| SW Ridge - Failed Attempt
A real 4wd road to an unmarked “trailhead.” A bushwhack made tough by abundant cacti, yucca, prickly brush, and pointy tree branches, but made easier by the kind work of pioneers with lots of orange blaze tape. Then, a long talus-hopping slog with present, but not scary, exposure up to an as-yet-unattained (by me) crux and summit – where it might get interesting. Eight miles that feel like 16. A fine, butt-kicking route.
Please note that there is a private property issue even with accessing the trailhead. I did not know about this at the time as I was relying on the 3rd Edition of Gerry Roach's "Colorado's Fourteeners: From Hikes to Climbs." (I had called the county sheriff's office, too.) On his website, he has since made the following correction (Following the link for Store --> Book Land --> CO's Fourteeners --> Corrections):
"20. Blanca Group
20T2 - the Tobin Creek Trailhead. While this trailhead is in the Rio Grande National Forest, the access to it described on page 203 is on private property and this access is limited to those who have permission from the landowners. The description on page 203 is intended for those with permission. If you don’t have permission and want to access Route 20R6 - the Southwest Ridge of Little Bear, go up the Lake Como Road to the boundary of the Rio Grande National Forest at 8,800 feet, then hike south and east to Tobin Creek."
There are four Colorado 14er summits that I have not yet visited – Little Bear being the one shrouded in the most awe. Take some lump of reverence and divide it evenly 58 ways, and Little Bear probably gets about 15 shares. I’m not immune. I’m not fond of the idea of microwave-sized rocks accelerating at me at 9.8 meters per second squared. So I, along with so many people, was hoping to go up the Hourglass as a snow climb this year. Well, if you attempted it with this spring’s snowpack, kudos! You’re a braver man (or woman) than I am.
I had signed up for Steve Gladbach’s Memorial Day weekend climb of the Hourglass, but that justifiably broke down. Earlier in the year, I had pretty much promised myself that I would at least attempt Little Bear on or before Memorial Day weekend, so plan B went into action: the southwest ridge route. This was not a new idea. I had researched the route last summer and was days away from an attempt when those plans came to an abrupt halt during a helicopter ride to the Telluride airport.
I refreshed myself on that research and got new input from Sunny1. Shawn graciously agreed to attempt Little Bear with me this year after having done it last year as a snow climb. In the meantime, I watched the forecast go from windy to windier. By Sunday, I was looking for some other peak to climb instead. Shawn dangled the promise of constant ridicule if I backed out, besides he needed to “stretch his legs,” so we loaded up his Blazer and got on the road about 2pm.
The trailhead is unmarked, but is easy to find. We used directions from the new (3rd) edition of Roach, which were just fine. The road up is a real 4-wheel-drive road and high clearance is required – not as bad as Lake Como Road, but bad. After Shawn fixed up his bed in the back of the Blazer and I pitched my tent along the edge of the road (the only non-rocky, flat spot around), we had enough daylight to scout the beginning of the route.
Example of the different blazes
We fell asleep to a choir of coyotes, and when we awoke, we were greeted with a gorgeous night sky! The Milky Way was beautiful. I had not seen that many stars in a long time. I caught a glimpse of a shooting star in my peripheral vision, but I forgot to make a wish. I was also amazed at the number of earthly lights from Blanca over to Alamosa – it almost looked like the Front Range!
After packing up the tent, eating, going through the pack checklist, et al, we were on the trail at 3:45am. The difficulties of this route are apparent immediately: bushes that reach out and grab your pack, stinging yucca, prickly pear, … Shawn was the one who hadn’t wanted to back down from this route on this day, but it was soon apparent that he wasn’t going to have much fun. He tried to keep it light, trying to quote Samwise Gamgee (I think): “We’re not in the shire anymore.” I might’ve laughed, but probably just said, “What?” (Is that a real quote? I think he just made it up.)
By the time we found ourselves at the base of the ridge at 10,000 feet, day was breaking.
Daybreak on the southern Sangres
We’d been at this for 2 hours and had covered just one and a quarter miles. We found a good spot to stash some water at a Tobin Creek overlook and continued up through the trees – still with no view of our objective.
"Trail" and blazes
Talus and trees
I was pleasantly surprised that we were not encountering much wind to speak of, but I knew that the forecast called for increasing wind throughout the day. Still, once we got onto the ridge and the wind was still just a figment of the weatherman’s imagination, I started to believe that we might actually accomplish something here. That belief spurred me on, and I ended up setting the pace – such as it was.
Finally at treeline
We were both wanting to see the sun, but clouds kept forming just west of us and moving to the east like an assembly line. The sun would arrive eventually, but it was because the increasing winds had blown the clouds away. Still we trudged on. Up and over one point on the ridge; up and over the next point.
My first "view" of Little Bear from this side
It's chilly without the sun
The winds were not a major factor for most of the ascent. But there seemed to be an invisible line at about 13,500 feet. Once we got above that, the winds became a puppet-master – forcing us to do the talus two-step. Pretty soon, we were both at the point where we were ready to call it quits, but we also could’ve had our arms twisted to continue if the other had wanted. We knew we could fight our way up to the crux before South Little Bear, but figured the winds would get worse and the rest of the route would be treacherous under those conditions. Since Shawn had already been up top and was only there to support me, he wanted me to be the one to call it. So I called it at 10:52am.
There it is!
On the way back, I had some nagging doubts. But not for long. As we descended, the winds kept increasing. How bad are we talking here? Well, whereas I had stayed on the ridge crest on the way up, on the way down, I stayed a few feet off to the south side – because I was afraid a gust would blow me over the edge. We were having trouble hearing each other just a few feet apart.
Windier and windier - hard to tell how far Shawn is leaning forward
The descent was no picnic either. The wind was a major pain by now, and we had to take care not to slip on wobbly rocks. Once below treeline, we had to take care not to slip on loose dirt and put our hand into a cactus. We did move a little faster downhill, but some feet and knees got pretty sore that day.
Surprisingly, though, I liked this route. I recorded no summits, but I felt like I accomplished something. I felt good physically. It took me down a few pegs, but didn’t wear me out quite as much as I had thought it would. Plus, I’ve always felt pretty good on talus – and, let me tell you, there’s plenty of that! So who wants to join me for a re-match?
climbers: me, Rainier_Wolfcastle (Shawn)
turn-around at about 13,600ft: 10:52am
back at car: 4:25pm
Mileage: about 8.25
Elevation gain: about 5,400ft
- we took microspikes but didn’t use them (all snow was avoidable to 13,600)
- we left ice axes and crampons at home (decided that if we found a need for them we’d turn around – didn’t need them)
- I took a 20 lb pack where half the weight was 4.5 liters of water (I drank only about 2.5 liters – I pre-hydrated pretty well)
- we wore helmets for part of the ridge – we had brought them for the crux, but ended up wearing them to mitigate hazard from slipping on talus
- I wore goggles on the ridge to protect my eyes from the wind
- Dhatfield’s report on 14ers.com and the reports that he references – particularly the Summitpost page. I think you now have to be a member to see the fourteenworld reports.
- Gerry Roach’s new edition of Colorado's 14ers: From Hikes to Climbs
- FCSquid's trip report has one of the better descriptions of the traverse from S Little Bear to Little Bear
For anyone going up in the very near future: all snow was avoidable to 13,600.
Thanks to all who went before us and tagged the route. We found old orange, old pink, and new orange tape and occasionally someone marked with strips of white plastic grocery bag. For the most part, we found easy passage by following the new orange tape – and it was often a very detailed route. But, actually, I don’t think it is necessary to rely on this route-finding method. If you find it and can follow it, fine. But I think we wasted some time trying to find the next blaze in the dark. There were points where our ascent route followed the blazes, and we couldn’t find them on the descent or vice versa. Either way, the ascent route was never more than a couple hundred feet from the descent route. My route-finding advice is this:
1) From the car, follow a bearing as close to due northeast as you can until you get to the road. We got to the road at about 9,000ft (N37 32.200 W105 32.243); there was a cairn on either side of the road at this point.
2) Head north-north-east until you can cross the Tobin Creek drainage at about 9,075ft (N37 32.252 W105 32.201).
3) Once across the drainage, head pretty much due north paralleling the Tobin Creek drainage (which you won’t see in the dark) – without traversing much, i.e., go up. Follow that line to 10,000ft, where the drop down to Tobin Creek is very steep and you can see a cliff on the other side (N37 32.731 W105 32.103). The cliff is seen in picture #4 of the picasaweb stash below.
4) You’re now near the start of the southwest ridge. Follow it up, staying close to the ridge crest. Once you get out of the trees, it will become easier to see where the actual crest is – otherwise just go up in the easiest way that presents itself.
Pics from the successful trip 2 weeks later
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):