Little Bear Peak
Climb Date: May 18, 2013
Route: West Ridge/ SW Face
Roundtrip Time from Lake Como:12 hours (5 am- 5pm)
Little Bear is the one mountain I have dreaded for a few years based on the reputation and name itself. It is just an imposing mountain with a tough approach, steep loose terrain, and the infamous hourglass or “shooting gallery.” Hiking Culebra back in Feburary, Little Bear off in the distance was on my mind as I knew that it would be my next 14er attempt.
Little Bear from Culebra in February
After reading several trips reports where it was done as a spring snow climb in April and May, this seemed not only safer but also a somewhat pleasant option. We planned all year to attempt this and after being delayed by several late spring snowstorms in the Sangres, our time window was closing fast. A conditions report the week before our climb indicated that the group had to self arrest several times because of slippery conditions above the hourglass and it was a very long dangerous day. We almost cancelled our trip because of this and were going to settle for a summer attempt. But we decided to go for it as we could always turn around if we felt uncomfortable. Plus we are preparing for a Rainier attempt this August, so hiking up the road with packs would be at worst a good training hike. So we decided to give it a go and left Denver around 2 pm on Friday. After some Walsenburg Pizza Hut for dinner we arrived at Lake Como Road around 7 pm and drove to 8800 feet before donning our packs and hiking up the road. The hike up Lake Como Road was actually quite nice with temps in mid 60s and a classic San Luis Valley Sunset.
San Luis Valley Sunset
We arrived at the Lake around 10 pm and found a decent campsite on the east side of the lake. Low winds made for a nice evening and the temperature dropped down into the 20’s which helped the snow conditions the following day. Alarm went off at 4:30 am and we were hiking by 5 am. We reached the top of the North Gully at 6 am and found the snow conditions ideal up to the top of the West Ridge. Here we met screeman57, who we ended up climbing with the rest of the day.
Heading up the North Gully at sunrise
First section of the West Ridge was snowfree
We stayed high on the ridge and followed sparse cairns around PT 12,960 and down to the remaining snowfields leading to the hourglass. We traversed the snowfields and reached the bottom of the hourglass at 8 am.
Entering the hourglass
The hourglass was in fair shape and completely covered in snow. A section just above both the narrowest constriction and rappel station were icy, but overall we made quick work through the hourglass. Just above the rappel anchor in the hourglass there was a section of ice that was “interesting” to cross. I slipped at one point and my axe anchor held nicely.
Just above the fixed ropes
Above the hourglass we followed snow prints to far right, which was incorrect, and ended up traversing back to the proper route. The snowfield leading up to the summit was fairly firm and made for great cramponing. We reached the summit just after 9 am.
Summit (Photo by Screeman57)
Blanca and Ellingwood Pt.
We only spent about 5-10 on summit and this was the first summit where I felt absolutely zero relief nor any sense of celebration. The decent as we soon would learn is the crux in these conditions. We elected to down climb facing in off the summit and through the hourglass, getting pretty good axe anchors every 3-4 steps. We finally reached the bottom of the hourglass and began the traverse back to the North Gully. I realized here just how steep and exposed this traverse is. On the ascent my mind was solely on the hourglass and I did not realize the exposure of this slope and the potential dangers of a fall.
Starting the traverse back to the North Gully
Cliff bands and rocks are littered below and a fall without self-arresting would be bad. We slowly made it across the snowfields and the intermittent rock patches made this extremely difficult. I haven’t mastered rock scrambling in crampons and found it to be very unstable. We finally reached the snow free section of the West Ridge and it was time for a break.
After a brief break we reached the top of the north gully and found the snow had softened up to spring corn consistency. We took it slow down the north gully with a lot of post-holing and made it back to camp exhausted at 5 pm.
After packing up camp and slogging back down the road we made it back to the car around 8 pm to finish off a long 15-hour day. I have not done this mountain in summer conditions (and have no interest in doing it again) but regardless, it was a much more difficult and mentally challenging than I was expecting. I caught Capitol on a perfect, warm, bluebird day in September, so I cannot compare it to a snow climb of Little Bear. But, Little Bear on this day stood alone and very separate from the other mountains I have climbed. This is a serious mountain that demands your undivided attention and respect every minute you are above Lake Como. It is simply exhausting, mentally more so than physically. Overall we had good luck with the conditions and weather, the cool temps overnight combined with overcast cool day kept the snow stable until the end. The San Luis Valley is a unique part of the state with desert terrain, sand dunes, and great mountains to climb. I will return, just not to climb Little Bear. Thanks to Uwe for providing great snow/conditions information that allowed us to pick a safe date for an attempt, The Legend for providing the conditions update just before our climb, climbdent for a great day on Pikes practicing snow skills and Screeman57 for a memorable day on a difficult mountain.
Descending back down the road