Peak(s):  Little Bear Peak  -  14,037 feet
Blanca Peak  -  14,345 feet
Ellingwood Point  -  14,042 feet
Date Posted:  08/02/2009
Date Climbed:   08/01/2009
Author:  CincyBearcats

 Little Bear NW face and the traverse  

Peaks: Little Bear Peak, Blanca Peak, Ellingwood Point
Route: L.B. Northwest Face, L.B. to Blanca traverse, Blanca to Ellingwood ridge
Date Climbed: August 1, 2009
Elevation Gained: ~3,500-ft
Roundtrip Mileage: ~4-miles
Time: 8-hr
Group: Andy & Sarah
Timetable: 05:15 camp at Blue Lakes
07:30 summit of Little Bear Peak
10:30 summit of Blanca Peak
11:45 summit of Ellingwood Point
13:30 camp at Blue Lakes

As with the Maroon Bells, these peaks have really hung on our minds for some time. Although we have never had a failed attempt on these peaks as we did with the Bells, we have gazed upon these peaks far more often on our countless trips through Alamosa. Since climbing our first Colorado fourteener, Mt. Princeton, while on vacation from Ohio in 2005, I would estimate that we have viewed these peaks through our windshield at least a hundred times. It's hard to keep your eyes on the road as you drive alongside the Sangres on Highway 17. I guess it's a good thing that the road is kinda straight.

As we have progressed along our CO 14er quest, we have been hoping to do the four classic traverses en route. The first two traverses, Wilson-El Diente and Crestones, went incredibly smoothly for us, and we were confident that we would be able to complete the last two. Our experience on the Bells Traverse three weeks ago, however, had us seriously second guessing ourselves. We tried desperately to find someone to guide us across this traverse, but our schedules and the weather never seemed to cross paths. Two previous weekends this summer we have been completely packed and ready to go for this trip and never even pulled out of the driveway because of poor weather forecasts.

When we saw that the weather for this weekend was going to be perfect, we knew we had to go for it with or without someone else there to hold our hands. In hindsight, I now appreciate that we were able to tackle all four traverses on our own, but you sure could not have sold that line to me on Friday night.

(a red tailed hawk watches over the Sierra Blanca)

After several nights of restless sleep and sweaty palms any time a coworker inquired about my weekend plans, we left Los Alamos on Friday afternoon. As we contoured around the massive base of San Antonio Peak on US-285, the Blanca group came into view. We were shocked to see the peaks shrouded in dense, dark thunderclouds. Our confidence in the forecast was dashed in an instance. Uh oh!

Surprisingly, my stock Toyota Tacoma (2006, off road package) got us all the way to 10,000-ft on a soggy Lake Como road in the pouring rain. By the time we had parked and gathered our packs, the rain had reduced to a cool, steady drizzle, which we realized was much more pleasant than the blazing sun. The hike up the remaining road to Lake Como went smoothly as we were preoccupied with the enormity of the pending task of the following morning.

As Little Bear first came into view near Lake Como, we were relieved to see that it was easy to identify the black hand, the feature used to mark the start of the northwest face route. We had chosen this route to avoid the potential crowds in the hourglass and to give us the chance to upclimb Little Bear's north ridge before descending it. We found a great place to camp on the grassy ledges above Blue Lakes.

(Little Bear comes into view at Lake Como)

(The Northwest Face route as seen from Blue Lakes)

After a surprisingly restful night of sleep, we awoke around 4:00 A.M. and readied for the climb. We were ready to go well before 5:00 A.M., but the valley was still engulfed in the darkness of night. We waited nervously for the light of dawn to show its face as we forced down extra water, and we finally headed off around 5:15 A.M.

I apologize for the lack of photos of the route up the northwest face, but our hands were too busy keeping us on the rock to bother with the camera. In short, we had a difficult time with the lowest and highest portions of the route. Getting off the talus slope and up the first 30-ft was challenging. We could not identify an apparent route, and we ended climbing too far to the right, at least 250-ft from the black hand. There was a 5- to 10-ft overhanging face that seemed to push us quite a ways to the right. Once circumvented the overhang, we realized that we were too far right and quickly worked our way back to the left, finding the large cairn marking the point to cross into the gully. Although the loose rock was annoying at points, we ascended the gully without any problems. With super careful climbing, we managed to send just one rock more than 2-ft down the face, and that rock made it all the way down to our tent some 800-ft below! You definitely do not want to be below another party on this route. Near the top of the gully, we were confronted with a much steeper headwall than we expected. We were able to identify the notch that Roach describes as the target point, but we just weren't comfortable with the apparent steepness of the line. We chose a route much farther to the left. We had to do a brief, 15-ft traverse on a thin edge with deadly rotten handholds, but otherwise this route got us to the top of the face safely. We were so far left, though, that the first major tower on the traverse was between us and the summit of Little Bear. Unbeknownst to us at the time, the most difficult climbing of the entire day was already behind us.

Maybe it was the difficulty of the northwest face which had hardened our nerves a bit, but the remaining climb up the ridge to Little Bear's summit went really smoothly. Even though our venture to the far left side of the northwest face had maximized the length of the remaining ridge and had even tossed in an extra tower downclimb, we gained the summit just 15-min after topping out on the northwest face.

(Sarah climbs the summit ridge above the northwest face)

(Sarah makes the final few steps to Little Bear's summit)

(summit photo with the Great Sand Dunes N.P. in the background)

(the plains beyond Lindsey's shoulder are submerged in a sea of clouds)

We spent close to half an hour on the summit of Little Bear, forcing down some much needed calories and trying to regain our composure for the traverse of our nightmares. Just as we were leaving the summit, another party of two, Brian and Erin, arrived via the hourglass route. I mention this as they appear in quite a few of the photos below.

There are numerous other, more detailed trip reports and descriptions of this traverse, so I will keep my description here brief. In general, I agree that the exposure is extreme, the rock is solid, and the route is straightforward. I really do not understand why, but the exposure never really got to me on the traverse. Maybe it was the ascent of the northwest face, or maybe it was the Bells traverse a few weeks prior. Compared to the Bells, the rock was solid, but it was by no means bomber. There were numerous times where a hand or foot hold moved on me as I was checking it, even on the catwalk of all places. You have to be diligent on this ridge or one loose rock can bite you. I thought that Bivwacko Tower was much easier than I had anticipated. Had Roach and others not mentioned it, I don't think I would have even noticed it. I found the downclimbs to several of the notches along the ridge to be much more difficult than the traverse around Bivwacko Tower. Also, there was a gap step move at the end of the catwalk that caught me by surprise. Aside from a few places where you have to traverse around a tower or two, I thought the route was very straightforward. Technically, however, I thought this traverse was much easier than the Bells Traverse. Not once did I find myself trying to pull a move as difficult as the ones I encountered on the third crux of the Bells Traverse (see my trip report from three weeks ago for more details).

(Sarah downclimbs the ridge above the upper reaches of the northwest face)

(Brian from the party behind us makes an exposed downclimb on a tower as Erin watches closely)

Once we reached the saddle of the traverse just before the first gendarme, we decided to wait for Brian and Erin to join us. We thought it would be safer to ascend the loose gully back to the ridge if we stuck together. They quickly caught up to us as we were snacking as they had been steadily gaining ground on us the entire time. The four of us completed the rest of the route to the summit of Blanca together. By the time we reached Blanca, my legs and nerves were spent. The last few hundred feet across the catwalk and up the third gendarme is steep and unrelenting. Upon reaching Blanca's summit, I could not resist bellowing out a shout from the bottom of my lungs. We did it!

(looking toward Blanca from the low point on the traverse)

(looking back toward Little Bear from the same point, with Brian and Erin on the tower)

(the catwalk, as it's called, posed the most intense exposure of the day)

(Sarah is happy to put the catwalk behind her)

(the first gendarme and the catwalk as seen from ridge on the second gendarme)

(the traverse as seen from the second gendarme)

(Brian and Erin negotiate the second gendarme as other climbers stand on Blanca's summit)

(Sarah and I pose on Blanca's summit in front of the traverse)

After our second long summit break of the day, we decided to head over to Ellingwood. The weather was spectacular. There was not a single cloud within miles of us. Our spirits were soaring with the magnitude of what we had just accomplished, and this was the perfect day to enjoy it. We allowed our tired legs to take a leisurely pace across the ridge traverse to Ellingwood. Again, we took a nice long break on our third summit of the day. You could not wipe the smiles from our faces. Though the descent down the rubble that is called Ellingwood's face was a bit annoying, our minds were elsewhere. We had finished the fourth traverse! We will never gaze upon these peaks in the same manner again.

(looking back toward Blanca's summit from the ridge to Ellingwood)

(Sarah and I pose for the third time of the day)

(the traverse with the catwalk at the far left and Little Bear at the far right)

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):

 Comments or Questions

02/05/2011 00:22
Congratulations on doing all the traverses. Man, that ridgeline from LB to Blanca looks awfully long. I haven‘t done any of the traverses yet, just trying to reach all the summits. Nice TR, thanks for the post.


Excellent TR
08/02/2009 23:48
The pictures are great. Congratulations on doing the traverses.


Did I see you?
08/03/2009 00:26
Were you guys in the white Tacoma as I was driving up in my Gold Tacoma?


That was us.
08/03/2009 00:33
Yeah, that was us. I‘m a complete novice when it comes to 4WDing, and I was not having fun. I underestimated the added difficulty of descending over ascending. I swear that was the most stressful part of our entire day. I felt very lucky to escape unscathed.
How did your trip go?


not bad
08/03/2009 00:53
I summited LB, but that was it, as for my truck not so lucky (it‘s old anyway) but if you remember there was a very large boulder almost in the middle of the road near where we passed, left a nice inch wide, foot long gash in my door!


08/03/2009 00:59
I remember that EXACT rock, which is saying a lot when you consider all the rocks on that road. Sarah and I spent 10-min trying to pry it out of the way, but it would not budge. I just went up on the rock on the opposite side and it worked ok. On the way up, everything was wet, and I nearly slid sideways and banged my door into it.

Daniel Trugman

11/30/2010 17:28
You guys are on fire! Was that the last of the "4 Great Traverses” for you? I finished up with a solo effort in the Crestones on Saturday. Looks like we were both having fun! TR coming soon.


Nice TR
08/03/2009 01:23
Nice TR by the way! That traverse looked narley from up there!

Nice Axe

Great Job!
08/03/2009 01:41
You guys made this look easy! Congrats on finishing the traverses and one of the hardest peaks! Thanks for the TR.


08/03/2009 08:00
Great job, Andy and Sarah! I did the NW face a few years ago, and while route-finding was quite tricky, as you mentioned, I really enjoyed the heart-quickening exposure and (mostly) solid rock. I spent a LONG time on the summit eyeing the traverse and wondered if I‘d ever have the gumption to do it. Well...3 years and many peaks later, I‘m still wondering , but am planning to do the Crestones traverse next week, and have a feeling once I get that one under my belt, I‘ll be chomping at the bit to get at this beast!
Fantastic climb and great TR!


08/03/2009 13:00
on finishing the 4 great traverses! The excitement in your writeup is contagious! You guys are gonna dance right up Capitol. I think it‘s almost time to start planning your 14er finisher party.


Well Done
08/03/2009 14:21
Was on the top of Blanca with you guys for a bit, and came down behind ya and discussed the ridge proper with you (turns out there was a little low class 5 on that, what fun!). Well I was definately envious of your traverse then, and after the trip report I see it was a great time. Enjoy your party atop Pikes!

Jason Halladay

Freakin‘ awesome you two
08/03/2009 15:52
LB via the NW face, the traverse in three hours, adding Ellingwood to the day and back to camp in ~8 hours!? Great stuff. I know you two were pumped up for that traverse and I‘m super glad it went so well and wasn‘t as bad as you had anticipated. I knew it would go easier for you two than the Bells. Congratulations!


08/04/2009 01:45
Wow. Thanks for all the comments everyone. Seriously, we really appreciate it. We had a great day up there, and we are extremely thankful that we made it back home safely. Until this weekend, we were still in the ”if we finish” frame of mind, and it‘s really exhilarating for us to FINALLY be in the ”when we finish” frame.


08/04/2009 21:39
Congrats on making all three. That is an amazing feat to pull off. Heck, I was happy with Blanca by itself. Sorry to hear about the truck JA_son. Guess you did not make it to Blanca to check out the stone. Fantastic pictures. Thanks for taking the time to post.


Which is hardest?
08/07/2009 02:39
Awesome job you two. I read your TR on the Bells traverse, too. I sense that you might think the Bells traverse was more difficult than the LB to B. My partner and I did the Bell Cord and the traverse on 7-18. Our final of the 4 great ones would be LB to B, and we are going to try and get it in in the next few weeks. To me the route crux on the Bells was the lay back move at the top of the 3rd crux. Please tell me LB to B is at least some easier. Again, an awesome TR and pics.


Re: Which is hardest?
08/07/2009 03:55
Hey dchambliss,
From an exposure point of view, the LB-Blanca traverse is in a league of its own compared to the other three. However, from the standpoint of technical climbing (assuming you stick to the ridge proper and do the 3 crux moves described in Benners‘ route description), I feel that the Bells traverse was significantly more difficult than the LB-Blanca traverse. On the other hand, I felt that the NW face on LB was technically more difficult and more exposed than the Bells traverse. Unfortunately, I haven‘t done the hourglass (and probably never will, hehe), so I can‘t give you a comparison for that route. If your mind deals ok with extended, extreme exposure, then I think the LB-Blanca traverse should be easier for you than the Bells traverse. To be honest, Sarah and I both handled the exposure much, much better than we thought we would. Even the catwalk passed without any serious hesitation. Keep in mind that we‘re mere mortals and a league or two below most of the other rock stars on this site.

I hope this helps! Good luck!

   Using your forum id/password. Not registered? Click Here

Caution: The information contained in this report may not be accurate and should not be the only resource used in preparation for your climb. Failure to have the necessary experience, physical conditioning, supplies or equipment can result in injury or death. and the author(s) of this report provide no warranties, either express or implied, that the information provided is accurate or reliable. By using the information provided, you agree to indemnify and hold harmless and the report author(s) with respect to any claims and demands against them, including any attorney fees and expenses. Please read the Safety and Disclaimer pages for more information.

© 2017®, 14ers Inc.