dangerous. We had to ascend the first bump in the ridge before descending to find the entrance to C2. Descending the C2 couloir was definitely more irritating than ascending but we managed just fine. I employed a completely out of control ass slide that ripped up my palms and bruised my ass, while Allison demonstrated grace.
Back on grass we high-fived, emptied the mountain out of our trail runners, sat down, and fed our tapeworms. It is here Allison told me it was her birthday!!! I was flattered she chose to spend it in the clouds with me ( :
The remaining five miles flew by as I listened to Allison’s story. She is on a beautiful journey that did not come without hardship. I tend to find inspiration in the mountains, so when I find inspiration from a human while in the mountains, it’s been an extra special good day.
Hey Goddess of Blanca Peak……
We went to Alamosa and had a proper birthday celebration at the ever so classy Rialto Bistro, then I drove four hours home and worked at 6 a.m. the next morning.
The Sangre de Cristo Mountains are not the San Juans. There are no lush green overly colorful approaches full of wildflowers. The Sangres are dark, brooding, and full of attention demanding ridgelines. The surrounding rock walls are magnificent and the stone grey views send a feeling of insignificance down one’s spine. These two mountains via this route reminded me how much I absolutely love the Sangres. I still have Little Bear and I can’t wait to pick a more interesting route than the hour glass. Maybe one day, when I become a real mountaineer.
“Some call it the middle of no where, I call it the center of my world.”