| Winter Daytrip: Little Bear Peak
Winter Ascent: Little Bear Peak
South Little Bear/Little Bear Traverse
Peaks: Little Bear and South Little Bear
Route: Southwest Ridge
Date: January 29, 2011
Length: 8.2 miles RT
Vertical: 5300 feet
Time: 14 hours
Ascent Party: Dancesatmoonrise (solo)
January 29, 2011. Iím standing in the snow on the narrow summit of South Little Bear Peak, elevation 14,017, staring at the remaining traverse to Little Bear. Itís a warm, windless afternoon. Itís taken hours of work to get to this point. Iím alone, no rope, looking at unconsolidated snow that wonít hold an ax, covering loose rock and debris. The first moves require a downclimb into the steep west bowl to the left, on several narrow snow-covered tiers in order to pass the gatekeeper, a large overhanging block guarding the apex of the ridge. As I stare down at the loose moves above 2000 vertical feet of exposure, Iím quietly thinking, ďAlpinists are supposed to be able to do this? I canít possibly be an alpinist. This is nuts.Ē I backtrack, regaining the ridge in wistful contemplation...
Little Bear Peak and Ellingwood Point, as seen from the summit of South Little Bear Peak, January 29, 2011.
A Love Supreme
The affair began last spring, as Iím pouring over maps, looking for a less risky way to get Little Bear. The standard route takes the Hourglass Couloir, which is steep, loose, and often subjects its participants to significant risk of rockfall. Many, more skilled than I, have perished on this mountain. I find what appears to be a Class 2 route up from Blanca Creek, which includes a jeep road up to the base of the south ridge. The only two questions are, how difficult is the last section of ridge, and why arenít people using this route. The answer to the second question is ďprivate property.Ē I contact a friend, who tells me this used to be the standard route in the 1970's. He has been up to South Little Bear via the SW ridge in winter, many years ago, but was turned back on the SLB/LB traverse, due to high winds and snow. He suggests an approach via Como to 10,300, ascending a west rib into the alpine, dropping into the LB Lake drainage, then gaining the SW ridge. I casually wonder if the SW ridge makes a feasible winter route, and shelve the idea for the moment. No matter how you slice it, Little Bear Peak is one of the two or three toughest 14ers in the state. A winter ascent would be a distant dreamÖ
Route History and Info
Several good trip reports exist for this route, though none in winter. Hakan Bergstrand describes the route in a September 2003 Fourteenerworld report. Ryan Shilling became interested at that time, and after a failed attempt in October 2003, got it in June 2004, via a confusing series of roads accessing National Forest land at the base of the ridge. Hakan took a line through Chimney Gulch off the Como road, involving a lot of rough bushwhacking. Sean (Doggler) took a low traverse over from the Como road last summer and crossed Tobin Creek low, near 9100. (Crossing low on Tobin Creek is key.) In retrospect, Kenís line from Como at 10,300, is probably the best approach. While it involves losing some vertical, the route has many advantages over the other three, including less bushwhacking, easier routefinding, and less difficulty after dark on the descent.
A successful winter ascent of this traverse was made by Jim Bock, many years ago, on his way to becoming the second person to complete the winter 14ers.
In their landmark 1979 Mountaineering text, ďFifty Classic Climbs,Ē Roper and Steck attempt to define what constitutes a classic climb. Their list of three criteria: ďThe peak or route should look striking from afar, have a significant climbing history, and offer excellent climbing.Ē
It is not so much determination that has implored three attempts, as what has become passionate affection for this memorable classic. What started as a search for a less risky way to gain a difficult peak, grew to a consuming passion; a love affair; a dance with the Little Bear.
Little Bear, South Little Bear, the traverse, and the Southwest Ridge: ďStriking from afarÖĒ
December 12, 2010
Bubba donít like no company. Yaíll keep out!
December 12, 2010. The Sangres are bone dry. I plan for the 10,300 Como approach. Lynn contacts me and suggests an ďeasierĒ trailhead. Last summer her party makes two or three attempts to find it. One night theyíre driving in, looking for the trailhead, and suddenly a huge floodlight comes at them full speed, chasing them all the way back to the highway. Two weeks later, they go in during the day, on a different trail, finding the correct TH. They have no trouble from landowners this time, but the summit eludes them.
A confusing set of roads and trails at the base of the SW Ridge.
Lynn wants a third shot at it. Lynn, Carol, Matt, and I plan to go in December 12. Lynn is willing to guide us to the correct TH. She emails directions. I use them to make local inquiries. The route apparently threads private land, but is not, itself, private, and is perfectly legal, according to multiple sources, including county officials. I give the local sheriff our names, make, model, plates, and times weíll be there, so hopefully nothing happens.
Carol makes her way through the trees on the SW Ridge, with the San Luis Valley below.
The ridge is long. The talus starts well below treeline.
Carol scoots into the notch as Matt ascends the upper ridge.
Matt Strausser makes his way up the ridge, as Blanca Peak looms to the east.
We bring a light rack and alpine rope. Conditions are dry for December. Everything looks good. As we climb through steep trees, we begin to hear what sounds like a freight train roaring overhead. Lynn is concerned she may be too slow. I tell her not to worry about it, we arenít going to summit anyway; that sound is the wind in the alpine. Curiously, the wind abates by 13,000. Then, just as we reach the summit of South Little Bear, the mountain gods throw in fog, high gusts, and wintry looking weather. Itís late. The crew throws in the towel. Back to the drawing boardÖ
End of the line: South Little Bear Summit, December 12, 2010.
Since weíd all been wondering about the difficulty of the first crux on the traverse over to Little Bear, I take the opportunity to run over and tag it while Matt waits on the SLB summit. To my pleasant surprise, itís no big deal. Iím later to see how much harder things get with snow and ice.
Christmas Day, 2010
Foiled by the Abominable Snowman.
Iím a little frustrated to miss Little Bear, but the beauty is, winter is a mere ten days off, and the weather remains dry. Storms are forecast to miss the Sangre. Things are shaping up nicely. As if on cue, right at solstice, the forecast devolves and drops two feet in the southern Sangre, extinguishing any reasonable hope for a near-term winter ascent. Still, the holidays find me impatient. I put new AT tires on the SUV, gear up, and wait for the first clear day.
Plenty of new snow for Christmas.
Two feet of fresh snow over previously dry talus makes for slow going: the wages of impatience. It requires a sort of ďstep, test, weight, stepĒ kind of gait to prevent a leg from plunging between blocks and creating an extra knee. After three hours at a record pace of 700 verts per hour, the summit might go sometime this side of midnight. I accept my penance for impatience and turn back at 10,800.
The wages of impatience.
Back in the Valley with the light of day, a look upward reveals a surprisingly plastered Blanca Massif. The traverse surely would have been out, even if Iíd made it into the alpine. Uhh, another day, huh? I balance trying to get 12 14ers for the 12 months of winter with the thought of another failed attempt and being set back a week. Winter can be so short when youíre trying to rack up peaks. Iím sure thereís a Woody Allen joke in there somewhereÖ
Christmas present from the Sangres.
Back to the Drawing Board
Wilie Coyote attempts the traverse from Uncompahgre to Blanca.
The harder 14ers in winter do not always yield the first time around. Weather, winds, snow conditions, and a host of factors must line up. Some winter 14ers take years. As of this writing, only three mountaineers have completed all Colorado 14ers in winter (the fourth has an easy one left.) The solution is not force; the solution is patience. Despite what Wilie Coyote believes, it is not rocket science.
Little Bearís magnificent Southwest Ridge.
I wait it out. On January 13, Ben and I enjoy a great trip on La Plata, and decide to maybe hit something in the Sangre the following weekend. I slip in my pitch for Little Bear, but itís not working. Ben and Matt want to ski Ellingwood, but remain flexible as the forecast shapes up. The winds could be a tad iffy for the SLB/LB traverse.
Itís often a tough balance with a route like this. The longer one waits in winter, the higher the likelihood of significant snowfall, especially getting into February and March. One does not want to miss a reasonable opportunity. But thereís a strong hint in the long range models that a significant ridge of high pressure is coming in for the following weekend, so this may be worth waiting for.
On January 23, 2011, I join Ben, Matt, and David for a day on Como. The cold, windy weather helps ease my mind that waiting a little longer for Little Bear was the right choice. I enjoy the company of great partners and take the opportunity to get recon shots of both sides of the upcoming traverse. In retrospect, the recon shots prove invaluable.
January 29, 2011
The route looking a little more feasible by January 23, 2011.
The following week the weather window not only pans out, but shapes up to be truly legendary. Micah calls; he and Matt Bruton are thinking Little Bear as well, but they donít share my passion for the SW ridge. They plan to overnight at Como and be on the LB summit by 8:30 am. Theyíre stalking the other side of that ridge Ė the Little Bear/Blanca traverse. My cut-off time is around 1 pm for South Little Bear, so I donít expect to see them this trip. After hanging up the phone I nearly call back to accept the invite. But I know if I donít get the SW ridge and the traverse on Saturday, itís probably not going to happen this winter. I stay the course.
Ready to Rock
Hopefully no rustling sounds after dark like last weekÖ
The night before a solo winter trip is always the toughest. Somehow I get to bed early, get a decent nightís sleep, and manage to arrive right at first light. I donít recall the road being this bad Ė the snow helped last time.
I waste a solid hour cairning the section through the trees because I know Iíll be coming back in the dark and donít have GPS. Striking a compass bearing should work, though itís a little spooky in the dark, especially solo. Glad I have that hefty down jacket. Itís thick as a sleeping bag.
Before long Iím at the prior turn-around spot. Progress is not great, but the snow on the ridge is not bad. Iíll have to push it a little to make SLB by 1pm. I figure an hour each way for the traverse, SLB on the way back by 3pm, and treeline by sundown.
What a difference a month makes! 10,600 on the SW Ridge.
The talus is still a little treacherous, but nothing like last monthÖ
The SW Ridge is still long, even on a nice day.
The snow is a lot more difficult than it looks. Itís also hides loose rocks on the east side. Back to the ridge.
Although Iím not feeling well in the trees, taking forever to move through the 10ís and 11ís, once in the 12ís, Iím beginning to feel better. High on the southwest ridge below South Little Bear, the snow over the talus is tough, breaking unpredictably. Itís best avoided. This means staying at the apex of the ridge in places, increasing the safety factor, at the expense of slightly increased technical difficulty and exposure.
Iím ok with the exposure off to the left (north,) though it gets a little more exciting on the last thousand verts below the SLB summit, where the line steepens up considerably. In summer, this can be avoided by staying right (east.) Today, there is a large snowfield with major minefields that threaten to blow up an ankle. I stay the knife-edge.
For those considering this route, the entire ridge from treeline is more loose on the east side. Itís tempting to skirt a few points (like 13,133) by contouring around to the east side. Donít do it.
Working the ridge high above the valley floor. (Photo: Micah Morgan.)
The last, steep section gets tough to stay on top. The exposure is high. There is a forty foot knife-edge that is difficult to avoid in winter. I enjoy it, but know this section is much more technical today, in snow, than it was last month, so it makes me wonder what this means for the traverse. Time is running out; I push to make the SLB summit by 1pm.
"Mama Bear Traverse." I think they call it that for a reason.
The Traverse above, the Hourglass Couloir at left.
Staying to the ridge is a bit technical, but more solid.
Snow-snake-snow keeps me on the ridgetop.
First views of Blanca Peak.
A seldom-seen perspective on Blanca and Ellingwood.
At long last, the summit of South Little Bear, and the start of Mama Bear Traverse.
As if in a dream, I step onto the narrow, breathtaking summit of South Little Bear. I can hear the angels in heaven begin hooting and hollering as if to celebrate my arrival. No, wait. Thatís Matt and Micah over there on the LB/Blanca traverse. You know, Iíd have thought they would be on their way down from Blanca by now. Canít quite see them; they must be on the ridge just the other side of Little Bear.
Cresting the summit of South Little Bear Peak, 1:20 pm, January 29, 2011. The hourglass notch is seen at right, east aspect. (Photo: Micah Morgan.)
One must tiptoe carefully on the snow-covered ledges up hereÖ
I figure if I get stopped at any point, I would at least know what is needed to get through for the next attempt. (Like maybe waiting for summer?) Turns out Iím not quite psychologically prepared for what I see next. Whereíd that easy line go, just six weeks before? I stare down the snowy west bowl. Then turn to the gatekeeper, which Iíve got to calling the "kittycat.Ē Itís a large block on the ridge denying passage. Is it possible toÖ? Those overhanging moves, are they...? Wait, solo? I mean, itís solid and dry, butÖ Hey, wait, how about the east side, letís take a look. Never mind, sheer drops. No, I donít think I ever expected to ask this much of myself. OK, this is it. Iíd promised myself I would not do anything risky to get the summit. Itís been a long day, and quite a pleasant one, like a stroll to go see an old friend. Iím feeling surprisingly content about the whole thing. At least I had the courage to come up here and take look.
Looking down at the first moves into the traverse.
Itís 1:20 pm. Itís a gorgeous day. Thereís an hour or two to kill before I really have to start back. Why not poke around a little bit, as long as I can find something fairly secure?
Taking stock of what I have before me, I realize itís not all bleak. The rock is warm. A lot of it is solid. If the feet are on sketchy terrain, but the handholds are positive, why not make a couple moves? I start down into the first crux, carefully. The warm rock on bare hands feels good. I check every hold. I make it about fifteen feet down into the steep, loose area ok, then suddenly get that no-go feeling. You know what I mean. OK, back up to the safety of the ridge.
Starting the ridge is a tad spooky.
I study the terrain some more. Hey, how about that line way over to the left? I can swing in there, then move right. Yeah, thatís probably it! I start facing out, then suddenly it occurs thereís about 2000 feet of air right in front of me. Back up to the perchÖ.
Sylvester demonstrates facing out.
OK, letís think about this. How can this be done safely? As long as there are solid hand holds, if the feet cut out, weíre still good. I try a little dry tooling but decide the rock lends itself more to climbing moves. I look at yet another line down, which appears promising. The exposure is nagging, but thatís the fear part. Whatís the risk part? How much of this is fear, and how much is actual risk: a critical assessment on any climb.
3rd down at the Bears' 800. They're playing a helluva defensive game today.
ďKittycat,Ē circle in red, blocks direct passage on the ridge. The weakness threads narrow, snowy ledges.
As I drop in, carefully, with some surprisingly solid handholds, I manage to get to flatter ledges that traverse this section to the other side. This is more like it. Iíve got the axe in one hand, the poles on the pack, spikes on the boots. I love the aluminum axe for this stuff because itís easy to let it dangle on the leash when both hands are needed on the rock. I would don crampons, but the spikes and boots seem to be working fine.
Wilie Coyote reminds us this ainít no cartoonÖ
Thereís an interesting series of narrow, snow-covered ledges that work up and around, back to the ridgetop. In a twist of mountain humor, the middle ledge that Iím on appears to go so thin as to be impossible, but moving around the corner, itís all good. What a great photo that would make, if I were thinking about the camera. Right now, thatís pretty much the last thing on my mind. I regain the ridge, where I stay for the rest of the traverse to the Hourglass notch.
An example of the snow-covered terrain on the ridgetop.
Cold as ice: Straight down the choke of the Hourglass Couloir. Indeed, among the hallowed places occupying the collective unconscious of Colorado mountaineers.
(May you rest in eternal peace, dear young friend.)
The top requires some low fifth class moves. They can be avoided in dry conditions by dropping left (west) into the steep bowl. Today, this is not an option. The snow is suspect. Every step gets an axe plunge and step test before committing. No surprises here but one Ė I suddenly find myself at the supposed crux Ė the downclimb into the hourglass notch. Itís mostly dry. Turns out it's the easiest part of the whole thing today; a pleasant reprieve from the constant attentiveness requried earlier.
Summer Crux? The Hourglass Notch.
Winter line through this relatively unthreatening third class section.
Looking back on most of the traverse, and South Little Bear.. Not hard to see how the first section got my attention.
In a moment, Iím working my way up the remaining route to the ledge, where I find Ö wait, whatís this? Ö The summit of Little Bear Peak? Oh my gosh, howíd that happen?
Yahoo!!!! Got the Little Bear Summit in January!!!
As if on cue from the mountain gods, more whooping and hollering emanates from somewhere over there on the LB/B traverse.
On the summit of Little Bear Peak, as seen from the Little Bear/Blanca traverse. (Photo: Micah Morgan.)
Harder to see in the last photo, perhaps you can see that tiny stick standing on the peak at far right. (Photo: Micah Morgan.)
Our Blessed Lake of the Como.
I give thanks, for being able to stand upon this incredible place, and witness His hand, all around me.
Today is certainly not my accomplishment. He allows me to live His Miracle. I do not know why. There are many things I do not know.
Little Bear Peak summit, January 29, 2011.
About now Iím beginning to think, just maybe, all three of us might be successful today with our respective peaks and traverses. Itís 2:20 pm. A lot of that first hour was coaxing myself into the start. Should be on SLB by 3:00 pm. A brief pause to take in this majestic moment, a few shots, and Iím doing the traverse all over again. The second half goes without a hitch, so I relax and get a few photos.
Climbing out of the Hourglass Notch. All the holds make it easier than it looks.
Plenty of exposure.
Several shots demonstrate typical exposure on the ridge. Testing the snow is imperative; though itís generally secure through this section.
Exposure to the right in the photo above.
Back at the first, most difficult winter crux. You can see my footsteps on the upper tier.
Starting back into the crux section.
The crux section, getting back up to South Little Bear.
Schematic of the line taken. The section at bottom is not steep, as the photo makes it appear; itís a more or less flat, narrow ledge, over exposed moves.
Here you can see the middle tier I took, and my footsteps.
The Kitkat. It may be possible to climb up and over, though the back side could be problematic.
Another shot of Kittykat. She certainly rules the ridge.
Back at the South Little Bear Summit, itís 3:01 pm, right on time. The route down is tough. Every time I get into snow, itís post-hole city, between big talus blocks. I stay on the rock as much as possible, and definitely stay on the ridge top across the high points. The sun dwells forever on the horizon, almost as if waiting for my arrival at the first tree. It drops precipitously thereafter. In the trees, I get both headlamps out, and start down.
Halfway through the trees, the lamp illuminates a lengthy, steep, narrow talus slope. Itís unfamiliar. Seems a little too far south. Cutting through some nasty brush to get closer to Tobin Creek, I find one of the cairns from earlier today. Good. Travel in the dark is rough and slow; I gain and lose the route, ultimately finding the 9050 creek crossing point, complete with cairns. After briefly loosing the trail again, a SW compass bearing yields more cairns.
Before long, the carís reflectors wink back in the headlamp beam. Out comes the modest reward Ė Modus Hoperandi. I prepare for the bumpfest out of here. The new tires perform like champs, soon heading for the east end of the valley and home: Winter Fourteener #17 in the bag, and overall Fourteener #51, down.
How nice to get a new 14er done this time of year. Didnít really believe it was going to happen. Winter 14ers kind of subscribe to the Woody Allen philosophy: The secret to success is mostly just showing up. The mountain will decide if the welcome mat is out.
I learn the following night that Matt and Micah are successful on their LB/B winter traverse. Strong work from some cherished partners. Congratulations, gentlemen!