Day 3

We got up a tad bit late. We were wanting to get on the trail by 7 to beat the heat and potential thunderstorms. Colorado is notorious for mid-afternoon storms that usually pop up around 2:30 or 3. But things moved a little slower than planned, and at around 8:15 we had cleaned up camp, hung our packs in the tree, made sure Jessica’s dog Nicky had a cool place to wait for us with access to water, and then we hit the trail. Watching the sun rise over the Sangre de Cristo mountains is a thing of beauty. Jessica and I had already marveled several times at the inability of our cameras or our inadequate vocabulary to capture the stunning beauty of everything that surrounded us.

Crater Lake

It seemed like we were stopping to take pictures every minute or two, convinced that the picture we were taking was impossibly more beautiful than the one we had just snapped moments before. So what should have taken a little over an hour took almost 3. But we were in no rush. None whatsoever. On our way to Blanca, We passed the Blue Lakes, a serene waterfall, the end of the 4-wheel drive road (how anyone made it up to that point in a vehicle is beyond me, but we saw a Jeep there, so I guess the logical conclusion is that it can, in fact, be done), skirted Crater Lake (there was even a little snow!) and started our ascent toward Blanca.

For those of you who don’t know, Blanca Peak (14,345 feet) is the 4th highest peak in Colorado and the 8th highest in the US. It’s up there. Way up there. And looking up at the summit is very intimidating. And exhilarating. And awe-inspiring. And humbling. The ascent is a scrambler’s delight, with very little in the way of a trail leaving us to create one of our own. I enjoyed hopping from rock to rock, climbing on all fours at some points, and racing to the top just about as fast as I could. I was in heaven. This was why I had come to Blanca. There’s something about scrambling that is completely different than hiking or even rock climbing. It’s a thrill that I can’t really explain or even fully understand myself. I just know I love it.

The scramble to the summit of Blanca is very steep. It is very rocky. And it is very long. But the reward when you get to the top is worth every step. The views are breathtaking. You can see for what seems like forever. Again, words and even pictures and video cannot ever do it justice. Unless you’ve been there and seen it with your own eyes, there is no way to fully appreciate the pure beauty of it all.

Summit of Blanca!

 

Summit of Ellingwood (Blanca in the background)

After a few pictures, high-fives, and a little time to soak it all in, we started back down the same ridge we had just climbed and headed toward Ellingwood Point. Now at 14,042 feet, Ellingwood is no dwarf. But it sort of looks like on in the huge shadow of Blanca.  It’s a tough peak and was a difficult climb. In many ways it was even tougher than Blanca. it took us about an hour to get over to Ellingwood from Blanca, and the views were just as spectacular. We took even more pictures, there were more high-fives and smiles, and we took some time to soak it all in. We had been tipped off by a hiker on the way into camp (he was on his way down) who told us about an easier, faster way off of Ellingwood. His suggestion: take the South Ridge route. My suggestion: Never take the South Ridge Route.

The South Ridge Trail

We started on the South Ridge “trial” with high spirits, ready to get back to camp. We wanted to check on the dog, talk about our day and get ready for our attempt of Little Bear Peak the next day. I say “trail” because there were cairns from time to time suggesting a trial, but basically we had to follow a ridge that was as narrow as about a foot and as wide as maybe four or five feet, with 1000+ foot drop-offs on either side. It was not a trail for the faint of heart. If you are affected by vertigo, do not attempt this trail. If you are afraid of heights, do not attempt this trail. If you want to live, do no attempt this trail.

Somehow we climbed down this

I was doing fine (though Jessica seemed to be a wee bit nervous) with the ridge trail of death for at least a half mile or so. but then we came across a point in the trail that even I was too nervous to climb down. The only other option at this point was to leave the ridge and try to climb down over 1000 feet of loose shale. The shale route looked easy enough, and seemed to be a much better option than the ridge, so we started down. Now I’m not saying that this was a mistake, because we truly did not have any other options, but it was the most terrifying climb I have ever attempted, and I’ve been in some pretty tight spots before. The journey down consisted of me finding some way to get down 10 or 15 feet, turning around and explaining to Jess where to put her feet, and then repeating that same process for about two hours. I didn’t admit it to her until we were finally out of harms way, but eventually I told Jessica that the climb down was the most difficult I had ever attempted, that I almost lost it a couple times and that no one in their right mind would ever try that climb without lots of rope and helmets. I was just glad to make it down alive, and at the very least uninjured.

So, what should have been about a 6 hour climb turned into an almost 8 hour, death-defying adventure. Once we got back to camp, exhausted, dehydrated, sunburned, and aching all over, we checked on the dog and then just sat near the lake until dinner.

All in all, this was my favorite day of the trip. The quiet beauty of the sunrise, the thrill of the ascent to Blanca, the challenge of the traverse over to Ellingwood, the danger of the descent, the mind-clearing hike back to camp where I really got to reflect on a lot of things all made the day one that I will never forget.

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This is the story of an epic Colorado Adventure that almost never happened.

My cousin Jessica and I had been talking about going on a backpacking trip in Colorado for several years. Each time it came up, however, life seemed to get in the way and we would postpone another year. This year, 2011, was different. We were determined to make it happen this time. We recruited Jessica’s sister Kelly and my stepdad Kevin to go with us, and we began planning. As the time to leave drew near, both Kelly and Kevin backed out for various (and worthy) reasons. Honestly, I kept waiting for the call from Jessica to tell me that she couldn’t go either, but the call never came, and it looked as if the trip was actually going to happen. Then one of my employees quit and I tore a muscle in my leg. Both things came within a hair’s width of derailing the trip, but I found a replacement employee and gave my leg some time to heal. I wasn’t going to let anything get in the way of the trip this time!

 

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