| Little Bear Peak via the Hourglass
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Little Bear Peak (14037)
04/21/2007 to 04/22/2007
Distance: ~8 miles
Vertical Gain: ~3800 feet
Climbed With: Sean Brune, Brian Murray, Lindsey Auble
It had been far too long since I had climbed a mountain, so I was very excited in the week leading up to our planned climb of Little Bear Peak. The plan was to backpack up to Lake Como on Saturday afternoon and then climb the peak via the standard west ridge/hourglass route on Sunday. The idea was to climb this peak in winter conditions to avoid the major potential for deadly rockfall in the hourglass couloir. The hourglass (aka "the bowling alley") is an apt name for this part of the route, because it is a narrow gully that collects any rockfall from the wide area above. We wanted to do this route as a snow climb in order to avoid the very real possibility of serious injury from climbers above accidentally knocking rocks onto us. 2006 had been far too dry in the Sangres for this to be feasible, but 2007 looked pretty good.
Throughout the week before the date we planned to climb, I was checking the weather and avalanche forecasts multiple times a day to ensure that it would be safe for us to go. The last snow was on the Tuesday before, and after that there was a good freeze/thaw cycle and winds favorable for the slopes that we would be climbing. The forecast for our summit day called for an absolutely gorgeous spring day. The only concern was the possibility of some light snow on Saturday while we would be backpacking up to the lake. Based on this, we decided to go for the trip.
After having some minor trouble with a backpack strap accidentally shut into the tailgate of my Xterra, we left Denver around 12:30 or so. We reached the base of the infamous Lake Como road around 4:15 or so and set out. Though this road isn‘t the toughest in the state, it‘s probably in the top 5 and it‘s definitely not for the faint of heart. Higher up (around 10,400 feet or so) there are a series of obstacles named Jaws that have claimed lives when people misjudged them. Given what I‘d heard of the snow conditions, I expected to make it nearly to Jaws 1, the first of the Jaws obstacles around 10,400 feet. Even with no snow I wouldn‘t be able to make it farther, so that seemed fine with me.
Shortly before starting up the switchbacks we spoke with another party descending on foot from Lake Como and they gave us some very informative beta on snow conditions. The reported that snowshoes weren‘t necessary getting to the lake and that one of the cabins was accessible, so we didn‘t need a tent. Both of these things saved us a good deal of weight on our backs once we started hiking.
We were able to drive to the campsite at about 10,200 feet just before the road descends a bit into the Holbrook Creek drainage. Just beyond this point the road became impassably covered in snow, so this was good, and it had only taken us about 45 minutes. I imagine I could have made it to Jaws 1 with no snow, but this was acceptable. It was .5 miles before Jaws 1, which wasn‘t quite as close as I had expected but was still pretty close and saved us a bunch of hiking. Getting up the road had been relatively easy with careful driving--the obstacle that I call "Jaws 0.5" was probably the hardest part. It‘s a rock rib just after a switchback with parking for 3-4 cars that I believe is known as "Valley View." It wasn‘t too bad on the way up but ended up causing lots of trouble on the way down...
We set out from the car by 5:15 and made pretty good progress up the road. It started to snow a bit as we approached Lake Como and the wind picked up as well. Brian and I arrived at the lake around 6:45, which isn‘t bad for a 2.5-3 mile backpack. We inspected the cabin--which I dubbed the Ritz Carlton--and began shoveling out the snow that had drifted into it during earlier storms. This took about 20 minutes, and we finished just as Sean and Lindsey made it to the lake. The cabin had a cooler full of trash left over from some 4x4ers during the summer as well as parts of a tent that we ended up using as a ground pad for our sleeping bags. It also had some interesting graffiti, including a scrawling on the wall declaring the cabin to be "Camp Sexual Chocolate." The area around the lake (including this cabin) is technically private property and camping is discouraged there, but given the wind and snow around, I wasn‘t too concerned with that.
We made up some warm tea before bed and then crawled into bed for what I figured was going to be a cold and mostly sleepless night. I woke up around 10:30 and thought I heard something. I sat up, grabbed my light, and waited for the sound to start again before turning on the headlamp. I didn‘t see anything the first time, so I turned off the light and waited to hear it again before turning on the light. This time I saw a mouse scurrying away from my pack. After swearing at it, I got out of my nice warm sleeping bag to hang up some of the food we had sitting out so that he couldn‘t get at it. After getting back in my sleeping bag I heard it AGAIN, and had to get up a second time to hang something I‘d forgotten the first time. Sean and Lindsey both woke up during this and we watched the mouse run around and try to climb the walls for a while before he gave up and we went to bed.
No one got much sleep, but it was still humourous when Brian later declared that he‘d gotten "15 minutes, tops," because we knew he had completely slept through the hourlong adventure with the mouse. We woke up at 4:30 and had some breakfast and hit the trail right around 5:15. It was still pretty dark, but enough light was out that I turned off my headlamp as Brian, Sean, and I trekked across frozen Lake Como through the 2-3" of fresh snow that had fallen during the night. The clouds were gone now and it was a chilly morning. Lindsey had opted to stay behind.
We made quick time on the .3 miles to the base of the North Face Couloir that we would use to gain the west ridge of Little Bear. We put on our crampons and helmets and strapped trekking poles to our packs and headed up. We made pretty good progress up this couloir as the sun slowly came up and started to put a little bit of light onto Ellingwood Point. I would estimate that the steepness of the couloir was slightly below 40 degrees. I was carefully observing the quality of the snow and it seemed pretty consolidated. There was a thin wind layer on top that was a bit harder, but it was still pretty soft. I felt some trepidation about this, but decided that it wasn‘t bad enough to end the climb. This soft snow did make the climbing a bit difficult because the steps were never solid and we ended up sinking backward a bit with every step. We arrived at the ridge around 6:40 or so, which was pretty good progress.
At this notch in the ridge we donned our shells and removed our crampons for the traverse of the west ridge. We couldn‘t see another trail, so we had to stick to the ridgeline itself the entire way. This was a bit dicey in some spots where a fall would mean a swift death as you fell down the steep slope and onto the jagged rocks below. This was especially true with the fresh snow that made some of the rocks quite slippery. This ridge was a fun scramble, though, and it afforded some excellent views of Little Bear ahead of us. Because of the snow conditions, this traverse took us around 50 minutes. We again donned crampons and commenced the traverse to the base of the hourglass, which took about 30-40 minutes. Again there were certain places where I had some avalanche trepidation, but the snow was generally well-consolidated.
Mercifully, the snow in the hourglass was free from any avalanche concerns. There was certainly plenty of snow here, and I was very pleased about that. Too little snow might have meant dicey climb on icy rocks. There was one point where a rope peeked up above the snow and we also saw some slings, but beyond that it was almost all snow-covered. Brian began to pull away from Sean and I before too long as the soft snow began to tire us out considerably. It‘s just a lot of work to climb when you sink backward a bit with every step. It‘s especially difficult when the slope is too steep for you to take a proper rest.
Brian took a route a little bit to the right as we came out of the narrow part of the hourglass. This was a bit steeper and probably approached 53 degrees or so. By this point my energy had been sapped by the snow conditions and I kept looking for a good rock to rest on so that I could have some food to hopefully get ready for a summit push. I finally found one that wasn‘t too steep when I was about 200 vertical feet below the summit. I felt a bit better (and a bit colder) as I headed toward the summit, where Brian already sat. My pace was almost glacial by this point, but I started to feel better as the sun finally reached me. The fresh snow had barely covered some of the rocks, so Brian‘s path led me into a few hidden rocks that you didn‘t notice until your crampons failed to dig in. There weren‘t any hand holds around either, so this made for some interesting moves.
I finally topped out at around 10:05 for a shockingly long ascent time of nearly 5 hours for 2,200 vertical feet and 1.1 miles! We were on snow the whole way, and the view from the top was simply breathtaking as mist began to envelope the valleys below as well as some of the surrounding peaks. Brian had been there for 20-30 minutes when I arrived, and Sean was about 5 minutes behind me. The wind was blowing and it was very cold, so we only stayed long enough to have a quick snack and snap some photos before we descended.
During much of the ascent I had felt disconcerted by the fact that we would have to downclimb some of the steeper portions. From the very summit we started out by downclimbing facing in, but this part wasn‘t really steep enough to necessitate it so we quickly stopped and made quick progress for having done so. The rocks just underneath the snow were even harder to ascend than to descend, particularly since a bad step would result in not just a slide and a quick self-arrest, but a tumble into the hourglass below.
Inconsistent snow on the steepest portion (up and to the climber‘s right from the hourglass) also put the fear of God into me. I saw Brian slip briefly ahead of me before catching himself with his ice axe. We were climbing facing in again for this section and I was feeling nervous about the whole thing and spent a lot of time kicking each step to avoid even the possibility of having to self-arrest. I was concerned in the soft snow that my steps would fall out underneath my feet and on the harder snow that my steps wouldn‘t be deep enough and I would slip. This concentration and constant preparation for an arrest added a degree of mental exhaustion to the considerable physical exhaustion I already felt. By the time we reached the narrow part of the hourglass the slope angle was such that I felt comfortable facing out again, and about halfway down I followed Brian‘s lead and glissaded down the remainder of the way to the tracks where we had traversed the slopes to reach the hourglass.
The warmth of the sun made it extremely hot in all of our cold weather gear as we traversed back across the slopes to reach the west ridge again. Moreover, some of our steps were giving way at this point. It wasn‘t to the point that I was concerned about wet slides, but it was frustrating. We were starting to overheat by the time we reached the ridge and were able to stop and change clothes. We had more snacks and the headed onto the ridge from which we spotted Lindsey several hundred feet below. It had taken us much longer than expected, so she was a bit worried at this point and was relieved when she heard us yelling down to her. The ridge traverse was just as dicey on the way back, but the north face couloir suddenly didn‘t seem steep anymore and provided a great glissade and a speedy descent.
We arrived back at Camp Sexual Chocolate at 1:15, for a still shocking 8 hour day on 2.2 miles and 2,200 vertical feet. I suppose most of that had to do with the care we had to take on the west ridge traverse and the rest had to do with fatigue and slowness due to the softness of the snow. Still, we were all quite surprised at the length of this climb. We packed up quickly and made good time to the car. We had been concerned that we would posthole miserably in the snow along the road that had been hardpacked on the colder day before, but we actually had no trouble with it.
I was very tired by the time we got back to the car and was still a bit mentally exhausted from the scary portions of the descent. This didn‘t bode well for the drive down the road, which takes quite a bit of focus in and of itself. When we made it back to Jaws 0.5, I had Brian get out to take pictures as I crossed it. We planned a line that seemed good, but it took a decided turn for the worse when one of my tired slipped off a rock, leaving the car tipping at quite an angle. It felt to me like the car was just about to roll onto its side, so I yelled at Brian to come push on it. He was nervous about this because he didn‘t want it to tip onto HIM, but he did it and that gave me enough comfort to quickly get the car out of the jam.
I had a mini-nervous breakdown at this point, so I got out of the car and walked around for a minute and took deep breaths before continuing down the rest of the road, which was long but uneventful. It was definitely easier on the way up, I can say that for sure. Our ascent time on the road was about 50-60 minutes, but the descent took around 90! And to make matters worse, something to do with the road caused a tire to go flat when we were on I-25 driving home. This resulted in us not getting back to Denver until almost 9:30.
This was my toughest mountaineering challenge to date, but was also an incredible experience. I would definitely recommend doing this as a snow climb, and though the Sangres won‘t usually have as much snow as when we did the climb, I would recommend it just for the views of snow-covered Blanca Peak. I would also recommend doing it at a point when the snow is a bit more solid in order to avoid the troubles we had with fatigue. While we were descending, I kept thinking that I never wanted to climb this again and that I had no desire to do the Little Bear/Blanca Traverse, but looking back at my pictures of that incredible ridge and thinking back on the climb sort of makes me want to do it. I guess it‘s this selective amnesia that keeps me coming back to the mountains even after a difficult climb.
Click here for all my pictures from this climb.