Mt Blanca, 14,345 and Ellingwood Pt, 14,042, Sep 20, 1994 – Almost died…

The data

“Get lower, get lower” was my only thought….. but more on that later. I have been burning the last few days of vacation time before Oct 1 to climb some mountains before the winter season took over and snowshoes became the norm. I had been interested in trying to do these two mountains ever since Tom Vervaeke had done them together in a long day earlier in the year. I had always thought his round trip time of 10 hours was a remarkable feat. Based on his trip report, I planned a climb with a thought if I was really fresh to try Little Bear. That was not even close to being an option.

I started up from the Lake Como trailhead (8,000′) at about 6:15 and walked the road; tough anyway you look at it, to Lake Como at 11,700 in 2.25 hours. The weather was unsettled but not bad so I continued up to the base of the Blanca/Ellingwood saddle. As I started to climb Blanca’s face, the weather did turn bad. The snow started and the wind started to whip things about. First I put on my shell jacket, 20 steps later I realized I could not afford to get wet with the temperature dropping so quickly, so I donned my shell mountaineering pants. I could still see cairns above and below so I felt it was safe to continue.

My only worry at that point was I was solo and a simple slip on the icy rocks could deposit me immobile on the face. I kept going for about 10 mins and since I could not see the summit (let alone 30′) I was not sure how far I had to go yet. My watch altimeter said 13,700, but as the winds and the snow got worse I decided the time had come to turn back. I did an about face and headed carefully down the face. After about 300′ of down climbing I noticed the snow had slacked off with about 2″ of new stuff around. Should I try and climb back up? For any who have hiked the entire Lake Como road you realize the investment I had already made…

I decided to head back and the higher I climbed, the better the weather got. I caught my first glimpse of the summit. I estimated that my watch was right as I had about 600′ to go. The books call this Class 2 so maybe I was off route as I had to negotiate a couple of bands of steep rock and snow enroute. About 20′ from the top, I dumped by pack, scrambled to the top, noted the cairn and register and returned to my pack to collect my thoughts. As I had been traveling so quickly, my appetite was not working as is so often the case. I had been expending mucho energy in climbing/decision making and could not replenish adequately. I sat there just below the summit and watched the sky turn blue as the clouds disappeared over the ridge to the east.

After a few minutes I headed down to the saddle where I made a terrible mistake and I am still not sure why/how I did it… I can only think that it was a little bit exhaustion and I was not thinking real clear. Nothing tragic here, just that I descended to the base of the saddle (about 800′) before I realized that to climb Ellingwood you could move right across the ridge (or just below it). When I reached the base I looked back up and realized what I had just done and was stunned. 800′ at 13,000 feet is a long way. I looked to the south ridge and it certainly looked doable, but it was much longer and it was already noon. Hey, how about just saying I did it… or just admit defeat.

I turned around and started walking back up the 800′ I had just ascended. It affected my morale just a bit. Once at the ridge again, I scrambled up Ellingwood Pt. arriving on top to see a cairn but no register as Tom had reported. I was getting near the end of my rope at about this point and decided the south ridge looked a better bet than retracing what I had just come up. Down the ridge I went and was making good time on the Class 3 scrambling. Then I saw the clouds building over the Sand Dunes… no, not again I thought. I decided to exit the ridge right then and there. This good decision was to make up for down climbing to the base of the saddle. I slid, down climbed, fell down a steep rocky couloir that dumped me at the base of the saddle. It ended in a 10′ wall with a cave/mine at the bottom. Just as I started to down climb this part I saw my first bolt of lightning hit the valley below. As soon as I got the trail, I half ran toward tree line as I knew what was coming. Well I thought I knew what was coming.

After about 10 steps the snow started and quickly developed into whiteout conditions, and then the lightening started. I did not realize how far it was to tree line but it is about 45 mins from where I was starting with no protection in between. I considered my options as I stumbled down the trail trying to see the cairns through my iced up sun glasses. There was no real safe protection from the lightning until tree line so to stop would not have increased my survival odds a bit in my opinion. Safety was down to the trees. Unfortunately the storm was moving up the valley. I placed my metal trekking poles in my pack and removed the waist strap and one shoulder strap and kept going as fast as I could. The snow after only about 20 mins was about 3″ deep and continuing to pile up.

Lightning was hitting all around me when I turned a corner around a rock and saw a white flash that seemed to envelop me. I threw my pack to the ground away from me and threw myself against the ground. The lightning struck within maybe 50 yards (?). Once I determined it had not hit me I grabbed my pack and continue to run and slide down the trail. Let’s just say a lot of thoughts of family were going through my head during this Russian roulette game with the storm. As I went down, the storm was moving in the opposite direction so the lightning got farther and farther away. At tree line I had planned to rest, eat and regain my strength. I kept walking, eating a Snickers Bar, and drinking some water. In a word, I was shook and the farther I got away from that experience the better.

Colorado weather is fickle and once the storm blew through, the blue sky appeared and by the time I got to about 11,000 I was sweating in my winter gear. I sat by the creek and stripped to shorts and a T-shirt for the 5.2 stroll down the road. The snow was already starting to melt and it seemed like an innocent Christmas snow now… but not then. Made it back to the car suffering from the extra altitude gain I forced upon myself on top of an already big day. Don’t have a real good conclusion to this report yet as I am still sorting out how I feel about the whole day and the experience. Headed out with a partner tomorrow to do 4 more peaks though…

Beta: 15.5 miles and 7,000′ Elevation gain if you make mistakes like I did….