Route: NW Face of Little Bear and traverse to Blanca
Team: Hana and John (me)
On Sunday in the early am I was looking over at a modified version of the Gash Ridge from roughly 12,800 ft or so. The plan was to climb the Gash and camp in Lake Como Basin for the night before ascending Little Bear, traversing over to Blanca, and then out via Blanca's South Ridge. The problem was I couldn't make out a decent descent down the South Ridge and knew that the weather report was not ideal and that we'd be slower carrying our heavy packs. It became clear one of us (of our party of three) would have to sacrifice this chance at the Gash Ridge to basically run a car shuttle and park at Lake Como road, thereby allowing us to climb with day packs and hike out over a grueling but easy trail as opposed to a Class 4 ridge with no discernible weakness. I volunteered knowing that this would mean that I would have to hike up the Lake Como 'Road' again. I salvaged the day by putting together a sporty ridge run on either a high 12er or low 13er and watched as Steve and Hana started to make progress towards Blanca's summit.
Last Look at Blanca before seeing my partners off and turning back
Monday morning started with a nice 2:30 am wake up call for me 2 miles into the road. I got ready quickly and hiked to the lake. I arrived to find my two partners still in their sleeping bags awaiting my arrival. When Steve discovered that the group he had planned to lead up the standard route of Little Bear decided not to show he lost interest in the climb and opted to hang out at the lake and make the trip down to the car solo. After a bit of weather discussion and timing issues Hana and I decided to head up and see what the day would bring. The route of choice was the NW Face of LB as I had (have) no interest in re-climbing the hour glass route again.
Quick Disclaimer - I didn't take a lot of pics or put any effort into taking interesting shots as I was pushing the pace so that we wouldn't have to worry about weather while on the traverse - this paid off as it started to snow on us 5 minutes after reaching Blanca. The following is what I do have.
The NW Face
I took the above pic from the lake and it proved very valuable as we climbed as we had it as a reference point. Basically we ascended between the two water stains and traversed right. We quickly changed direction and did an ascending traverse to the left until we reached that snow field. We ascended to the right of the snow field and zig zagged our way to the ridge keeping much of the climbing in the Class 3 range (that said there was quite a bit of class 4 just not as much as I expected - and you could make it as hard as you wanted climbing a few hundred feet to our right).
On route?? One of the few cairns we saw on the day
Hana and the terrain of the NW Face
Hana topping out on Little Bear
We made it to Little Bear's summit by 9:30. From this vantage we could see how impossibly far away Blanca was. We down climbed the first of many knife edges back to our packs, which we stashed at the notch where we gained the ridge, and had a quick snack before starting the long push towards Blanca. My way of dealing with a traverse of this nature is to try my best not to look at Blanca but to focus on each small segment (sometimes just 15 ft) of the climb - it makes it much more manageable for me. The best way to describe the first 3/4 of this traverse is to imagine an elevated sidewalk with bumps on it. A lot of the traverse involved doubly exposed ridge walking and navigating the bumps (over or around). The final three towers before Blanca's summit proved another obstacle. Skirt the 1st on the right, climb the 2nd and traverse over the third. This 3rd tower made me the most nervous as much of the traverse to it was blocked from view and I kept wondering if we had to downclimb around it (which did not look fun) - thankfully it worked out.
Some Traverse Shots
The whole thing - and the clouds on Blanca which forced us to rush our pace
Getting started with Ellingwood watching
Hana downclimbing the first knife edge
Hana going around another bump
An upper level course in ridge running
Lake Como Basin
blurry shot but it shows the exposure
At this point we can see the finish and it doesn't look rough - traverse is mostly finished
Final obstacle before the summit push
Looking back at the last tower
The Little Bears!
Once we topped out on Blanca - a little under 2 hours from being atop Little Bear - we snapped a few pics and were greeted with a brief (20 minute or so) snow storm. We took this as a clear message that we were granted our weather window and it was time to get off the high peaks. We booked it down Blanca. The snow relented as we hiked toward camp. Hana packed up and we started the long painful hike (one I don't plan on ever repeating - although I have said that before) back to the car.
Steve - I still can't tell you how happy I am you moved the car an extra mile up the road - my knees really appreciate it - also sorry we didn't share a summit but it was an awesome weekend. And Hana - unrelenting is the best word to describe your effort. It was a blast being out with both of ya.
See ya Little Bear