Sat/Sun, April 26-27, 2008
Little Bear Peak (14,037’) – CO Rank 44
West Ridge & Soutwest Face
Jim & Karen Ohl, Kevin Baker
Where is Little Bear Peak? At the crossroads of Hwy 160 and my comfort zone. I remember reading through Gerry Roach's guidebook to the Colorado 14ers my first summer out here, back when I had no intention of trying to summit them all. It was an easy decision then to leave Little Bear off the to-do list. Karen was the same way, "it's class 4, so I'm not going to do it." But time, experience, and the desire to finish off the list have a way overturning decisions like that.
We had been to the Blanca massif two years ago on separate trips and experienced the dangers of rockfall in those mountains on successful summit attempts of Blanca and Ellingwood Pt. We had heard rocks tumbling down the mountains at night from our tent and read accounts of accidents in Little Bear's Hourglass couloir that occured because of that rotten rock. How can we avoid that? Well, there are no rocks to fall on you when they are buried under snow. Okay, so it's really a risk trade-off: rockfall vs avalanche. But at least we can mitigate the avalanche threat with some training and good decision making.
Plans were put in place for a preparation climb on Pikes Peak's Y Couloir
on April 19th, which we thoroughly enjoyed and went very well. Then the focus shifted to preparations for Little Bear. According to weather reports, the Blanca massif had not seen new snow since April 16th, and there had been good freeze/thaw cycles since then. The forecast for Saturday night at 12,000' was a low of 14 degrees followed by a bluebird day Sunday with a high of 34 degrees. Some additional info on the conditions from locals in Alamosa confirmed we could expect close to ideal conditions in the hourglass. We were still somewhat concerned about the conditions of the north facing couloir leading up from Lake Como, so we made tentative plans to scout it out on Saturday afternoon or take the west ridge proper from our campsite and avoid the couloir altogether.
Getting There is Half the Battle
The anxiety I felt leading up to the trip was intense and it was difficult to think about anything else. Would we be able to drive up the 4wd to our intended campsite at 10,200-ft? Would we run into trouble in the north facing couloir above the lake? Would the southwest facing snowfields be stable like we expected? Would the climbing above the hourglass be steeper than we could handle if the snow was too firm? I only wanted to make this trip once.
Strike 1! Strike 2!
Saturday finally came and Kevin arrived at the house just before 9am. The amount of gear we had packed into the Jeep looked like we were headed out for 10 days in Antarctica. All we were missing was the proverbial kitchen sink and...my boots. 70 miles down I-25 it finally hit me, strike one, "I don't have my boots." DAAAAHHH! Another 70 miles of feeling like a total schmuck later I disgustedly tossed my boots into the Jeep.
We took off again and this time we made it about 120 miles before...strike two, flat tire! "For goodness sake we're not even on the 4wd road yet!" Pull all the gear out, get out the hi-lift jack, and change the tire. Fortunately I had a matching spare, but I wasn't about to head up Lake Como road without a full spare. We had no luck finding a tire shop in Blanca or Fort Garland so we ended up a few miles out of the way in Alamosa, picked up a new full-size spare and reloaded the Jeep again.
Coming up the switchback at 9700' I guess this is as far as we go
Back on the road again we took in some encouraging views on Little Bear's southwest ridge and the hourglass from Hwy 160, but all of these delays eliminated any idea of a scout hike up to Lake Como. A quick stop to disconnect my sway bar at the bottom of the 4wd road and we were off. This was my first trip up Lake Como road since adding 3" of lift to the Jeep and I was anxious to test it out...as long as nothing broke. It definitely helped and I easily made it past several obstacles that had given me trouble on previous trips. The road was dry all the way up to the switchback at 9700', the biggest obstacle of the day which I have heard some refer to as Jaws 0.5. Karen got some great shots of me here and looking back at them I don't know why I was worried. A couple hundred yards up the road we reached our limitation...a Toyota that was unable to make it through some patches of snow and decided to park where they stopped. DAAHHHH!! So we resorted to unloading the Jeep and carrying our climbing and camping gear the final 1/4 mile. And forget about turning the Jeep around on that road. I then had to drive back down the road in reverse and carefully back down the switchback into a decent place to park. Was this strike 3? Whatever, we persevered and made it work. Time to eat some spaghetti and hit the sack.
The West Ridge Proper
1:45am was my earliest wake-up call on a 14er yet and we left camp a bit later than we wanted at 2:40am. We decided to avoid any potential avalanche danger in the north facing couloir above Lake Como and take the west ridge directly from camp, a 2000' bushwack to treeline, which we reached at 4:40am.
Early morning on Little Bear's West Ridge
The trees along the ridge weren't overly thick, but it was definitely slow going even though postholing was minimal when we encountered snow. Once above treeline the remaining ridge traverse to the notch at the top of the north facing couloir was long but fairly mellow.
Making slow but steady progress
The exception came a few hundred feet before the notch as we encountered a break in the ridge that required a short downclimb and scramble back up on very loose class 3 rock. We reached the notch at 6:45am as the sun was starting to cast its rays on Ellingwood Pt across the valley.
Ellingwood Point catching the sun's early rays
We ditched our snow shoes and trekking poles at this point and took a short food and water break. The summer route continues to traverse along the south side of the west ridge from this point but we were unable to find it. There were patches of snow along the way that were likely still covering any cairns and we gradually picked our way up and along. Fortunately we found the tracks of two climbers who had been along the route on Saturday and we were able to follow them pretty much the rest of the way. We reached the saddle between Pt 12,960 and Little Bear at 8:15am and stopped there to put on crampons and make final preparations for the remaining ascent. We could tell that the southwest facing snow fields ahead had been getting a lot of sun recently but were in good condition, with a few small patches of talus starting to show through.
Little Bear looms ahead. Our tracks leading up to the hourglass are shown in blue
Finally, the terrain we were waiting for! The snowfields were in great shape as we had hoped and smooth axe plunges told us they were consolidated. A couple of measurements along the way told us the slope angle reached 40 degrees as we switchbacked our way up to the hourglass. I've never been there in the summer, but the hourglass didn't look near as intimidating as I expected all filled in with snow.
Making switchbacks up the 40 degree slope leading to the hourglass
The slope angle reached 43 degrees as we entered the constriction and we could see the anchor that summer climbers would rappel from was exposed. We had our own rope and slings with us in case we felt the need to rappel, but I could already tell that wasn't going to be necessary.
Karen and Kevin approaching the narrowest section of the hourglass
After the constriction we tended right, continuing to follow the tracks left by Saturday's climbers. The slope angle steepened to 48 degrees for about 100 feet as we started to look for a place to cut back to the left.
Our ascent route tended right here onto steeper slopes as we moved higher into the hourglass Looking back down into the hourglass
Kevin ended up traversing left across an exposed rock band, but Karen and I were not comfortable with those moves. We continued on about 20 feet higher and found a more gentle stretch to traverse back to where Kevin was. Looking down into the abyss here got my heart racing, but the snow was awesome. We continued to find solid axe placements and could kick nice platforms for our feet.
An exciting traverse back to the left to follow continuous snow to the summit
The slope angle relented briefly until the final 100 feet which was the steepest yet, reaching 50 degrees.
The final 100 ft was the steepest yet, reaching 50 degrees
Forging ahead we quickly closed the gap to the summit and were treated with stunning views of Blanca and Ellingwood Pt as we crested the top at 10:45am. Unbelievable! I never thought we would be standing here! This makes summit #45 for me and #47 for Karen. We spent about 30 minutes enjoying the summit and basking in the sun.
Success! The summit of Little Bear!
We decided to dedicate the summit to the memory of Lygon Stevens, who tragically lost her life hiking with her brother on this peak in January. Our hearts and prayers go out to her family.
Spectacular scenery of Ellingwood Pt (left) and the traverse to Blanca Peak (right) from the summit of Little Bear
Descending, Decisions, and Deathmarches
As enjoyable as the ascent was, it was the descent that had us the most on edge. The good news was the snow was in great shape, and we would have some nice steps to downclimb. Looking down was definitely a bit intimidating and I spent about half of the time facing in on the steeper sections. Just above the narrowest portion of the hourglass was just like downclimbing a ladder.
Karen and Kevin heading down into the abyss below Downclimbing just before the narrowest section of the hourglass No need for a rappel in these awesome snow conditions!
I had to laugh a bit as we reached the rappel anchor, thankful that I felt comfortable enough not to tie in here. We had left the summit at 11:15am and managed to work our way down and back across the southwest facing snowfields by 1:00pm where we removed our crampons.
Karen and Jim crossing the last snowfield back to the saddle
The snow was starting to soften up pretty quickly along the west ridge, which made our progress back to the notch deliberate, but slow. We made it to the top of the north facing couloir at 2:30pm and retrieved our snowshoes, but ended up scratching plans of a glissade down to the lake. We were all pretty tired at this point and descending down into the couloir looked a bit spicy. We knew that Saturday's climbers had downclimbed this couloir late in afternoon, but we could also see a small wind pillow at the top. Reluctantly, we chose a deathmarch back down the west ridge.
This is going to be a deathmarch
The softening snow was making some of the traversing pretty slick and the loose class 3 split in the ridge turned out to be quite an adventure. I was starting to lose my concentration and ended up slipping on some loose talus on the downclimb. The slope was fairly steep and I tumbled side-over-side a few times bending a trekking pole and flinging the second 20 feet down the slope in the process. Definitely a scary moment, but no injuries to show for it. Climbing back up to the ridge was equally as exciting but without incident and we were back on mellow terrain the rest of the way. Running low on water, we were feeling the effects of a long day above treeline and didn't make it back to treeline until 5:20pm, stopping a few times to take in the spectacular views back up the ridgeline.
Looking back at the Blanca Massif
We started heading down the wrong drainage back in the trees, but Kevin was able to get us back on track following the morning's GPS tracks. Just over 16 long hours after leaving that morning we stumbled into camp, totally spent.
Just When You Think You're Home Free
With only an hour of daylight remaining, I was not looking forward to driving back down the 4wd road in the dark. So we packed up the campsite in about 15 minutes and bolted down the road back to the Jeep. Not more than 100 yards down the road I started to hear a strange clanking coming from the front end and my heart fell into my stomach. It turns out the ties I was using to keep the sway bar out of the way had broken loose. Not a huge deal except for the fact that the linkages were now jammed behind the steering linkage. At this point I had a minor meltdown but thankfully I was well prepared with a complete toolset in the Jeep. About 30 minutes of lifting, prying, and wrenching later I managed to work the linkages free and get them reconnected. Of course by then the sun was basically gone, but we managed to get back down to the paved road without incident. After a quick stop for dinner in Alamosa I felt refreshed enough to make the trek home. Almost 24 hours from Sunday's wake-up call later, we pulled into the garage, home safely. Thanks Kevin for leading us to the summit! We persevered and got it done!