Sunday, June 24, 2012

Islands in the Sky

Islands in the Sky

Ellingwood Point (14,042') and Blanca Peak (14,345')

From Lake Como Road- starting at 9200'

13 miles RT; 5700' of Elevation Gain

In 1856 the "Sierra Blanco" mountains already attracted the attention of exlorers for their impressive appearance. The Sangre De Cristo range in Southern Colorado is an amazing testament to God's creation. These beautiful, rugged mountains seem to rise right of a a hot, dry, high altitude desert. The surrounding area is very flat, like the sea, and the mountains rise up sharply and abruptly from this plain You turn off from the highway around 7800'. From this point you will travel through at least 3 different climate zones before reaching the summit. In a way it reminds me of stuff you see from Kilimanjaro.

The hike starts off on the undisputed nastiest 4WD road in Colorado. I only drove up to 9200 feet and it was very rough on my Nissan Frontier. Many people park around 8800'- in hindsight, this is what I'll be doing next time- the shorter hike is not worth the damage and stress to your vehicle in my opinion.

Here's some pictures taken during the ascent to Lake Como and beyond. It's a nasty road to drive on, and not the nicest place to hike. Shade is in short supply and the road is often covered with powdery dust or loose football and softball sized rocks. Also being an "extreme 4x4" trail, it has kind of a unique feeling. There is more noise, more traffic, and more trash on the road than you'll see on a hiker's trail.

Looking back from where we parked. We are ~1500' off of the valley floor.

Where we parked. It's actually a ridge that drops off on both sides.

Looking SW from the road

Right after "Jaws 1" with a cabin the background.
Scott super thrilled that I made him stand by a cabin

Jaws 2. This obstacle was made easier when a log was installed on the left side

This obstacle is not good for your paint job

Jaws 2.5, a nasty little rock shelf
Nearing the end with Little Bear taunting us from above

We reached Lake Como after around 3.5 miles and 2600' of gain- it took us 92 minutes from the truck to this point. Because it was cool, breezy, and overcast, it was really just about the most pleasant experience you could have hiking on Lake Como Road.
Little Bear Peak, as seen from the West side of Lake Como
On the other side of Lake Como, looking SW
Ellingwood Point from our campsite near Blue Lakes
Arriving at the Blue Lakes area around 12,200 feet was relieving. It was before 7PM and we had lots of daylight left to enjoy the scenery and ready camp. We plopped down on a rock and had a fantastic dinner of a Footlong Turkey Sub, A "True Blonde Ale" from Durango Brewing Company, and some fresh-baked peanut butter cookies from Subway.  My luxurious feast was a heavy burden in my pack, but it was all worth it when I took the first bite. It sure beat freeze-dried crap in a bag.
One of the Blue Lakes

Looking SW about 12,200'
Huge Panorama from our camping area

Ellingwood Point's SW ridge hit with the setting sun. This is our route tomorrow

Photo by Scott Lowery
Photo by Scott Lowery
 The sunset was nice to experience from this vantage. We had lots of solitude and quiet being far enough away from the Circus at Lake Como. We still had some aggressive marmots to deal with but eventually they gave up and left us alone. It didn't get too chilly and we went to sleep around 9:30 PM. Didn't sleep much and got out of our sleeping bags at 5 AM for a late alpine start. We waiting around until 5:30 but didn't see our friends coming so we took off, scanning the trail behind us.

Bighorn sheep

Bighorn Sheep. Photo by SL
From the blue lakes basin, you quickly climb a headwall with a waterfall on a very good trail. From here we climbed "up and right" to a grassy spot, finishing with some light scrambling to gain the ridge proper. We selected the SW ridge route because it was supposed to be fun and challenging, giving us a chance to hone our skills before more serious terrain. Caution: do not attempt this route without prior class 3 experience and some comfort with exposure.
The SW ridge route provided maximum excitement. The Summit is visible.
Scott tackles the first section. Blue Lakes are visible to the left
Scott tops out on the easy class 3 "triangle" section
Me climbing the "triangle"- Photo by SL

Scott crosses the "knife edge" section. We found this to be the most stressful part
Fun little section with some exposure- photo by SL

Another small "knife edge" section with some awkward moves
The final obstacle is an easy class 3 scramble over some shifty rocks

Heading for the summit

With all the difficulties behind us, the final push was fast and simple
(Left to right) Challenger Point, Kit Carson Peak, Columbia Point, Crestone Peak, Crestone Needle
Victory! Crestone group in the background.

Blance and the ridge seen from just below the summit on Ellingwood Point

Challenger point from the side of Blanca Peak

The impressive and scary summit of Little Bear Peak
Huerfano Peak (L) and Mt. Lindsey (R) from the summit of Blanca Peak
Worst summit pose ever on Blanca Peak, with Little Bear behind me
It took us about 70 minutes to downclimb from Ellingwood Point. We followed the ridge directly until we came face to face with a class 5 spire. We carefully downclimbed some class 3 stuff and went down a gully. Blanca was tiring and the main trail seemed to fade in and out.
Carefully downclimbing off Blanca Peak- Photo by SL
The summit of Blanca Peak had great views but it was also very windy, which made our stay brief. I did however get a chance to use Scott's cell phone to call my wife and tell her that I was at the highest point in the Sangre De Cristo Mountains, a fact she wasn't particularly interested in. She did like to hear that I was safe and heading down.
Looking down to Crater Lake
Huge Panorama I took. It's a composite of 8 shots
Crater Lake- photo by SL
Relaxing, Colorado Style
Nice waterfall below Crater Lake
This is our campsite just above 12,000'
The view West from our campsite

We quickly broke down camp and loaded our packs. We both took time to drink our second beer in celebration of another successful trip. I had a Ska Brewing Company (Durango) True Blonde Ale, which was quite tasty. This with some Cheddar & Sour Cream Lays chips made for a tasty snack before the hot and dusty slog back down to the truck, which was over 4 miles away. None-the-less, the feeling of accomplishment propelled us down the rough and rocky trail and in less than 2 hours we were driving down.

Finally, back at the truck

The difficulties were not over as the road proved to be quite rough and rocky on the way down, and it took another 45 minutes or so to reach the highway. As we headed back east from the town of Fort Garland we got this last parting view of the Blanca group.

L to R: Little Bear Pk, Blanca Pk, Ellingwood Pt, and Mt. Lindsey

This was a fantastic whirlwind trip into the Lake Como basin and up to 2 of the great mountains in this area. They had very nice views and provided an adequate challenge. It was sobering being that close to the dangerous and grand Little Bear Peak that we are planning on visiting again next year.


  1. Super sharp photos! Great job! Cheers! (Literally finishing a generous glass of D66 Grenache by Orin Swift - my favorite wine maker David Phinney :-) greenwok

  2. Hello,
    I saw your trip report on and was wondering if I could ask you a few questions via phone.

    Me and a couple of buddies are hiking our first 14er this coming July.
    We are familiar with hiking in the Appalachian mts but unfamiliar with hiking/climbing 14ers.

    Would it be possible to call you or you can call me?

    If so, we would greatly appreciate it.