| Little Bears Southwest Ridge
Little Bear Peak
Route: Southwest Ridge
Climbers: Trevor (Centrifuge); Joe (JosephG); Nancy (Sunny1)
Little Bear Peak has a very well deserved reputation as being something of a climber eater. Loose and virtually un-climbable by any route rated less than class 3, the standard route has claimed many climbers in recent years. I have always felt a tinge of wariness about climbing the Hourglass route dry, and for the last several years have planned to ascend it as a snow climb. That is until the recent resurrection of an alternate route, the Southwest Ridge. Even with the recent stream of reports of ascents of the seemingly safer route, I had my heart set on climbing the Hourglass in snow conditions. However, the slew of recent reports citing less than ideal conditions pushed me away.
When Nancy e-mailed me asking if I wanted to join her, I took her up on it, knowing this would be the perfect chance to attempt this long, strenuous route with a climber I knew to be strong and reliable. I had not been above treeline since late December due to my training for a twenty-five mile desert trail race in April and a 50k in May, but figured I would be fine with all that training for the races.
Nancy also recruited Joe, who was intrigued by the idea of tagging Little Bear’s rarely visited sub-summit, South Little Bear via this rarely utilized route.
The three of us met up south of Denver on Thursday afternoon and headed down to Fort Garland, where we were lucky enough to arrive just in time to get a glimpse of the ridge in the rapidly fading light. We repacked our bags, talking through what each of us was bringing. The consensus was that we would leave crampons in the truck, as well as the snowshoes. It was warm, and the forecast over the last week had been the same. We were each carrying four liters of liquids and winter clothing, just in case we got stuck somewhere. Most importantly, we all agreed that no matter what the conditions, going out and having a great day was the most important goal.
a quick shot I got of the ridge from Ft Garland just before dark
When we woke up at 3am, it was warm outside. I decided to wear less clothing out the door than I had planned, but crammed the long underwear in my pack, just in case. (I may have gotten kicked out of the Boy Scouts as a kid, but the whole ‘be prepared’ thing wasn’t lost on me!)
We drove to the access point, which was recommended to us by several local agencies via a high clearance 4 wheel drive road. We made our final adjustments in the dark, and set out just as light started illuminating the horizon, moving out at 5am. We immediately felt that beginning with light was a wise choice, despite our initial instinct to set out in the dark. This is absolutely a bushwhack.
We worked out way through the pinon trees, thistle, and cactus as quickly as we could, but making good time was difficult. Every step inspired reassurance that putting on our gaiters and gloves was a necessity despite warm temps. We were lucky to have Nancy with us, as she and her husband had meticulously placed waypoints on her GPS that provided superb reference points. We found the steep, loose slope leading down to Tobin Creek at 9150ft, and made out way down to the dry creek bed. We crossed without seeing an ounce of water, and worked our way up the slope on the other side.
Nancy and Joe heading down the Tobin Creek Slope
cactus was everywhere - Photo by Joe
stuff like this was everywhere, grabbing your pack
We started formulating a plan as to where to go, and wandered a bit to the north, wondering about the best way to gain the ridge. The problem is that Tobin Creek bisects the ridge with steep cliffs, and in the trees it is impossible to make out a clear route from below. We discussed climbing up a hill just east of the creek to get a better view, and as we headed northeast, stumbled across surveyors tape.
This tape was the discovery of the day. We had heard about it before, but had no idea what a blessing it would be or how reliable it would prove. As soon as we began following it, we realized that while it in no way eliminated the bushwhacking, it led us up what seemed to be the safest possible route to gain the ridge avoiding cliffs and the more dangerous possibilities. The hike up to the ridge was still steep, rocky and loose, although we did not realize exactly how much so on our way up. When we gained the ridge we felt like a major obstacle had been surmounted.
Nancy on the way up to the ridge, the arrows point out the surveyors tape
Nancy took this photo of me slogging up the ridge, it was all this steep once you start heading up
Joe and Nancy during a quick break, still heading up to the ridge, can you see the surveyors tape?
crossing a talus field on the ridge, still in the trees, Joe tries to get a view
more dead branches reaching out high on the ridge
Nancy and Joe as we bushwhack through he trees
Moving up the ridge through the underbrush continued to be a challenge. While the tape continued to speckle the landscape, it appeared further and further apart. We kept ourselves to the north side of the ridge where we couldn’t see the surveyor’s tape, which ended for the most part at a large, very loose talus field. From here, we worked our way upwards, passing a land mark tree that looked an awful lot like it was flipping us off. Shortly after this tree, we broke from the trees, and could see point 12,800 in the distance. The winds here were still tolerable, and we continued through the endless field of talus.
the end of the trees is in sight - photo by Nancy
nancy coming out of the trees - photo by Joe
Me and Nancy slogging it up - photo by Joe
About halfway between treeline and point 12,800ft, I began struggling to keep up. The deterioration was fairly rapid. At first I thought I was not eating enough, then not drinking water, so I consumed both but nothing fixed how I was feeling. Despite this, when we gained point 12,800ft, we got excited. With our objective in sight for the first time, our spirits soared.
Joe starting to walk on with Little Bear looming above
However, the lift was brief for me. As I moved up to point 13,100ft, I continued to slow down. I began to struggle with keeping balance, as well as keeping myself rational. When I finally reached point 13,200ft, I knew that I was done, but desperately did not want to end the climb for all of us.
I let Joe and Nancy know that I was not able to keep myself balanced, and, knowing full well that from here on both exposure and difficulty would increase exponentially, it would be far too dangerous for me to continue on. I knew at this point I was suffering from AMS, and there was no way that continuing upward was a wise idea. I told them directly that I did not want to cost them the summit, and after identifying a very specific plan for communication utilizing both the amazing cell reception we had, as well as whistle signals as a back up, I turned to go back to treeline, while they headed onward with the agreement that we would communicate hourly by text. More often if an emergency arose.
Nancy and Joe at my turn around, as they were preparing to head out
I worked my way slowly back to point 12,800ft, stopping to check my text messages. It took me nearly fifty minutes to get back, but I was feeling a bit better with even the slight amount of descent. When I checked my phone, there was a text from Joe that had been sent minutes before letting me know that they had turned around and were coming down. Since I was feeling a bit better, I decided to wait at point 12,800ft instead of getting further split apart. This gave me a perfect view of the Hourglass on the West face, and I was amazed to watch several avalanches run on the face. Not to mention the numerous slides that had run in the time we had first seen it two hours before.
A photo I took later in the day trying to capture the avi paths I was watching run as I waited for Joe and Nancy to return.
******* Joe and Nancy’s Tale – As Written by Joe and Nancy*****
I lost my steam just shortly after Trevor lost his. I didn't feel good about leaving him alone, even though he was cool with us moving on.
Because it is against my climbing ethics to leave someone, particularly when feeling poorly, I was unable to enjoy myself or focus on going for the summit.
Joe encouraged me on, reminding me how excited I had been when Little Bear had shown its face at point 12,800ft and how I’d previously mentioned how strong I felt that day, how confident I was that I was going to get the “job done.”
At least twice, Joe encouraged me to get to the top of the next bump on the ridge and look at things from there.
Joe mentioned things I might see that I’d mentioned I had wanted to see: the Little Bear - Blanca traverse, the Crestones to the north, Little Bear’s summit.
Both times, we noted how fast we had moved up the ridge when we got to the top of each bump.
However, at the top of each bump, the feeling remained, and I declared I was done. Joe has a mean sales pitch, though, and we continued higher.
At 13,500 ft., just before the really fun stuff, I called it a day. The wind was roaring like a freight train, and it was pushing both of us around a bit. I particularly was concerned that the wind would be too much on the SLB-LB traverse.
It was late in the day, meaning that any further progress would mean a long bushwhack in the dark back to the truck, not to mention avoiding a tumble or unfortunate ankle twist on seemingly unending talus with tired legs. Really, the decision was an easy one.
We turned, disappointed to miss the summits, but confident in our choice.
Photo by Nancy - LB from their turn around point
Photo by Joe - looking down to Little Bear Lake
For those wondering, staying true to the ridge is the easiest route option. The ridge is solid, and, while there is exposure to the north, it’s not particularly discomforting exposure. Certainly nothing one couldn’t avoid by taking a step or two away from it.
We made our way back to Trevor relatively quickly. We also brought the increasing wind with us. For the rest of our (long) ridge descent, sustained wind with powerful gusts accompanied us.
********** Together Again ***********
Joe and Nancy on their way back to Point 12800
An hour later, Nancy and Joe arrived, and relayed their experience after we turned.
Once they had a couple of minutes to rest, we headed down the endless talus slope. The lower I went the better I felt, and by the time we reached the trees I was back in the game. This was good because we had hours of bushwhacking left. On the way down, the route was much harder to find, and we ended up carrying one of the GPS units in hand to follow our route down. Once we located the start of the surveyors tape again, things got a bit better. While the tape was much harder to see on the descent, it unquestionably made the going easier enough that it was worth following.
Photo by Nancy - as we slog back down....
Photo by Nancy - this land mark that we used on the way up and down seemed to be the mountain telling us where to stick it
We reached the truck at 8:45pm, and, amidst the bark of nearby coyotes, had just enough light to change our shoes before darkness enveloped us. It was a long drive back to Denver, with lots of caffeine as well as some excitement at the Walsenberg Carl’s Jr. In the end, we safely arrived home, tired but not beaten. We achieved our primary goal, and went out on a beautiful day.
The biggest lesson I am walking away with is this in-my-face reminder that there is simply no substitute for acclimation. Along with a deep respect for our 14er pioneering forefathers who had to do this type of bushwhack for every mountain they climbed, and the people who build and maintain the trails.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):