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Fourteener Ridge Traverse (Little Bear - Blanca - Ellingwood)
July 31 - August 2, 1998

Author: Mike Sullivan

Participants: Mike Sullivan, Ingeborg Sacksen

The ridge between Blanca and Little Bear Peak is a mile long and varies in elevation from 13,600' to 14,300'. In most places it is less than three feet wide, with up to a 1500' chasm on both sides. In Gerry Roach's Fourteeners Guidebook, it is described as "Colorado's most astonishing connecting ridge," and is rated 5.0 - 5.2. Beyond the summit of Blanca, the ridge curves left in a half-mile graceful arc over to Ellingwood Point. A handful of notches and towers provide some more easy fifth class terrain, but these can be bypassed on the left.

Ingeborg and I left her home in Alamosa on Friday afternoon, planning to bivy on Friday night, do all three peaks on Saturday, then descend Sunday morning. The hike in was pleasant, and we set up camp on the scenic bench between Lake Como and Blue Lakes. My rain karma from the Tetons was still intact, and we were hit by a heavy-duty hailstorm just ten minutes after setting up the tent.

The sky was still overcast when the morning alarm went off. We waited for a while and decided to head up the route when a sucker hole of clear sky appeared overhead. We ascended the gully just south of our camp, which provides access to Little Bear's West Ridge. We climbed the ridge in drifting fog, and soon made the traverse to the base of the southwest gully, at 13,300'. The gully was in full waterfall mode from the recent rain. With the weather and the route looking pretty nasty, we sat for a few minutes to discuss options and wait for some sign of change from the weather.

We got our sign. We began to hear thunder rumbling up from the southeast, and it started to rain again. We bailed - fast! During the ten minutes it took us to return to the ridge, the storm caught us. The ridge around us made a buzzing sound which turned into an angry sizzle every time a bolt struck nearby. As the strikes grew closer, I noticed that the rocks began to emanate an eerie blue light. A bolt hit the ridge just behind us and we practically did wheelies trying to thirdclass/sprint over the wet ridgetop. We dove down the gully with a major wave of relief. We made it back to the tent at 8 AM - soaked and exhilarated.

It rained most of the day, and we passed the time inside the tent. The storm broke right before sunset, and everything looked magical in the clear mountain light following the rain. Once again, we set the alarm for 4 AM, and woke up to a crystalline starry sky. We started climbing by headlamp at 4:20, and reached the traverse to the southwest gully at dawn. We climbed the wet rock to the left of the waterfall, and encountered one or two patches of verglas that added an extra pinch of spice to the ascent. This stretch was unquestionably the crux of the entire route.

We topped out on Little Bear at 7:00, and found a sheltered spot to soak up the sunshine, have a snack, and preview the ridge. It looked pretty scary, buy hey, it's only supposed to be 5.2... We put our rock shoes on and started the downclimb onto the ridge. We quickly discovered that the ridge was incredibly fun! The rock quality was pretty good, and it seemed fairly easy to locate and avoid questionable holds. We cruised up and over gendarmes and notches, and I even climbed the famed Captain Bivwacko Tower. (Definitely harder than 5.2.) All in all, we stayed pretty squarely on the ridgetop, but did traverse around Point 13,860.

The ridge turned into an airy stroll soon after that, and we found ourselves on top of Blanca around 9:30. Cool! We celebrated with summit photos, gatorade, and a few chocolate kisses. After a half hour of loafing, we put our hiking boots back on and set off down the ridge to Ellingwood. We stayed right along the brink of Blanca's North Face, trying to get some visual beta on the rock down there. I was feeling pretty swell-headed about our blazing pace, and proceeded to climb each tower and notch along the ridge, while Ingeborg made a few hilarious comments about testosterone poisoning. We raced each other to the top of Ellingwood, and loafed some more as we finished up the chocolate and watched the morning rush hour hikers clotting up the standard route on Blanca. We eventually scrambled down to the main trail and completed the loop back to our camp at 1 PM.

This was definitely the most satisfying fourteener outing I've ever done, and I'd give it a five star rating. However, it is a potentially serious route, with a great deal of commitment, exposure, and semi-technical mileage. Retreat is virtually impossible once you are on the main ridge, and it would be very unpleasant in bad weather. We somehow managed to do the loop in under nine hours, but unless you've done a few other routes of a similar nature and length, you should probably expect this climb to take longer. Check out the guidebooks by Lou Dawson and Gerry Roach for more info, and go do it!


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