Peak(s):  Little Bear Peak  -  14,037 feet
"South Little Bear" - 14,020 feet
Date Posted:  03/04/2020
Modified:  03/25/2020
Date Climbed:   02/21/2020
Author:  supranihilest
Additional Members:   annie_hughes, CaptainSuburbia
 Not-So-Little Bear   

Little Bear Peak is a mountain with a reputation that precedes it. Long, rough approaches with lots of vertical gain, unpredictable weather, and sketchy, loose, and dangerous climbing are the name of the game, and this is on the shortest 14er in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Little Bear might have the 'little' moniker but there's nothing little about it. The only other time I'd climbed it before, on a car-to-car trip up the Hourglass, I found myself at my unroped climbing limit on the Hourglass' wet slabs, which put the peak near the bottom of my 14ers enjoyment list. I still don't like that route, and knew there weren't any that were easier. On that trip I'd at least done the traverse out and back to "South Little Bear", so I knew generally how that went, but wanted to avoid the Hourglass with unstable snow in it.

Judd (CaptainSuburbia) and I had been messaging back and forth for a few weeks since we'd both been out slaying this winter and wanted to climb together, and we settled on Little Bear's southwest ridge with his friend Annie. I'd met Judd very briefly while climbing Huron and Huron's northern 13ers in July (he was coming up Lulu Gulch as I descended), but I'd never climbed with him or Annie before. Based on his tick list I knew Judd had what it took to put Little Bear down. We all drove down to Lake Como Road separately and met around 3am with a 3:30am start time. The southwest ridge isn't particularly long but it's just a nasty, rough route that requires a stupid early start, especially in winter.

The initial section of the climb - the Bushwhack (yes, it's a proper noun) - was to be done in the dark, which also necessitated the use of GPS to stay on course through the scrub brush and gnarled trees of the San Luis Valley. Also omnipresent are small cacti and various plants of a thorny or thistle-y nature. Annie even suggested wearing our helmets from the car, for the entire day, because she knew how useful they'd be from the very start for the kinds of plants we'd encounter on the Bushwhack. Oh, it's that kind of route. Dope. Scattered talus started from the moment we hopped the fence about 20 feet from our cars. The only mercies of the early mile or two were the slow elevation gain and the mostly open lands but of course those didn't stay that way. Everything - and I mean everything - grew in frequency as we traveled, from density of the flora to the presence of talus to the steepness of the slopes.

Temperatures as we hiked in the darkness were pleasant, probably in the 30s. We moved efficiently despite the difficulties of the terrain in the cool morning air. Our first goal (besides not ending up a pincushion for desert plants) was to cross Tobin Creek at about 9,800 feet, which would put us on the southwest ridge itself. We had to avoid gaining the west ridge or any number of smaller subsidiary ridges which would be easy to do in the dark. After a couple of hours in the Bushwhack we descended steeply into the Tobin Creek drainage on dry ground, crossed on a set of icy boulders, and ascended a short, steep, and snowy (waist deep sugar!) slope to the crest of the southwest ridge. The sun was just coming up.

20030_01
Temperature inversion looking towards the Culebra Range.

The crest of the ridge was our safe haven for the next several thousand feet until we were at treeline. Both northern and southern slopes of the ridge were generally rocky and steep. Traversing them was not a pleasant proposition. The crest held a small amount of easy scrambling, and we stuck close to the top, picking our way up and using the drop offs on our flanks as guides for where not to go.

20030_02
Looking up Tobin Creek drainage. The west ridge is on the left while the southwest ridge is on the right.

There wasn't much snow on the route so far, which was great. In fact, the waist deep snow we'd encountered coming up out of the creek was the deepest snow we'd end up encountering all day. There were patches of crummy snow all over the place on the ridge but we could mostly avoid them, and where we couldn't avoid them we'd just plow right through. Higher on the ridge, outside the grasp of the valley, the desert plants disappeared and more pleasant evergreens took over. However, this also coincided with a near ubiquitous cover of talus on everything.

20030_03
Infinite talus to the summit of "South Little Bear".
20030_04
Treeline and the Boulderfield.

With the sun having risen we made quicker progress up the ridge. Elevation gain and loss on the ridge are very slow. There's lots of it but despite the outward hostility of the ridge it's mostly very gentle in angle. After a couple of hours on the ridge itself we made it to treeline.

20030_05
It's not windy here. Nope. Not at all.

From this point onward it was just us and the talus. Endless, incredible, ridiculous amounts of it. Roach describes it as "angular, obnoxious" in Colorado 14ers and while he's not wrong that doesn't really give an idea of just how much there is. It's the kind of thing that you become numb to. You have to or else the unstable, awkward footing would drive you batty.

20030_06
Annie ascending to the first of half a dozen false summits.
20030_07
Myself (red) and Annie at the same spot as the other photo. The ridge really is just a huge mound of talus. Photo: Judd D.

For the next mile or two above treeline we slogged away. The ridge was dry enough that we didn't have any reason to touch snow for quite a ways. As we ascended the rounded ridge became narrower; the north side dropped off into a sheer face and rotten couloirs, while the south side ran steeply down to the valley floor. The talus now rose and sank in a series of bumps, most of which were easier to go directly over than to sidehill.

20030_08
Bumps with their own bumps which themselves have bumps with bumps on their bumps.
20030_09
Picking up a little more snow. Photo: Judd D.

Little Bear's west face came into view and what a view it is. I'd only done Little Bear once before via the Hourglass and that route doesn't give one a real appreciation of the cirque through which it travels. We surveyed the snowy slopes that the Hourglass route crosses far above Little Bear Lake, awed at just how steep they appeared from afar. The route looked suicidal from our vantage.

20030_10
Little Bear Peak's mighty west face. The Hourglass is visible down and right of the summit.
20030_11
Looks pretty inhospitable in winter.

There's not a whole lot to say about the middle part of the route. The steep west face and talus were our constant companions as we hopped along the ridge crest. We could see the serious part of the route inching closer as the toe of the ridge inched backwards.

20030_14
A bunch of teeth we had to navigate. Judd calls these the Camel Humps.
20030_15
I could swear there was more ridge back there...
20030_16
These Camel Humps harbor some serious secrets.
20030_17
This must not be the World Class Solid Perfect Amazing Rock™®© that Little Bear is known for. Wait. Little Bear isn't known for having world Class Solid Perfect Amazing Rock?™®© Coulda fooled me.

Finally we were just before the Class 4 knife edge, which itself is just below "South Little Bear", affectionately known as Mama Bear. The slopes by now were caked in snow but the ridge crest was dry, so we scrambled up Class 2+ rock with exposure to the left.

20030_18
One more bump before the fun parts. Little Bear on the far left and "South Little Bear," the pointy peak in the middle, show just how close the summits are to one another.

Before we knew it we were at the knife edge.

20030_19
Hard to see what's on the other side. Not hard to see what's not on this side. Blanca in the background. Photo: Judd D.

Judd, having done the route a couple of times prior, led across the knife edge and then stopped to take photos. I crossed right behind him, straddling the knife edge with the dizzying exposure to my right. It'd be a one way ticket into the basin, but fortunately the rock was pretty solid (what looked like a good ledge for the left foot rocked back and forth...) and none of us had any trouble with the knife edge.

20030_20
Me scrambling along the ridge. Photo: Judd D.
20030_21
Lookin' good if I do say so myself. Photo: Judd D.
20030_22
Annie on the knife edge. It's 2,000 feet of steep talus if you fall off to the left...
20030_23
All smiles. Photo: Judd D.

Another couple of exposed Class 3 to Class 4 moves across a short dihedral and a bunch of Class 2+ and we were atop "South Little Bear". The real work could begin, eight hours after we left the cars.

20030_24
Final section up "South Little Bear".
20030_25
Wowza.
20030_26
Little Bear Lake and Tobin Creek drainage.

From "South Little Bear"'s summit there were multiple ways to get to the true summit: scramble along the ridge crest; navigate a series of ledges below the ridge; helicopter over; go home and do the Hourglass route in the summer. We combined the first two, having a notable lack of helicopters available, for some ungodly reason, and because we all agreed the Hourglass just wasn't as much of a sufferfest as this, and thus less fun.

I stopped to put microspikes on; crampons seemed unnecessary. Judd and Annie went without traction, crazy! We dropped directly off the summit onto a snowy ramp that snaked across the first gully/rib combination. Exposure from the moment we left "South Little Bear" until the moment we were on Little Bear was extreme and in our faces.

20030_27
Immediately off of "South Little Bear".
20030_28
Easy Class 2+ ramps and ledges with Class 5 exposure.

The first ledge ended at a dead end on a rib. Another ledge below looked like it wrapped around but we couldn't see a good way to get to it, so we climbed up Class 3 rock and snow to the ridge crest.

20030_29
Having bypassed the initial quarter of the ridge or so, we were forced back to the crest. Photo: Judd D.
20030_30
Annie coming up the first gully. Photo: Judd D.

After the initial section I took over and led the rest of the way across the ridge. For some reason the slight fear and uncertainty I had felt about this route completely melted away. The thousands of feet of exposure on either side of the ridge was there, of course, but whereas I would normally have difficulty controlling the fear this just felt easy and well within my abilities.

20030_31
Judd and Annie returning to the ridge crest.

Most of the remaining traverse was done on the ridge crest with brief forays into notches and onto snowy, short-lived ledges. The ridge crest itself was an alpine catwalk, a few feet wide at best. Crawling sometimes commenced.

20030_33
Dat ass. Not super graceful but to be expected when the ridge is a foot and a half wide and snowy. Photo: Judd D.
20030_34
Exposed? What's that? Photo: Judd D.
20030_35
Typical terrain below the ridge crest.
20030_36
Annie about halfway across the ridge. Photo: Judd D.

The rock on the ridge was solid, for the most part. I can't imagine how heinous this would have been on Elk or San Juan rock. A couple of times on the ledges we had to make testy, awkward moves around bulges; sometimes hands or feet were lacking, and the thin layer of snow obscured best placements. On the last of these bulges I stepped around and found myself atop a short, snowy slab, which I butt scooted down to a small platform with some extra Class 3 down climbing. I hadn't liked how committing that was and told Judd and Annie to go down a dry Class 4 dihedral, which they made short work of.

20030_37
It doesn't look much from here but the upper part of this looked rather difficult from where I was.

We were at the final notch now, and had only a short climb up to the summit. I didn't like the snowy, loose Class 2+ jank that would have taken me directly up the ridge so I swung around and kicked steps up a short snow knife edge. One side was rock hard, the other complete powder. It didn't inspire much confidence, but it was easy enough.

20030_38
Judd making his way to the final snow climb to the summit with my steps visible on it.

Just over an hour from "South Little Bear" we stood on top of Little Bear Peak. The Mama Bear Traverse had been awesome in winter, and we were happy to finally be there.

20030_39
'Sup. Photo: Judd D.
20030_40
Annie topping out.

We celebrated for a little while on the summit and drank in the views. I hadn't remembered what a behemoth Blanca was, what all of the Sangre were!

20030_41
Blanca-Little Bear traverse. Ellingwood Point is on the left and Mount Lindsey is playing peek-a-boo on Blanca's right.
20030_42
Twin Peaks looking like a massive death trap.

Since we had an extensive down climb to get back to our cars, and it was already about 1pm, we decided to get a move on. I once again led back to "South Little Bear".

20030_43
Off the summit.

This time we decided to try and follow all the ledges we'd seen on the way over. We knew they connected, just not how. The first major ledge wrapped around a rib and into another gully, then around a second rib where things got more difficult.

20030_44
It's hard to see me but I'm dead in the center about 1/3 of the way up on a ledge. Photo: Judd D.
20030_45
Hmm... ledges down below, ledges up above. We ended up taking the lower ones.

We'd managed to avoid the entire ridge crest at this point and were probably 2/3 of the way across when the ledges petered out in a large talus gully. There was no good way to the ledges on the opposite side so this is where we scrambled back up to the ridge crest, then to the familiar ledges that led off "South Little Bear".

20030_46
Wide open talus gully. We went up to the lowest point of sky on the left, which consisted of just Class 2+ scrambling on loose junk and a couple of switchbacks up ledges.
20030_47
Well now, I've been here before!
20030_48
Almost back to Mama Bear.

We arrived back on Mama Bear and lounged for about half an hour to collect energy. The traverse may have been the technical part, but now we had approximately 73,238 feet and 44,923 miles of talus to down climb, hell yeah! We braced ourselves for the incoming suck...

It didn't take us long to race down to the first knife edge and across the scramble, which wasn't nearly as much fun going down as going up.

20030_49
Elegant as a really elegant thing. Photo: Judd D.

From there the remaining work ahead was obvious.

20030_50
gulp

Nothing left to do but grin and Little Bear it, right? It's OK, I didn't laugh at that either.

20030_51
Humpin' up a Camel Hump. Photo: Judd D.
20030_52
Why do we do this to ourselves?
20030_53
Annie, facing west, with Little Bear's west-facing west face behind.

The sun was getting lower in the sky and we were moving slowly. One just can't help it on this route. There's just no way to go quickly on the ugly terrain on the southwest ridge. We reached treeline in twilight and shortly thereafter we were left in the dark, with miles of the Bushwhack to do. We were essentially reversing our earlier timing, except by now we were all exhausted. Judd had run out of water and I was close. I'd also eaten all of my food but a packet of gummies; this was going to be great.

We took a few minutes to regroup at treeline, and began our not-so-final descent. In the darkness weaving through the snowbanks attempting to follow our tracks from the morning was a pain. We had to make sure not to descend too soon onto the steep and exposed ridge flanks. Route finding was as tedious as it could have possibly been. As the ridge grew narrower in the trees we were forced to be extra careful; cliffs would appear out of nowhere, only indicated by a black abyss and the tops of the trees floating airily below our feet. We weaved back and forth on what seemed, in our exhaustion, like just a 10-foot wide ridge. My GPS said we were on our ascent route; I felt like we were on another ridge entirely and worried we were somehow just barely off route but enough to put us in danger, since this seemed so different on the way down. This went on for what seemed like forever until we finally made a short scramble down onto flat ground. I was skeptical. That couldn't be the end of that section, but it was.

We had to now find the creek crossing, which was actually fairly easy, just stay high on the right flank until we found a trench half a human deep in the snow and then follow it down and across the rocks. A steep ascending traverse on loose dirt across the creek turned into a ridiculously long and unfamiliar hike through the now thorny trees. I didn't remember any of this, yet we were still on our track. Was my brain just playing tricks on me? Perhaps the darkness and interplay of shadow and weak headlamp light? No, that couldn't be it, since it was the same yet completely different from the morning. On and on the Bushwhack seemed to go. Minutes turned into hours, hours into days. On and on. On and on.

The hike took us through and across innumerable little gullies, some full of snow and some bone dry. Once again I didn't remember crossing nearly that many, but we just kept following the line on the screen. Slowly flattening ground and slowly thinning vegetation were our only other indications that we were at least headed in the right direction. I was in front for almost the entire down climb and heard repeated exhortations of "what the fuck are we doing?" and "this is fucking stupid, where are we?" I couldn't be sure who was saying it. Maybe it was me. Maybe it was Judd or Annie. It was just as likely the Void. I didn't feel particularly bad physically, but good god did I want this utter nonsense to be over. I was now sweaty and wet despite the darkness, my boots were black with dirt and dust, my GPS watch almost dead... my brain was certainly on autopilot. I was bored beyond stupid with this and was so relieved to finally enter into open grassland where we could pick up speed.

I walked in as straight a line as I could now, trying to hurry and probably going at a snail's pace. I didn't really care, I'd just go as fast as I possibly could and hope I wasn't walking in circles or something silly, because none of us even knew what was going on at this point. I was glued to the GPS by now and was eagerly anticipating reaching the barbed wire fence that marks the road boundary, and thank. gawd. it finally came. I let out a cheer, crossed over, and walked down the road 50 yards to where we'd first crossed over. I held down the barbed wire to help Judd and Annie step over, and we all giggled like we'd finally lost our minds, but nay, it was because our cars were right there, 20 feet away from us. We ate and drank what we could and discussed plans, considering it was now 10pm. Annie was going to drive home to Leadville, Judd was going to drive as far as he could, and I contemplated just sleeping in my car at the trailhead. Everyone departed and I decided to drive to Pueblo, where I slept in my car at a Loves truck stop at like 1am.

What a hell of a route. An absolute monstrous, heinous, awful route! Never again! OK, maybe again. Probably do it again, actually. I don't really see why not, I guess. Goddamn rocks for brains...


Statistics

Climbers: Ben Feinstein (myself), Judd D. (CaptainSuburbia), Annie H.
Trailhead: Lake Como Road, approximately 7,800 feet
Total distance: 15.76 miles
Total elevation gain: 7,903 feet
Total time: 18:06:05
Peaks: One fourteener, one fourteener sub-summit

  • Little Bear Peak, 14,037'
  • "South Little Bear", 14,020'

Splits:

Starting Location Ending Location Via Time (h:mm:ss) Cumulative Time (h:mm:ss) Rest Time (m:ss)
Lake Como Road "South Little Bear" 7:54:25 7:54:25 0:00
"South Little Bear" Little Bear Peak 1:02:58 8:57:23 19:21
Little Bear Peak "South Little Bear" 1:02:37 10:19:21 29:41
"South Little Bear" Lake Como road 7:17:03 18:06:05 Trip End

Version history:

Date Notes
March 4, 2020 Initial publication.
March 25, 2020 Added annie_hughes to "Additional Members" list.

My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):




Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53


Comments or Questions
mtngoatwithstyle
W.O.W
03/04/2020 16:33
You had me glued to the screen reading your report... 18 hrs... I can still feel how your brains were already starting to play tricks on your minds... BUT I am in awe of what you did and how the three of you were able to make this day happen on Little Bear. Chapeau!.


supranihilest

Stylin'
03/04/2020 17:06
@mtngoatwithstyle: I can still feel it too. This was a destroyer of a day but simultaneously good for the soul; I know what I and my new friends are capable of now. Thanks for reading and for the comment!


Will_E

Craziness
03/04/2020 20:52
That bushwhack sounds awful. I probably won€„¢t get to LB until next winter, hopefully someone will make a formal trail through there? Maybe?

Nice pics and story.


supranihilest

A trail would be nice!
03/04/2020 21:16
@Will: I had that very same thought as we went through there. A trail wouldn't be easy to build through the hardy plants but it would reduce the effort by a lot. We could have also started at Tobin Creek, which would have shortened that section, but neither Annie nor I have 4WD vehicles so we were forced to start on Lake Como Road. I have no doubt the ridge could be done much faster (Ryan Marsters (Monster5) and Derek Wolfe (Furthermore) did it in half our time), but we were slow that day and I don't mind - we still got it! Whether you get LB this season or next you've had an absolute killer winter. Less than a month to go, good luck bagging for the remainder!


ltlFish99
Excellent report
03/05/2020 00:04
Great photographs.
I thought the best picture was the one of the LB-Blanca traverse from the summit. Blanca is such a beautiful mountain and that picture really showed it.


CaptainSuburbia

Great report!
03/05/2020 07:30
Very well written! Even though I was there I really enjoyed reading this. It was a much longer trip than needed, but I still had a great time. Let's do it from Tobin 4wd next time!


Tornadoman

44,923 miles of talus
03/05/2020 12:24
You are correct on the talus. Neverending...... That is an awful yet awesome route. Maybe I am dumb enough to go back up there and repeat it in a few months.


Jay521

And maybe....
03/05/2020 14:45
... I would be dumb enough to oin you, Andrew...

What a nice report. Certainly enough tough stuff to hold your intention, eh?


annie_hughes
Excellent Report, Ben!
03/06/2020 09:11
It was so fun to relive this day through your awesome write-up! Love all the detail, and your description of the bushwhack on the way down... spot on!! Great read!


supranihilest

Respondin'
03/07/2020 11:19
@ltlFish99: Thank you! Blanca really is an incredible piece of rock. When I did Little Bear in 2018 it was dry and I thought it was amazing, but draped in white it's really something else!

@Judd: You're on man! Dry trail runner conditions + Tobin Creek trailhead = joy. The best part is somehow after this I still wanted to climb with you and we've done some crazy $&!* like a Wetterhorn snowflake. There's definitely something wrong (or very, very right) with us.

@Andrew: Right? I was cursing this thing to hell and back that night and literally the next day texted Judd something like "OK, that was pretty dope. Again?" Annie's a fan of saying the best mountaineers have the shortest memories and damn if that isn't true! I just figured mine would be better than a goldfish at least...

@Jay: This route has everything nasty in spades! If you and Andrew do it let me know, I'd be down for a repeat of this.

@Annie: Thank you! I have a greater appreciation of the fact that you (and Judd, too) have done this route multiple times. That really takes a special kind of insanity. I hope to get some more of that insanity with you again soon! It was great the first time. Good luck in Moab!


JQDivide

Congrats
03/18/2020 08:20
Nice work!


supranihilest

Multiply
03/18/2020 17:27
@Joel: Thank you!



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