| Little Bear NW face and the traverse
Peaks: Little Bear Peak, Blanca Peak, Ellingwood Point
Route: L.B. Northwest Face, L.B. to Blanca traverse, Blanca to Ellingwood ridge
Date Climbed: August 1, 2009
Elevation Gained: ~3,500-ft
Roundtrip Mileage: ~4-miles
Group: Andy & Sarah
Timetable: 05:15 camp at Blue Lakes
07:30 summit of Little Bear Peak
10:30 summit of Blanca Peak
11:45 summit of Ellingwood Point
13:30 camp at Blue Lakes
As with the Maroon Bells, these peaks have really hung on our minds for some time. Although we have never had a failed attempt on these peaks as we did with the Bells, we have gazed upon these peaks far more often on our countless trips through Alamosa. Since climbing our first Colorado fourteener, Mt. Princeton, while on vacation from Ohio in 2005, I would estimate that we have viewed these peaks through our windshield at least a hundred times. It's hard to keep your eyes on the road as you drive alongside the Sangres on Highway 17. I guess it's a good thing that the road is kinda straight.
As we have progressed along our CO 14er quest, we have been hoping to do the four classic traverses en route. The first two traverses, Wilson-El Diente and Crestones, went incredibly smoothly for us, and we were confident that we would be able to complete the last two. Our experience on the Bells Traverse three weeks ago, however, had us seriously second guessing ourselves. We tried desperately to find someone to guide us across this traverse, but our schedules and the weather never seemed to cross paths. Two previous weekends this summer we have been completely packed and ready to go for this trip and never even pulled out of the driveway because of poor weather forecasts.
When we saw that the weather for this weekend was going to be perfect, we knew we had to go for it with or without someone else there to hold our hands. In hindsight, I now appreciate that we were able to tackle all four traverses on our own, but you sure could not have sold that line to me on Friday night.
(a red tailed hawk watches over the Sierra Blanca)
After several nights of restless sleep and sweaty palms any time a coworker inquired about my weekend plans, we left Los Alamos on Friday afternoon. As we contoured around the massive base of San Antonio Peak on US-285, the Blanca group came into view. We were shocked to see the peaks shrouded in dense, dark thunderclouds. Our confidence in the forecast was dashed in an instance. Uh oh!
Surprisingly, my stock Toyota Tacoma (2006, off road package) got us all the way to 10,000-ft on a soggy Lake Como road in the pouring rain. By the time we had parked and gathered our packs, the rain had reduced to a cool, steady drizzle, which we realized was much more pleasant than the blazing sun. The hike up the remaining road to Lake Como went smoothly as we were preoccupied with the enormity of the pending task of the following morning.
As Little Bear first came into view near Lake Como, we were relieved to see that it was easy to identify the black hand, the feature used to mark the start of the northwest face route. We had chosen this route to avoid the potential crowds in the hourglass and to give us the chance to upclimb Little Bear's north ridge before descending it. We found a great place to camp on the grassy ledges above Blue Lakes.
(Little Bear comes into view at Lake Como)
(The Northwest Face route as seen from Blue Lakes)
After a surprisingly restful night of sleep, we awoke around 4:00 A.M. and readied for the climb. We were ready to go well before 5:00 A.M., but the valley was still engulfed in the darkness of night. We waited nervously for the light of dawn to show its face as we forced down extra water, and we finally headed off around 5:15 A.M.
I apologize for the lack of photos of the route up the northwest face, but our hands were too busy keeping us on the rock to bother with the camera. In short, we had a difficult time with the lowest and highest portions of the route. Getting off the talus slope and up the first 30-ft was challenging. We could not identify an apparent route, and we ended climbing too far to the right, at least 250-ft from the black hand. There was a 5- to 10-ft overhanging face that seemed to push us quite a ways to the right. Once circumvented the overhang, we realized that we were too far right and quickly worked our way back to the left, finding the large cairn marking the point to cross into the gully. Although the loose rock was annoying at points, we ascended the gully without any problems. With super careful climbing, we managed to send just one rock more than 2-ft down the face, and that rock made it all the way down to our tent some 800-ft below! You definitely do not want to be below another party on this route. Near the top of the gully, we were confronted with a much steeper headwall than we expected. We were able to identify the notch that Roach describes as the target point, but we just weren't comfortable with the apparent steepness of the line. We chose a route much farther to the left. We had to do a brief, 15-ft traverse on a thin edge with deadly rotten handholds, but otherwise this route got us to the top of the face safely. We were so far left, though, that the first major tower on the traverse was between us and the summit of Little Bear. Unbeknownst to us at the time, the most difficult climbing of the entire day was already behind us.
Maybe it was the difficulty of the northwest face which had hardened our nerves a bit, but the remaining climb up the ridge to Little Bear's summit went really smoothly. Even though our venture to the far left side of the northwest face had maximized the length of the remaining ridge and had even tossed in an extra tower downclimb, we gained the summit just 15-min after topping out on the northwest face.
(Sarah climbs the summit ridge above the northwest face)
(Sarah makes the final few steps to Little Bear's summit)
(summit photo with the Great Sand Dunes N.P. in the background)
(the plains beyond Lindsey's shoulder are submerged in a sea of clouds)
We spent close to half an hour on the summit of Little Bear, forcing down some much needed calories and trying to regain our composure for the traverse of our nightmares. Just as we were leaving the summit, another party of two, Brian and Erin, arrived via the hourglass route. I mention this as they appear in quite a few of the photos below.
There are numerous other, more detailed trip reports and descriptions of this traverse, so I will keep my description here brief. In general, I agree that the exposure is extreme, the rock is solid, and the route is straightforward. I really do not understand why, but the exposure never really got to me on the traverse. Maybe it was the ascent of the northwest face, or maybe it was the Bells traverse a few weeks prior. Compared to the Bells, the rock was solid, but it was by no means bomber. There were numerous times where a hand or foot hold moved on me as I was checking it, even on the catwalk of all places. You have to be diligent on this ridge or one loose rock can bite you. I thought that Bivwacko Tower was much easier than I had anticipated. Had Roach and others not mentioned it, I don't think I would have even noticed it. I found the downclimbs to several of the notches along the ridge to be much more difficult than the traverse around Bivwacko Tower. Also, there was a gap step move at the end of the catwalk that caught me by surprise. Aside from a few places where you have to traverse around a tower or two, I thought the route was very straightforward. Technically, however, I thought this traverse was much easier than the Bells Traverse. Not once did I find myself trying to pull a move as difficult as the ones I encountered on the third crux of the Bells Traverse (see my trip report from three weeks ago for more details).
(Sarah downclimbs the ridge above the upper reaches of the northwest face)
(Brian from the party behind us makes an exposed downclimb on a tower as Erin watches closely)
Once we reached the saddle of the traverse just before the first gendarme, we decided to wait for Brian and Erin to join us. We thought it would be safer to ascend the loose gully back to the ridge if we stuck together. They quickly caught up to us as we were snacking as they had been steadily gaining ground on us the entire time. The four of us completed the rest of the route to the summit of Blanca together. By the time we reached Blanca, my legs and nerves were spent. The last few hundred feet across the catwalk and up the third gendarme is steep and unrelenting. Upon reaching Blanca's summit, I could not resist bellowing out a shout from the bottom of my lungs. We did it!
(looking toward Blanca from the low point on the traverse)
(looking back toward Little Bear from the same point, with Brian and Erin on the tower)
(the catwalk, as it's called, posed the most intense exposure of the day)
(Sarah is happy to put the catwalk behind her)
(the first gendarme and the catwalk as seen from ridge on the second gendarme)
(the traverse as seen from the second gendarme)
(Brian and Erin negotiate the second gendarme as other climbers stand on Blanca's summit)
(Sarah and I pose on Blanca's summit in front of the traverse)
After our second long summit break of the day, we decided to head over to Ellingwood. The weather was spectacular. There was not a single cloud within miles of us. Our spirits were soaring with the magnitude of what we had just accomplished, and this was the perfect day to enjoy it. We allowed our tired legs to take a leisurely pace across the ridge traverse to Ellingwood. Again, we took a nice long break on our third summit of the day. You could not wipe the smiles from our faces. Though the descent down the rubble that is called Ellingwood's face was a bit annoying, our minds were elsewhere. We had finished the fourth traverse! We will never gaze upon these peaks in the same manner again.
(looking back toward Blanca's summit from the ridge to Ellingwood)
(Sarah and I pose for the third time of the day)
(the traverse with the catwalk at the far left and Little Bear at the far right)
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):