Stats/IntroductionMay 12-14, 2006
Little Bear Peak- (14037')- CO Rank 44
northwest face ascent, west ridge descent
Participants: Richard Taylor, Bob Callahan, David Pneuman, and Kevin Baker
Blanca Peak- (14345')- CO Rank 4
Participants: Jim Ohl, Karen Tiffany, and Kevin Baker
Full Pic Gallery
Total stats: ~15 miles, 6650' gain
Ever since I got into hiking the 14ers, I have been intrigued and scared of one day climbing Little Bear Peak, a notorious 14er that has no easier route than class 4. Gerry Roach describes the standard west ridge route via the hourglass chute as the most dangerous of any of the standard 14er routes. With this in mind, I looked for an alternative. The last couple of springs I had read of successful snow climbs of Little Bear as stable snow provides a blanket over some of the loose rockfall danger. My plan was to try and climb it in May or June when such conditions existed. I posted an invite on 14erworld to form a small climbing party. David Pneuman, Richard Taylor, and Bob Callahan were committed to a mid-May climb, although the lack of snow in the Sierra Blanca left us wondering what to expect
The Hike In
Plans were set with a mid-week conference call as David and Bob decided to hike in earlier on Friday afternoon, while Richard and I met at 5:20 pm at the Como Lake Rd/CO-150 intersection. I parked my car at the 2wd trailhead and Richard was a stud and drove us up one of CO's worst roads all the way to 10260' in a Ford Explorer! Kudos to Richard for saving my feet some extra battering. We loaded up our behemoth packs and headed up the nasty road at 6:55pm. We guessed our packs were close to 50 pds or more with all of the climbing gear we had. The hike up the rugged road wasn't too bad, and we arrived at deserted Como Lake at 8:30, drawn to views of our goal for the next day, mighty Little Bear. The road was totally free of snow. We looked for David and Bob, figuring they probably camped a little higher on the other side of the lake. We soon setup camp and hit the sack around 9:30, anxious for the big day ahead.
Little Bear Climb
Our plans were to begin the climb of Little Bear at first light. Richard and I slowly began moving at around 5:30. I got very little sleep but couldn't feel the effects yet. Richard seemed to sleep pretty well at altitude. We set off at around 6:30 in our search for David and Bob. We knew they were here as we had seen their cars. As expected, Bob met us just above Como Lake and directed us to their campsite. We all made our introductions and dinked around for quite awhile before finally setting off at 8am. We were wavering on what route to take until the last few minutes, when I suggested we climb the more difficult but safer northwest face route while decending the hourglass via rappels. Views of the s.w. side of Little Bear from US-160 hinted that there would be very little snow left in the hourglass, making it even more dangerous with verglass ice, wet rock, and the freeze/thaw cycle shooting rocks down like missiles.
The northwest face looked to be in pretty decent shape, with intermittent snow fields to deal with. It looked like there would be plenty of dry rock and minimal ice to deal with. We hiked up the road to 12000', then began the climb of the face. We found the black hand watermark at the bottom of the face easily, as it is hard to miss.
The class 4 headwall to the right of the black hand watermark.
The route wastes no time intimidating you as a class 4 headwall is the first challenge of the day after an initial boulder hop. David led the way and lowered a runner down in case we wanted something to hold onto. After some moments of uncertainty, we all made it up with no problems. I grabbed the runner and pulled myself up on one move. Not sure if that was the correct route, but we were to the right of the black hand.
Onward and upward we went as the angle relented into some enjoyable class 3 scrambling. We took our time knowing that the forecast looked great and the views were spectacular. There was quite a bit of loose rock to deal with in the middle of the face, so Richard and I decided to take advantage of a nice snowfield and went up about 300' vertical to its terminus.
Richard Taylor ascends one of the lingering snowfields on the n.w. face.
Too bad that didn't last to the ridge as we were both more comfortable on snow. David and Bob did well on the rock. We took another break to go back into rock climbing mode as the ridge was now in view! During this break, a few rocks let loose and a couple hit Richard in the helmet and chest I believe. Luckily they were small and hadn't gathered much speed yet.
Our only major mistake of the day came just below the ridge as we ended up loosing sight of the prominent notch to the left of the summit. We ended up topping out on the exposed ridge well to the left of where we should have been. This was a big mental letdown for me as I knew this ridge would severely test my fear of heights. Richard was also not liking this as we both don't do a lot of rock climbing.
The extremely exposed north ridge of Little Bear.
I knew I could make the moves though, so I focused on hand and foot placement and ignored the serious air below me. We slowly made our way closer to Little Bear and came to the tower we were supposed to be to the right of. We stopped as David thought the tower would involve some low class 5 moves with big air below. All of us were not comfortable with that option, so we headed back down the ridge to look for easier terrain. The summit was so close yet so far!
We slowly made our way back to where we hit the ridge. The downclimbing really tested me here as I was way out of my league of comfort! David and Bob did a stellar job of leading us on a traverse across exposed ledges 100 ft or so below the ridge. We rejoined the correct route and then made our way up a series of ledges that gave me a little more comfort than the ridge. We all took our own routes the rest of the way.
The class 4 headwall just below the summit of Little Bear on the n.w. face.
I decided to hit the ridge early as it looked better just 100 ft or so below the summit. The view back down the ridge was exhilirating!
The view down the north ridge from where the terrain gets easier just below the summit.
I popped out over a tower and there was David on the summit! We all topped out within a few minutes within 2:10pm, not a speed record by any means. That route was probably the hardest one I will ever do on a 14er, although the exposure probably made the climbing seem harder than it was. I was pretty frazzled as was Richard. David and Bob seem to thrive on the exposure!
After a well earned break, kudos, stellar views, and a call of reassurance to my wife, we headed down the west ridge at 2:45pm. The rock seemed to be much looser on this side and we soon found out why the hourglass chute is so dangerous. Rocks of all sizes were poised to rocket down the chute from the top. We knocked a couple down and witnessed a couple more hurdle down naturally. We knew we needed to get our rappels done quick. As one rappelled, the rest of us would wait without moving on the side of the hourglass. After a couple short rappels on Richard's short rope, we were down to the fixed lines. Bob rejoined us here as he was looking for an alternative route along the west ridge. We used the light blue rope as the other one was in bad shape, and this deposited us all the way to the bottom. We were all relieved to have this danger behind us. It took about 45 minutes for all of us to get to the bottom.
Richard Taylor rappels down the lower section on the hourglass.
The long traverse over to the access gully seemed to take forever. It was harder to follow the route since we didn't come up this way, but Bob did a nice job finding the trail. We finally arrived at the 12580' notch at the top of the prominent couloir to the s.e. of Como Lake and we were treated to a sweet 500' glissade back to the basin. I staggered back to camp at around 6:30pm, exhausted from the long day. Bob headed out that night, while Dave, Richard, and I stayed another night.
My friends Jim Ohl and Karen Tiffany hiked up Saturday afternoon to join me on a climb of Blanca and possibly Ellingwood if conditions permitted. We maintained radio contact at the end of the Little Bear climb as they arrived soon after we had summitted. I met them in camp and we set out at 6:30am Sunday morning for the climb of mighty Blanca. Richard needed Ellingwood but was content to come back another day for it.
It is amazing how little snow there is in this pristine basin. Above Como Lake, the road was covered in spots but not enough to make things too difficult. We took our time enjoying the stellar views of Ellingwood as she invited us onward. At the waterfall above Blue Lakes, we stayed right, rejoining the trail above the headwall. We then left the trail for good and began climbing a series of snowfields, following the fresh tracks of a couple guys ahead of us.
The s.w. slopes of Blanca had an array of choices. We could either climb loose talus to the ridge or follow fingers of snow to within a few hundred feet of the summit. Jim and Karen were game to try a moderate snow climb that was very efficient and brought us to within 300' of the summit.
Karen Tiffany and Jim Ohl ascend a nifty snowfield on the n.w. slopes of Blanca.
We were all beginning to feel it, so we took out time and pressed on. About halfway up the snow, a small rock came whizzing down heading straight for Karen. It skipped right in front of her and missed her head by a few feet as she ducked. I was ashamed we didn't bring helmets as this turned out to be a little steeper than I thought!
The snow soon gave way to the loose rock below the summit block, so we tried to stay on the more stable snow as much as possible. After a hard fought battle, we all topped out on CO's 4th highest amidst cool clouds at around 11:20 or so. The main reason why I needed to climb Blanca again was to claim the silly disputed Huerfano county highpoint, which some think lies 5-10' below the summit on the north ridge. I had followed the trail below the ridge last time and missed it! After a much needed rest on the spectacular summit, we headed down at 12:15pm as I found the cairn for the highpoint along the intersection of the north and east ridges.
On the descent, we stayed on or slightly below the fun north ridge, which flirts with big drops to the right. We quickly found the trail and picked our way to the saddle, dropping down to the top of a snowfield where the trail headed for Ellingwood. Here it was decision time for Karen and Jim on Ellingwood. I had already done it, so we played best two out of three on picking numbers as I drew them in the snow to decide if we do Ellingwood or not. It played out that we should climb Ellingwood, but clouds began to spill over the ridge. With the late hour and the long hike down, Jim and Karen made a wise choice to come back for Ellingwood. We took a couple of enjoyable glissades and were soon at the head of the basin. Within minutes, a storm blew in and we were hammered by graupel for 30 minutes or so. We postholed occassionally in the soft snow, but it wasn't constant. Thunder began to rumble overhead, but I never saw any lightning flashes. The storm finally blew out as we made it back to the lower lakes. We finally made it back to camp at 4:30 and packed up for an hour.
The long grunt back to Jim and Karen's Jeep at 8800' was grueling with a 50 pd pack as the rains came again causing a slick mess of rocks along the road. The road soon became muddy in spots adding to the torment. We finally reached the car at around 7:40pm. What a weekend in the Sierra Blanca!