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Blanca Peak (NF) and Ellingwood with descent of NW Ridge, Colorado

Author: Gary Clark

Participants: Gary and Lynn Clark

Blanca and Ellingwood, although being some of the closest 14ers to Los Alamos, remained on our "unticked" list. I started hearing about the North Face route on Blanca several years ago, and this provided the motivation to go back to the area. This time we wouldn't have to endure the Lake Como four-wheel drive road that just about destroyed our vehicle the last time we visited the range, since the approach to the North Face is via Huerfano Creek to the North.

We finished the substantial driving approach late on the 3rd, after a misadventure regarding a vehicle breakdown north of Questa. There are times a cell phone pays for itself, and this was one. We called the people who were coming down from Denver to meet us for the climb, and arranged (1) for them to come rescue us; (2) for a wrecker to come get our van, and (3) for a garage in Alamosa to take ownership of it and begin repairs while we were on the climb.

The hike into the Huerfano basin was relatively short but adventurous, since the trail is poorly developed. We did a substantial creek crossing, then quickly lost the 'trail' and bushwhacked most of the way to the head of the Huerfano basin, to camp close to the base of the North Face. The weather was wet. Next morning dawned partly cloudy, and we began the approach through fog and low clouds, which persisted the entire day. We did the direct approach to the face: up a short snow couloir onto a rock band that was tricky but did not require a rope, then directly up snow slopes to the toe of the indistinct buttress where the route starts. An easier but longer approach goes up the valley to the west, then traverses back to the base of the face. This would avoid the first rock bands.

Gaining the base of the face around 6:30, we quickly discovered the nature of the climb - exposed, tricky, but never difficult climbing on marginal rock with very few cracks for protection or anchors. We mostly climbed simultaneously - not by choice, but because this is about all you can do when you can't put in an anchor. Sometimes we climbed for more than an hour at a time, occasionally finding a point of protection, until finally reaching a decent belay spot where I would stop to bring up Lynn and collect the gear. We had no real route description, just a dotted line drawn on a photo of the face in Dawson's book. As he predicted, we ran into some "5.6 up there somewhere". The "somewhere" was about half way up the face. This was actually the best part of the climb - a good belay stance below a steep dihedral that afforded reasonable protection. Unfortunately, it was over quickly (about 40'), then it was back to picking our way up the rather amorphous face on 4th and lower 5th class rock for many hundreds of feet. I realized we had it was almost over when I looked up to see a dog peering over the edge at me! We arrived on the West Ridge to an amazing site - on the order of 40 people strung out on the regular route that comes up from Lake Como to the SW.

Resting briefly on the ridge while answering the predictable questions from passers-by, we concluded that it would be irresponsible to go on to the summit, since the descent was clearly going to take a very long time, and the weather pattern was for serious thunderstorms by mid afternoon. We kept gazing up at the summit while we refueled, and finally said, "to hell with it, let's be irresponsible". We left everything behind and went to the summit and back in about 30 minutes, the main difficulty being finding opportunities to pass the throngs of people, several of whom told us this was their first mountain.

Now came the crux of the trip: the descent. The most logical choice seemed to be the NE Ridge, but Dawson's book advised against this. He recommended going over the top of Ellingwood, then down its NW Ridge, which had the added benefit of bagging two 14er summits. This we did, which went quickly and without incident until we neared the saddle NW of Ellingwood. Here there is a most improbable looking down-climb, with no evidence of rappel anchors. We wasted an hour looking for an alternative as it began to lightly rain, then finally committed to down-climbing it 5th class - the leader placing pro for the second. As usually is the case, it turned out to be "not so bad", and we reached the saddle in about 4 pitches.

The descent from the saddle looked hideous. It WAS hideous. Having no choice, we continued down-climbing many hundreds of feet, placing pro where possible. The climbing was not difficult, but it was loose, tricky, and horribly exposed. Finally a "point of no return" was reached, where downclimbing wasn't reasonable, and a rappell would take us where we wouldn't be able to reclimb if if turned out to be a dead end. We had only a single 50m rope. We had planned to depend on our trip partner's rope, but they had turned back at the base of the face early in the morning, wisely deducing that one of them did not have sufficient experience for the climb.

Finding anchors was difficult, and we left a major array of hardware behind in the three rappells that finally got us to easier ground, and then the snow. We kicked steps down steep snow, very happy we'd brought axes. In fact, my steps collapsed at one point and I ended up hanging from the axe head, supported by the shaft that I had been thrusting full-length with each step.

Our friends had come up from camp with food and water to meet us at the base of the descent. We just had time to hike back to the tents and crawl in before the intermittent rain turned into a downpour and lightning show that lasted until well after dark. Had this storm begun earlier in the day, we'd have been toast.


Grade IV, 5.6 Alpine. 4:00p wakeup, summit Blanca 1:00p, summit Ellingwood 2:15p, back to camp 7:30p.


  • The route is a fine adventure if all members have solid alpine skills - despite the moderate technical rating (IV, 5.6), you will be making tricky moves with little or no protection on poor rock, where every hold must be tested (and sometimes created). If one person falls, both will take huge falls.

  • Helmets are mandatory. Even if you don't knock rocks off, the rope will. Don't think of going on the face if someone is already on it.

  • A small rack (10-15 pieces) suffices, since there aren't many cracks, anyway.

  • Use mountain boots so you can kick the holds to test them. Rock shoes would be dangerous.

  • The route is committing. The weather did not clear with the morning sun, and we would probably have bailed off after a pitch or two had descent seemed reasonable.

  • Reaching the top of the route is about half the effort and time. On a bad weather day, consider bailing to the Lake Como side, where you could bivouac and maybe even beg some food from the people camped there. The next day you could climb Ellingwood and finish the long descent to the North.


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