On Saturday, Linnea and I made our way back down to the Sangre de Cristo range to finally tackle Little Bear Peak. I had been psyching myself up for this climb all Spring and with the excellent weather forecast and reports of decent climbing conditions, we gave it a go. This peak is notoriously known for rock fall through the infamous “hour glass” section during the summer, and we were hoping to avoid this by doing it as a snow climb.
After the 3 hour drive from Golden, we got our first views of the Blanca massive and Little Bear (can you pick out the hour glass??). Already, we were feeling pretty optimistic being able to see decent snow patches all the way to the summit.
After crawling up Lake Como road in the truck a little over 3 miles, we decided to park it and begin the backpack in. We saw a few others drive up further, but I didn’t want to inflict too much damage on the truck. Every truck that passed me, made me have second thoughts though, but after seeing hanging running boards on the way out, I felt okay. The best way I can describe the road is like a dried up river bed filled with rocks.
I was ready for the approach though, especially after polishing off a large meat-lovers pizza the previous night. We met one climber on his way down who gave us some nice route tips, including advice not to follow the footsteps up high that go to right, but rather go left. That was a bit unnerving b.c. we knew route finding could be an issue but actually came in quite handy later!
The weather was gorgeous and up near Lake Como we had gorgeous views of the peak.
We decided to set up camp on the East side of Lake come, near the base of the North gulley, which would be our starting point in the morning. After cooking up some rice and little dogies and melting some snow for water, we called it an early night at 6:30p. I had a hard time falling asleep between all the noisy woodpeckers, squirrels, and Linnea’s snoring.
At 3a, we woke up and were off hiking by 3:30a for a classic alpine start. With all the snow on the route and warm temperatures, we didn’t want to take any chances. We made our way up the North gulley and it was surprising light out from the intense full moon and clear skies. The climb up the gulley was pretty enjoyable and we were able to follow stair steps from other climbers earlier in the week. With a little negotiation over some thin snow/ice at the top, it was time for a break. We had made better time than expected and didn’t want to get to the hour glass section in the dark so we took a very rare 15 min break and waited for the sky to lighten up.
Next, we began the traverse over to the hour-glass. About half-way across, it was time to pull out the ice-axes and crampons.
We took this section at nice sustained pace, being careful to cross snow sections one at a time and not in a big rush to get to the hard stuff. Finally, the horizon started to lighten up and the timing was about perfect.
I couldn’t resist taking a quick peek at the hour glass before Linnea made it over.
Finally, it was go time. After all the reading about this route, I was pumped full of adrenaline, fear, excitement, and uncertainty.
Linnea took the lead, and we were off. The snow in the hour glass was set up perfect.
We made it through this section pretty methodically and fast. The angle probably did not exceed 45 degrees.
At the top of the hour glass, the dangerous factor became all too real as the snow transitioned to mixed rock, ice, and thin snow. This was the most challenging section of the day and the real kicker of the route. I stopped taking pictures and directed all focus towards hanging onto the mountain. It was hard to traverse over the slippery rock sections in our crampons and we made our way to the left, over a rib of rocks. This was followed by a couple climbing moves over some more rocks. At this point, all I could think was how on earth we were going to make it down this section. Linnea was determined though and we pressed on. Up higher, we saw two rock cairns that pulled us into the final summit push. I was relieved to see snow again leading to the top. The snow was pretty firm and a little steeper (~50 degrees) but we were able to get solid self belays with our axes and I enjoyed this final push.
Finally, we had made the summit! The views were amazingly beautifully, especially with the sun rising over the magnificent Mt. Blanca and Ellingwood Point. It was about 7:30a. I felt relieved, but still fearful of the down-climb. My appetite was completely gone and I tried to force down a Power Bar.
This is looking down toward Lake Como, our starting point.
A nice view of the Crestones.
Linnea was up to her usual summit poses.
This shot shows the traverse between Blanca and Little Bear, which includes sustained class 5 climbing. A pretty awesome view and crystal clear sky!
Now it was time for the descent. Again, Linnea led the way down the steep summit pitch into the abyss.
About halfway down, we passed two other climbers making their way up. They patiently waited, and we shared some route observations.
We slowly down climbed the nasty rock section before the hour glass. This was not much fun.
One more traverse over thin snow and rock was our final challenge.
Back in the hour glass, the snow was still holding firm, and our early alpine start payed off.
Right after I exited the gully, some small rocks came whizzing down followed by a slightly larger one. Whew, nothing like a last minute reminder of the inherent dangers, even with the snow! The snow on the traverse back to the North gully also was firm. After crossing the final snow fields, I was starting to feel pretty good.
Looking back at the traverse, we passed two other groups of two headed up and also a single climber. We were happy not to be caught in the traffic and almost to be done with our climb.
Our last obstacle was down-climbing the North gulley. The top was fairly steep and the snow was starting to soften up, making things a little difficult but not all that bad. About 3/4 of the way down we stepped off the track and glissaded to the bottom.
At the bottom, we enjoyed a few last views of the Bear. This is one 14er I will always cherish, especially being able to share it with my wife and climbing partner Linnea.
After packing down camp, we made the backpack out.
We made it back to Golden a little before 6p and had just enough time to decompress and enjoy a quick barbecue outside in the nice Spring weather.