| Paying Homage to The Bear - Winter in the Hourglass
Little Bear Peak - Standard Route
Tuesday 3/12 - Drive to 8800’ and park - Pack in to Como Cabin at 11,700’
Wednesday 3/13 – Ascend LB via the Standard West Ridge to West Face Route (aka “The Hourglass”). Return to cabin and pack out
Climbing Party: Paul (Captainp) & Matt (I Man)
The Como Basin is the Afternoon Sun
Little Bear Peak
Gaining altitude on the West Ridge in the impressive basin. Little Bear's dramatic cliffs loom above
Winter was coming to a close and there were still many goals left unattempted. Paul and I had been trying to work in one final climb of the season together and it was clear where both of our ambitions lay; down South in the Sangres. We threw around a few ideas, but quickly settled on Little Bear Peak as our main objective. Over the next few days we discussed options and ambitions before finally settling on the Hourglass route with the possibility of some further nonsense should the day go well. To maximize our chance of success we decided to pack in to Lake Como on Tuesday night. This was my first experience with the road, and though long, it did not live up to its reputation as being not merely a road, but an exposed Class 3 route. My pack was heavy and the trail breaking was taxing, but the air was warm, the views captivating and the conversation interesting. Despite our best efforts to make the cabin before dark, the sun had fully set and then some by the time we arrived at the cabin.
My car at the 2WD TH and the pack I don't want to carry
The initial Como road, dry....at first
A view of a portion of the route from the TH
Plenty of snow to contend with up high on the road
The Como "Cabin" - Luxury at its finest
In the dark of night, the cabin’s true beauty was hidden (probably for the best). There was a lot of snow inside (the door had been ripped off) and there were a few tarps, pieces of a tent, an old sleeping bag, you name it….I wondered why I brought up any gear at all! We took the time to set up a comfortable living space for us both before I got out the stove and began to cook our meal or Mac n Cheese with Tuna. We melted a few liters of water and settled into bed. We hoped to be moving by 5am.
A surreal sunset over the San Luis Valley
The morning came and excitement was in the air. We both enjoyed a hot drink and methodically got our summit packs together. We were moving after not too long and we stepped into the pitch black unknown. Quickly out of the trees, we were able to turn off our headlamps and see the outline of Little Bear’s features. We did not have much problem navigating to the base of the North Gully, but did use snowshoes for this part. By the time we were ready to begin our ascent there was a touch of light in the sky. We observed the snow conditions and had a quick discussion before I started heading up, staying close to the rocks. At first the going was easy, but we soon encountered very deep unconsolidated snow. Upward movement was impossible. We decided to put away the snowshoes and try and make progress without them. We lost a lot of time in this gully and it was very frustrating. Eventually Paul moved into the lead and finished off the climb. We topped out on the West Ridge, but it was already 2 hours into our day. We laughed at how difficult the mere 700ft of gain had been.
Ellingwood in the early morning. The clouds were dancing around its summit.
Swimming up hill in the North Gully. This part ate up a ton of time
Looking down the North Gully from the notch
Little Bear Peak as seen from the West Ridge
Paul on the West Ridge
With the sun now fully up, the views were simply ridiculous. Little Bear’s imposing presence in front of us and clouds and alpenglow combined to make Ellingwood look like a work of art placed there for our enjoyment. It was easy to get lost in the mountain environment and forget about the seriousness of the task at hand. There were several cairns visible, but as is often the case in winter, it was best to make our own route. We started on the South side of the ridge and gradually traversed up to the crest, which we rode for quite a while until the prominent point before the West Ridge rises steeply towards the summit. Paul and I chose separate lines to drop back onto the South side of the ridge, both Class 4, and found ourselves at the start of the Apron.
Staying high on the first traverse
The way ahead was painfully obvious and we had mixed emotions. So far we had both felt comfortable with snow conditions and the slopes were not as big as they could be, but still – there they were. The accident of 2009 was in the front of our minds as we started our first traverse. We took turns and crossed a half dozen or so slopes as we traversed across the Apron. We weren’t too concerned about a slide, but the going was tough as there was a lot of trail breaking and post holing to be had, with the occasional rock move mixed in between.
With some effort and a couple more hours of lost time we found ourselves within striking distance of the Hourglass. It was very easy to spot (the orange band of rock gives it away) and from what we could see, there was snow at least in the lower part. Paul took his turn on the last slope or two and traversed into the Hourglass. I followed.
The last section before the Hourglass. Conditions were manageable
Paul approaches the entrance to the Hourglass
Paul makes his way towards the constriction
What a feeling, climbing into such an infamous feature, ingrained in all minds of those who look to Colorado’s Mountains. It was a mixture of excite, wonder, of course, fear. Sure, it was just the 2 of us, but that didn’t mean we did not need to worry about rock fall…but at least for now we were still on snow. The entrance was maybe 50 degrees and in very good conditions. We made quick work of the early goings as the snow was perfect from crampons. We started to let our guard down and talked about how lucky we were…which of course caused our luck to run out. After climbing through the constriction (which was continuous firm snow) our nightmare of deep, loose powder returned. There were a few tense moments as we made our way out of the snow and onto the loose rocky slopes on the upper West Face. Once we began ascending this portion of the face, the reputation of the Hourglass was all too obvious as every single pebble that moves falls straight down through the Constriction. Luckily we had no incidents and were both wearing helmets. I managed to minimize the amount of rock I sent down Paul’s way and we were happy to be a small team.
Me climbing out of the Hourglass and onto the Upper West Face (Photo by Paul)
High on the West Face of Little Bear on the last section before the summit (Photo by Paul)
Within striking distance of the ridge crest, Paul caught up with me and we stopped to discuss the route briefly. He liked a “snow ridge” that ascended from our stance all the way to the top. It was maybe 45 degrees and seemed to be in good conditions. He led off and was pleased with what he found, great cramponing snow. A hundred feet or so and there it was.
“No more mountain!” Paul called down as I stepped onto the summit. It was a beautiful day. The view of the twin ridges was as beautiful as I could have imagined. For a while we just took in the beauty of the coveted Little Bear summit view, but were quickly snapped back into reality.
The LB Blanca traverse. No go.
The Spanish peaks
The coveted "Twin ridge" summit view.
Our initial plan was to utilize the long days and hopefully somewhat stable snow conditions of March and make for Blanca, and possibly Ellingwood. Paul had done the traverse in summer and I had done a lot of winter research, talking with a friend who had done it. We carried 2 30m ropes and an alpine rack, both to assist with the traverse or as a safety net should we need to down climb the Hourglass. Though the sun shone bright and it was still early in the day, the news was not good.
First, the wind was a bit higher than we would have liked, but that wasn’t going to stop us. The snow would. In previous winter ascents of the traverse, there had been little snow on the ridge crest and there is a key traverse on the south side near Blanca that must be in condition in order to safely navigate the obstacle. Not only was the ridge crest covered, but the traverse was loaded…and baking in the hot sun. Once we saw this we took the decision pretty quickly, we knew we had to descend Little Bear.
We enjoyed the views for a bit longer, called our respective ladies, and packed for the descent. We agreed that we felt confident down climbing the route and did not need to take the ropes out. Paul left first and walked down the track we had made. We stayed in snow more than the rock on the upper face. It was scary, but it went and before I knew it I was back in the Hourglass. The warm temperatures had started to dislodge some rocks. We watched a few go whizzing down.
Paul descends the Apron quickly as the slopes bake in the afternoon sun
Returning across the Apron (Photo by Paul)
Paul descends the North Gully...the last obstacle to safety.
Enjoying the ridge scramble on the descent
“Time to go,” Paul said. I couldn’t agree more. We raced down and out of the rock fall danger, but we were far from out of the woods. It was barely 1pm and the sun was already making it feel like summer. The slopes we had safely crossed in the morning were becoming more and more unstable by the minute. We talked little and hiked down a lot. We were both very relieved to get off of the Apron and back onto rock. Some Class 3 scrambling led us back to the ridge crest which we followed to the notch of the North Gully. The scrambling here was very enjoyable ad a nice cool down from the tough climbing up higher. The trip down the North Gully was uneventful as was the trip out to the car. Seeing the Como Cabin in daylight left something to be desired and I wonder if it should be called the “Como Crackhouse.”
Some goats on the descent (Photo by Paul)
Despite its reputation, the Como Road was not any worse than other roads to descend and it took us roughly 2 hours. Thanks to Paul for being an awesome partner, mentor and friend and for all the memories and days in the hills we have shared this season. Also, Congrats to Jamie, Emily and Jason for the safe and successful ascent of the SW Ridge Route just 2 days later, you guys are awesome, wish I could have been there.
Little Bear is an incredible peak and without a doubt one of Colorado’s finest 14ers. The Hourglass route was a Mountaineering Classic and I am glad to have had the chance to try it.
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