Blanca Peak, 2020

  • Date: August 21, 2020
  • Partner: Neil Flowers
  • Height: 14,345 feet
  • Range: Sangre de Cristo
  • Route: Northwest Ridge (Difficult Class 2)
  • Overall Distance: 14 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 5,700 feet (car to summit)
  • 14ers climbed: 39 separate climbs
  • 14ers remaining: 14
  • Road Condition to Trailhead: I will spare you all the dramatic details about the Lake Como Road because the Internet is full of (dis?)information about it. With a standard off-road Ford Ranger 4×4, I was able to easily make it to 8,000′. At this point, you will need to kick it into 4WD. In my opinion, from 8,000′ to 8,800′ (where the trailhead sign is on the left) is a true, rough stretch of road. If you have made it this far, keep driving! I made the mistake of bailing out at 8,800′, when the fact of the matter is that I could have easily driven up to 10,000′, where there were several pullouts. There is a large parking area at about 10,250′, however, it would require a smaller truck to get there. You aren’t missing anything or “cheating” by driving to 10,000′; you’re just avoiding walking up a rocky road.

Back to Colorado I went last week to try my luck again. I flew into Denver on Thursday afternoon, rented a pickup truck, and made the 4-hour drive down to Alamosa. By the time I arrived, it was dusk, so I decided to not repeat the night hike from the trip before and bunk down instead in a hotel.

In the morning, I headed up the fearsome, molar-jarring Lake Como Road. After parking the truck, I’d say I departed at around 8:30 AM and it was already getting hot. Thirty minutes of trudging later, I came across a trio of people. There was a middle-aged couple from Aspen (Greg and Karen) and a young guy from Arkansas (Neil Flowers). Together, we chatted and swapped war stories along the way. Usually, I prefer to hike solo, but in this case, the hiking was atypically boring, so I enjoyed the company.

Around 11 AM or so, we arrived at Lake Como (~ 11,800′). All of us quickly set up our camps. My original plan was to chill and acclimatize, but when the rest of the group suggested continuing on up to Blanca Peak, I wholeheartedly agreed. Big mistake. Note to self: hike your own hike.

The two Aspen natives were in great shape and quickly left Neil and I in their wake. Neil and I seemed to be hiking at the same pace, so we decided to pair up and stay together. The trail gradually climbed up a valley and side-skirted some beautiful lakes. However, I did not pay too much attention because once again, I was not enjoying the effects of the altitude.

At around 12,500′, Neil and I were slowing considerably, pausing frequently to rest and sip water. Had it not been for his presence, I would have surely turned around and headed back to camp to rest up as I had originally intended. In a strange sort of synchronistic way, I think the two of us were somehow destined to be there together, pulling each other to the top.

The now ill-defined trail went up a saddle at what felt like 13,000′. Waves of nausea come over me as I continued to put my head down and not look at the summit. Over and over … take 10 steps … have heart rate soar into Zone 4 and 5 … lean against boulder or sit down … gulp water and rest for 30 seconds … rinse and repeat. This continued until we reached the top of the saddle; we now had the toughest 500′ of ascent left.

Taking a sharp right and heading up the final ridgeline, we encountered rockier Class 2 terrain. This actually helped because it forced us to slow down. Around 5 PM, we summited. This was the latest in the day that I have ever stood on top of a Colorado 14er and I felt uncomfortable. I was rubber-legged, gassed, and could not eat. Neil and I rested for a few minutes while I chugged a Red Bull to get the jolt of caffeine.

We then retraced our steps. For those that intend on doing this climb, this trail is unrelenting in terms of rocks. You actually do have to pay attention to what you are doing and there are few clear stretches where you can “cut it loose” for long. Neil and I made good time and were back in camp just as the sun was beginning to set. Greg and Karen were there eating their dinner. Greg kindheartedly congratulated me for pushing through my suffer fest. Karen asked how I felt, to which I replied, “Humbled.” With that said, I decided to skip any attempt at eating food, and heading straight for my quilt. I did not wake up until 11 hours later.

So what in the world do I give Blanca Peak on my 14er scale, given the confounding influence of my own personal experience? I had to step back and take a few days to think about this. I will give Blanca Peak a 5 out of 10. The reason is due to the length, the 6,000′ of ascent, and the amount of rocks.

When I regaled Adam, my old friend from Alaska, with this story, he said something along the lines, “Phil, you are now entering into a new reality.” He’s right.¬†Over the course of the fall and winter, I am going to write a series of posts about a.) aging, b.) injury, c.) exercising at high-altitude, d.) training, and e.) a surprise. My goal is to explore this “new reality”, and to offer a few thoughts to those that might need it … and to myself.

One last thing … when obstacles and hurdles arise in the quest for you to reach your dreams, you do not change your decision to get there, only the direction to reach them.