Descent Route: Northwest Face
Elev. 14, 345?
January 15, 2007
Ski Descent #53
What a difference one storm can make. The Sangre de Cristos have had plentiful snowfall already this season, but last week they got totally blasted by winds, and above tree line much of the skiable snow was stripped away. (See Little Bear trip report). The latest in a series of winter storms to hit Colorado rolled through last Friday and Saturday and fortunately came without the normal high winds. Christian Pondella and I left Salida at 6:00 a.m. and as we began the drive up the 4x4 Como Lake road and noticed all of the new snow, I felt as if this day might be our best chance in the last year.
We parked the truck at 9000? feet on the side of the road, in about a foot of new powder. We began skinning up the road at 8:20 a.m. It was minus 15 degrees outside and the skies were clear. Driving through the San Luis Valley earlier this morning the thermometer on my truck read a bone chilling minus 29 degrees, certainly the coldest temperature I have ever experienced in Colorado. Our bodies soon warmed up on the three-hour skin up to Como Lake, the spot we had camped at last week for Little Bear. Keeping the toes warm was a more difficult proposition. This was shaping up to be the coldest day either of us had ever spent in the mountains, and keeping frostbite away was of paramount importance. Past Como Lake we crested tree line and skinned up the gorgeous high valley, passing the frozen Blue Lakes and Crater Lake, up towards the saddle that separates Blanca Peak from Ellingwood Point. The closer we got to Blanca, the better conditions looked. The mountain was plastered with new snow, and all of the rocks were glued with big rime ice feathers. Christian and I were both concerned that the face might be too loaded with unstable snow, but upon closer inspection, we realized that the snow had bonded really well to the old wind pack below, and the many rocks bands on the face offered solid anchors to the face.
We skinned up the face on climber?s left, easily skinning over the rime covered rocks and powder snow. At 13,700? the pitch steepens and the clean face gives way to mixed gullies and rock ribs. We strapped the skis to our packs and climbed straight up to the summit, arriving on top of the Sangre de Cristos highest point at 3:40 p.m., over seven hours after leaving the car. On each and every fourteener I have skied there comes a point when I realize that a successful ski descent is in the bag. Sometimes I leave the car knowing that we will get it, and sometimes it doesn?t occur until I stand on the summit, looking down the ski route. On Blanca, I knew we had it as we stood atop the peak, gazing down the long northwest Face, and across at Ellingwood Point. Christian and I shot photos on top, but only briefly as the temperatures were way below zero and the wind chill painful to the skin. I dropped into the steep summit gullies. We made traversing ski cuts across the snowpack to test stability, finding solid conditions in the freezing temps. Once satisfied with the stability, we alternated skiing from safe zone to safe zone, all the while shooting photos in the epic late-afternoon light. Blanca was a spiritual peak for me. The combination of a long day, brutal cold, powder snow, and gorgeous light made for a sensory experience. At the bottom of the face we crossed over to the north, below Ellingwood Point, and sat in the sun. I had to take off my boots to warm my toes, which felt like wooden blocks at this point. We stared up at Blanca, admiring her flanks and our tracks. With the sun low in the sky we continued skiing, finding great pitches of powder snow bathed in pink light. With the last remnant of light far in the western sky, Christian and I skied far down the Como Lake road, only walking the last mile to the truck. It had been a monumental day by all accounts; over 5300? vertical, almost ten miles, over ten hours, and all in the cruel winter cold of minus 15 degrees. (Actually when we got back to the truck it was minus 9)
Now, with only one fourteener left to go to complete my project in a year period, I am hopeful for success on Longs Peak. After two long days in the mountains we are taking a rest day in Boulder, allowing our bodies and mind to recover, so that we can give Longs our best effort tomorrow.
p.s. for a good image of the line we skied on Blanca click on the Ellingwood Point trip report from last spring.
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