| Little Bear Was a Bear
Here was the view to the north from Ft Garland. Little Bear is just left of center in that group of peaks. Best weather day of the year.
On Thursday, 20 May 2010, neighbor Donny Rickert and I climbed Little Bear. The idea was to avoid the shooting gallery in the Hour Glass by gaining the summit on snow fields The plan worked, but in short we now know why the Standard Route is considered the most dangerous and most difficult of all the 14ers. We calculated the climb would take 8 hours. It took us 13 hours and 30 minutes. Lest you think I am a wimp, for comparison I did Sneffles TH to TH in 2 hours 4 minutes, and summited Longs Peak via the Keyhole in 4.5 hours. The round trip from our parking spot at 10,000 feet (see below) was 8.5 miles.
Little Bear (as a late Spring Climb) simply kicked our butts. We had a 5-day window to make the climb and picked the best weather day of May. Not a cloud in the sky all day (and night), no wind. Due to work schedules we got to the 10,000 foot mark at noon on Thursday following a drive from Colorado Springs, Mountain Dew and a Moon Pie at the Ft Garland Conoco. We got back to the car at 1:30 AM. Our original plan was to camp on Thursday and climb on Friday, but Friday's SW winds were forecast to be high. Neither of us wanted to be on the West Ridge in high winds. It's spooky enough with no wind and clear skies.
Donny and I followed the standard Lake Como Approach.
Donny has a Toyota FJCruiser.
We decided to park at a good turnout at 10,000 feet. For reference, that spot is a 37 33.683N, 105 33.083W.
From there it is about 2.1 miles to the lake. In hindsight we could have driven further with his vehicle. But you should know, this road, even to 10,000 feet requires a pretty capable off-road vehicle with good clearance. There are countless large river rocks that must be navigated around and over. The road was mostly clear of snow all the way to Lake Como (certainly walk-able on the snow that was there. Just before the Lake, we were tired of post-holing and donned snow shoes.
We continued around the north and west sides of the Lake. There was no road visible, just deep show. We saw evidence of post-holing from other hikers to around 4 feet deep. If you go soon, take snow shoes. We saw no cairns, but continued through the woods to the SE of the Lake and
snow-shoed as far as we could up the gully to gain the ridge line. We ditched our snowshoes and made a break for the ridge line. This was very slow going as we were kicking new steps for 600 feet vertical. We initially did this with boots only.
About 100 feet below the ridge, Donny put crampons on. I, microspikes. We checked our watch 4PM. Four hours from the car already. The saving grace was there was zero talus, zero scree, zero rocks falling on us. Only a double black diamond ski slope to climb for 600 feet to the notch in the top of the ridge.
From here we followed the ridge line on west. We saw a couple of cairns, but for the most part heavy seasonal snow appears to have had its way with them. The ridge was very exposed with a lot of snow on top. We were very careful … a slip in many spot would have made for a bad day.
Where the ridge ends at a large notch
we found our way to traverse across the steep slope (talus and scree free, completely snow covered. This snow is in the sun all day, so it was very mushy and deep. It was slow going breaking trail.
Donny did most of the work but found himself step after step up to his crotch.
We both wore crampons. I did a handy job shredding my gaiters with my crampons and managed to draw blood the inside of my thigh. You can see your entrance into the Southwest Face and the "Hourglass" by looking for a horizontal streak of red rock. At the bottom you are at above 13,000 feet with nearly 1000 vertical of kicking steps. We were already exhausted.
Hour Glass. If there is one advantage of the late Spring climb it's lack of competition (no other climbers) and no rocks raining down on your heads.
About 600 feet up into the Hour Glass, you will see an option to move left up a narrower gully. That's what we did and wished we had not. In Spring, if the Hour Glass is loaded with snow, there is a good chance the gully extends all the way to the summit. Turns out it did, but we missed that fact until we had gained the summit. Instead we got ourselves on the most dangerous Class 4 rock I have been on in 24 14ers. The rock is rotten, off camber. Handholds are difficult to find. You have to head toward the summit by crossing from ledge to ledge with very steep snow bands between them. You can't keep putting your crampons on, so have to hope a kick step will keep you from shooting back down the gully on the snow.
We finally made the summit at Sunset. Fortunately there was a ˝ moon and not a cloud in the sky. Without crampons we stepped off the summit onto the snow chute (think Double Black) and hoped we would be able to heel step our way down. In the end, of the 1000 foot decent back to the traverse at the bottom of the Hour Glass we glissaded about 700 feet of it. In two places we had to do some emergency self-arrests, but it was a blast. We got back to the traverse before the light had failed.
With the sun down, the snow conditions changed so that there was slightly less post-holing on the way back East. We got to the large notch at the west terminus of the West Ridge and put headlamps on. Under a bright moon we were able to find out way back to the gully leading to Lake Como without much trouble, but we were very careful with every foot placement and hand hold.
All in all a very tough day. Very tough. But we are both glad to have this one behind us.
Here is the route and profile from my GPS uploaded into MapSource
Some advice if you want the Snow Climb option. Start early when the snow is congealed. Try to get to the first gully at 5AM. It should be a lot easier to get up before the snow gets mushy. Coming down it will be soft for a great glissade. We knew the weather was going to be great, so for this climb a 12 noon start was not too late. However we forgot to consider how much the character of the snow would change after a full day of sun. That's what slowed us down. Not sure how much longer this snow route will be available. In several locations we could hear water under the snow. That can, of course contribute to avalanche conditions.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):