Little Bear Peak
Little Bear has a bad reputation as far as Colorado 14ers go. If you climb in the summer, it has dangerous rock fall and if you climb in the winter, it is a very steep snow climb. So pick your poison. There is quite a list of accidents and deaths attributed to Little Bear. Many people try to bridge the gap by climbing in late Spring when the snow is safer but there is still enough to prevent the rock fall. That is what I did, with success, the last weekend of May 2010.
I had attempted Little Bear in September 2009 wanting to tag it along with Ellingwood Point and Blanca Peak. I got those two but was stopped by veriglass on the Bear.
I climbed the Little Bear - Blanca Traverse starting at the West Ridge on Little Bear in June 2013. See this report.
Click on any picture to enlarge it.
To reach Little Bear and the two other 14ers in the Sangre de Cristo range, you have to tackle the infamous Lake Como road. It is about 5 miles long and climbs from 8,000' to Lake Como at 11,750'. It is one of the lowest trailheads of all the 14ers. Many people hike the road because their vehicles cannot navigate the rocky, twisting and rough road. But with my Jeep Wrangler, I was able to cut half of the distance off and parked just above the milestone called Jaws .5.
I really don't like hiking on hot, dusty 4WD roads. The only challenge, other than boredom, was the creek crossing but I made it safely using the downed logs on the hiker's left.
This late May, the area around Lake Como was still covered in snow while the road was dry. The surrounding peaks were mostly free of snow on all but the shady ravines and north sides. I had the benefit of knowing the conditions from my regular partners Patrick and Robert who had climbed the previous weekend. I couldn't make that trip so was solo for this climb.
I pitched my tent by the lake, had dinner, and set a 4:00AM departure time to avoid any postholing as the sun warmed the snowfields. The next morning, with headlamp glowing, I was pleased the temps were mild and left camp with only a light windshirt as my top layer but crampons on my boots.
Little Bear's standard route starts with a short, but somewhat steep,maybe 25 degrees angle, for the 600' couloir climb to a saddle at 12,600'. The snow was hard packed and I found myself making good time. It was much easier for me than the scree climb last time out. I arrived at the top of the saddle in less than an hour from leaving camp.
Next up was about a mile traverse across the southwest face to the hourglass gully. My friends has noted it was snow covered but now, only a week later, there was no snow and was identical to last September's dry conditions. I took my crampons off. It is tempting to climb to the top of the ridge at this point but actually the best route is about 50' below the ridge proper. The hourglass remains out of view for most of the crossing.
Just below the saddle in the ridge, the hourglass became visible and I headed towards the base at 13,300'. This is where the real climbing starts.
Looking up the Hourglass gully, it was all snow covered (left image) and looked dramatically different than last September(right image). 14ers.com has this description for a summer climb: "This loose, dangerous route is probably the most difficult standard 14er route. Climbing this route on a busy weekend is definitely not recommended."
With my crampons back on, I started up. Tracks remained from the previous day's and even weekend's climb so route finding was not a big issue. Even without those tracks, it was simple - go straight up!
The snow was still firm but melting through. On several occasions I could see a hole, maybe a foot deep with rushing water underneath. One actually revealed a collection of old ropes that have become a permanent fixture on the hourglass. Note, they should never be used under any circumstances. they are old, weak and not to be trusted.
I climbed steadily following two young climbers just ahead. Around the narrow part of the hourglass I stayed right and then took a left bias towards the skyline. I noted an anchor station around this level but again, I would never trust something that sat in the direct sunlight over the winter.
Here the angle became significantly steeper from perhaps 30 degrees to 60 degrees. But the snow was still firm and foot placement solid so I was soon at the top of the gulley and on top at 7:00AM. It had taken about 3 hours from my tent.
The photo on the right was taken from Little Bear South, about 1/4 mile away, by a 14ers.com member in May 2009. If you click on it you can see two climbers in the center of the hourglass. It does an excellent job of showing the steepness of this climb
The views were excellent as usual, including those of Blanca and Ellingwood. I considered the traverse over to Blanca or a quick run over to tag South Little Bear (14,040') however seeing the melting snow in the hourglass gave me second thoughts as to getting down before the sun starting doing it's thing. I may return one day to get the traverse.
The summit of Little Bear is quite small, maybe a living room. It is more of a flat spot on the ridge. As I left, the steepness of the last 100' came into focus. Climbers were now coming up so I took the line off the boot tracks and side stepped to minimize any interference. I paused and reflected that I must have been totally focused going up since it didn't strike me as being so steep.
The down climb through the rest of hourglass was swift and uneventful, quite enjoyable but somewhat stressful on my old knees. By the time I made it back to the first couloir, the sun has softened the snow so I glissaded down the majority - more fun!
Little Bear is really the tale of two mountains. It is very different in the winter than summer. Having it seen in both seasons, give me the snow anytime. But anytime, this is a classic Colorado 14er. It is not a simple walk-up. It makes you earn the summit and is quite deserving of it's class 4 rating.
Note: Only one month later, on June 15, 2010, 18 year-old Kevin Hayne died after falling in the upper hourglass. His partner reported extremely icy conditions.