Little Bear Peak
From Como Lake Road
Thursday August 20, 2009
I wanted to climb this peak during the week with far less people and took a PTO day planning to climb on Thursday. Thus, following a full day of work on Wednesday I packed my gear into my truck and was on the road by 6:25PM. The traffic wasn’t terrible and making my way along Route 93 to Route 6 to C-470 to I-25 South went by surprising well.
The night was clear and after passing through Colo Sprgs it was smooth sailing to Walsenburg to Route 160 West over La Veta Pass and on through Ft Garland and Blanca. I then turned right on Route 150 and was really starting to feel the effects of a long day; the night and the road were black and I missed the turn for Como Lake Rd. I corrected my wrong and proceeded past others who had made camp well below on this notoriously bad road. I drove up only as far I where the cobbles start to get bad and made ready my S-10 pickup with camper shell for a good nights sleep. The stars were fantastic with the Milky Way directly overhead and noticeably very quite as I bedded down about 11:15PM……….I was way beat.
My watch alarm sounded at 5:00AM and I wasted no time getting up and preparing a quick hot breakfast of instant oatmeal, black coffee and a quart of Gatorade. The stars of autumn filled the skies with Orion and The Pleiades unmistakably present high above. Dawn was breaking to the East and I wanted to get moving up this; “the roughest road in Colorado” at first light and negotiate through this abysmal road with its cobbles, wash outs, switchbacks, boulders, ledges, single-file, blind curve all the way, fargin-bastidge, sorry-ass excuse for a passage…………enough already!!
I managed a full 3.5 miles past the trailhead and rounded a hairpin turn where exists a small place to park. I had been to this very same spot in May of 2006 and remembered it vividly. However, this time my heart sank a bit as there was already a Ford Bronco sitting in “my spot”. I shoe-horned in along side the Bronco and was glad to be finished with this portion of the drive as I chocked all four tires and started getting ready for my climb. I was bangin-around pretty good as I figured the occupant of the Bronco was well on there way up; after all it was 7:00AM. To my surprise the occupant actually awoke and emerged and I apologized for my noise but he said he had to get up anyway.
We introduced ourselves to each other and when I asked Clay where he was climbing today the answer was Little Bear. I immediately requested that we hike together and the response was quick and most favorable; from now until nearly 5:00PM we would hike together as a team………excellent! We started up the road at 7:19AM.
The weather was perfect……….blue skies, and about 75 degrees, we hiked up this steep and rocky road to Como Lake and arrived at 8:46 where we paused for a breather and took in a little food & drink. Little Bear Peak totally dominates the view to the right and above this beautiful little lake and we saw a couple of tents pitched but nobody around. Como Lake Road continues to the left of the lake and up through a short shady section through the woods where it soon opens to the right, crosses a small creek and here a few cairns lead to the first of many challenges this day would bring. Up and over a large rubble-mound of stones and to the base of a steep, scree/cobble gully leading up high above to a notch at the ridge.
We each donned our helmets & gloves and took our own paths of least resistance through this section and found our ways often on all fours to scramble up this nasty gully with loose scree, rock, dirt & gravel. Progress was slow but steady and reaching the top of the gully was a welcome relief as we ascended up through the opening and headed directly left and up onto the ridge itself for a short while on solid rock. Way down below the other side of the notch was Little Bear Lake as we stopped and checked our maps which showed us to be on track as we then proceeded just right of the ridge where we soon found a series of cairns leading along a faint, rocky trail.
Staying on the “trail” was the next challenge; moving along this long traverse right and just below the ridge felt right and staying up versus getting too low was another challenge as we didn’t want to have to regain elevation as we never really seemed to find a sustained series of consistent cairns to make us believe otherwise. “Cobblin-along” was working OK and we soon found ourselves coming over a high point and through a short rock rib line and from here we could now see well ahead to where the shadows of the “hourglass” gully was located and what appeared to be the summit well above to our left.
Two hikers now were coming towards us with two more a little ways behind them in the distance. We were relived to see that they were on the same line as we were and it wasn’t too long before we greeted each other and conversed briefly about the “hourglass” conditions. Dry, clear, nobody else above and ropes for climbing assistance was the report and it lifted our spirits as we continued towards the base of the gully and the knowledge that no one above would be kicking down any bad news our way. Finding the true passage to the true gully was now our next challenge and we moved rather cautiously as not to make a mistake at this critical juncture.
Reddish-brown colored bands in the rock matching the pictures I had brought revealed the unmistakable bottom of the hourglass. As I was pointing this out to Clay he told me that he was color blind and couldn’t see what I was seeing; most interesting, and I had to convince him that this was the way and we now had to get over yet another section of rocky rubble to enter the base of the gully. Up above we could now see two ropes hanging from above and this confirmed our position as we made our way via the best zig-zag passage possible until we stood right at the ropes.
We each knew the hourglass to be the crux of this route and we now had this challenge directly before us. Clay didn’t like the looks of the ropes but I didn’t hesitate and had the two wet and nearly frozen ropes in my right hand as I climbed up the steep, polished rock finding hand and footholds while pulling along the ropes. Higher up things were much dryer and there were now four ropes, climbing cautiously up a bit higher there were soon six; at this point I simply grabbed the six ropes as a bundle, straddled them between my legs and climbed the last 80’ hand over hand straight up the hourglass right to the heavy anchors holding this all together with yet another single anchor running diagonally off to the left. I waited here as Clay then climbed up in a similar fashion and we each took a good rest and a long look at the remaining route ahead.
Weather conditions were ideal and knowing the summit was near was a relief, but we soon realized the last section of this route was a confounding test in finding the correct short gully to the correct high point above. Going too far left didn’t work well as following wayward cairns miss-guided us to where we then actually split up for a short while as Clay went right I tried going somewhat straight up to no avail. Clay then found a short gully on the right with decent rock and proceeded ahead as I backtracked and soon followed and clambered-up behind him onto an empty summit at 1:06PM. This last portion beyond the hourglass took us a solid hour of frustration to figure-out but we’d made it and immediately clinched in a celebratory high five.
The day was perfect and the views spectacular from this small perch as we relaxed for a long rest took in some food & drink, while marveling at how far you could see from up here on this clear day. Way below was Como Lake with Ellingwood , Blanca & Mt Lindsey appearing close enough to touch and the Crestones & Sand Dunes more distant to the North, Spanish Peaks and Culebra further South and the San Luis Valley spread in it’s entirety to the West. Photo opportunities abounded and we took many during our 30 minute visit before heading back down.
The route finding was much easier going back down as we’d made many mental notes along the way making every effort to keep from kicking anything loose where it would funnel down and fall below as we didn’t know if anyone was down there. Grabbing the ropes down through the hourglass made this a fun and exciting descent as things were now completely dry and knowing the ropes were secure and strong gave added confidence. Moving back along the traverse we found an excellent sustained trail marked with cairns and we proceeded much more quickly heading back and paused at the top of a steep, narrow, chute-like couloir to peak down the dark, sheer edge and joked about exiting down that way as a short cut………I don’t think so.
Looking back towards the hourglass with this face of the mountain now in bright sunshine was an awesome sight just before clearing the rock rib line and the high point. The route back was faster and uneventful as we conversed about many things as we went and were soon at the top of the notch and the final descent down through the scree gully. This passage was now in the shadows and the shade felt good but the loose/crumbly “trail” was a mess and literally “skiing” down some of this crud was the safest way and we were both way glad to clear this section and the last mound of rubble to the small creek below and the road. I used my filter-pump to refill Clay’s water bottle as we decided to part ways as Clay (22 years younger than me) would be climbing Ellingwood Pt. too. I knew I didn’t have the suds to join him so we split-up at 4:48PM and went our separate ways.
Back down the endless road was a grind and reaching my truck at 6:35PM was a blessing. Driving back down I picked up one guy walking and a girl with her dog who’d been abandoned by her boyfriend who had hiked on up to the lake and would come back for her and the dog. The dog was huge and its paws were raw from this nasty road, they had no food or water and there was no way I was going to leave her there with darkness quickly approaching and her boyfriend hours away. I gave her water, beef jerky and a steak sandwich and took the guy to meet his friend and the girl and dog to her locked car as the boyfriend had the keys. We spoke to people heading-up on ATV’s in hopes they’d contact the boyfriend and get him back down to their car. I gave her the AAA 1-800 number to call on her cell as the boyfriend didn’t have his cell either. The guy and his buddy soon came along and offered further assistance as I then left to pitch camp at the bottom of the road as darkness set-in. Hope things worked-out OK for girl, dog and boyfriend.
My 46th 14’er this fine day and a new friend in Clay as we would exchange email messages and photos with hopes of climbing again together sometime soon. Tomorrow, trout fishing on the Rio Grande………………sweet!!