Little Bear has been a bit of a struggle for me to get done, but with only 2 ranked 14ers left, it was time to make this happen. I have tried every way I could to avoid the standard route on the mountain. Stories of its loose, steep slopes in the Hourglass, and far too many losses of climbers old and young, experienced and inexperienced alike have sat firmly in my mind as the years have gone by and the inevitability of this climb has loomed ever more presently.
Last year, I went with Moonstalker to Lake Como, climbed Ellingwood and Blanca but opted not to climb Little Bear that trip. We chose not to climb it that trip for a number of reasons, so I planned out climbing it this Spring as a snow climb. With the less then ideal snow in the Sangres this year, I couldn’t justify the risk of climbing it in sketchy snow, so this past May I headed up with Sunny1 and JosephG to attempt the SW Ridge. We didn’t make the summit that time around, and I knew my best chance would be another shot at it from Lake Como.
That catches us up to now. Jesse (JB99) and I decided to head up, with the thought that we would climb the Northwest Face, and if the Traverse was not a safe option for any reason, we would down climb the Hourglass Route. We met up, planning to drive the Xterra as high as possible on the Como Road, backpack in and get an alpine start from the Lake. I was having reservations about our plan, because while I dreaded climbing the Hourglass, I knew that if we didn’t do the traverse to Blanca for any reason, down climbing it without knowing the route could be a serious problem. Neither of us had first hand knowledge of the Hourglass route, so would be doing it blind.
We left Denver at 130pm, and made good time to the start of the road, but a storm was coming fast. We started the drive up the road and were 2 miles from the Highway when it started raining, hard. The remaining drive to 9900’, where Jaws 0.5 is located was white knuckle on wet rocks. When we got to Jaws 0.5, I told Jesse I was done. He agreed that with the wet rocks, attempting to work our way up it would be a bad idea, so we parked there, about 3 miles from the lake.
As the rain kept coming down, we discussed the fact that we really were not far from the lake, and had knocked out the worst part of the hike up the road. Would it make more sense to sleep at the Xterra, and hike up the road early in the morning with light packs, or pack in wet and have a horrible, wet nights sleep before the climb? We decided to spend the night at the car, and make a go of it from there. We talked about the traverse, and with the weather forecast it was very unlikely, so we more or less nixed that idea as well.
Once the rain broke, we were able to take some photos of the area around the road including a rainbow that framed the West Ridge of Little Bear, and got to watch an amazing sunset across the San Luis Valley. The ironic thing is that once the nice people that parked next to us headed up to the lake, we only saw one other person. We probably had more solitude there, than we would have had at Lake Como!
the rainbow over the West Ridge of Little Bear we were greeted by after the rain stopped
Jesse chilling on the low traffic road
Sunset from our parking spot
Jesse and I started up the road at 4am, with the plan of getting to Lake Como as we got enough light to assess our route options. This worked out perfectly, and I have to say the hike up the road with daypacks was a whole lot easier than it was the last time I came up with gear for an overnight stay. We got to the lake, with perfectly still water. We discussed options, and given the fact we would have to descend the Hourglass regardless, it would be better to climb the route. I had printed a route description and over the years had studied it repeatedly.
Little Bear from Lake Como
We headed around the lake, got to the far side and started hiking towards the West Gully, when Jesse said he thought he saw a Bear running from the area of a campsite, but wasn’t sure. Less then a minute later we saw a very large black bear just above us in the woods. When it saw us, it sat down, twitched it ears seemingly saying, you are annoying please go away and let me eat that persons food, then ran off. We checked the site it had been in, and no one was there, but things had been left out.
We decided to warn the people not far away, and as we approached their site, a smaller bear that was in their site ran away. We woke up the occupants, knowing full well that the Bear would be back as soon as we were gone if we didn’t say anything. The camp occupants were shocked and glad to have been woken up, given how interested the Bears were in campsites, including theirs. We chatted for a minute then headed up. Jesse and I had both wanted to catch a glimpse of a Bear in the wild if it was safe for a while, so we felt like the mountain gods were smiling on us as we started up the loose West Gully.
Jesse starting up the loose West Gully
We made good time, and were a good bit behind another group. We decided to keep our distance due to the loose rock in that gully, and hoping they would have time to get up the hourglass and the area above it by the time we would be exposed in the Hourglass gully constriction. We took our time at the top of the Gulley, and as we headed out along the West Ridge, could see climbers starting up the Hourglass.
When we got to the base of the Hourglass, it didn’t look so bad. The rope hung down the crux section above us, and we talked about how strange it was that on this mountain, its acceptable to leave a rope hanging, not really understanding what was to come. I planned on avoiding the use of it unless I absolutly had to, but was sure I could navigate the route without touching it once, after all this route was only class 4 and I can climb 5.10, or that's how I justified my thoughts on the subject.
We couldn’t see or hear climbers above us. Despite this I yelled ‘Climbers below’ loudly so that anyone that might be descending would know they were above climbers. Jesse and I make it quickly up the section just blow the constriction, much of the rock there was solid, but slick (a theme low in the couloir). The down sloping smooth, wet rock seemed to be a byproduct of all the water that seems to run down this section but a geologist would have to speak to that. There was a good deal of water coming down the constriction itself, where the rope ran, so we worked our way to climbers left, discovering quickly that this was just as wet, and was unpleasantly loose when it came to any good holds.
me starting up the Hourglass - photo by JB99
Jesse was able to put his head down and work his way past the difficulties leading to the top of the lower half of the gully, later admitting to feeling the same emotions I experienced in that wet section. But for me, being a good deal taller, I was struggling to find the holds he had, and with how wet the down sloping holds were my nerves were going fast. I could feel my boots slip on the wet rock, and with the consequences of a fall being so high, I asked Jesse if he could work the rope over to where I was so I could use it as a back up, in case any of the holds I was using failed. He was able to get it above me, and having that gave me the confidence I needed to get past the wet rock. As I was working my way up, climbers above us let us know they would be down climbing into the gully, and were awesome when I asked them to hold on until I was a bit less exposed to rock fall.
me working my wa around the solid stream of water pouring down the constriction in the Hourglass - photo by JB99
Jesse taking a break on a ledge in the Hourglass as I waited on the ledge below, waiting to start up to where he is
me starting my way up from where I took the photo above - photo by JB99
me coming up the last, wet and slabby section of the crux area of the Hourglass. This was not fun. Dry and without water it would've been much bet
Jesse and I continued upwards, happy to be on dry rock, but continually disconcerted by the loose and exposed moves we were making, sometimes opting for short 10-15 ft class 5 pitches that were on what little solid rock was around because it felt so much safer then the class 3 and 4 loose rock. We passed the people who had parked next to us on the road, MountainMike on 14ers and Kitten on 14ers. They gave us reassurance that we were almost there, so we kept on moving, toping out before we knew it.
Jesse working his way up the rock above the hourglass
moving up a slightly overhanging move, doing my best to keep it class 4 - photo by JB99
almost to the summit - photo by JB99
As I climbed onto the summit, I felt like my nerves were absolutely cooked, but knew we were only half way done, and clouds were starting to build around the high peaks of the Sangres. I needed to calm my mind for a moment before heading down. I hadn’t had enough of a let up after the high stress moments on the wet rock, which had kept me on edge for too long without any time to sit and really get back to center. We waited about 15 minutes before beginning to work our way down, feeling much more balanced, and with a renewed focus on finishing this climb safely.
Jesse up top
me on the summit
Careful not to knock rocks loose as we moved downward, this direction felt much easier, as class 4 always has for me. It is much easier for me to test holds, and site good ones when going down a climb. This did not, however relieve the concern that even a single rock sent down the gulley would serve as a deadly missile headed right for Mountain Mike and Kitten. All of this focus, sent us to climbers right of the gulley, which was not a great place to be, so back up we went, finding our way over the first rock rib, and taking a short class 5 down climb into the right section of the gulley, and back to the cairned route.
Jesse making a short downcljesse coming down a verticle section there wasnt a way of avoiding slight overhang no vert exaggeration in the shot
Jesse chilling at the top of the crux section by the ropes.
By the time we were ready to re-enter the gully, we were happy to see Mountain Mike and Kitten traversing the West Ridge,, they were out of harms way, and while we both saw sending any rocks down as a huge no-no, knowing we were now alone in the gulley without climbers below us was a huge relief.
With all the water in the Hourglass, Jesse and I had already decided we would use the rope as a back-up down to the bottom of the constriction. The blue rope running down the center looked like it would serve that purpose well, and didn’t seem damaged on the way up, so we made the descent one at a time, moving much more quickly with the rope as a back up. The ironic thing is, I always thought I wouldnt do this, that I would be able to do this without it, but there is something about wet slick rock with a bit of exposure to change a persons confidence in their abilities when balanced on the consequences of failure that are so high in a place like this. Jesse followed, also abandoning his pre-climb thoughts on using the rope that hung down the long gully. After some more difficult scrambling in an effort to avoid the wet rock to climbers left, we were out of immediate danger.
Jesse hiking out along the west ridge
Jesse nearing the bottom of the Gully
As we hiked below the West Ridge, we could see clouds building, and kept our pace to get back to the lake as quickly as possible. When we reached the top of the West Gully, I found my poles chewed by a marmot, but didn’t stop to lament the situation. About half way down the gully, thunder rolled above us, so we picked up the pace, reaching the lake in what seemed like no time.
Much like the hike in, the hike out without the heavy packs was quick, letting us reach the Xterra in no time, and putting us in a position to get to the bottom of the Lake Como Road just as the storms let loose their fury. As we drove away, we looked back at the mountain through the storm, and knew that while the climb had been hard, and possibly the most objectively dangerous climb either of us had every done, she had taken care of us. This is a mountain that has a reputation for a very good reason. We both felt that we had approached her with the respect she deserved, and she treated us the best she could while we were on her rugged slopes.
The things I took away from this climb are:
1. All of my trepidation about this route was well deserved. It is not a safe route, and maybe my understanding and experience with technical rock climbing, made this all the more obvious. This is a route that absolutely requires that you follow the rule of 3 points of contact, all on different surfaces diligently and beware of what is happening above and below you at all times.
2. If I ever do this route again I will bring a rope, and harness. The hourglass is tricky, and while we used the rope in the hourglass that was there as a back-up, I couldn't help but think to myself the whole time that I could in no way trust it, and neither Jesse or I ever used it as a primary, secondary, or even tertiary hold. It was wrapped around our wrists so that it would be easier to grab if, and only if a fall happened as a back-up. The justification for using it as a back-up was that if a fall happened, it would potentially be better then nothing. When wet, the crux of the hourglass is very slippery, and there is just no way to know what conditions will be when you get there. On any future ascents, I would much rather have the added weight, then have to put even a tiny amount of faith in a rope whose history I do not personally know.
3. As Jesse and I hiked down the road, the one thing we could not let go of was the fact that this mountain had served as a reminder that no matter how 'good', 'experienced', 'prepared' or what ever other adjective you want to apply a climber is, each of us is ultimately at the mercy of the mountain. For the first time in a very long time I walked away from a mountain feeling like part of my success was luck. The luck that that one of the many holds I used didnt break, that the climbers around us understood the danger of rock fall and took the necessary precautions, and that both Jesse and I were able to keep man killers from rocketing down the slope onto climbers descending below us despite the constant vigil it took and vice versa. While this is not the first time in my climbing that I have been in a place that deserved the level of care and respect for objective dangers that this one did, this climb did an excellent job of emphasizing it, and making sure that we would never forget our time there.
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