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Snow climbers: Darrin (kansas), Mark (Yog), KeithK and me Route: Standard - above hourglass, snow variation: right "Trailhead": 9,900' at Jaws .5 on Lake Como Rd Mileage: 10.3 Elevation Gain: 4,600'
Day 1: Approach and camp
Elevation Gain: 2,200'
After meeting in Pueblo, we made our way over to the Lake Como road. We were determined to make it to at least Jaws .5, where I thought I could get my truck to. After getting to this obstruction, and looking at it up close, I decided that while I may get up it, going back down would not work. So we loaded up our packs, and set up the road. We met 2 other 14ers.com members who had the same Saturday Little Bear plan as us.
The trek up the road went quickly, as we stopped at every Jaws to remark how to get over it, with the right vehicle and skills. We didn't encounter consistent snow, until just before the cabin and lake. From that point on, post-holing is the deal, if you forget your flotation. We all had snowshoes, and after the long dry road, I was glad I didn't lug my skis up. If I am to ski these, cheat-mobiles will have to be used! Or at least snow from where I park - I hate carrying skis on my back and walking in AT boots.
Our destination was a nice sheltered area near the start of the first couloir up the ridge to Little Bear. With the wind in the area, it was nice to find a nice spot that didn't get hit hard by the gusts in the region this weekend. After setting up camp, getting water and making dinner, we were met by Darin (d_baker) and his friend, who also camped near-by and were also climbing the bear the next day.
Day 2: A race against the sun
Elevation gain: 2,400'
For those that have had at least Avy I training, or are experienced snow travelers, getting off steep snow before it gets too warm is the key to spring snow travel. I've included the avalanche forecast for the weekend below, as it would seem some individuals have forgotten this advice, or are recklessly ignoring it. Even some that did Little Bear before us.
"This weekend's weather will make for good creamy or silky corn. You will want to monitor the amount of water in the snowpack surface. Water increases as the snow warms and melts. A little water makes the snow sticky, and roller balls will start. More water makes the snow weak, and you will see loose avalanches running below cornices and cliff bands. Too much water lubricates weak layers, and wet slabs will run. The boot test is a good indicator: stand on the snow surface without skis, boards, or snowshoes. If you sink in a couple inches, the surface is ripe. Sink in past your ankles, and the surface is getting weak and it's time to avoid steep slopes or move to colder snow. When the slope transitions from ripe to weak depends on aspect, angle, and the snowpack. Steep east through south aspects will transition earliest in the day (around 11 am on the slopes I was on Friday). Then westerly aspects. Steep north aspects and high elevations will transition later. The strong winds can cool the snow surface and retard the transition.
Once wet snow gets moving it packs a serious punch. Even small, shallow avalanches can tumble riders. If you are in steep, rocky terrain a tumble can have serious consequences. Stay on your toes, pay attention to the snow as it transitions, and don't get caught up in a slurpee."
With that being said, our group was on board with getting up early so that we can avoid the danger. We would get up at 3am, and start as soon as we were ready. Darin and his friend did the same, as well as every other summit team that we saw that day (of which there were 9 summiters!). Both valleys show evidence for extensive point release avalanches, a constant reminder to be quick in the dangerous zones.
3am came quickly, as none of us had slept well. But we got through our morning rituals, strapped on our crampons, headlamps and gripped our ice axes, and approached the first couloir of the day. We left the snowshoes at camp, hoping that we wouldn't post-hole too badly.
We had worried that there wouldn't be an adequate freeze overnight to solidify the snowpack, but we were in luck - the snow was "just right" - a nice Styrofoam consistency that allowed for easy cramponing. Not "too soft" (dangerous) or "too hard" (tricky steps). We made quick work of the first couloir with the good snow, topping out and finding a stiff breeze on the ridge. The steepness of the couloir was hidden by the darkness, as headlamps can only illuminate so far.
We decided to take our crampons off for the first section of the ridge traverse, while a speedy group that passed us, kept them on. We didn't make it very far up the valley before we put them back on, preferring to travel over the snow than on the loose rocks and unstable slope. There were areas of verglace, possibly from the previous days melting snow.
Photo Credit: Mark
With each footstep closer to the hourglass, the light from the rising sun began to illuminate the surroundings, casting shadows of the peak behind us into the San Luis valley. Near the top of the Baby Thunder couloir, we can glimpse into the other valley containing Ellingwood and Blanca, with Ellingwood's ridges glinting in the suns first rays of the day.
Photo Credit: Mark
Baby Thunder couloir:
Photo Credit: Mark
Already slightly behind schedule, we make the traverse over to the snow debris fan under the hourglass quickly. We notice a few rocks in the debris field, a reminder to exit before the heat of the day, or face the consequences. Another item to remark on, a group before us had glissaded the hourglass - destroying the boot pack. The snow in the glissade path was icy hard, and was almost a nice reprieve from some of the softer snow surrounding it. Though the crampon points found it difficult to penetrate into the slide.
We met d_baker and friend at the cinch point to the hourglass. We sheltered behind some rocks, as the ice chunks rained out of the hourglass funnel with their passing. One did hit me square in the helmet, but that is why we wear them!
Once d_baker was out of the hourglass, our group headed up. At no point did I feel uncomfortable in the hourglass. Without the threat of rock fall, and firm snow for crampons to bite into, the ascent through this summer hell-hole was easy and quick. In fact, snow is the safest way to pass this point, if you have snow travel experience. Since the first time I heard of the dangers of the hourglass, and the ease of snow travel here, a spring snow ascent was my plan. Darrin had summitted Little Bear last summer, and told some scary stories of the true insanity the hourglass is in rock-fall summer conditions. Very glad that we hit this peak, in what amounts to perfect conditions.
Yet another wow photo from Mark:
Photo Credit: Mark
Above the location of where the ropes and "anchor" are (still buried under the snow), we decide to follow the advice of previous travelers and go right, deviating from the standard route. With nice continuous snow cover, this 3rd couloir or snow face, extends out of the hourglass from the right, then curves to the left and directly up to the summit. A perfect detour, with only a rather steep finishing section to contend with at the end.
Photo Credit: Darrin
Seriously, how does Mark do it?
Photo Credit: Mark
We find ourselves on the summit of Little Bear at a few minutes to 9am! What an amazing view expands around us! The sun creating long shadows on the surrounding peaks, not a cloud in the sky either. One could not ask for a better day, even the wind was holding off its full forecasted fury.
Or Mark's version of the same view:
Photo Credit: Mark
Taking advantage of another person on the summit:
Photo Credit: Mark
Photo Credit: Mark
Photo Credit: Mark
Our summit stay would have to be brief, as the sun was continuing its climb in the sky, despite our protests. Getting caught in the hourglass with sun-warmed snow was not on our agenda! We descend as rapidly as was safe, only needing to face in to the slope on a few rare occasions. Almost unplanned, we each descended the hourglass individually, with Mark going first. This way there would be less danger of ice chunks hitting us. As I was getting to the top of the hourglass, Darrin was at the base and waved at me. My turn. The sun had just started to illuminate the are above the hourglass, so it was high time to get out of there. I quickly descend to the north edge, and look up to see Keith starting to enter the sunshine above the hourglass.
From the base of the hourglass, I see Mark and Darrin sheltering behind the closest rock outcropping, waiting in the safest place they can. The sun has been on the south facing ridgeline traverse for some time now, speed is of the utmost concern. The wind has helped cool down the surface snow, but the rocks above can and will send water through the snowpack, weakening it. I can see evidence for snow slumping with the wavy tracks of previous travelers.
Waiting is always a difficult thing. Time seems to slow, as we wait for the last of our team to exit the danger of the hourglass and debris fan. The wind has begun to pick up. It is forecasted to gust up to 75mph today, and the warmer the sun makes the air around us, the stronger the wind becomes. Soon enough Keith comes into view out of the hourglass, and we wave him over to our "safe" position. From here, we would need to make it to the saddle where the baby thunder couloir tops out, for us to be off the worst of the potential avalanche slopes. A couple sloppy post-holes occur on this traverse, letting us know the snow is warming.
From here, we decide to tackle the ridge top, instead of trying the lower slopes with the loose rock, and now sloppy mushy snow. But the wind begins to pick up, and the uncomfortable feeling of being launched off the ridge and dropped a few thousand feet below hits my stomach. A few times, we drop to out feet and hold on, as a gust screams up and over the ridge. The southwest ridge, that had been protecting us, is no longer big enough to detour these gusts.
Eventually we drop off the ridge, and contour around to the top of our first couloir from the morning. Each of us chooses a slightly different point to glissade from, as we felt comfortable. It was a fast and bumpy ride down, as the snow hasn't softened up to much on this north facing couloir.
Below in camp, we discuss our options: climb Ellingwood and/or Blanca the next day, camp over night and pack out, or just pack out now. With the long intense day behind us, and the wind picking up strength as the day went on, we all decide that we should pack out and suffer the long night drive home. The next day would see high winds on unprotected peaks, as there wouldn't be a nice high ridge to protect us like today.
Someone left us a present... I wonder who?
After an hour of eating and packing, we were heading down the road, and only a slight detour as we ended up on the other side of the lake, without a shallow crossing point. Once out of the trees, the wind is horrendously intense. It buffets us with our heavy packs on, making it feel much cooler than it was. A blessing and a curse, on this road descent, that always feels longer than it is.
Another wow shot from Mark:
Photo Credit: Mark
Much of the snow we saw on the trail, is melting, and probably by next weekend, there will not be any until the lake. Much of the trail behaves like a stream, water flowing between the cobbles. Even the big stream is gushing at full force. Past that marker, all we want to see is our vehicles, and we count off the various landmarks until we see our awaiting vehicles. From there we hit the Pizza Hut in Walsenburg to refuel, before the long drive north.
With 2 prolific photographers and 2 passionate mountaineers, this was certainly a trip to remember. I hope you enjoyed the journey!
A fine report, Otina! It was great to climb with you all this past weekend! You are much too kind to me regarding the photography, I am quite humbled. I was looking at your photos last night and thinking I should be hanging up my camera, as you have some magnificent shots from this trip! I look forward to the next adventure we‘ll meet for! Oh and thanks whoever left us the snowman, that was cool! I gave him a snowhawk in your honor
Spike was in our camp too! I guess he gets around!
Nice pic‘s folks, and it was nice to meet you Otina, and Mark.
Darrin, it‘s eerie that we ran into each other again, in the same camping spot, as we did almost a year ago!
And Keith, nice seeing you again too.
Sorry about the snow/ice ball that fell on your head Otina. It must have been from Dave. Or me. Sorry.
Hi Otina - congrats to you and the rest of your team on LB this past Saturday. It was a pleasure meeting you guys at Jaws 0.5 as well as chatting with y‘all on the summit. I just got done reading KeithK‘s report and the pics between the 2 TR‘s are simply amazing! I have to get one of those camera‘s to replace my 6-year old digital! See you on the trail! Climb on!
Nice pics berg and Mark. Glad to see this was a success in decent conditions. I hope Mark didn‘t approach in his mountaineering boots again and get blisters of epic proportions. Another great trip to the Lake Como region. Mark, did you get a new camera? Shots are awsome.
Thank you for the extra reminder about climbing late in the day and how important that is. Seriously... Thanks. I thought about getting out and tackling the same climb on the same day but chickened out when I saw the wind forecast. Gerat job guys.
This was truly a great trip, and I am so thankful it turned out better than we could imagine. The weather forecast had us all anxious, and it was such a relief that morning to find it was going to work!
Avy Danger - I wrote that part to make sure it isn‘t forgotten. With so many people going up there this weekend, and probably next, I don‘t want to hear about any tragedies, or 5pm glissades of the hourglass!
Darin - no worries on the ice ball. It wasn‘t very big, and my head was down at the time. It was a good reminder for our descent.
Robert (rleclair) - Very glad you persevered to the summit without your partner. It sure was worth the view! Thanks for staying long enough to snap some pics for us. I have a Canon S90 (with polarizer via special attachment) and Mark has a Canon G10 (I believe). I wanted a tiny powerful camera to replace my bulky 7lb Canon 30D on climbs. So far I love it.
lordhelmut - Yeah Mark carried his mountaineering boots. Something to remember as I break in my new boots...
doggler - Congrats on the solo summit! Too bad you didn‘t climb LB sooner, or else we may have met on the road again! And yes, posting on recent conditions is worth ‘yet another LB TR‘ ;) We each have a unique story and perspective to tell.
Excellent report, pictures, and attention to Safety! I plan to reference this report for future use. Thanks for the time you put into it.
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