Peaks: Little Bear and Blanca
Routes: LB Northwest Face, Traverse to Blanca, Descent of Standard Route
Distance Traveled and Elevation Gained: Irrelevant
Participants: stevevets689, WSC_Geologist12
The Little Bear-Blanca Traverse is something I have often looked at from afar (and once from somewhat close) and wondered if I would ever do. The mile-plus long, skinny ridge is both extremely attractive and extremely intimidating. With somewhat limited time to climb this summer and the goal of getting both Little Bear and Capitol with my friend James, it started to look like the right time to tackle a big one, for both of our first Grand 14er Traverses. We chose the non-standard Northwest Face route on Little Bear to avoid the inevitable July 4th weekend crowds going through the Hourglass, and ended up being the first of only two parties to climb that route on that day.
Saturday the 2nd was not exactly an early start. We ran a few errands in Gunnison before heading to Hunan's Chinese Buffet in Alamosa for lunch. We stuffed our faces and then drove as far as James' Silverado would get us up the Lake Como road (a couple hundred yards before the beginning of the switchbacks). We then trudged up the road with our big packs starting a little after noon, smelling the Chinese food burning off, looking at road obstacles and wondering if James' ATV could handle them for the hypothetical next time.
James hiking towards camp, Little Bear looming above
Lake Como was, as I expected, tent city. We continued past the lake and hiked up slightly beyond the turn for Little Bear's standard route and found good camping on the left side of the trail, complete with fire rings and not a single other tent nearby. We established camp just in time for an evening hail storm which we waited out in the tent, and then hiked up to preview our route. We had been looking at it ever since Little Bear came into view on the approach and it looked nearly vertical, but from closer it looked... well, not quite vertical. We made a rough plan of attack for the next morning, built up an existing cairn next to the trail for our turn, and then returned to camp for dinner and a fire.
Our approximate route up the Northwest Face. Photo by James Haag
A closer look at the face
Some alpenglow on Little Bear from camp
As we woke up the next morning at 4:45am, hikers were already going by our camp on their way to Blanca and Ellingwood point. Since our route started barely beyond our camp, we were fine starting at 5:30 when we could see the rock pretty well. We hiked up the trail for a few minutes, catching a group taking a break by our cairn, and stepped off the trail. They probably wondered what the heck we were doing heading towards a sheer face.
The talus leading up to the solid rock was fairly simply negotiated. A small section of rock before the face proper was easily climbed, and we took a quick break at the base of the rock, just to the right of the black water mark known as “The Hand.” Then, introductions officially over, it was time for the climb to begin. I found that this part of the route up Little Bear was the crux, as route-finding was interesting through the very steep class 4 (maybe easy 5) rock. I would climb a small section, James would follow, and then I would explore a bit to find the best way through the next section. The exposure began immediately, and only a few moves in we were already finding that a slip could potentially be fatal. We focused in, tested our holds, and made our moves deliberately. Soon, we were able to angle left into the broad gully in the middle of the face and the terrain became much easier for a while.
The reason why you look at the route before you get to it. Doesn't look like much from up close
Myself climbing the initial part of the face. Photo by James Haag
Looking up at the face after the initial crux
We climbed up class 2 and 3 rock for several hundred feet before reaching the big headwall under the ridge, where the steepness returned and the difficulty went back to class 3 and 4. We worked our way up and slightly right through some tougher class 4 rock before abruptly reaching the ridge crest. The exposure hit my gut like a brick. Now, not only was there a big drop behind us, but to both sides, not to mention we then had to climb solid class 4 slabs on the ridge crest. Knowing we would be downclimbing these slabs to begin the traverse, I made some mental notes of the rock as we made our way slowly and carefully up. Beyond the slabs, the difficulty eased to a class 2 ridge walk up to the summit of Little Bear Peak, which we reached at about 8:15.
James climbing high on the face
James nearing the ridge crest
Looking back down the Northwest Face
The classic traverse photo, with myself climbing toward the summit of Little Bear. Blanca looked really, really far away... Photo by James Haag
Climbing the Northwest Face was an accomplishment on its own, but we were now staring down the traverse. It looked skinny, nasty, hard, and extremely exposed, which we were about to learn was fairly accurate though maybe not as technically difficult as it looked. We signed the register, which already had two names in it from earlier in the morning despite our solitude. The weather was beautiful. After about 15 minutes, there was no more time to lose. We started back along the ridge.
James downclimbing off Little Bear
Myself downclimbing Little Bear
Downclimbing the slabs was tricky even after having climbed up them before, and the traverse's nature became apparent right away. As all the guidebooks say, the crest is pretty much the place to be, though we did find ourselves on ledges just off the crest from time to time, often using the crest as a hand rail. The moves were often a bit tricky, and we had no choice but to block out the exposure. Once you get started on this traverse, you pretty much have no choice but to continue over Blanca. That kind of ultimatum has a tendency to keep you moving, despite the sheer 1,000 foot drop on both sides.
Our first obstacle. We climbed over this one
Looking back at the climb off Little Bear
James enjoying the traverse, Little Bear behind
After some slow progress, I think I started to become accustomed to the exposure and began to sickeningly enjoy our position. James followed along behind me, trying not to look at the gut-wrenching exposure under our moves. The scariest part of the first half of the traverse was a move where we had to scoot out onto a block and lower a foot off the edge without seeing where it was going to land. I tensely completed the move and then helped James power through it before continuing.
Lots more exposure!
One of many knife-edges
James minding the exposure
In my opinion, Captain Bivouako Tower was one of the easier obstacles to get around. The moves around the left side were some of the easier moves of the entire traverse, minus the periodic “class 2” ridge walking (still over two 1,000 foot drops). Finally, we found ourselves a little more than a third of the way across and the difficulty eased. We picked up some speed towards the Little Bear-Blanca saddle.
Captain Bivy Tower. Easily bypassed on the left
Looking back at Little Bear around halfway through
Once Blanca started to loom bigger over our heads, we had the three towers to contend with. The first, we bypassed to the right through a screefield and then climbed up a gully to reach the base of the second tower. We climbed up class 3 slabs and then we were met with the final extremely exposed section of ridge known as the Sidewalk in the Sky. The Sidewalk is about a foot wide by 40 feet long, and the big drops to both sides abruptly returned. Despite some spectators on Blanca's summit, I left my pride behind and slowly scooted along on my behind. For whatever reason, the exposure here hit me much harder than anything on the ridge before, and it was my turn for some calming reminders from James to take some deep breaths. It took several minutes, but we got across. That was the end of the stressful stuff.
Blanca and the towers
Tower one, as we were moving around it
Checking out the Sidewalk in the Sky
James completing the sidewalk
A short though tiring class 3 scramble later, we were on top of Blanca. The time was about 12:20pm, meaning it had taken nearly four hours to complete the traverse. I didn't particularly care. I gave James one of the most deserved high-fives ever, and after the two remaining people on the summit left we had it to ourselves for a short while. Looking back at the traverse, I couldn't help but wonder if we had actually come across what we were seeing. It seemed impossible. We ate some lunch and watched a lone traverser catch up to us, having completed all four traverses solo. Then, what with the time, some clouds rolling in, and our tiredness, we dismissed Ellingwood Point and started down. If we had been able to spend another night at camp then we probably would've climbed it.
On the summit, with the traverse in the background
Hiking down Blanca was extremely taxing after what we had done, and once we were lower on the face, the many trails and cairns were annoying, though it seems that they all lead to the same place eventually. It felt good to be on relatively level trail again, and we kept looking back up at the ridge above us to the left, thinking about how we were just up there and deciding that our fears regarding the exposure were justified.
We arrived back at camp just after 3:30, packed up, and started down around 4:15. The hike down the road was long, slow, hot, and painful, but we finally arrived back at the truck around 7:30, making for a 14 hour day. But what a day. I now feel like Capitol won't be so bad...
Little Bear Peak from the highway
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