When: June 21, 2014
Route: Little Bear via NW Face, traverse to Blanca, then Ellingwood Point, then to Unnamed 13,660, over 13,577 to California Peak, descent off west slopes; car shuttle at Como Rd (between 3.5 and 4 miles from Lake Como) and Zapata.
Stats: 14 miles and 8,800’ elevation gain, per Ryan’s GPS
Time: 11 1/2 hours (slowed by nightfall)
Intervals: 2 hours from stream crossing on Como Road past Jaws 2 to LB summit; 1.5 hours to traverse from LB to Blanca; 55 min to traverse to Ellingwood Point; 2 hours to ‘660 from Ellingwood; 40 minutes to ‘577; 1 hour from ‘577 to California; 2 hours of night-time bushwhacking to find the Zapata trail, as GPS didn’t show it reaching the summit, so we didn’t look around well to find it on the south side.
I need to give Kiefer of 14ers.com the credit for coming up with this itinerary in a discussion last year. He couldn’t make it this year, but Ryan “Mountain Socialite” Marsters agreed to come along for the fun, and upped the ante by adjusting our schedule so we could accompany Andrew Hamilton for just a mile or two as he set out to try and break the speed record for the Fourteeners. (Ryan’s high school lacrosse coach is a friend of Hamilton’s.) Thanks to Ryan for his usual great company, for exercising restraint to allow me to lead some sections, and for some excellent photos – more than half in this report are his.
It is folly to climb onto the spine of the Sangres in the afternoon with the intent of running around up there until dark, but we had the longest day of the year to do it, and a good weather forecast.
Andrew was coming from Culebra, which he’d hiked that morning, after climbing the Crestones the night before. We met at Jaws 2 on the Lake Como road and set off. I didn’t know Andrew at all and expected him to be grimly set on his goal – Ryan and I were afraid we might have to try and tell jokes to cheer him up – but he chattered amiably the whole way up, telling us anecdotes of family and prior trips. What prepared him to be able to attempt the speed record? After raising four kids, he was accustomed to sleep deprivation.
Andrew scanned Little Bear for the right spot to launch up the NW face, picking an entry point well to the right of the three black water marks, but angling steadily to the left to keep the difficulty at class 3. I had done this route alone many years ago, and my route began down by the water marks, with the crux being a low 5 headwall early on. The course I took then sought out class 4 terrain; by contrast, Andrew’s path found the most expedient way up. Ryan followed on Andrew’s heels and the two kept talking and moving, unceasing, as I gasped for breath 30 or so vertical feet below.
I reached Little Bear’s summit just as Andrew was turning to leave it, and I signed in the three of us before scurrying to catch up to Ryan. Andrew at this point became a speck on the ridge ahead of us, although we met up with him briefly on our way to Ellingwood Point (his route skirted Blanca on the traverse, looped to EP and then returned over Blanca’s summit to descend Gash Ridge (!) en route to Lindsay).
The traverse begins in earnest, with an airy class 4 downclimb. I quickly concluded that it is the best movement experience of the “four great 14er traverses:” the scrambling and exposure are more sustained and the rock solid. Each of the other three has its merits and it’s hard to top the views from the Bells traverse, but for the pure scrambling experience, I rate this one first. For the first third of the traverse, I felt like an ant poised on a knifeblade.
Other reports go into great detail of the traverse, so I won’t. I was honestly too focused on just getting across the first section to Captain Bivwacko Tower to take any photos. We stayed on the ridge proper for most of it, but early on there are two minor towers and we passed the second on the left (north), as well as Bivwacko.
Atop Blanca, we met Jim Fuge and his daughter, enjoying a day out in the Sangres because there are not very many significant peaks to climb nearby Jim’s home of Durango. It was four o’clock, and we dallied for the better part of a half-hour, talking and snacking. Jim also took this summit shot for us, with the traverse from Little Bear in the background.
As we stepped off Blanca to the north, we could survey the rest of our course though without insight to all of the little nooks, crannies, notches and bumps along the ridgelines.
We set off to Ellingwood Point, sticking to the ridge and pausing frequently to glimpse Gash Ridge and views of the Huerfano valley. As the ridge circled westward toward EP, we found it more convenient to depart the ridge crest for some faster class two terrain, but we then angled rightward back to the ridge crest.
Descending the north ridge off Ellngwood Point was a wake up call from our class 2/class 3 autopilot of the prior hour. Below, I’m heading toward a notch; the intermission will soon be over.
Similar to the LB to Blanca traverse, the first third of the distance from EP to ’660 has the major difficulties. This portion of the ridge was exciting, with plenty of exacting hand and foot scrambling and some spots with significant exposure. It’s a long, twisty ridge, and delightfully solid. We were about a half hour in that we reached a section that required two significant deviations from the ridge in quick succession.
The high point in the foreground involved a steep downclimb on the other side, which we bypassed to the right (east). Quickly regaining the ridge crest, we soon afterward came to another stout section where I found a bypass to the left (west) down a diagonally faulted slab with a boot-width crack that transversed the diagonal fault (the rock face was angled left to right (southwest to northeast, and the access crack – there’s a phrase! – ran nearly due north). Anyhow, it was still what I would call class 3; we scooted down facing out. This slab put us on an easy ledge that we followed back to the right, directly underneath the class 5 steeps, and back to the ridge. I didn’t get shots of either of those spots, but Ryan snapped this one from about 40 minutes into the traverse from ’660, and I think it’s another spot shortly after these first two that I’ve managed to forget. You can see LB at top right; we still have the majority of the 1.2 miles to cover to ’660.
As we progressed further along, the difficulties eased considerably. In the two hours that it took us, we covered probably the latter two-thirds in that second hour. Still, just when we’d hit a a cruiser class 2 section and get lulled into complacency, the scrambling would commence again. In some parts, a person more intent on time management than the aesthetics of a ridge run could drop forty or fifty feet to walk across grass and stable talus. I enjoyed this ridge. Sangres devotees will quickly find it comparable to other traverses, like Milwaukee to Pico Asilado, portions of the Crestones, Music’s south ridge. The mellow sections were a lot like the ridge connecting the Cleveland Group; the harder parts closer to what we had crossed earlier in the day between LB and Blanca.
We had drunk nearly all of our water when we hit 13,660 just a smidge shy of two hours from EP, so it was lucky that a cornice still lingered in a sheltered section on the northeast side of the summit. We scooped out snow there to sustain us for the final leg. The views were eye-stretching.
The slight but sway-backed ridge connecting from ‘660 to ‘577 marked our farewell to scrambling. It was a talus slog across a little less than a half mile that took us between a half hour and forty minutes. I think we might had hit one very short class 3 rock portion on that section. But this is what most of it looked like:
In the photo above, you can see the small sub-summit on the far left – it lies between ’577 and California. “We’re skirting that bastard!” I proclaimed when we left ’577, and so we did, but doing so involved tedious talus side-hilling, so I’m not sure that my choice saved us any time. We paused atop ‘577 to sign the register and look back at our route. Surveying the zigzagging ridgelines that we had traversed lent a great feeling of satisfaction.
Ahead, the way was very easy – “just a slog” with nothing to scramble – and I was ready to be on California and walking to Zapata. It was nearing 8 pm, so I knew at this point that I’d not get to see Zapata falls, but both Ryan and I thought we’d reach the top of California in a half hour. It took us double that time. My legs were creaking slowly and Ryan was snapping sunset photos.
We summited California shortly before 9 pm, drank deeply of our remaining snowmelt from ‘660, and took only a few moments to enjoy the tranquility of the sunset taking photos, before fishing out the headlamps for the descent.
With daylight, I am sure the Zapata trail is easily identified at a southwest aspect from the high point. I’d forgotten my topo in my car and Ryan’s GPS showed no trail to the summit, so we didn’t look, but proceeded westward down a gentle hillside that had just enough of an incline to make the loose scree and talus annoyingly treacherous in the twilight. Lower down, we zigzagged through woods. We hit the trail around 11 and reached the Zapata parking lot at midnight. Gazing up at the grandeur of the starry sky and wondering why I couldn’t fall asleep instantly, I finally zonked out and woke up the next morning to a beautiful view of two of my favorite peaks, the Crestones, looming beyond the Great Sand Dunes.