Little Bear Peak - 14,037 feet
Ellingwood Point - 14,042 feet
Little Bear Peak - 14,037 feet
Ellingwood Point - 14,042 feet
|I like the Lake Como Road|
I like the Lake Como Road
I like hiking up and down the Lake Como Road. I see beauty as the scenery changes with every switchback. I feel accomplishment and purpose as my legs burn while pushing me upward or slowing my descent. I find peace and relaxation as my mind wanders. I sense a spiritual presence as the clouds changes patterns and colors.
It’s a good thing that I like the Lake Como Road, because here I was again. My first hike on the Lake Como road was over 20 years ago. My friend and I started backpacking from 8300’ at 5am. Unfortunately, the altitude didn’t agree with me that day and I never made it past our camp just before the lake. My friend kept hiking and summitted Blanca and Ellingwood and we had a pleasant, slow hike out the next morning. In August 2015, I was able to return, this time with a 4am start for a day hike because bear/human problems at Lake Como campsites discouraged a backpacking trip. I summited Blanca at noon, but clouds were already building. While climbing down to the Ellingwood saddle, thunder rumbles got closer and I watched a woman’s hair start to lift up and then go sideways. Ellingwood would need to wait for a static-free day. Cooled by intermittent rain, I enjoyed the hike back down to 8400’ as I wondered when I might come back. I thought it would be best to wait until I was ready to climb Little Bear Peak on the same trip as Ellingwood.
Fast forward to 2020. My fitness, skills and confidence had improved to allow climbs up Mt Wilson and Pyramid Peak earlier this summer. The forecast suggested that the monsoon was turned off again after heavy rain the prior weekend. I continued my route research and aimed for a third hike on the Lake Como Road.
Lake Como Road: July 29, 2020
I finished working early and left Denver at 2:00pm. Heading south on I-25 gave me plenty of time to think about my trip goals: backpack into Lake Como, avoid bear problems, and complete the Sangre de Cristo section of my fourteener list with Little Bear Peak, #50, and Ellingwood Point, #51. So many trip reports talk about the Lake Como Road with words like “nasty”, “miserable” and “sucks”. These words don't match up with my previous experiences. Was my memory selective? Would my first backpacking trip of the summer be “miserable”? I spent more time thinking about the Lake Como Road than I did Little Bear Peak or Ellingwood Point.
I was leaving the pavement at 6:00pm, driving up the smooth sandy road with clear skies above Little Bear and puffy cumulus clouds to the north. As I passed by parked Corollas, fifth wheel campers and vans the sand turned to gravel and steepened. I drive an older Toyota Sequoia, but I’m fairly conservative and I enjoy the full experience of hiking from the piñon pines to treeline, so after I passed several parked Honda CR-V’s and then Subaru’s, I pulled over just above 8500’.
By 6:30, I was hiking up the cobbles as the clouds continued to put on an art show with shifting pigments and textures as the sun sank. After sunset, beauty continued to surround me with forest shadows, distant creek murmurs and strange headlamp reflections in the many puddles covering the entire width of the road. With a modest pace and evening cooling, at no point did I feel hot, let alone “miserable”; the word “invigorated” seemed more appropriate. At 10:00, I was setting up camp beneath the nearly full moon about 100 yards before Lake Como. At 11:00 I had packed tomorrow's summit bag (except for the food in my bear canister) and was trying to get to sleep.
Little Bear Peak: July 30, 2020
At 6:45am, I was back on the Lake Como Road, strolling past the lake, admiring the north face of Little Bear Peak. Shortly after the lake, I turned left and started ascending the couloir toward the notch in the west ridge. The hike up was steep and loose, but not difficult. By staying on the left (west) side, I felt relatively protected from rockfall; I was glad that this Thursday saw me sharing the couloir with only one other pair of climbers.
I was excited to see the backside of the peak and began the traverse toward the Southwest Face. I met one group that told me that they had just placed an orange rope in the hourglass and another group told me “mostly stay left, except for one place where you just go up the middle”. Soon, I was staying left as I climbed up black rock with orange bands and white veins to reach the narrowest part of the hourglass.
Unfortunately, the previous weekend’s big rains were still resulting in water covering the narrowest section. I tried the left side and made it up eight feet before running out of comfortable handholds. I tried the right side and made it up five feet before running out of footholds suitable for my boots—I felt like one more foothold would have been enough to get past the steepest point. Was this the “one place” to go up the middle? Maybe, but I voted against testing my traction in the flowing water. Then I stared at the thin orange rope. Knowing that the rope had just been installed this morning, I was tempted to try to use it, but decided this was no place for experimenting with unfamiliar rope maneuvers. Looking up the hourglass, I was intimidated by the size of the area above and how any falling rock would funnel into this one location. Certainly, this was not a place to dilly-dally. But so far, I hadn’t experienced any rockfall and based on tracking who had passed me, I thought there was only one group above me. So, I thought I had enough time: one more try on the left side; then one more try on the right side; each time getting no further than before.
Reluctantly, I decided this section was beyond my solo ability and it was time to turn around. Was this the end of my fourteener quest that started forty years ago? Oh well, at least I could climb Ellingwood tomorrow and grow my list to #50 of 58. I sent a message back to my wife so she wouldn’t worry if she was tracking my progress via Garmin and saw 30 minutes of no progress. Hopefully, she would be pleased that judgement overcame obsession. Halfway back to the notch on the ridge, I was already contemplating what it would take to successfully climb the hourglass. I put those thoughts aside to focus on avoiding loose rocks as I downclimbed the couloir. Back on the Lake Como Road at 2:00, I was in my tent napping at 2:45.
Rejuvenated by sleep and dinner, I relaxed at the lake while filtering the next day’s water and enjoyed the reflecting colors on the lake as the moon rose and the sun set. I wasn’t sure how, but I felt optimistic that I might be back on the Lake Como Road in a future year to summit Little Bear Peak.
Ellingwood Point: July 31, 2020
At 6:30am, I was back on the Lake Como Road, hiking towards my consolation prize for this trip—Ellingwood Point. There were still many places where puddles covered the road. Where the road ended, a well maintained CFI trail began traveling up a cliff alongside a waterfall and continuing past several lakes. Eventually, I branched off the Blanca Peak trail to start a mix of trail and rock hopping up to Ellingwood Point.
From the summit, I admired the views and felt pleased that I had climbed my 50th Colorado 14er. I reflected on past climbs up nearby Mt Lindsey and Blanca Peak and the distant Crestones. However, it was hard to ignore the other dramatic summit just across the valley. I set a new goal to return to climb Little Bear Peak and thought that maybe I will still be able to get to #58.
Descending was uneventful with no thunder or static electricity this trip and I was back in camp at 1:30 for lunch and a short nap.
Lake Como Road: July 31, 2020
By 3:30, I was packed up and back on the road/trail. I won't disagree with others who think that the Lake Como Road can be a bit long and repetitive, but that's part of what I like about the road--more time to enjoy the hike. On the Lake Como Road, especially on a Friday afternoon, I am entertained seeing the variety of gear that comes up the road with hikers and drivers. On the Lake Como road, I am relaxed by the touch of the breeze, the sound of running water and the sights of forest, mountain, valley and sky. On the Lake Como road, there’s plenty of time for thinking. I thought about retirement, family, the pandemic and future travels. Sometimes, by brain just idled. Sometimes, I thought about what I could do differently next time to be able to climb the hourglass and reach the summit of Little Bear Peak.
While hiking down, I started to make a list of things that might increase my odds of future summit success:
The mix of thoughts, trees and clouds made the descent seem to go by quickly.
I was back at my truck at 7:00pm and started the bouncy drive down to the valley floor. As I looked back at the Blanca Massif, I looked forward to coming back next year to climb Little Bear and have a fourth hike on the Lake Como Road.
The next week, back in Denver, I dove into more internet research on climbing the hourglass. I was able to verify that the wet, narrow spot where I turned around was indeed the crux of the climb. I also confirmed that, when dry, this was the place to go straight up the middle. Most importantly, I investigated approach shoes. As I tested La Sportiva options at REI, I found that a TX Guide shoe would hold all my weight with the ball of my foot placed on one small stone, whereas my hiking boots just bent around the stone to touch the floor; I was sold. With more information and new gear, I thought maybe I would go back sooner rather than later. Seeing a favorable forecast and seeing that the last two weeks had been very dry, I decided to head back to the Lake Como Road to make another attempt to ascend Little Bear.
Lake Como Road: August 13, 2020
I was able to leave Thursday morning and was driving up the Lake Como Road by 3:45pm. This time, I drove slightly further to 8700’ before deciding I had bounced enough. With my approach shoes hanging from my pack, I started up the road at 4:30.
Once again, I enjoyed watching the changing clouds over the valley and the shifting shadows in the forest. On this trip, the road had nearly dried out. I thought a dry road might meant a dry hourglass too. I had enough daylight to watch many pikas bringing in their hay.
I arrived at my campsite at 7:30, set up my tent and walked 100 yards further to sit at Lake Como. As I watched the light fade on Little Bear Peak, I visualized my new approach shoes gripping tightly and hoped for limited people, limited rockfall hazards and limited water in the hourglass.
Little Bear Peak: August 14, 2020
In addition to hiking on a weekday, I thought getting a late 700am start from camp (on a day with a perfect weather forecast) would help reduce the number of people climbing above me in the West Ridge couloir and, most importantly, in the hourglass. Whether due to good luck or smart strategy, this plan generally worked well. As I moved up to the West Ridge, this time I stayed on the right (east) side where solid rock at the edge met the loose rock in the couloir. My advice: avoid the loose middle; either edge is OK—just choose the side that limits rockfall danger from any group above you; and of course, wear a helmet. Once on the south side of the ridge, the hourglass loomed in the shadows ahead. By 10:00, I had finished the traverse and was looking up at the obstacle that I could not overcome on my earlier trip.
With sticky approach shoes, I quickly ascended the lower section of firm rock to the narrowest part of the hourglass, where I had turned around two weeks ago. Instead of a wide flow, there were only a few tiny trickles of water. The orange rope from two weeks ago was already 20 feet shorter with frayed sections visible further up. No one had passed me recently and I did not hear any sounds from above. I took a deep breath and headed straight up the middle with my new shoes easily holding my weight on tiny ledges. After only a few handholds and footholds, adrenaline was flowing, the steepest section was behind me, and it became easy to smear my Vibram soles against the smooth rock, avoiding scattered loose rocks and quickly gaining elevation until just below the fixed rope anchor point.
Here, I started to hear a group climbing down, so I waited beneath the protective shadow of a large overhanging rock until they were past the narrowest funnel point of the hourglass. Then I worked my way up and left (west) as the climbing difficulty decreased and the loose rock hazards increased. There was one long chute that presented an unexpected obstacle—I patiently followed it down to find an easier place to get up and over (in hindsight, I could have just kept following it up to reach an easier place to cross). From here, I continued to carefully hike up over loose rocks. I had the summit to myself at 11:15.
At noon, I was still alone as I started my descent on the other (east) side of the southwest face. On my way down, neither my hands nor feet dislodged anything, but, a few times, my fifth point of contact knocked down some rocks. As the rocks continued to bounce and gain speed, I called out “rock, rock, rock” and made a mental note to stop scraping my butt while moving. As I neared the fixed rope anchor, I heard some noises above me and realized that while lounging on the summit I hadn’t seen another climber who came up the west side and was now descending. All of a sudden, I had potential danger following me down.
The considerate climber volunteered to wait until I had exited the funnel. The potential for rockfall from above and the sight of steep, smooth rocks below started another dose of adrenaline. With a mix of walking and crab-walking, soon I was at the crux where I faced inward for three or four footholds then quickly stepped off to the west side, out of the most dangerous rockfall zone. I yelled upwards “Clear” to the climber above and then quickly kept moving down and sideways until I was totally clear of the hourglass. As I took a snack break, I was thankful that I had only seen a few other climbers today and none of them had knocked down rocks from any of their points of contact. With my new shoes, with negligible water flowing and with limited rockfall hazard, I had really enjoyed climbing up and down the hourglass. Retracing my steps from two weeks ago, I was back in camp at 4:00.
Lake Como Road: August 14, 2020
After napping, water filtering and taking down camp, I was back on the Lake Como Road at 6:00. This was great timing to benefit from cooler temperatures and enjoy the sunset show while hiking back to the truck. As I slowly descended back toward the San Luis Valley floor, once again, I enjoyed the quiet time to let my mind wander. I thought about retirement and consulting projects. I thought about what my family would do when the pandemic was over. I thought about future and past fourteener trips—some with successful summits and some with successful turnarounds. I had a bit of a “runner’s high” as my legs continued their braking as the valley floor got closer and closer. I thought about writing a trip report and possible titles. As I watched the sky light up at dusk, I thought this was the opposite of “miserable” or "nasty" or "sucks". I wondered why so many people say they dislike the Lake Como Road. I knew my contrarian opinion would be the title for my trip report.
Little Bear Peak Resources
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