| A Bear of a Day!
My first trip report.
I never thought I'd say this, but there is nothing little about Little Bear. My friends, Ricardo Pena, Logs (Keith) and I decided it was time to climb "the Bear". I had been following the Trip Reports on 14ers.com for the last couple of weeks, monitoring the weather in the Sangre De Cristos and felt reasonably comfortable that this would be a good weekend. My plan was to camp at Como Lake, get up early, head for the 45 degree slope on the North Couloir, hike the ridge over to the bottom of the hourglass and then quickly move through the area to the crux and onto the summit. It sounded like a well thought out plan. Plus I wanted to climb it in snow; it seemed easier on snow than climbing over lose falling rocks.
We left Denver at 10:30 am on Friday, May 30th. We stopped to eat at a tasty new restaurant in Blanca, and then drove up the infamous Como road. We parked Ricardo's red Jeep at 9,700 and hiked the rest of the way to Como Lake. It was warm. We arrived around 7 pm ready to pitch the tents. There were two other parties camping at the lake; a solo climber attempting Little Bear the next day and a party of two who had just successfully return from the summit that day. Our goal was to stay ahead of the solo climber to avoid any falling rocks in the hourglass. The two-man team led by a guide had advice for us; get an early start, snow's good but be wary of the verglas at the crux; get down early. Sounded like a plan to me, but what's up with the verglass, I thought, "verglass", now that sounds like something that I should stay awake and worry about. I have always promised my two daughters, no worries, Mom will always come home. Being a Mom is what I do.
Sun setting at Como Lake
We left camp at 5:30 am just minutes behind the solo climber. The snow was good through the North Couloir and relatively easy to navigate with crampons and an ice axe up to the ridge. It was a beautiful morning, azure clear skies in the Sangre De Cristo mountain range.
Looking and climbing up the north couloir
Looking uphill to the hourglass – we arrived at 8:00 am ready to move
The crux filled with a thin layer of ice "verglass"
We decided to set an anchor. Ricardo free climbed 30 feet up and over the icy gully to the next level, but struggled to find a suitable stable rock to set pro for the anchor. We were patient. Logs went first and I followed; Ricardo reminded us that we shouldn't totally reply on the anchor. "Great" I thought! This was scary dicey ice. It took us about 2 hours to move through the crux. We were in no hurry; safety was the priority. A couple rocks bounced through, we thought perhaps from the solo climber above us.
Aerial view of the crux- Logs with the red helmet, I'm behind him
(courtesy of the solo climber)
There was another icy section above this section and we repeated the same exercise – set anchor, belay and move slowly over the ice.
Just another shitty icy section to climb through
After the nail biting sections, we noticed that the upper half is mostly melted out. There is some climbable snow near the summit that Ricardo climbed, but a long stretch in between is of bare rock that has melted out. The loose rock is really unstable with the snowmelt. Small stuff was coming down as the sun starting warming the snow on the summit, and we knew that in some areas any movement could send rocks down the couloir.
Ricardo assessing the terrain (I think)
Steep section toward the summit
We topped out on the summit at noon. It was a gorgeous and beautiful day, but our excitement was definitely subdued with the reality of the descent, which is always harder. It was not the typical joyous celebration one has on the summit. I always think of the summit as small in comparison to when you look out and see how far you've come; learning happens on the way to the summit.
Logs and Debbie on the summit
After a quick bite, some water and a couple perfunctory photos, we headed back down. The snow was unstable at the top and we knew it was only going to get worse. The slope was about 50+ degrees and as we down climbed, my ice axe slid through the snow without gripping, sometimes hitting rocks, and the crampons moved through snow as if it were sugar. Not much security or stable ground here, I thought. A fall would be deadly and a difficult self arrest. We reminded each other of the need to be safe and not rush through these sections. Clouds were not our issue, but the mountain melting under us was.
If this was bad, what would be the condition of the crux, I wondered? We were far from being out of harm's way. I was not feeling good about this (ok call it fear) and I thought that Ricardo and Logs were probably feeling the same way, but those emotions are best left unsaid. Ricardo had the added pressure of knowing that he would have to down climb without protection through the crux. I think that laid heavily on his mind. Fortunately we left the anchors in for the down climb, if necessary, or maybe unfortunately, if the descent out the next gully was better than the hourglass. We will wait and decide, and reimburse Ricardo for the hardware.
The biggest problem through this section is that the exposed rocks are loose and prone to fall as the sun melts the supporting ice, and unstable enough that it doesn't take much movement from our feet to send them down the route.
Tricky section on the down climb
We continued our slow arduous down climb and at 3 pm we reached the first belay station, no problem really, except one of my crampons falls off and I had to reattach it as I was crossing over an icy section of the gully. Ricardo was last. I had this eerie feeling, while Ricardo was directly across from us on rope that if he slipped, Logs, the anchor and I were headed for a face plant down the hourglass. It was tense. We made it through the first belay and then down through the second over fast rushing water. Sun does miracles for ice. Once we were all off belay, we started to release the anxieties of the day. Whoohoo! All major worries were behind us, I thought. We did leave some pro, anchor, slings, etc. but no biggie. We stopped celebrating when we realized that the mountain was now literally melting and heard the water running under our feet. The upper part of the fixed rope was exposed so we made our way over and down to it.
Before down climbing the hourglass. It's 3 pm – exposed rope and rock is slick
The hourglass is down to four to about 6 inches of hollow ice. The steps above the ropes had snow for 100-150 feet and rock that is verglassed for about 20 feet with an inch or less of ice. There are two fixed lines, the green appeared better, so I tightly grabbed onto the rope and continued the down climb for about 3 feet to 4 feet. I let go of the rope in order to continue down around the wet rock; It didn't look like something I wanted to cross over with crampons on – the rope was tight and hard to hold onto. I had reached the narrowest part of the hourglass and for the next 8 feet I could use only the pick of my ice axe and points on my crampons to cross the thin ice. Any mistake was certainly a deadly fall – self arresting on these snow conditions would be virtually impossible – sounds familiar. Suddenly the ice broke through, water running over my feet. I could see the continuation of the fixed green line. I'm thinking this whole slab of ice is about to break away sending me down through the hour glass. I move quickly to better or higher ground, so to speak. The rocks and snow had been falling throughout the day with the melting ice. The rock activity in this section reminds me of a ball in a pinball machine. It leaves the top of the machine and ricochets down, bouncing off of whatever it hits….bing.bing. bing until it passes through the levers.
I hear something moving above me. I squat, duck and hear Logs and Ricardo yelling "rock". The ice/rock ball hits me, first my arm, then head. I'm stunned; for a moment I'm wondering if I'm ok. I have to think about it; I think I'm ok. Then I realize that my arm is aching. I can barely lift my ice axe. I wonder if I can move – yes, I can move. Ricardo is yelling, "are you ok"? I'm ok and he starts yelling at me to move quickly; but I cannot seem to move my ice axe and feet fast enough. It reminded me when I was descending Mt Blanc in France several years ago; we were crossing a rocky class 4 section and there was a rock fall. Three of us were tied together and I kept falling the faster I tried to run.
I move, get out. More is about to come. I look up and Logs is quickly moving to safer grounds. We don't stop until we reach the rock pile where we are able to finally sit, collect our thoughts, assess the damage, and thank God for getting through that section alive. It's now 5:30 pm; we've been gone 12 hours. It's our first break since noon.
Walking out the hourglass
I can feel my shoulder, a growing hematoma – no broken bones, so it's manageable. I down 4 Advil to stop the excruciating pain. My head is fine (that's debatable some people might say).
Without incident we crossed over the ridge. We have been above 13k for 11 hours. The sky is beautiful, we take a couple pictures. We're glad we did it together, as a team. I've learned a lot.
Celebratory poses at 13k – Little Bear in the background(Ricardo)
The North Couloir was a pile of mashed potatoes. We arrive back at the camp around 7:30.
A nice glissade down the north couloir
14 hours to climb the Bear. The hardest peak so far for me – the biggest challenge was the changing unstable snow conditions. I am thankful, humbled and appreciate my good friends that shared the climb with me. Only 3, 14ers left; I might just make it.
The next morning we awakened; reviewed the events of yesterday and asked ourselves how we might have done it differently. It took us soooooooooo long, but we were glad we found patience, exhibited safety, and worked as a team. I found myself practicing my knots again; nothing like a good scare to practice the munter hitch, kleimheist, clove, etc. hip belay, slings, anchors, etc. etc.
We walked out at 9 am to a beautiful sunny day in the mountains.
But I had to say, "Bye Little Bear – this Mom will not be back"!!
Injured arm; check out the hematoma/bump on the top of the shoulder
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