| Little bears on Little Bear
Though a summit that is arguably one of the most physically demanding 14ers probably wasn't the ideal way to break back into the mountaineering scene after not having climbed anything for several months, snow conditions and the option of going with a group presented an opportunity that I just couldn't say no to. I came into the climb tired from hiking around the desert all week for my field geology class, and Little Bear left me even more tired and gave me the gift of sore and stiff legs. It was more than worth it.
I met up with some other 14ers.com members – David, Craig, Ryan, Nick, and Lance – at the start of the Lake Como Road around 15:00 on Saturday, May 29. We drove a little ways up the road (leaving vehicles right at the turn-off seemed like a bad idea), and then I parked and we all piled into Craig's Jeep and Lance's Jeep Cherokee. We made it about a mile or so further up the road before Lance's Cherokee couldn't go any higher. We then put all the gear in the Jeep and hiked up to a spot about half a mile or so below Jaws 0.5, where Craig parked his Jeep. From there, we backpacked the rest of the way in. The first mile or so of this stretch of the road is nothing short of a sadistic hell – the road is steep and rocky, and there's not much vegetation cover to provide any sort of respite from the relentless afternoon sun.
The relentless sun on the Lake Como Road
In a little under an hour, though, we reached the point where the grade of the road mellows out a bit and winds through a more forested area as it ascends into the basin. This part of the hike was much more pleasant. There is a stream crossing at one point on this road, and due to the high temperatures throughout the past week, it was running pretty high. In the trees about 50-70 feet east of the road, however, there are a couple of logs that can be used to cross. We crossed here, hiked back up onto the road, and continued our journey toward the lake. We arrived at Lake Como at about 19:15 or so, and after talking with a few other people camping in the area, the group decided to go around and camp on the east side of the lake.
Much of the snow in the area around the lake had melted out since the past weekend, so finding a good campsite didn't seem like it would be a difficult task. For some reason unknown to me, we ended up postholing through the snow to an area with a few random spots of grass for tents. I quickly set up my tent, threw my sleeping bag and ground pad inside, and went to work on the Qdoba burrito I had brought for my dinner. It didn't take me long to devour the entire thing. I readied my pack for the next day, adjusted my crampons to fit to my boots (so I wouldn't have to deal with that in the morning), and went to bed.
Alpenglow on Little Bear's ridge
I slept pretty sporadically until I was awakened by my alarm at 03:30. I didn't have much to do to get ready; I just needed to throw my bag of food (which I had left outside my tent just in case an animal wanted it) into my pack and put my boots on. Another climber, Nick, who had hiked in late the previous evening, joined us at this point. I was ready to go pretty quickly, but one of the other members of the group had boiled water and had extra, so I gave in and drank some instant hot cocoa.
We started up the trail a little after 04:00. From our campsite, we climbed a short slope and then crossed a snowfield over to the base of the first couloir. About halfway across this, I decided I'd feel more comfortable with crampons on, so I stopped briefly to do that. A few of the other group members continued on towards the base of the couloir. The sky was just starting to get light as we began to ascend this couloir. It's not very steep, and there's a pretty well-established boot-pack trail. However, it does cover about 600' of vertical distance, so it does take some effort to get up. We reached the top at about 05:30, and after a snack and a few photos, we began the traverse along the ridge towards the bottom of the Hourglass.
Reaching the top of the first couloir
I knew that the route from this point dropped below the ridge, but several people ahead of us seemed to be following the top of the ridge, and other members of the group reasoned that with the patchy snow on the face below it, this would probably be the best option. Though I was a little worried about the possibility of getting cliffed out at some point, I went along with this, and it worked, for the most part.
Just above Baby Thunder, we dropped down a ways and the snow soon became relatively continuous. We stopped on an exposed rock rib to put our crampons on again and traversed across the snowfield.
Heading across the snowfield toward the hourglass
It was probably 07:20 or so when we reached the bottom of the Hourglass. The snow was relatively hard, and again there was a boot-pack trail that one could follow. This was, in my opinion, the most enjoyable part of the climb. At the top of the hourglass, we followed the snow to the right to avoid exposed rocks. The snow line then curved back to the left, and was continuous to the summit.
Me on the summit
I reached the top at 08:06, where I signed the summit register, took several photos, and enjoyed some gummy bears (little bears on Little Bear). After enjoying the warm sunlight and the exceptional views of the Spanish Peaks to the south, the snowy Crestones to the north, the other peaks of the Blanca Massif to the east, and the vast San Luis Valley to the west, we headed down.
South Little Bear
Little bears on Little Bear
The first portion of the descent was the steepest, and the snow was still relatively hard. Until we reached the top of the hourglass, we descended facing in to the mountain. At the top of the hourglass, I felt comfortable descending facing forward and following the boot-pack trail. I reached the bottom of the gully and headed off to the right across the snowfield. The trail across the snowfield crosses three rock ribs. The first one was relatively easy to get across, even with crampons on, so I didn't bother taking them off. The second one, however, was a nightmare of loose rocks and verglas, and I ended up taking my crampons off at this point just to get down far enough to follow the boot-pack trail across the snow. The third one was no problem, and it wasn't long before I reached the point where the traverse becomes mostly rock. I rested here and waited for the other members of the group, who were also having difficulties getting across that second rock rib.
Coming back across the snowfield
We headed back across the rocky part of the traverse and soon reached the top of the first couloir. This looked almost steep enough to glissade, which I tried a little at first, but then chose to walk down to get around some exposed rocks that presented a potential hazard. Once I got past these, I glissaded a little ways. While stopping briefly, a rock the size of a microwave fell from the wall above the couloir to the south and bounced down, across the gully, and into the rocks below. This freaked me out a bit, since the rock just fell; no one had knocked it down or anything like that. I took a few steps down, and then figured that I just wanted to get the hell out of that gully as quickly as possible, and glissaded the rest of the way. The snow was getting warm and soft, and I postholed a few times on the way back to camp.
It was probably about 12:30 or so when I reached the campsite again. I took off my boots and changed into shorts, then rested in my tent while waiting for the others to get back – they arrived probably about 15 minutes after I did. At about 13:30, I realized that no one else wanted to pack up and leave any time soon, so I figured I'd just hike out by myself since I needed to get back to Gunnison at a decent hour so I could get up for school the following day. I got my stuff together, said goodbye to everyone, and left camp around 14:30 or so. The hike back down the road (all the way down this time, since I was solo), was uneventful and hot. I had no problems crossing the stream at the log bridge, and was back at the car by 17:30.
Overall, the weather was great, the snow was in great condition, and it was a good group of people to climb with.
*I don't have pictures of the hourglass, because I really didn't want to stop and take my camera out of my pack at that point, but it was still holding a lot of snow, though if the temperatures stay warm, that might change quickly.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):