May 28th – 29th 2006 Little Bear Peak, 14,037 ft. Sangre de Cristo Range, Colorado
Around 10:45 a.m. Ian Broughton and Jeremy Fortin arrived at my home in Silver Cliff from Castle Rock for our attempt on one of Colorado’s most difficult peaks; Little Bear. We quickly set about a gear check, insuring that we had everything that we felt was necessary for the route. I passed out radios that had been preset and tested earlier. I loaned Ian a one-man tent and an ultra-lite sleeping bag; which turned out to be a bit to “lite” for the cool night we had near Little Bear. After organizing gear we loaded up for the drive to the trailhead.
My ‘97 Pathfinder proved once again proved its worth; as we were able to bypass the “baby head” section of the Lake Como Road and ascend to 8800 feet saving us some serious mileage on our feet. As we prepared to start, a petit woman with a huge pack passed by us making steady progress. We all comment on the size of her pack. In short order we were on our way.
The road was familiar, since nearly 7 years ago I had gone up with my climbing partner Dan Pate to climb my 1st 14er, Blanca Peak. We were passed by several 4x4s on their way up to try their hand at the Jaws sections of the Lake Como Road. It was not too far up the road we caught up with the woman with the huge pack. In a heavy accent she laughingly said “Would one of be a gentleman and carry my pack?” our collective response was “What do you have in there?” I inquired, ” Where are you from?” and with a beaming smile she replied “What do I have an accent or something? “Just a little” I retorted. As it turns out she was from the Czech Republic and residing in Albuquerque.
We continued on the slog up to Lake Como passing one of the 4x4’s that had gone by us on the way up now stuck at Jaws I. There we a number of people around taking photos, we paused for only a second before continuing. About 3 hours after leaving the car we arrived at Lake Come and continued toward the higher campsites close the start of the route up to Little Bear. I scouted around for about 10 minutes before finding a reasonable site next to the trail about 100 meters up for the star of the route. We soon got busy with setting up tents and pumping water for the nearby creek. After we ate we wandered around to find out what other climbers plans were and what route beta we could get. It turned out that most of them were hiking out the next day and we did get some fresh information on Little Bear. Heading back to camp I took the opportunity to climb a short bolder route, if felt good to back on rock.
I spotted the tent of our Czechoslovakian compatriot, a huge 4 person Kelty. Is this girl strong or what? She introduced herself as Liba and invited me in for chocolate I asked her about Wheeler Peak in New Mexico and her reply was “I run up that for training”. She was caring the big load to train for an upcoming climb of Alpamayo in Peru. We had a lively chat about mountain climbing and marathon running. It turns out Liba can put in a 3:09 marathon, impressive. We agreed to exchange information so that we might be get together to climb later in the summer.
We settled in about 8:30 with 4:00 a.m. wake up planned. I set 3 alarms on my watch and hung it in the tent just above my head. My Wisp sleeping bag was barely adequate for the temperatures that night. Even with the addition of a set of 100-weight polar fleece I was a bit cool by 1 a.m. I managed to sleep intermittently after then but was hard asleep at 4:00 when I managed to sleep though all 3 alarms. Fortunately, Jeremy’s cell phone alarm woke him at 4:30. It was light enough before departure to ditch our head touches. We were out of camp about 5:30 and we could see a climber two thirds up the gully from us. There were two sections of snow remaining in the gully that were a great relief from the scree and aided a rapid assent. We gathered at the col and from there we got our first glimpse of the infamous Hourglass. We set off at a deliberate pace with me leading; pausing only to discern the net cairn and insure we were on route. We all started to get a little cool so we took a long break to put on some warm clothes and refuel the now depleted energy tanks.
We took a break before the heading into the Hourglass, harnessed up and prepared for the crux of the climb. It was just a few minutes before we were at the base of the pitch. I freed the green rope from some ice at the base of the crux and clipped in my ascender for an added bit of safety. Slightly higher and to the right is a much newer and thinner blue-back rope, of course I had clipped into the thicker rope. The climbing was solid and I felt that I could have freed the section with no problems. My Tibloc got stuck a couple of times and I had to clear some ice from the rope with some forceful pushes. About halfway up the Hourglass I was in for a shock. I could see that the sheath of the rope was bared and several of the strands had been cut by the rock. I immediately switched to the blue-back rope and called down Jeremy and Ian not to use the green rope. It was not long before I was at the belay station. Jeremy came up, then Ian next. As Ian approached we heard a “Hello” from above, it was Liba on the decent. She told us she had waited on the summit for us for 30 minutes. Jeremy was to say more than once that she had thoroughly kicked our asses. Needless to say we were all impressed by her climbing prowess and speed.
As I turned back to snap of photo of Ian the camera slipped from my grasp and started the rocket ride down the Hourglass, I called out “camera, camera” and Ian reached out and snatched it from certain destruction. “Nice Save!” But for a few scratches it was still in working order. Wow, Cannon takes a licking and keeps on ticking!
Liba was descending just above me and playfully said, “If I jump will you catch me?” and the next thing I knew she was in my arms laughing. She told me that she had not been able to get the summit register open to sign it. Quickly she was on her way down and we started up. As it was to turn out, we were to be the only climbers on the mountain that day which greatly reduced the danger of rock fall. In about 20 minutes we were on the summit of Little Bear, the time was 9:18 a.m. We did not set any speed records but we glad to have safely reached the summit. Jeremy who had said that he never spent much time on any summit was glad to hang out on the top since it was well earned. It took two of us to get the register open and I singed in Liba then myself. We enjoyed the nearly windless day and the sunshine for about 30 minutes before departing.
I was first on the descent, we had agreed to let me try to free up the green rope from the snow at the bottom of the Hourglass so Jeremy could pull it up and tie a Figure 8, so that no one else would unsuspectingly clip into rope that was ready to fail at anytime. I clipped my Tibloc below me and warped the rope around my upper hand. I cocked the Tibloc back so it would slide freely. I made a rapid descent, pausing only to let the rope cool in my hand. Once down I began the try to free the green rope. After ten minutes of chopping, I gave up and cut it. I called up on the radio once I was in a safe place and Ian started his descent. He sent a few rocks down but nothing major. As he joined me I radioed up and let Jeremy know that he was safe.
Just as Jeremy was beginning decent we heard natural rock fall kick off above him. Fortunately it did not head in his direction. On the way down Jeremy jettisoned a couple rocks that cleared the snowfield. I shouted up to him “Score!” All totaled I suspect we spent a little more than an hour in the Hourglass.
We made good time back to the gully for our descent. I took off reaching the creek to find Liba and her dog Duchess were there waiting for us. My helmet was off in second and dunked my head in the cold water, did that ever feel good! Liba asked if we could give her a ride back down to her car near the beginning of the Lake Como Road. I was happy to oblige.
As we were packing up camp clouds began to move in and a cold downdraft could be felt occasionally. I could sense that familiar smell in the air and I turned to Ian and said, “We may get snowed on.” It never materialized but looking out the next morning at the Sangres from Silver Cliff there was a nice dusting of snow across the range.
The walk out was great especially having Liba for company. We had a lively conversation on the way down that made the long slog far more enjoyable. We were first to arrive at the car and dove into the cold rinks in the ice chest. Ian and Jeremy arrived about 20 minutes later and both were glad for the cold drinks and relief for their aching feet. On the way out we dropped Liba and Duchess at their car and said our goodbyes with a promise to exchange photos and to keep in touch.
It was a very successful climb and we were all please with how it went. In our post-climb discussion we concurred that the technical aspect of the Hourglass may be a little over hyped but not the rock fall. I was pleased that I reached my 44th Colorado 14’er and have now completed all of them in the Sangre de Cristo Range.
Kevin Donovan, May 30, 2006