How to Climb Little Bear in 22 Hours
Depending on whom you ask, Little Bear Peak in the southern Sangre de Cristo range of Colorado is considered one of the most difficult and dangerous of the state's 54 14,000+ foot summits to reach by its standard route. Some classify it in the same group of "hard" Colorado 14,000 foot summits as Pyramid Peak, North Maroon, Crestone Needle, Mount Wilson or Capitol Peak.
It is not a difficult mountain by distance. From the 8020' Como Lake trailhead the summit is only 6.5 miles away. 5.5 of these miles are across the bone-jarring Como Lake road--but it is a road. My climbing partner, Kendra, and I were familiar with this road from a hike the previous summer to the slightly more distant summits of nearby Blanca Peak and Ellingwood Point. We were not looking forward to a return visit. But with Little Bear's summit only a mile away from Como Lake at the top of the road, and with a plan to climb all 54 14ers in the next year or so, it seemed reasonable that a round trip to the summit of Little Bear and back should take us around 11 hours. Our journey to the summits of both Blanca and Ellingwood took us 12 hours round trip the previous year.
Little Bear is considered dangerous due to rock fall down a feature near the summit called the "hourglass couloir". In the summer, the hourglass is a smooth, water polished 4th class scramble. Several fixed lines run from an anchor at its top. Due to rock fall, guidebooks recommend only climbing Little Bear peak during weekdays, with a helmet, and without climbers above you. Knowing this, the plan was to climb Little Bear in the spring on consolidated snow to both avoid rock fall danger and to have a solid snow path to the summit.
That was the plan at least.
Our alarm woke us at 8000' base of the Como road at 4:00 am. I was already concerned we were getting too late a start. Spring snow in the Sangres can turn into waist deep slush as early as 9:00 in the morning. And with the Como road ahead, we could face difficult climbing up the initial couloir to the ridge that traverses over to the base of the hourglass.
We made good time up the lake. The only other group we could see headed to Little Bear that day was a pair of ski mountaineers from Aspen. The Como Lake road was steeper than I had remembered. The weather was cloudy and warm, with low hanging clouds obscuring views of the surrounding summits. We knew it was supposed to be intermittently raining, but normally a little weather wouldn't deter us from a climb.
As we rounded the lake to reach the base of the initial approach couloir to the ridge, we could see the ski mountaineers ahead of us 1/3 of the way up the couloir. They had stopped. As we got closer, we could hear them debating a turn-around. As we started our initial snow climb, we could see them post-holing up above...and then turning around and coming back down. The snow was soft. With a low of 35 degrees overnight it had never had a chance to firm up. We were not going to get a good, firm cramponing day in.
"Not that I want to deter you, but we're going back." said one of the ski mountaineers on the retreat. "It's just not good skiing today."
Kendra and I did not want to call the trip at the end of another hike up the Como Lake road. We did not want to return a year later in dry conditions to attempt this peak. Despite the potentially exhausting conditions facing us directly ahead, we decided to push on a little further to see how it went.
The initial couloir was mostly a knee-deep slog, with occasional breaks through the snow layers into waist-deep snow. We shuffled to the edges, scrambled over adjacent talus, reached one deep area we did not know whether we could get past, and clawed our way to the ridgeline in sharp switchbacks by around 10 am, tired, but still in good shape for an attempt on the summit.
"When is our turnaround time?" Kendra asked.
"Dunno." I said. "These conditions are pretty lightning safe. How about we see where we are at 2:00 pm? Then we should have a better idea whether or not to turn around."
From the couloir notch on the ridgeline to the base of the hourglass is a long, but well cairned, traverse over a talus field. It is not a path. But it is not that different from any other talus crossing in the Sawatch Range, mountains which Kendra and I were very familiar with. It just takes time to pick your way through.
The weather started changing. Light snow came in and out. The sun threatened to appear on occasion. We were crossing our fingers that the weather would break as it had for us recently on trips where we started out in less than ideal conditions.
As we completed our ridge traverse to the base of the summit proper, we entered low hanging cloud cover. Visibility dropped and we could not see well enough to tell which of the different couloir formations ahead was the hourglass. We had another long, steep snowfield to cross to find out. It was noon. I was starting to feel tired and was starting to slow down. As we started crossing the snowfield, again slogging through deep slush and pausing every 10 steps to catch our breath the weather picked up again, pelting us with new wet snow. It was starting to get uncomfortable. Kendra and I looked at each other.
"Should we turn around?" Kendra asked.
"Do you want to come back next year and hike the Como road again?"
We stopped, ate part of our lunch, and hydrated before pushing on.
The snow starting falling harder. I wanted to take a high-line to a rock outcropping to change into precip layers. Kendra wanted to push through it to get into the couloir. I started complaining. Fatigue was setting in.
Finding the Hourglass
Guidebooks say you will know you are in the hourglass couloir when you see the fixed lines running from the top. Today we were not going to have that luxury. The visibility was less than a rope length ahead of us. Kendra seemed to remember a gash of red rock in the buttress above the right wall of the hourglass couloir. Given three possible route options, we went with her instincts and started heading up a snow couloir that could have been the hourglass, or a wrong way up. It was getting towards 2:00 pm.
The base of the couloir was deep and I was struggling for energy. I was moving very slowly.
"I don't know if I can do this." I complained, gasping for breath. "I have not been sleeping well. And I feel worn out from the road and from breaking trail."
"Ted!" Kendra shouted in pelting snow. "Can you dig really deep down?" "I don't want to hike the Como road again!"
"Then do me a favor! Break trail for a while and help me out!"
"Fine! But you are leading the couloir!"
As we got up into the couloir, the snow improved as conditions got steeper. We got into a rhythm of punching through with our gloves and axes and kicking steps higher, ten at a time before stopping to breathe several times. No crampons. My mittens were getting soaked. The falling snow and slushy snow we were hiking in were both close to water and our gear took on the same sheen it takes on in a rainstorm. We heard faint thunder in the distance.
"I don't see the fixed lines!" I shouted
"Maybe they're buried!"
We pushed on two pitches higher.
"Guess what I see!"
"Oh thank f^%$#@ god!" she said when we finally saw the anchor and the tops of several brightly colored, buried ropes.
We took photos at the fixed line anchor point. It was 2 pm. Time to assess the turnaround.
"Once we are past the fixed lines the summit is supposed to be really close."
We pushed on.
Little did we know the hardest part was to come.
The Unroped Summit Push
Compared to the hourglass, the area above was precarious. The snow was either so deep that it was almost impassible, or it was thinly covered rock so slick there was no way to get a solid purchase on it. We had brought harnesses, rope, a light rock rack and a few ice screws. But the conditions didn't look like any of these things would be of much use crawling up the sketchy mixed rock and soft snow. I could tell we were getting into that "bad judgment" area where climbers make mistakes because they are in difficult conditions and trying to get out of them too quickly. We pushed on unroped.
"Feet to the side to get more purchase on the snow!" I yelled towards Kendra. "That is too shallow to plunge. Use your pick to try to get a purchase on the rock underneath!" I yelled as we picked our way through precarious step after precarious step up the slope towards the invisible summit above us. When we looked up we could see three rock formations. Any one of them could be the summit. No path was clear.
"What do you think?" Kendra yelled
"I think let's veer towards the right"
We continued up for what felt like an eternity, ten steps at a time. Wet snow continued to fall.
"Let's get to that notch and see where we are at. I can't tell where the summit is."
"I'm willing to call that the summit!" Kendra shouted back. "I want off this mountain!"
Ten steps at a time up. Breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe. Ten more steps. Will that step hold? Is that a rock or snow? Am I going to break through if I step there or will it hold? Up we went. To the notch.
"I still can't tell if that is the summit over there, or if it's here. Oh god. I think the summit is over there on the right!"
"How do we get there?"
"We climb down and go around again."
"No way! This is the summit! This is the summit for me!" Kendra exclaimed.
We pushed up a little further from the notch to reach what I thought was a false summit. No register. We were done. We grabbed some food. We put harnesses on for what we knew was going to be a very slick, nerve-wracking descent down a steep face. I spotted what looked like a cross or something a little further down the ridge from where we were standing.
"I think I see something,” I said. "Do you want to check it out?"
"I'm good here,” Kendra said.
"Do you mind if I cross?"
I picked across the summit ridge, mantling an exposed boulder covered with new snow to pick my way over to a cairn built like a lumpy cross or a small stone figure. The summit register was lying right next to it.
"I found the register!"
"We're on the summit?"
"Yeah. Do you want to sign it? Or do you want me to sign it for you?"
"Take a picture of it. And sign it for me!"
It was 4 pm. Way later than we expected to be on the summit. It was snowing hard and we were looking down the steep hourglass. Snow covered the rocks and visibility remained no more than a rope length ahead.
"I'm scared" Kendra said
"We're going to have to belay down."
"It's 4 pm. This will take forever."
"We're going to have to use axe belays. Don't worry. It will go faster that you think."
One 75 ft 8mm rope length at a time we headed down. Kendra stepping down on belay, with me following behind ready to self-arrest at any time on some unseen mix of soft slushy snow or barely covered slab rock. Slipping out. Sinking down. Cautious unpredictable step after unpredictable step down the couloir. Stopping to breathe because even the descent was strenuous when the snow got heavy.
We reached the base of the couloir around 5:30 pm. The traverse was ahead. Our tracks from the ascent were already almost completely buried. The cairns were also almost buried. Covered with new snow, they barely stood our against the steep talus slope.
Plunging steps, trading leads, mostly silent, Kendra and I picked our way very slowly from cairn to cairn, from slippery step to slippery step across the traverse. In snow, it was a brutally long process.
6:30 pm to the notch between Little Bear's south ridge and the summit proper.
7:30 pm. "Where is the chute? We need to keep moving before it gets dark and we can't see the cairns."
8:00 pm. Darkness heading in fast. Still have not found the descent couloir. Checking every false indentation in the rock to see if we've reached it. Many far too dangerous and exposed alternative decent options. Starting to worry about heading down the wrong way. Starting to panic.
I started carrying a bivy sack in the bottom of my technical pack several trips ago in case we ran into something like this. Kendra and I were drenched head to toe. Snow continued to fall and we were almost out of daylight still on the steep talus traverse. I was wondering if this was going to be the first time we were going to have to use it; hunker down for the night and just try to stay warm until morning came.
8:15 we think we see the notch ahead.
8:30 no daylight left. We found it. Just barely in time. Oh thank god.
9:30 pm down the soft couloir. Plunging in up to our waists. Crawling out. Slipping. Soaking. Cursing. No visibility. Nothing but Kendra's headlamp light up ahead, the deep slushy post holes left behind, and darkness.
"Can you imagine how great it will be when we reach the Como road?"
Goodbye Forever Como Road!
We hit the talus at the bottom of the slope. Talus is slower to cross when covered with snow. We cross a final patch of forest, still post holing. And we were back on the road. Whew. 10:00 pm.
Across Como Lake is a small shelter climbers sometimes use. We dragged ourselves down the road towards the shelter, exhausted. When we reached it, inside were skis, boots, cooking gear and clothing hanging up on clotheslines, but no people. We spent about 30 minutes peeling off wet layers, putting on dry layers, warming up, and snacking even though neither of us was hungry, enjoying a few moments free of the weight of water-drenched backpacks.
"You OK?" Kendra asked?
"Everything but my hands. My gloves are soaked. Not cold. But soaked."
10:30 pm. With deep groans we loaded our packs back on to head down the 5.5 mile Como Lake road one last time. It was tempting to just bivy in the shelter. We were definitely tired enough.
In the dark, down past Jaws II and Jaws I, the obstacles Jeep enthusiasts travel miles to wreck their oil pans on. Past the stream crossing. Snow turned to rain, coming in and out. Over sections of road where your foot rolls out from under you with almost every step, up the last hill to the steep switchbacks that head down into the San Luis valley. The distant lights of Alamosa getting closer with each step. Mile after mile passing in a hallucinogenic fog of darkness. Down to the road on the valley floor. Down the road that feels like it is paved with loose softballs and baseballs, feet constantly slipping and rolling, twisting ankles, tendons, jarring sensations in your spine, stopping to tip your pack over and take some of the weight off of your back here and there, down until the truck has to be there, right? The tent has to be there, right? We couldn't have passed it could we have? It couldn't be this far down the road. What if we passed it and have to hike back? Would we just sleep in the brush wearing what we are wearing?
The glint of reflection off of the truck tail light. The tent.
Pack off. Boots off. Raingear off.
The sleep of the dead.
The Hardest 14er
Two summers ago, Kendra and I and two other climbers climbed Capitol Peak in Colorado's Elk Range in one long 18-hour day. It was towards the end of summer in ideal conditions and with all of us in good climbing shape. Little Bear broke this record for Kendra and I by becoming a 22-hour ordeal. The "Last Mile" between Como Lake and the summit of Little Bear peak alone took us roughly 13 hours round trip, easily the "Longest Mile" I have ever hiked.
We have no plans to return to any of the Como Road peaks again. Been there, done that, checked the box, done the 14er bagger thing because it is something to do.
Little Bear is not an aesthetic peak like North Maroon. It is not a mountain like Long's Peak I want to return to again and again because of the quality of the climbing. I would not even call it a fun mountain. It is deceptively loose, slick, and steep. Once upon a time I might have considered going for the four "great traverses" as a goal, which includes the traverse from Little Bear to Blanca Peak. Now I would say, "Hell no." I'm done with those Como road peaks.
Kendra and I had the experience to weather what the mountain could throw at us and came away victorious this time--because we did not want to hike the Como road ever ever ever again. We reached personal milestones for effort in reaching a mountain summit because we did not want to have to repeat an approach road. And made some risky decision in the process that could have ended badly for us.
But we were also planning on a return trip to Rainier in two months and I cannot think of a better testing ground than what we went through on Little Bear. We went longer and got wetter than we have ever been on a climb together, including a trip two years ago when our boot liners turned into puddles during a 5 hour downpoar on Rainier's Muir snowfield. And we got another close up look at how we work together when a climb is starting to hit the fan. In that sense the trip was worth it.
A cautionary tale to would be climbers of this peak that figure it's "just a mile" to Little Bear's summit from Como Lake. It's not "just a mile", even in the best of conditions. In the worst conditions, it's probably better to hike the road again another time.