"The traverse between Little Bear and Blanca is one of Colorado's four great traverses. It is the most difficult of the four. Simply put, this is Colorado's most astonishing connecting ridge."- Gerry Roach; Colorado's Fourteeners, From Hikes to Climbs.
With a guide book description like that, how could I NOT go and examine for myself, the "astonishing" nature of this traverse. In hindsight though, I'm not sure which was more astonishing; the well reputed traverse between these two mountains, or the fact that we made it up and down a nationally ranked 4-wd road with Steve's Dodge. Steve is one of my brother-in-laws. He also is the very proud owner of a 1999 Dodge 1500 pick-up, with a modest 3" lift. It should be noted that Steve's front bumper is armed with a 10,000lb winch. This was clearly the workhorse behind our push (pull!) up to Como Lake. We winched a 4 times going up and 3 times coming down. After spending the weekend camping at Como Lake, we saw only modified Jeep's, Scout's, and International's - not a single pick-up. As one jeeper put it: "I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it!". This, of course, made Steve quite happy with his Dodge.
We made it to the lake just in time for the afternoon storms to unleash their fury. It's a good thing we made the time we did. Crawling those rocks in the snow and hail that followed would not have been possible. It would continue to dump on us for the remainder of the night. Fortunately, with the truck parked just meters away, we had access to all the tarps, bungies, and tie-off's necessary to set up a cozy cooking and lounging shelter. While all of the hiker's spent the evening confined to their tents in fear of the torrential pelting that the hail would deliver, we sat in our camp chairs, ate and marveled at the intensity of the storm. This was not typical of August weather in the mountains. However, this was exactly why climbers should always be prepared for the extreme elements in the mountains. Although we were sheltered, the mood was noticeably grim, as we all pondered the same question: would we even be able to climb tomorrow?. Dave and Kersten, whom we arranged to meet at Como Lake, had been there for the previous day. Their report was that the storms were there the previous night as well. They also reported that snow and hail left a substantial coating of ice high on the mountains that made an early start dangerous and unfavorable at best. Any push up Little Bear would have to be a late start to allow for the sun to heat and melt the ice on the upper technical sections. A late start would then require that the weather hold out long enough to allow for the traverse and descent. Things did not look good. The guide book stated that the traverse alone could take anywhere from 2 to 8 hours to complete. Uncertain of the weekend's outcome, we all retired to our tents for an attempt at a night of sleep.
The following morning, we woke to a fresh blanket of August snow. It was a heavy wet mix that seemed as if it would melt easily with a little bit of sunshine, so we hoped. Dave and Kersten had decided that they would not attempt Little Bear and Blanca. For them, this climb was pushing the envelope just enough that all factors needed to be in their favor for a comfortable effort and success. Their adventures the day before with the ice high on Ellingwood Point gave them very little comfort in the harder climb up Little Bear's steep Northwest Face. Their decision to stay down in camp was a wise one indeed, as Steve and I would later find out.
Steve & I decided that we would give it a go around 10:00am. The sun had been clear and strong all morning, and the mountain was clearly beginning to heat up. My plan was to simply climb the Northwest Face and make an assessment there as to whether or not we would continue on with the traverse. If the weather did not look good, we would simply head down the standard route of Little Bear and call it a day. The approach to the base of Little Bears Northwest Face took less than 45 minutes. For the next hour and a half, I climbed with an ear to ear grin. The steep fourth class face reminded me of climbing in the Crestone Mountains. It was truly enjoyable, and fully exposed. The route-finding on the Northwest Face turned out to be quite easy. We made our way for the prominent notch located just East of the summit. At noon, Steve and I stood atop of Little Bear Peak. The clouds in the valley next to us seemed to have been flirting with us a bit. They would rise to the ridge, and then recede. Our valley, however, remained crystal clear. Steve had to push himself pretty hard for the last bit of the climb. With this, he confessed that continuing on to Blanca was not his desire. I understood exactly how he felt. In contrast though, I was fired up to tackle "Colorado's most astonishing ridge". The mile and a half of fifth class(5.0-5.2) ridge that lay to the East was taunting me. And respectfully so, I was intimidated. I'd never been on an exposed ridge of that length. Retreat from the ridge would be very difficult in the event of a sudden storm.
Steve and I pulled out our topo map and reviewed the options. Steve felt comfortable in descending the standard route on Little Bear. He also knew that my heart was racing with the prospects of the ridge. We decided that he would head back to camp and I would continue my journey. We hugged, wished each other a safe farewell, and sprinted off in opposite directions. During our push up the Northwest Face, we noticed a roped party of three crossing the notch just above us, continuing on to the ridge. We also encountered a party of two unroped climbers while just below the summit. They to, were making their run for the ridge. Uncomfortable climbing alone, I thought that if I could just catch up to the other climbers on the ridge, I'd feel much safer. While distance on the ridge was hard to judge, I feel like I caught both parties at about the 1/3 point. The roped party was stumped with a sudden drop-off on the ridge. It required 15 feet or so of technical down-climbing that the roped leader would have to complete before safely bringing his roped partners across. In my approach, I saw that they had all been stationary at this spot for quite some time. As I got closer, I passed the slower of the two in the unroped party. He looked weary. At the drop-off, the other hiker stood in queue behind the roped team. With a quick assessment, I had the riddle solved. At this point, I knew that I would not feel any safer traveling with these parties, but rather, use my momentum to complete a speedy traverse to Blanca. Behind us all, approximately 25 feet, was a small dip in the ridge. From the dip, several ledges continued downward and to the East. The ledges would take us all to the bottom of the down-climb just below the drop-off, and allow passage to the rest of the ridge. Without hesitation, I did just that. The others wasted no time in following. Within minutes (it seemed), I was 3/4 of the way out on the ridge and had left the others to climb at their own pace. From the Summit of Little Bear, it took exactly two hours to reach the summit of Blanca. Time seemed to fly while in route. Hence the old saying, "time fly's when you're having fun". Looking back, the climbers on the ridge were only at the halfway point. The roped party had wisely begun a rappel descent from the ridge. The two hikers still pushed on. The flirting clouds in the adjacent basin were getting to be somewhat of a threat. They had risen from the valley and had taken the form of thunderclouds. Sure enough, they began to crackle and rumble - not a comforting sound when climbing a mountain. Wanting to remain in safe respects, I hustled down the standard route of Blanca. The ridge climbers though, I feared would be in severe danger very shortly. As it turned out, they made a hasty scramble, bailing from the ridge when the storms proved eminent. By the time I reached the high trial back to camp, the hail had once again begun. I hoped and prayed that Steve had completed his return to camp. Our 2-way radios would not reach each other though. Steve didn't make it back as fast as I thought, but made it, nonetheless. Dave and Kersten met him on the low ridge, on the standard route up Little Bear. They would return to camp just as I did, wet from the storm.
The rest of the evening was spent much like the night before. We stood under our tarp, cooked hot meals, drank warmed red wine, and complained about the snow/hail in August!