Little Bear, Blanca, and Ellingwood Peaks

by Daniel Weiss November. 20, 2018 307 views

Date Climbed: July 3-4, 2018

Elevation: 14,037 ft (Little Bear Peak), 14,345 ft (Blanca Peak), 14,042 ft (Ellingwood Point)

The Grand Traverse. It is not, as its name suggests, a single traverse, but a culmination of the 4 Great Traverses of Colorado: Crestone Needle- Peak, Maroon Bells traverse, El Diente-Wilson, and finally Little Bear-Blanca. Of these four, the Little Bear-Blanca traverse is the most difficult and exposed, with a 1000 foot drop waiting for any misstep along its 2 foot wide, mile long route. It is the most dangerous and technical of the Great Traverses, with a rating of up to 5.2 (low difficulty roped climbing) and is often the last in the series done by the local peak baggers.

It just so happened one of my climbing buddies had not completed Little Bear Peak and had done three of the four traverses, with the exception of this one traverse. So the choice was mine, solo an overnight trip and skip the Great Traverse but take my time doing so, or bag all three peaks and a Great Traverse in a 24 hour period? If there's one thing I've learned from my hikes, its that misery loves company! So we agreed to meet over the weekend and hike up the infamous Lake Como Road in the early afternoon (bad plan!).

As it was full-bore summer, the trailhead temperature was in the mid to high 80s, which made the hike in even more miserable than usual. The road could hardly be called that. Just a few years earlier, I had been unable to drive my atv up the car-killing (and even fatal) road. I had never hiked a road that felt as difficult as this, with its marble like rocks that would wear on your feet after miles of hiking, its large "Jaws" that were impenetrable all but the most modified vehicles, and its steep grades of loose dirt.

Needless to say, the hike in was miserable, but at least I had a buddy! The camping, however, was gorgeous and well worth the hike. With a small cabin the locals called Wolfe Hut (which was unfortunately torn down recently by the Forest Service). It was a crowded place, especially with "easy" access due to the modified cars. Matthew and I talked about returning to fish and spend a weekend enjoying the views.

Far above as the sun was setting, Little Bear overlooked the basin, glowing softly with red light. We ate a fantastic dinner, prepared by Matthew, and made plans to leave extremely early the following morning to beat the crowds. Little Bear is considered the most dangerous 14er in Colorado, due to its "hourglass" couloir which funnels all falling rock debris on climbers from above. A helmet is a must on this peak, especially if anyone is climbing above you. Wanting to avoid the danger, we elected to beat everyone up the peak.

Well before sunrise, we began our trek out of camp, following the old road into the upper basin. It was extremely hard to follow the trail once we left the road, and we ended up making our own way up and over the ridge, slipping over loose rock. Once on the back side, we could see the sun beginning to rise to our east. The warmth was a brief, but welcome feeling as we entered the shadows of Little bear along its western flank. We were making unbelievably quick time as we were both acclimatized and strong, ascending at a pace of about 1750 feet per hour (a strong mountaineering pace is 1000 feet per hour). Perhaps it was the desire to get on the traverse as quickly as possible, knowing it could take up to 5 hours to complete that one mile, or maybe we just wanted to get the hourglass done with. Either way, in no time flat, we were in the hourglass, making quick work of Little Bear's most infamous section.

Before we knew it, we were on the summit! But at this point, we were not even a third of the way through our journey. Ahead was the Traverse, and then another minor traverse to our third 14er. With a brief pause for snacks and pictures, we were off. The crux of the route are encountered right off the bat; the descent off Little Bear and the move around Bivacko Tower. The descent was sketchy and dangerous, especially since we were descending as opposed to ascending it.

Once past the descent, we began making our way along the ridge, occasionally moving from one side of the ridge to the other. It was slow going, but fun and engaging. Eventually we encountered the crux of the entire route: Captain Bivwacko Tower. The myth behind it is that any parties who dare to climb to its summit end up bivouacking on the ridge as it is so time consuming. Apparently Matthew never heard this story...

Bivwacko Tower.

Bivwacko Tower.

So, unlike most parties who move around it and continue on, Matthew decided to go up and over it! Once past Bivwacko, the going eased up and we made good time on the Highway (aptly named for its easy terrain, but also its exposed, lofty nature). Once across this, we descended around the First Tower, moved up the second tower, and took another break. We were about 2/3 of the way across the ridge, with the most technical bit behind us. We were going to make it! Little did I know just how nerve-racking the Catwalk would be. After some food, a quick call, and a ton of water, we moved up to the summit of the Second Tower. Before us lay the most exposed, and in my opinion dangerous, part of the route: the Catwalk. Narrower than shoulder width, this small path left no room for misstep with 1000 foot drop on either side and no place to hold on to.

The Catwalk

The Catwalk

I had climbed some sketchy routes, with lots of exposure and difficulty. But this was just a balancing act with a bit of luck involved, hoping that a rock did not break loose on the crossing. Matthew being the daredevil of our team elected to go first and walked across quite quickly. I was next and decided there was nothing wrong with a bit of butt-scooting. Once across the major catwalk, we quickly ascended the Third and last tower, traversed the second minor catwalk and summited Blanca Peak! On the summit, we were greeted by a couple asking if we were the ones on the traverse that they had seen early in the morning. They were very impressed by the deed, although not interested in attempting it (I don't blame them). Looking back, although it may have saved time and energy, the risk is probably greater than the reward in my mind, but many would say differently. Thankfully we had made it across in a mere 2 hours, shattering the average 3-5 hour crossing.

Either way, we were done and all we had left was a hike over to Ellingwood Peak. Matthew was on the fence, but I managed to convince him to do it a second time. The hike was loose and unpleasant, but the reward was worth it, as we soon stood atop Ellingwood. The descent was an adventure as we elected to take a "short-cut" through the loose scree rather than traversing to the saddle between Ellingwood and Blanca. once we found the trail, we quickly descended the road to camp, stopping along the way to refill our (my) water. The sun was already moving lower in the sky and we still had a miserable road to hike out that evening.

Once we were ready, we began the descent. Every car that passed us was full unfortunately and had no spare room for us hitch-hikers. By the time we reached our cars, our feet were beaten to a pulp and the sun was low in the sky. I now had a choice: a 5 hour drive to the Crestones or a 3 hour drive to Mount of the Holy Cross? Not wanting to drive in the dark too much, I decided on Holy Cross and Matthew returned home.

The drive to Holy Cross was uneventful, and soon enough I was in Leadville. I elected to spend the night car camping nearby so I could purchase a map and some food the next morning before backpacking into what some have said is the most beautiful 14er in Colorado. It was a lonely night, but the following morning was made better with a hot cup of coffee and granola bars. Next stop; Mount of the Holy Cross.

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Phyllis 1 year ago

amazing photos....what an experience!!!

1 year ago Edited
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