Little Bear/Blanca Traverse & Ellingwood

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Peaks: Little Bear Peak (14,037′), Blanca Peak (14,345′), and Ellingwood Point (14,042′), Sangre de Cristo Range
Route: Little Bear’s W. Ridge, traverse to Blanca, Ellingwood Point’s S. Face
Date Climbed: Monday July 16, 2007

For about three months now Stu and I have been seriously considering a Grand Slam attempt on the Little Bear Group. We decided a week prior to the climb that this point in the summer seemed like a good time to go for it and our conflicting schedules dictated that it would have to be Monday the 16th. We departed Boulder at 10:00pm on Sunday the 15th and reached the Lake Como Road at 3:00am. We were able to drive to an elevation of 9,500 ft. (thanks to the 4-Runner), our official start time was 4:00am. The hike up the road revealed why exactly this is one of the nation‘s worst. Pretty amazing stuff. The hike to the trail turnoff was approximately three miles, we arrived at the cairned junction at 5:30am and began the southward ascent up Little Bear‘s west ridge.

Stu ascending the talus gulley used to gain the west ridge

Stu ascending the talus gulley used to gain the west ridge

From the top of the west ridge the route cuts east across the ridgeline to the bottom of the hourglass. We basically stayed on or near the ridgecrest until we arrived at the hourglass.

Looking up the hourglass

Looking up the hourglass

As confirmed many times before, staying to the left of the running water (center) of the hourglass seemed to be the easiest and safest route to the top. There was a red, relatively new looking rope next to the old rope and, although we chose not to trust it, we later met two guys who had rappeled down it the previous day. The rock in the hourglass is very stable and there are only a few sections of actual climbing, I can definately see how rockfall would absolutely suck though.

Stu climbing in the hourglass

Stu climbing in the hourglass

We topped out rather quickly and ascended the remaining three or four-hundred feet to the top, summiting Little Bear at 7:15am. The summit was cold and windy, not what we had hoped for but the weather quickly relented and we enjoyed some loin-girding M&Ms. It really was amazing how for below our position the plains appeared to be.

The town of Blanca from the summit of Little Bear, roughly 6,200 ft. below us

The town of Blanca from the summit of Little Bear, roughly 6,200 ft. below us

We began the Little Bear/Blanca traverse at 7:30am.

The Little Bear/Blanca traverse

The Little Bear/Blanca traverse

The initial downclimb off of Little Bear was probably the hardest section of the entire thing. In certain places the rock was downsloping, smooth, and slippery which was a bit unsettling (Jared Workman suggested the butt slide technique for this section). The exposure was pretty ridiculous; the ridge was narrow (usually a foot or two) with massive vertical drops off both sides and there were near vertical towers and humps thrown into the mix which needed to be climbed over or skirted around.

The initial downclimb off of Little Bear

The initial downclimb off of Little Bear

One move required us to place nearly all of our weight on a single handhold and lower ourselves over one of these small towers while leaning out over thousands of feet of exposure. This was the single scariest move I have ever done and it ended up being the worst of the entire traverse. At this point the whole thing became surreal and hilarious, I found myself laughing at the situation which helped take my mind off of the exposure. Sounds crazy but I often go a little nuts on exposed climbs.

Looking up at Little Bear‘s Summit

Looking up at Little Bear‘s Summit

Past the downclimb the ridge leveled out which made things easier but the ridge also became narrower, rather than having two feet to work with the ridge became a knife in many places which required the “saddle one leg over each side and scoot” technique – not very graceful but we didn‘t care. It was similar to Capitol‘s knife edge except that this knife edge sustained itself for a fourth of a mile.

After the initial downclimb the ridge narrowed even more

After the initial downclimb the ridge narrowed even more

Stu working his way across a tricky section

Stu working his way across a tricky section

One third of the way across the ridge we came to the “Captain Bivwacko Tower” which is marked by a cairn on top. We traversed around the left side of the tower via a small exposed ledge. About halfway across the traverse the ridge became wider and more manageable. We were able to increase our speed and although steep climbing was required (often times low Class 5), the exposure was kept to a minimum (a relative minimum anyway).

Near the midpoint of the traverse, after this the ridge widened

Near the midpoint of the traverse, after this the ridge widened

Near the end of the traverse the exposure increased again, there were a few narrow sections of “catwalk” which seemed to overhang on both sides (as described in other trip reports). Past these it was a simple matter of climbing up and down several large humps (these can be seen near the end of the traverse in the pic facing Blanca). Although these humps were exposed, they were less steep than they appear in the picture and generally pretty easy to negotiate.

One of the exposed catwalks near the end of the traverse

One of the exposed catwalks near the end of the traverse

We summited Blanca at 9:50am for a traverse time of two hours and twenty minutes. It was very relieving to be on the summit of Blanca, the surreality of the traverse began to diminish and Ellingwood Point became the new focus.

Blanca Summit, Little Bear in the background

Blanca Summit, Little Bear in the background

The descent off Blanca was horribly loose but we didn‘t mind much, the relief of not dealing with exposure overrode the crappiness of the loose talus field. We summited Ellingwood at 10:45am, the traverse over from Blanca taking roughly an hour. On the summit of Elingwood we busted out the celebratory Capri Sun drink packs! Yeah! 8)

Ellingwood Point from just above the Blanca/Ellingwood Saddle

Ellingwood Point from just above the Blanca/Ellingwood Saddle

Little Bear Peak from Ellingwood‘s Summit

Little Bear Peak from Ellingwood‘s Summit

The descent from Ellingwood was equally loose as the descent off Blanca. We worked our way down to Lake Como which was a really sweet hike, there were about six different lakes at different elevations which drained into each other and then eventually into Lake Como. After soaking our feet in the lake, we descended to the car, ending our hike at 2:00pm.

A last look at Little Bear and the traverse

A last look at Little Bear and the traverse

One thought on “Little Bear/Blanca Traverse & Ellingwood

  1. Brandon Chalk

    Love the old TRs, Ben, especially this one from LB-Blanca. A very belated well done, buddy.

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