A Rainy Day on Little Bear PeakBrad's Outdoor Adventures
Little Bear Peak: 14,037 feet
Wet Class 4
Distance (round-trip): abt. 6.4 miles
Elevation Gain: abt. 3,750 feet
Mountaineering is a strange addiction. Three years ago, I had never heard of a “fourteener,” nor had I any desire to climb a mountain that had claimed lives. The death of Mathew Zimmer on Little Bear Peak’s northwest face the week prior to my trip to the same mountain was a sobering reminder of what can happen when mountaineering. My thoughts and prayers go out to his family and friends.
Many seasoned climbers despise the cliche idea of climbing the much-visited fourteeners of Colorado, or even the centennial thirteeners. My goal has become to climb all of these hundred highest peaks, soaking in the unique scenery and challenges each mountain has to offer along the way. I really don’t care what the skeptics think, and I should not have to, as long as I practice Leave No Trace
and do my part to keep the mountains pristine while I am there. It is my firm belief that the Great Outdoors, including the high peaks, are there for us to enjoy and preserve. I intend to do both.
With such a list as the centennial peaks of Colorado, there are some obvious obstacles to overcome. These are what add to the challenge and make the goal worthwhile, but with the obstacles come danger and difficulty. Little Bear Peak, despite its unimpressive name, was probably one of the most dangerous of these obstacles. But, in the spirit of mountaineering, I intended to climb this mountain and complete the much-acclaimed technical traverse to Blanca Peak.
The difficulties with this climb start before you even get out of your vehicle. Lake Como Road is nationally renowned as Colorado’s most difficult road, and it has turned back many a four wheel drive enthusiast. However, I knew the main obstacles were not until the final two miles of the road, so I decided to drive as far as I could before parking. Besides, Kalet and I planned to do all three peaks (Little Bear, Blanca, Ellingwood) in one day, so we wanted to get as close to Lake Como as possible.
Surprisingly, we were able to make it almost five miles in my jeep cherokee before I decided to stop for the night and let the engine cool down. Most of the road was not too bad, and the hard sections were not much worse than the South Colony Lakes Road.
As we tried to go to sleep around 10:30, raindrops started to fall, and then the rain got harder. It rained off and on all night, quickly complicating our plans. The climb we had planned would be difficult enough without being wet, and we both knew the wet rock would significantly increase the danger of a fall.
But, awake at 3:30 Saturday morning, we decided to begin the approach and take whatever the weather gave us. I drove another three tenths of a mile in my jeep, bottoming out a couple times, before finally deciding I did not want to try to go any further. As we began walking up the remaining two miles of the dirt road, a light drizzle continued, and even some snow flakes mixed into the precipitation. We had parked only a ten minute’s walk from the first of three main obstacles, “Jaws 1.” We continued up the road, passing Jaws 2 and 3, until we came to the small Lake Como. It was now 5:30, and the morning light revealed numerous tents set up around the lake and in the woods. All the surrounding peaks were hidden by a high, thick fog, and everything was soaking wet.
Kalet and I found a small wooden shelter and stepped inside to wait out the weather and discuss our plans. The forecast had called for sunny skies with a 30% chance of thunderstorms after noon, and I felt confident that the rain and fog would burn off by mid-morning. Still, we did not know how long this would take, and because of the wet rock I was concerned about going with our original plan of the northwest face of Little Bear. The alternative to this was the standard “hourglass” route, and we both agreed this was now our best option. Though the route had a higher potential for rock-fall, it had a shorter section of climbing, and thereby less potential for a fall.
By six o’clock, our plans were set, and we began walking further up the road around Lake Como. No one had yet stirred from any of the tents. The gully to gain the west ridge of Little Bear was obvious, and we even found a cairned trail leading up through the talus to the base of the climb. There was no snow in this steep chute, so we found ourselves scampering up annoyingly loose scree. Two-thirds of the way up the gully, we decided to cut left and scramble up the more solid ledges of the adjoining rock face. This easy 3rd class scrambling gave us a good introduction to the wet rock we would encounter throughout the climb, and the solid rock was much preferable to the loose scree of the gully.
We gained the west ridge leading to Point 12,890 with no trouble, and from there we contoured the ridge on an obvious climber’s trail that had cairns every thirty feet or so. Above us, the thick fog still completely obstructed our view of Little Bear, and below us more fog was developing. Before long, the moving fog overtook us from both directions.
The steady climber’s trail led us along the slopes of Little Bear, all the way to the base of the infamous hourglass, or “bowling alley.” It was now 7:30, and instead of better weather conditions, we were worse off than before. Now standing in thick fog, we could not see very far at all, and a waterfall rushed down the center of the hourglass, above us.
We both agreed we would continue, taking the hourglass a step at a time. The climbing in the hourglass was not hard; most of it was only class 3. However, because of the extremely wet conditions, I took the final twenty feet of class 4 terrain very slowly, ensuring every wet hand and foot hold was going to do its job.
The hourglass definitely lived up to its reputation as a dangerous area for rock-fall. We both climbed carefully, but still knocked our share of rocks down the gully. At one point, Kalet dislodged a rock somewhat bigger than a grapefruit. He yelled “rock!”, and we both watched as it started bouncing downhill to my upper left. I ducked instinctively, and an instant later I felt a harsh “thud!” on the top of my head. The rock had bounced toward me at the last second, squarely hitting my helmet before continuing its downward flight. This was not the first time my helmet has paid off, but never had I been more thankful that I was wearing it!
Returning after the traverse attempt
Safely at the top of the hourglass, we could faintly see a cairn in the fog, leading us upward and left to the beginning of a series of class 3 ledges. These ledges were full of loose rock, which we knocked down several times despite our best efforts to avoid doing so. In the end it did not matter, because no one was climbing below us, but I definitely understand the seriousness of this route. Any rocks that are knocked loose in this area immediately gain speed as they shoot down into the steep hourglass, becoming merciless missiles. Many lives have been claimed in the hourglass because of these dangerous projectiles.
After some fun scrambling, Kalet and I arrived at the summit of Little Bear at 8:30. We could not see fifty feet in the foggy mess, which now included more drizzle and sleet. Considering our options, we decided the traverse to Blanca was as safe as descending the hourglass, so Kalet set off first, repeating the necessity to take things “one step at a time.”
The slick rock indeed required extraordinary focus, especially as we started downhill. The descent to the saddle before “Bivwacko Tower” is often cited as one of the cruxes of the traverse, but we made it that far without too much trouble. The tower was barely visible in the incredible fog, and we found ourselves unsure where to go from here. We finally concurred on a narrow ledge that led downhill well below and to the left of the tower, guarded by vertical cliffs on all sides.
We blindly began following this ledge until we became uncomfortable. The ledge seemed to disappear after a hundred yards or so, and the wet rock was not allowing us solid footing. Because of the dense fog, we could see no further than fifty feet in any direction, but we definitely felt the intense exposure under our heels. As we searched for solid holds, we accidentally pulled rocks loose a couple of times and watched them disappear into the white abyss beneath us.
As we began to run out of room to climb, we stopped to evaluate our situation. The weather was not improving, and even if we would make it around the tower, neither of us were about to attempt to climb any fifth class rock in these conditions. We both knew it was unwise to go any farther.
Climbing back to the summit of Little Bear Peak was no simple matter, however. The ledge traverse was easy enough, but the wet rock on the ridge still presented its challenges, forcing a slow and deliberate return to the summit. Now to down-climb the hourglass...
Having already climbed the standard route to the summit, we had no problem finding the well-cairned route back down to the top of the hourglass. We both felt that we could down-climb the crux, but there was a safer option. On the way up, we had noticed a fixed line, where someone had placed two ropes stretching the entire length of the hourglass. As we descended, we checked the anchor to make sure it was solid. We had not brought harnesses along, but we were able to hold on to the ropes and use them for support as we climbed down the center of the hourglass. This made the descent much safer and easier. Of course, the ropes were soaked, as were our fleece gloves, but it worked.
Relieved to be done with the climbing, we hiked the monotonous trail back to the ridge. During this section, a heavy rain shower soaked us further, and cemented our resolve to continue our descent. Then, we more or less skied the gully of scree all the way back down to the dirt road, where we stopped for a break.
We had discussed the possibility of going ahead and hiking the standard class 2 routes to Blanca and Ellingwood, but as we sat there, looking up at the foreboding fog and clouds, we both agreed it was time to call it a day.
A couple of jeeps had just made it past Jaws 3 as we hiked out the road. They seemed to be having fun, somehow. We also caught up with and were passed by other hikers, and talked with them along the way. No one else had attempted Little Bear Peak on this day, which was probably a good thing. At one point, we also saw a curious mule deer buck, who was taking a midday stroll along the road.
We were back at my jeep by 1:30, but it was still a tough drive out. To start things off, I nearly got stuck in a deep, rock-strewn minefield of a mud puddle, but with some help from Kalet we made it. As we got back out to the flat-lands, we were amazed to see low clouds and storms all over the place. My four hour drive home would be a rainy, ugly one the whole way. So much for sunny with 30% chance of thunderstorms!
Before going our separate ways, Kalet and I ate a late lunch at Old West Café in Fort Garland. While there, we discussed the climb and our future climbing plans, all the while glad just to have made it safely to Little Bear and back. We both wanted very much to do the traverse to Blanca and Ellingwood, but those mountains are not going anywhere, and this was not our day. Some day I will return, as I am sure he will, to climb these mountains. I am often asked why Iwant to do something so crazy, but I have come to realize I can never give an appeasing answer. I guess... I just do it in the spirit of mountaineering.
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