Little Bear Peak - 14,037 feet
Little Bear Peak - 14,037 feet
|Little Bear Peak to Blanca Peak Traverse|
For a full video of this hike you can check out my recap here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9xTU9JG-dLs&t but I know that reading can sometimes be better for those planning a trip.
After enjoying some summit views and the accomplishment of my 57th unique 14er, my mind immediately shifted towards the gnarly looking Little Bear Peak to Blanca Peak traverse ahead of me. I had been attempting to plan trips, watching videos and doing as much reading as I can about this traverse for nearly two years. I had knocked out the other 3 great traverses and this was the last one left. From what I had read/watched, the initial down-climb was supposed to be the crux of the route. I knew that if I did not start the traverse ASAP, I would start to overthink it and that would probably mean negative things for me mentally.
Initial Down Climb
From the summit of Little Bear, there was very little trail finding to start the traverse, you basically just followed the ridge north. The trail started through rock fields that had a ton of loose rock and slowly worked down to a large slabby section of the down climb. We tended to stay on the left (west) side of this section until we reached what both Nick and I believed was the crux of the down climb. The large rock slabs basically forced you to stay directly in the middle of the ridge and this was our first taste of the drastic exposure that the Little Bear Peak to Blanca Peak traverse offered. There was literally 1,000 feet of air on either side of us, a fall here would mean automatic death.
We scouted out the holds, which all appeared to be solid and when ready, I turned my ass into the air and started to down climb. Each step down was small and I made sure to have rock solid holds with three points of contact before moving my fourth. It was only about 10-15 feet, but boy was this like drinking 10 Red Bulls at 8AM, talk about a wake-up call!
During the down climb, we met up with another hiker and the three of us hiked a bit together. The ridge here was about 2-3 feet wide and we were now faced with our first tower of the day. After initially thinking we could skirt around to the left side, we quickly realized that we would have to climb this one directly. It wasn’t terrible, but boy does the Little Bear Peak to Blanca Peak traverse give you no warm up period, it just throws you right into the deep end.
After the first tower, we had to traverse to the right side of the ridge and walk across a narrow ledge to regain the ridge proper. From here, the scrambling was about 30 minutes of hiking which I would later describe as “blah”. A lot of down climbing, some climbing all while working across a 2-3 foot ridge, many sections which were a knife edge. Although the exposure was quite drastic the entire time, we started to realize that the rock on this ridge was not super “bomber” and required to be tested at all times. Not exactly how we wanted to start our day.
This section of scrambling involved very little route finding because frankly, there were almost no options. However, we did tend to stick to the left side a lot during this section of the Little Bear Peak to Blanca Peak Traverse. There were a handful of towers along the way, but they would be hard to individually describe without being on the route itself.
Captain Bivouaco Tower
Maybe about ¼ of the way across the ridge, we ran into the Captain Bivouaco Tower which many also call the crux of the route. You can easily spot this tower because there is a large reddish flat rock field right before it. There were a number of options to bypass this rock tower, but we decided to take the standard way and go left. It was a narrow and exposed walkway which forced both Nick and myself to duck our heads under an overhanging rock to get to the other side. However, the holds were very solid and neither of us felt that it was that difficult or scary and certainly not the crux of the route (so far at least). The yellow rock after the corner signified that we were done with the small obstacle and could continue working along the traverse. Overall, both of us felt that the standard way around the tower was a bit over hyped in terms of difficulty. Sure, it was an exposed move, but really did not stick out as anything we hadn't been consistently scrambling on for the previous hour of traversing.
More Towers & Exposure
After the Captain Bivouaco Tower we took slightly different routes to regain the ridge. Nick stayed up high and I decided to work along the slabby section on the left side of the ridge. In reading about the Little Bear Peak to Blanca Peak traverse, some described the section after the Captain Bivouaco Tower as the highway. I agreed with this but felt that there was another section of extremely exposed climbing and traversing that needed to be described.
This section involved the first super exposed climbing of the day and a series of knife edges. There was one point where we had to go back to the left side of the ridge because there was about a 4-5 foot gap and then other sections were we stuck left because of a comfort level with the rock. While filming, I talked about a section where we stayed on the left side of the ridge because it felt more traveled. This may not make sense to some, but my logic was that if more people hiked on this side, the loose rock would have been shed by now. Towards this point of the traverse my faith in the solidity of the rock was at an all time low.
Finally we reached a section of the Little Bear Peak to Blanca Peak traverse known was the highway. I think it is named this as a joke because of how wide it is (maybe 5-6 feet). Surely whomever named this section felt the same way that we did because although this would be some of the most difficult hiking on any other route, it truly did feel like this section of rock was 60 feet wide.
It was around this point of the traverse that I realized I had not eaten anything all day and had almost no water. I had been so hyper focused on the ridge line to this point that when my brain finally took a break, I realized I was very light headed. Nick and I took a break here so that I could eat something and rehydrated a bit before continuing on.
Down to the Ledges/Rock Fields & Around Blanca’s First Tower
After a quick break, we continued along and got to yet another tower. There were cairns here that told us to go right and I remembered reading about a tower that you did not have to climb. We hiked around this tower on the right side and found that we still had a very exposed class 4 maybe low 5 move to get around a gully that was on the right side of the ridge. We continued across the ridge staying lower but being careful not to go too low. This section of trail would take us around the first tower of Blanca Peak.
We round a few cairns that were helpful to guide us across and eventually to the first of a series of large rock/boulder/scree fields that sat on the doorstep of Blanca Peak. Although we had no problem following the cairns for 90% of this section, we did have a few sections were we kind of had to guess. The overall focus for us was to not hike up too high and cliff out or go too low and have to regain unnecessary elevation. We round that sweet spot about half way across the first field and eventually saw a few cairns that led us to the second of the larger rock fields.
For the first time all day, I felt like we were truly hiking instead of climbing and it did feel like a nice break. However, the conditions here were less than ideal. It was broken ankle heaven with all of the loose rock and dirt so we still had to focus on every single step.
Eventually, we reached the end of this crappy rock and around the first tower of Blanca. From here we followed yet another handful of cairns to reach the start of the 2nd Tower of Blanca. This section was class 3 climbing with lots of great hand and footholds along the way. Around this time, I was joking that we would not even be able to tell what the catwalk was because we had been doing that type of climbing all day. Boy was I wrong.
After topping out of the first section of the 2nd tower of Blanca Peak on the Little Bear Peak to Blanca Peak Traverse, the catwalk appeared right in front of me. It was absolutely no joke. From the initial section I could see, it was about a hundred yards long and was no wider than a foot. Unlike many sections of the traverse that had exposure where the mountain kind of slanted down underneath you, this section was straight down 1,000+ feet on both sides. Any kind of balance loss in this section would mean sure death. I wanted to wait to tell Nick that we had reached the catwalk, but I knew that if I did not start this section right away, I would mentally psych myself out so I just went for it.
I had read the catwalk described as unstable before and boy was that description accurate. The narrow pile of rocks seemed to have a lean to it so that you were never actually standing straight up. In sections it leaned left, in others right. To make things worse, the rock was not completely solid either. There were a number of rocks that I felt could not handle my full weight. In an area where your options were extremely limited in terms of hand and footholds, this was not thrilling.
The catwalk was also not flat, it in fact it gained elevation, so while you were focusing on this narrow and seemingly unstable ridge, you were also climbing up it. I climbed up the first section of the catwalk and for the first time in my life, truly felt that my life was in the hands of the mountain. If this mountain wanted to kill me, it absolutely could. It did not matter how cautious or skilled I was, if a rock went loose here - I would fall and die.
After the first climb, I looked back to check on Nick who seemed to be in the same mental state I was in: “dear god, this is intense.” I realized that we had yet another section of catwalk to go and it was just as narrow and exposed as the first. This section again involved more climbing to slowly gain that 2nd tower of Blanca Peak.
If you hike the Little Bear Peak to Blanca Peak traverse and are wondering why its called this section is called the catwalk - pay attention to your body as you are working your way across it and it will make a lot of sense. My joke though was that this section was so narrow, a cat could barely walk across it. #dadjokes
Looking back on the catwalk, I can watch the video I filmed from it, but was so locked in mentally I hardly remember it. It was without a doubt the crux of the route for both Nick and I and the most exposure I had ever dealt with while not being roped in. We continued hiking for another couple hundred yards and eventually topped out on the 2nd tower of Blanca Peak on the Little Bear Peak to Blanca Peak traverse. From here, we had to be in the last quarter of this ridge but still had some challenges in front of us.
After we gained the second tower, we continued along and were thrown immediately back into the fire of high exposure, loose rock and narrow sections. However, after scrambling across the catwalk, this all seemed like relatively easy hiking. Still though, it required all of our focus and testing of holds. We continued hiking and the pitch of the mountain eased a bit until we were walking on, what I thought was flat rock. This section was short though and we eventually had to work back to the right side of the ridge so that we could down climb and start the third and final tower of Blanca Peak.
The third tower on the Little Bear Peak to Blanca Peak traverse started with solid class 3 climbing. The rock appeared to be stable in most sections and had minimal exposure. We stuck to the left side and sort of just worked our way straight up it. As we rounded the top of the third tower, the summit of Blanca Peak seemed so close and we were both thrilled to be off this traverse. However, after a few more minutes of hiking, we realized we had one final knife edge to cross. This section was very similar to the catwalk (narrow rock that leaned to the right and then to the left) but was much shorter so we quickly dealt with it and moved on.
After what we both hoped was the final exposure of the traverse, we had one final down climb to conquer. It was nothing terrible, but the Little Bear Peak to Blanca Peak traverse seemed to not want to let us go until we were standing on the summit of Blanca. We were careful with our holds and completed the down climb with just a couple hundred yards of class 2 hiking to go to reach the summit of Blanca Peak and complete the Little Bear Peak to Blanca Peak traverse!
There were a few other hikers on the summit so we got a chance to relive our last 4 hours of hiking and gloat a bit to ourselves. Nick and I were thrilled with our accomplishment and I had now officially completed all of the great 14er traverses according to Gerry Roach. It felt so nice to be able to relax a bit and mentally check out. We both fueled up and Nick decided to head over to Ellingwood Point as he had not yet summited it. I wanted no part of that so we decided to meet back at Lake Como.
Overall, the Little Bear Peak to Blanca Peak traverse was a doozy of a ridge line. It lived up to all of its reputation for being dangerous, mentally taxing, having lots of exposure and being the most difficult of the four great 14er traverses. Reflecting back, I don’t believe we did any class 5 moves along the way, but we also could have avoided some of the towers that others climb. Much of life can become a pissing match, but neither one of us were in the mindset to make this traverse any more difficult than it already was.
During our time on the traverse, we both said we would never do this again but looking back, both Nick and I have already agreed that if the opportunity came up, we would both probably do it. Such is the life of two mentally unstable hikers!
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