Where to begin with my mind still flying high from this recent ultra-14er adventure…
Back in June, my friend (and boss) at work mentioned he had planned a trip down to the Sangre de Cristo mountains to hike three 14ers, and invited me along. Word spread and a couple other people from work also were interested in going. I didn’t know much about these 14ers, aside from viewing their sharp snowcapped peaks while driving by them on my trip to the Sand Dunes Nat Park in April. They looked huge and menacing, but I figured they were just you’re “slightly better than average” 14er, from a difficulty and uniqueness level. It wasn’t until early August, a couple of weeks before the trip itself, after my parents had solidified their visiting plans, and I realized that somehow my work schedule would allow me time to take off 2 days, that I began researching about Blanca, Little Bear, and Ellingwood, and found out how much more exciting and special these peaks were.
Turns out that Little Bear rivals Capital Peak as arguably the hardest 14er to summit (Pyramid Peak gets mentioned at times too, given its loose rock). Little Bear has a famous Hourglass section, that is a 150’ steep class 4 climb up smooth rock, often with water running down the middle. Most people agree this particular pitch is the toughest part of any 14er’s standard route. The opportunity to climb this was exciting.
Just before I began my research, Ben, one of the guys joining the trip from work, stopped by and brought up the possibility of doing the Little Bear to Blanca ridge traverse. He said it had some class 5.0-5.2 parts, but might be fun to investigate, and perhaps try, instead of the standard class 2 approach to Blanca. So later that night I found a trip report of this ridge online, and my stomach fell into queasiness as I read about unrelenting exposure, numerous towers along the ridge to pass, and near constant knife edge conditions for much of the 1.5 mile ridge. The pictures were shocking. It seemed almost out of the question to attempt.
I read more trip reports and info online, and found varying opinions on its difficulty, but the common theme was something like this: “The exposure was tremendous. I had to circumvent a tower on the ridge, sticking my butt out around a rock, with a thousand feet of air underneath me. After a while I became numb to the exposure, and laughed at the ridiculous conditions I was encountering. It made the knife edge on Capital seem like a walk in the park.” (I had climbed Capital Peak last year).
Ben and I forwarded each other trip reports. Some reports made the ridge sound relatively straight forward and gave me confidence, while others gave me that queasy feeling at times. As the week of the trip began, I was gaining more confidence in understanding the cruxes of the ridge, and mentally preparing for the conditions. It's wonderful to live in an age where you can find so much info about these journeys online. I went to bed each night with an edgy excitement having stayed up reading about the ridge, becoming more familiar with the difficulties, and finally accepting that traversing this ridge was a very real probability as I was rising to meet the challenge.
As the day of the trip arrived, Ben and I both felt prepared enough to pursue this ridge traverse, but only if the weather was unquestionably good that day. There is no practical escape from the ridge if a storm hits. The weather forecast was for 30% chance of storms after noon Friday, the day we would want to attempt it (40% chance of rain Thursday night too). So we'd have to wait and see. But I knew that if we left the weekend without traversing the ridge, there would be a certain lack of fulfillment, as I was now fully charged to take on this quest.