Trip Report
An Absurd Obsession, the north face of Blanca Peak
Monday March 20, 2017 10:04am
When you tip at windmills, sometimes the windmill wins. For much of my mountaineering life I have been obsessed with the north face of Blanca Peak in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in southern Colorado. I have climbed Blanca Peak several times from its southern approaches, which is what sane humans do, and a few of times from the north during more temperate times of the year. In the early 1970’s Jack Panek and I, along with several friends, went in up the Huerfano Valley to an old miners’ cabin, long since gone, for a long weekend of camping and mountaineering. For warmups all of us climbed Mt Lindsey. The following day Jack and I climbed Blanca via the northeast ridge on the far left side of the north face. It was mostly fourth class stuff but a bit steeper on the upper portions of the ridge. The real highlight came from down climbing it in the dark and descending a very steep and gnarly gulley filled with loose blocks and killer flakes. Jack knocked one such block loose above me but I had enough time to move to the side to dodge it and enjoy the sparks and smell of ozone as that monster careened down the gulley. Jack was very apologetic, and still is – he brought that incident up last summer at a Gunnyville reunion and was still apologizing for it. Jack, we all lived, it’s all good, you can let this one go, buddy. Our friends in camp aided our navigation home by building the largest campfire I have yet seen in a national forest – thanks Kimberly and Tim, it really helped.

Around 1974 or so Jimmy Newberry and I teamed up with John Pearson and Scotty Gilbert to have a go at the North face in the winter. Skiing in with 85 lb. packs was brutal, but we had the miners’ cabin to take the edge off the winter camping. Scotty and John went up the central couloir between the north face of Blanca proper and the north face of Ellingwood. This is the sanest line on the north face, which is probably why Jimmy and I went up the buttress to its right. The rock on Blanca is weird metamorphic amphibolitic and granitic gneiss that fractures in odd, blocky patterns that lack regular crack systems but yields a plethora of small, downwardly sloping ledges. When covered with snow it’s a completely ridiculous surface to climb on. Here I should note that picking this line right of the central couloir was one of the more foolish route choices I have made on a major climb, and I typically am an overachiever when it comes to foolishness. We were several pitches up the buttress and things were getting steeper and weirder as there was nothing to get any pro into. After a full rope length of no pro whatsoever I could see a ledge about 15 feet higher that would give us a good belay. I yelled at Jimmy to pull his anchors and start simul-climbing so I could reach this point of relative safety. Jimmy was not amused. Once we were reunited at the belay ledge Jimmy reported that he had dropped one of his gloves on that pitch, which put us in a guaranteed major frostbite situation. We made several raps off some of the worst anchors I have ever used, usually a sling around some protuberance that had to be weighted just so to stay in place. There is no doubt that Jimmy’s dropped glove saved our bacon. Scotty and John made it up their couloir but got benighted, then got lost on a descent that took them over the top of Ellingwood and down a ridge to the northwest that cliffed out. A helicopter from Ft Carson saved two lives that day in one of the most impressive shows of rotary-wing airmanship I have ever witnessed.

The following winter I went back to the north face of Blanca with Mike Dean. This time I decided that a direct line up the center would be just the thing. On this approach there is a lower cliff band of one or two pitches, a large snow-covered slope, and then the main face itself. We were up one pitch on the lower cliff band when Mike confessed that he was in over his head and completely psyched out by the north face. After the previous winter’s debacle I recognized good judgement in a partner when I saw it and we baled.

Fast forward to the mid 1980’s and a rational approach up Huerfano Creek in July with warm temperatures, long days, and magnificent fields of wildflowers. Really, people, this is the way the mountains ought to be enjoyed. Peter Dea and I put together a delightful route that used a series of discontinuous ledge systems leading to a diagonal crack system to get about half the way up the face. This led to a snowy chimney leading up into a shallow dihedral that ventured right for several pitches to the ridge just below the summit. The climbing was no harder than 5.8, there were a few old rusty pitons to show we were not the first, and protecting with nuts was quite reasonable. Cloud cover was descending to the summit just as we arrived, which only added to the atmospherics of the whole climb. The descent down the central couloir in foggy conditions completed our grand adventure on the north face that day. To top off a perfect day we returned to camp before the sun had set, which was a shocking departure from my usual modus. This climb, coupled with other solo trips up the northeast ridge and back down the central couloir during other summers had given me a reasonable appreciation for the geography of Blanca Peak’s north face.

Peter Dea approaching the north face via the ice field.
Peter Dea approaching the north face via the ice field.
Credit: Nick Danger
Nick higher up on the ice field below the north face.
Nick higher up on the ice field below the north face.
Credit: Nick Danger
Peter third classing the lower north face just above the ice field.
Peter third classing the lower north face just above the ice field.
Credit: Nick Danger
Peter climbing farther up the north face.
Peter climbing farther up the north face.
Credit: Nick Danger
Nick in a snowy chimney on the north face.
Nick in a snowy chimney on the north face.
Credit: Nick Danger
Farther up the chimney.
Farther up the chimney.
Credit: Nick Danger
Nick on a rock buttress about half way up the face during the sunny pa...
Nick on a rock buttress about half way up the face during the sunny part of the day.
Credit: Nick Danger
Nearing the summit as the cloud cover descends.
Nearing the summit as the cloud cover descends.
Credit: Nick Danger
Peter Dea on the summit of Blanca Peak.
Peter Dea on the summit of Blanca Peak.
Credit: Nick Danger
The descent route down the central couloir.
The descent route down the central couloir.
Credit: Nick Danger
Nick rapping down the cliff band half way down the central couloir.
Nick rapping down the cliff band half way down the central couloir.
Credit: Nick Danger

What is it they say about crazy, about doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome? Early in the 1990’s I convinced my long-time partner John Ferguson that another go at the north face in winter was just the thing. We planned from the start to ascend the central couloir so only needed to take one rope and a very modest rack for the cliff half way up the couloir. Scotty Gilbert had taken a fall on that cliff but did successfully lead it on his second try on their ill-fated climb many years before, and I had rapped down it from some old pitons and manky slings on previous summer’s outings. The ski in was just as long as on previous trips, but the snow was great and our packs were somewhat lighter. By this time the old miners’ cabin had burned down due to some USFS-induced “lightning-caused” fire, so we set up a tent to serve as our base camp. John and I skied as high up onto the face as we could get and found a ledge of sorts that we could dig out for a bivy at around 12,600 ft. It was early March, but with modern clothing and gear we stayed pretty warm throughout the night. Well, I did. Apparently John’s feet never warmed up so the following day he elected to ski down to base camp rather than flirt with frostbit toes. I thought I might be able to solo the central couloir and headed up. It was a clear day with high winds from the south blowing spindrift off the top – quite the alpine atmosphere for what was shaping up to be a nice day of winter mountaineering. I quickly gained the cliff band in the couloir and was faced with a choice; the right side of the cliff was only about 15 ft tall, but overhanging and swept by spindrift avalanches every few minutes. The left side was about 30 to 35 ft. high and leaned back a bit, but had the typical outwardly sloping ledges with a thin veneer of patchy ice, not thick enough to get really good ice tool placements, but thick enough to make a guy think it had possibilities. I had a rope for the rappel but not enough of a rack to get solid anchors for a protected solo lead, and the couloir was very steep just below the cliff – no chance at all of a self-arrest. After repeatedly working up to the crux moves on several variations, I just could not commit with so slender a margin of error. I backed off and post-holed my way back down the couloir, filled with the lightness of being that comes with the pardon of a condemned man and secure in the knowledge that I would see another sunrise. John and I reunited at base camp, brewed up many pots of tea, and feasted on what rations we had left. The next morning yielded fabulous late winter skiing down Huerfano Creek by two guys who were just happy to be intact. I have not been back to the north face since. I’m OK with that.

John Ferguson up Huerfano Creek.
John Ferguson up Huerfano Creek.
Credit: Nick Danger
John high up in Huerfano Creek with a portion of the northeast ridge i...
John high up in Huerfano Creek with a portion of the northeast ridge in the background.
Credit: Nick Danger
The north face looming up behind John.  It looks almost reasonable fro...
The north face looming up behind John. It looks almost reasonable from here – it’s not.
Credit: Nick Danger
Skiing up to our high bivy.
Skiing up to our high bivy.
Credit: Nick Danger
The north face of Blanca Peak.  It looks like rational ascent routes e...
The north face of Blanca Peak. It looks like rational ascent routes exist, but they never feel rational.
Credit: Nick Danger
Yer loyal scribe looking for a placement at our bivy ledge.
Yer loyal scribe looking for a placement at our bivy ledge.
Credit: Nick Danger
Looking down at John at the bivy ledge as I head towards the central c...
Looking down at John at the bivy ledge as I head towards the central couloir.
Credit: Nick Danger
Looking across at the face from the lower part of the central couloir.
Looking across at the face from the lower part of the central couloir.
Credit: Nick Danger
Looking up the central couloir.  The buttress to its right is where Ji...
Looking up the central couloir. The buttress to its right is where Jimmy and I baled years earlier.
Credit: Nick Danger
Looking down my tracks somewhere below the cliff band.
Looking down my tracks somewhere below the cliff band.
Credit: Nick Danger
Farther up the central couloir.
Farther up the central couloir.
Credit: Nick Danger
Spin-drift avalanches poured down the cliff band every few minutes.  T...
Spin-drift avalanches poured down the cliff band every few minutes. The cliff band is way steeper than it appears in this photo.
Credit: Nick Danger

  Trip Report Views: 614
Nick Danger
About the Author
Nick Danger is a ice climber from Arvada, CO.

Comments
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survival

Big Wall climber
Terrapin Station
  Mar 20, 2017 - 10:16am PT
Wow!

Super cool pix and reflections from the way back machine, just the way I like it.

"I will pay, day by day, anyway, lock bolt and key! Crippled but free, I was blind all the time I was learning to see..."
SteveW

Trad climber
The state of confusion
  Mar 20, 2017 - 08:31pm PT
Natty nickers there, Nick!
(I used to wear some like that too--heavy wool, nice and
warm)!
donini

Trad climber
Ouray, Colorado
  Mar 20, 2017 - 08:41pm PT
Sweet! Love those vintage photos....especially the ones in the snowy chimney.
Good story too!
virginiapine

Trad climber
Charlottesville, Virginia
  Mar 21, 2017 - 04:56am PT
That is an amazing valley, and really impressive cirque, particularly for Colorado. One of my favorite trips of all time: I spent a few days up there years ago, immeadiately after the dark day of 9/11/2001. Not another soul around, and no planes overhead (day or night), which never happens in the lower 48.
Anyway, I had a fabulous time soloing the Ormes Buttress left of the central couloir (hardest climbing was ~5.7 in places, nothing long) to the summit, down and over a traverse of Ellingwood, and rapped/downclimbed from the notch between it and California Pk. Quite a day...
slabbo

Trad climber
colo south
  Mar 21, 2017 - 06:30am PT
Sweet ND,, I live across the road from Blanca and get to see some crazy stuff up there.
ydpl8s

Trad climber
Santa Monica, California
  Mar 21, 2017 - 09:18am PT
Wow Bob, I never knew that you were up there that day when Scottie and John were "rescued". Go figure, you and Jimmy were the sane ones, that's gotta be a first! :-)
Moss
Nick Danger

Ice climber
Arvada, CO
Author's Reply  Mar 21, 2017 - 10:11am PT
Scott, Being accused of sanity is not something that typically characterizes my earlier mountaineering career - thanks buddy. The Army pilot from Ft. Carson wanted to head home as soon as he had dropped Scotty and John off at the trail head far down Huerfano Creek, but that would have left Jimmy and I to carry four heavy packs (approx 80 lbs apiece)back down that valley. You can probably imagine Jimmy's and my relief when we prevailed upon him to also give us and the gear a lift.
NutAgain!

Trad climber
South Pasadena, CA
  Mar 21, 2017 - 12:07pm PT
Nice pics and stories! Being chained together while soloing on snow/ice-covered down-slopers doesn't sound fun. Hints of oldness creeping in on me. But the overall experience of skiing and scrambling up stuff and the juxtaposition of wide vistas with the intimate feel of a lowering cloud cover sounds pretty wonderful.
Ezra Ellis

Trad climber
North wet, and Da souf
  Mar 22, 2017 - 03:38am PT
Another first rate Tr,
Thanks Nick!
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