Little Bear/Blanca Traverse

A fear of heights is not an option on most 14,000 foot peaks you climb in Colorado. However the traverse between Little Bear and Blanca peaks is exposed enough to get anyone’s blood pumping and nerves quaking.

We started out driving down the day before from the Vail Valley it took us about 3.5 hours, not including a quick stop to the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, to get to road that would lead us to camp and our starting point the next morning. The road called Lake Como or Blanca Rd starts out easy enough with a lot of loose rock that cause the tires to spin and and rocks to kick out behind. We make it in on the road 2 maybe 3 miles until we stop for fear of overheating the Jeep we were in. It was not in the best shape. It was a good thing we stopped though for the road quickly deteriorated after that point. It turns out Lake Como Rd is a notorious road in Colorado to the jeeping/rock crawling community. With features called “jaws” it was a hard enough road to walk on let alone try to navigate a motor vehicle. We did however see many quad ATV’s that made me jealous along the way of our 5 mile walk to Lake Como. We made our way up, found camp, and explored the area around the lake.

Lake Como and the peaks lie within the Sangre De Cristo Range. The longest range in Colorado, although a part of it crosses into New Mexico. The Sangre De Cristo Range dramatically and abruptly rise, sometimes as high as 7,000 feet above the valley floor in a short distance. The Great Sand Dunes rest at the base of these mountain on the west side, boasting the tallest sand dune in North America. The Sangre De Cristo mountains are partly responsible for the creation of this sandy wild land, and when you throw the Great Sand Dunes in at the base of these dramatic peaks you get an awe inspiring landscape.

We got a dark early alpine start in the morning, as we had a long day ahead of us. The first peak of the day was Little Bear and the first task is to gain the ridge west of the peak via a gully leading to a notch in the ridge. A task that looked easy in the purple hue of the alpine glow from the setting sun the night before, but proved a little difficult by the obtrusive light of our headlamps. We initially were aiming for the wrong gully but corrected the mistake when the sun gave us enough light to see what we have done. Luckily we were still low enough on the talus slope before the notch that our mistake did not waste much if any time. After gaining the ridge and the sun had risen further we had a fantastic view of the multiple parallel ridges that created lush life sustaining valleys descending to the arid desert landscape of the San Luis Valley west of us. The ridge was easy enough to travel along but our next challenge, a steep gully on the southwest face of the peak itself called the “hourglass”, was coming into view. The “hourglass” consisted of some steep scrambling that was protected by a rope anchored to rock above. The real danger in the “hourglass” is the shape and steepness of the gully. We quickly found if a rock was dislodged, its only path was the gully where other would be climbers could potentially be coming up. After the gully it’s the home stretch to the summit of Little Bear and the in your face view of Blanca Peak. Blanca Peak is a dramatic dome like mountain and the tallest in the Sangre De Cristo. I felt so close I could touch it, and yet a long exposed and intimidating ridge separated me from that sensation.

The traverse between Little Bear and Blanca is roughly a mile long of knife like ridge that seldom exceeds three feet wide with a drop on either side of some 1,000 feet or more to the bottom. It is long, it is scary, it offers obstacles and towers that have to be navigated and negotiated, climbed, traversed and puzzled upon to bypass further along, and it is exactly the reason we had come. We stopped shortly to rest, refuel, and assess the weather and route that lie before us. The ridge is time consuming and not a good place to be stuck when one of Colorado’s famous afternoon lightening storms decide to move in. Everything looked fine so we did not hesitate to press on, we were excited. It got interesting right away with a nice decent on a knife edge to get to a 40 foot tower, some call Captain Bivwacko. We skirt the tower on its left side leaving us exposed to the dizzying abyss below. At this point its more of a rock climbing traverse, hanging on to the wall searching for hand and foot holds that would support us as we moved along. I was glad to be with those that were not easily thwarted by heights and/or exposure. One misplaced foot would have meant certain doom. After Captain Bivwacko things got a little more mellow, a term I use loosely, as we reached the actual saddle and halfway point. We were still faced with other obstacles that took some time and route finding to figure out the best way. It wasn’t until we reached a sub peak of Blanca that we were really stumped. I tackled it straight on climbing up to have a look at it while the others scouted other possible options below. I didn’t like what I saw but after conversing with the others we decided it was the best option. Climbing the sub-peak consisted of an unprotected down climb on the other side but we nailed it and were soon standing on top of the dramatic Blanca Peak. We celebrated with lunch and awesome views of the Lake Como valley stretching out to the west.

After Blanca we decided to push on and tag one more peak, since we were still doing well on time. Ellingwood Point is the less dramatic peak of the three and lies to the Northwest of Blanca. We traversed another less exciting ridge line to get there. After what we had come through, this was a piece of cake. What Ellingwood Point lacked in technical difficulty, it made up with outstanding views of Little Bear, Blanca and the amazing traverse we had just come through. Its easy to see why the Little Bear/Blanca ridgeline is one of the great traverses in Colorado. It offers an exciting and frightening semi technical route with sensational views of a diverse landscape surrounding it. I would be willing to go back and have a second look of this incredible mountain range anytime.

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