| Little Bear flexes its bicep
Start time from car: 2pm on 7/18/09
Start time from Lake Como: 4:30am on 7/19/09
Return to camp: 10:30am
Route: West ridge III (Class 4)
It was almost 5 years ago to the day that a group of six of us failed on a Little Bear attempt. I say "attempt", but we never really even started. There was so much verglas covering the talus from a previous evening rain that we bailed on the idea of trying to climb the peak.
This time, it was a different story. My good friend, Josh, and I knew we wanted to get this one out of the way once and for all. I don‘t think we could have picked a more perfect weekend to get it done. Going into the hike/climb, I must admit that my nerves were really frayed. I knew this was one of Colorado‘s most dangerous 14ers, and I had heard so many stories of the infamous "Hour Glass/Bowling Alley".
The 4WD road to Lake Como has its own reputation aside from the Little Bear/Blanca/Ellingwood group. We were able to drive to just below 10,000 feet in my stock Jeep before we encountered the first major rock obstacle. A knowledgeable driver could probably make this move, but I don‘t have that kind of 4WD experience, and I knew a wrong move could mean a rolled vehicle. The mid-afternoon heat was brutal as we started backpacking towards Lake Como. Fortunately, cloud and tree cover cooled things down as we got closer to the lake. During the hike, we were entertained by watching a souped-up Jeep successfully negotiating Jaws 2.
That night at Como, we decided to shoot for a 4AM start on Sunday. Little Bear‘s reputation tends to encourage earlier starts in order to beat other hikers to the hourglass. We talked to two other guys at the lake (Brad and Adam, I think??) who were planning for a 4am start as well. On Sunday morning, Josh and I managed to roll out of our tents and get on the trail by 4:30. We saw no other headlamps in the first scree gully, so we knew we had a jump on other climbers. Climbing up this scree gully was not at all pleasant. It is very loose from decades of being the primary access to Little Bear‘s standard west ridge route. At times, your best option is to hug the solid rock to the right or left of the gully, but that option is sporadic at best
Ascend this scree gully immediately after leaving the 4WD road
Once we cleared the gully, the gradual traverse across the west ridge was really nice. Route finding was easy, as this section is well-cairned. The view of the hourglass quickly became clear
The mouth of the hourglass is just above the upper snow patch in this picture
Josh on the west ridge traverse before the hourglass
As we entered the hourglass, we knew there was no one ahead of us, and that we should press on through it. One solo climber (Nate) had caught up to us, and we invited him to join us through this section so that we would not knock any rocks down on him. Adam and Brad, whom we met at the lake the day before, were approaching quickly as well. The mouth of the hourglass has a lot of debris from years of rock cascading down through it. I brought a rope with me, although it was not needed. The fixed rope currently in the hourglass is really solid, and we cautiously put our trust in it. As you can see from the picture below, there is still a trickle of water in the center of the hourglass, making it just a little slick. The best bet was to stick to climber‘s left on the solid slabby rock.
Josh, Nate, and I ascended this section fairly quickly. This is the rope anchor at the top of the hourglass. It may appear like a hack job, but it was actually very solid. Several pieces of strong webbing are backed up by a piton anchor set in a crack above them.
Route finding became a little tricky after leaving the top of the hourglass. We had to keep our eyes peeled for cairns, while at the same time being super-cautious not to kick anything down on Brad and Adam who were just entering the hourglass. At one point, a softball-sized rock went flying downwards, and we could hear it careening off the wall of the "bowling alley". You really have to work hard at this point to keep from dislodging anything and sending it hurtling towards other climbers in the hourglass. Once you leave the top of this funnel, the best route aimed to the left (as described in other route descriptions). Be careful not to go too far left, or you will end up at some tricky ledges below the summit. We had to backtrack down and to the right because we came up on a high class 4 move that just looked too tricky.
Once at the summit, we were rewarded with some of the most awesome views I have ever seen of Southern Colorado, including the treacherous Little Bear-to-Blanca traverse (seen below)
As much as we wanted to stay at the summit and enjoy the beautiful morning, we knew we had to get back down through the hourglass before we intersected with other climbers. So we took a few summit shots, and made haste to get back down.
As we descended, we crossed another party of four who were coming out of the hourglass. None of them had helmets, and two of them were wearing tennis shoes. I‘m sorry - it‘s just my opinion, but this is not your typical Front Range 14er that gives you the luxury of climbing in that type of attire. Feel free to disagree with me, but I think you are taking extra risk to life or limb by attempting this peak without a helmet or sturdy shoes/boots. I sincerely hope they summited and made it safely back to camp.
With no one in the hourglass, we down climbed it using the fixed rope (which again, we trusted completely) and made our way back across the west ridge.
Josh leaving the hourglass after down climbing with the fixed rope.
The scree gully was especially brutal on the return trip because it was still loose (as if we expected something different!), and our legs were beat from the climb. Once back at camp, we ate a quick bite, packed up camp, and began the death march back to the car in the blazing heat. The hike out was uneventful until we got to the Jeep, bounced down the nasty 4WD road, and discovered that the transfer case was broken when we got to the paved road. Amazingly, Josh used his ninja mechanic skills and slid underneath the Jeep to manually engage the transfer case back to 2H!! Nice work, Josh!
In summary, this is a magnificent peak... one of the toughest I have faced in Colorado, but one of the best summit views as well. I praise God that we were blessed with perfect weather, a safe climb, and the ability to experience a view of Southern Colorado that few people get the chance to see.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):