Peak(s):  Little Bear Peak  -  14,037 feet
"South Little Bear" - 14,020 feet
PT 13,122  -  13,122 feet
PT 12,880 - 12,880 feet
Date Posted:  08/04/2010
Modified:  05/13/2014
Date Climbed:   06/20/2010
Author:  FCSquid
Additional Members:   tmathews, jam6880, 12ersRule
 Little Bear - Southwest Ridge  

Little Bear - Southwest Ridge

Trip Length: 9.23 miles
Trip Duration: 14hrs. 35min.
Elevation Gain: 8000 ft.
Climbers: Dave (49ersRule), Terry (tmathews), Jerry (jam6880), myself

Dave and I had been discussing this climb for several months. If Little Bear was one of those peaks that only rose 13,997 feet above sea level, it probably would never have even registered as a blip on my radar screen. But as it is, this rotten pile of rock rises just a bit higher and here we were, lustily wishing to stand on its summit. I've known for a long time that I wanted nothing to do with the Hourglass. In my book, rockfall and lightning are the two great equalizers that just don't care how skilled or experienced a climber may be. When your number gets called, it just gets called.

After I'd found some trip reports online from several years ago that described an alternate route that avoided the Hourglass, I started to think that there might just be a way up this thing that wouldn't expose me to the dangers of the Hourglass. Longer, harder, more exposed? Fine. I'd gladly accept all of those characteristics of a route in order to reduce the treacherous unpredictability of rockfall. Dave had suggested that we look near the summer solstice to attempt the route. Due to the hefty amount of sun that the whole ridge receives, it loses its snow quickly, and the solstice would give us maximum daylight for an early start.

We all know of the horrible tragedy that took place on June 15th. The proximity of this event to our planned ascent of the Southwest Ridge very nearly scrubbed the trip. We just didn't want to be on this peak if our thoughts were elsewhere and not completely focused on the task at hand. However, after some discussion, we felt that we could stay safe. As Kevin's accident had occurred directly in the Hourglass, it gave our trip that much more importance in an effort to try to properly document a viable alternative to the standard route which would keep climbers away from that dangerous section of the mountain.

We put out some feelers to other experienced climbers whom we thought would have the skill and interest in attempting this alternative, and quickly put together a group of six. At the last minute, our group of six became four - which turned out to be the perfect size. Dave had been on the route twice before and failed both times really high on the mountain - once due to remaining snowpack, once due to weather. He was our guide for most of the route, and really one of the only people who had any first-hand knowledge of the Southwest Ridge. Jerry was our mountain goat. Clearly, the most seasoned mountaineer in the group, Jerry'd been up the Hourglass just three weeks prior and was a fantastic asset to have higher up on the mountain where things got more technical, route-finding was more of an issue, and style-points might just keep you alive. Terry was our IT department. He'd pre-plotted waypoints along the ridge which was tremendously helpful during the bushwhack in the dark for staying on route. I ... well ..., I guess somebody has provide no value whatsoever. Every island needs its Gilligan, I suppose.

We camped directly on the northeastern-most corner of the dirt roads that lead up towards Tobin Creek. It turns out that these roads are private property, and the National Forest lands begin directly north and then east of this road system.

** Note **: To properly access the ridge, it's best to start up the Lake Como Road, park on the lower road, and then bushwhack east through the pions while staying to the north of the road system. It'd be a miserable slog, but it's about the only way to access the ridge while staying "legal".

We got underway at 3:05AM and immediately started hacking our way through the brush and following a general vector towards where we knew to cross Tobin Creek and gain the ridge. It wasn't pretty, but we eventually found ourselves up on the ridge and approaching treeline by the time the sun started to come up. The talus on the ridge is actually a welcome relief from fighting through the bushwhack, but it too soon grows old due to its relentless nature.

Jerry working his way up the lower flanks of the Southwest Ridge

As the sun rose higher over the San Luis Valley, the shadow of Little Bear's summit ridge began to arch across the valley floor below. Even though we still couldn't see the mountain, we had this reminder of the challenges that lay ahead:

Little Bear's summit ridge on the San Luis Valley floor below

Higher up, the valley floor fades away as the shadows grow shorter

Soon enough, we got our first long look at the west face of Little Bear and the Hourglass just as the sun was coming up.

Little Bear eclipses Blanca Peak as Ellingwood Point can be seen to the north

The Peak and the Needle emerge from behind Twin Peaks higher up on the ridge

The north side of the ridge gets progressively steeper as you work your way higher. The path of least resistance is typically right along the crest of the ridge unless exposure pushes you a few feet to the south. Undulations and talus-hopping continue until the route begins to turn north towards the false summit of South Little Bear. The trekking poles, which were essential to get to this point, were stashed while the brain buckets came out.

Once the route turns to the north (left), it's Class 3 and 4 terrain for the duration

Me, soaking in the exposure on the west face as the Class 3 terrain starts
(Photo courtesy of tmathews)

Jerry, Dave and I working our way to the false summit of South Little Bear
(Photo courtesy of tmathews)

We stayed near the left edge of the wall for no other reason than to start getting used to the exposure. There's several ways to gain the false summit of South Little Bear. Here, the west face of the peak is at its most sheer. The drops are all several hundred feet.

Jerry and Dave taking a long look down the abyss

Jerry contemplating a BASE jump just before realizing that the only thing in his pack is a couple of granola bars and a change of socks

As if the west face isn't daunting enough, when the ridge turns to the north, the east face begins to also get significantly steeper and more exposed. By the time you've reached the south summit, the ridge degenerates into a narrow catwalk with major exposure on both sides.

Jerry and Dave, now swinging from the 'white' tees

The approach to the false summit provides some really fun Class 3 scrambling. Some of the last really fun, stable, solid rock for the remainder of the route.

Terry working his way to the false summit

Once the false summit is attained, the next obstacle comes into view: a short pseudo-knife-edge which draws you right up against the vertical west face. It can be bypassed by going low, and we actually chose to do just that on the return trip when the winds started to really kick up. However, on the way up, the weather was perfect. So, we mostly opted for these sportier routes.

South Little Bear from the false summit with the 'knife-edge' in between

Looking back at the 'knife-edge' from South Little Bear

Terry and I crossing the knife-edge just before reaching South Little Bear

Jerry leading Dave and I up to South Little Bear
(Photo courtesy of tmathews)

A moderate scramble and short bump along the ridge will deposit you on South Little Bear, and you'll be rewarded with a rarely-seen vantage point of Ellingwood, Blanca and the LB-Blanca ridge:


As Terry and I caught up to Dave and Jerry, they were paying no attention to the stunning views around them, but were instead studying the traverse north to Little Bear intently.

Dave and Jerry on the summit of South Little Bear with Terry approaching. The traverse route is drawn in to the north of the south summit.

Once we caught up with them on the summit, we got a good look at why they were so focused. My visceral reaction was, "No way does this route even go." But I wanted to gauge the mindset of the others. I felt we had the right combination of experience and humility (this was Dave's 3rd try at the damn thing) to make the right call. After a couple of nervous glances at each other, I pressed Dave for a decision. He was fired up to proceed. That decided it.

We ditched our packs on the south summit to gain some extra agility for the harder moves ahead. Since it appeared that marmots and goats were far too smart to be up on this unforgiving ridge, we felt comfortable leaving them in a spot we knew we'd have to return to on the way home.

The scariest move for me was right after leaving the south summit. The route forces you left, to the west, to bypass an impassable section on the ridge. Right (east) is almost never an option due to the sheer face that drops away into the Blanca Basin. Although I felt this bit didn't exceed Class 3, it was horribly exposed. The goal is to find a ledge about 30 vertical feet below the summit that will allow you to proceed to the north. Any mistakes here would send a climber tumbling down the entire west face.

The route from south to north with an approximate route line drawn in.
(Photo courtesy of tmathews)

Dave led and found the exit ledge with minimal difficulty. That gave the rest of us confidence to proceed. I followed with Jerry and Terry shortly behind.

Jerry starting the downclimb. The "pucker" expression was not for effect

Jerry coaching Terry down to the ledge

Dave finds the way to regain the ridge after passing to the north

Once 'safely' back on the ridge, there are some narrow sections to negotiate, and one rock in particular where I had one leg pointing towards the east face and one to the west face. These obstacles are intuitive, they just require full focus since the east face (especially) drops at least 1,500 feet from there.

The next obstacle is one where you'd naturally think that left (west) is the best option. This soon cliffs-out, however, and it turns out that the best route is one that actually takes you for the first (and only) time onto the east face of the ridge.

Jerry getting cliffed-out to the west while Dave finds the passage to the east

The last major hurdle is getting around the notch that forms the top of the Hourglass gully. By now, the west face isn't quite as imposing, but it's still no time to let your guard down. Any rock loosened here will funnel down the Hourglass. Two climbers who'd summited before us seemed to be lingering in the Hourglass while we were making this traverse. The most important thing at this point is to be cognizant of climbers below in the Hourglass that could be in harm's way if you knocked any rocks down. Since so few people are ever on this route, there's plenty of loose rocks just waiting for a small nudge.

Jerry and Dave approaching the notch downclimb

The notch itself must be bypassed to the west, and there's a really fun Class 4 gully that gets you down below. The exposure here is nothing like near the south summit, so even though this holds the most difficult technical moves of the day, it doesn't carry the same penalty for mistakes. We all thought this section was a blast:

Entering the Class 4 downclimb

Terry picking his way down

A look back at the traverse - taken from near Little Bear's summit

My favorite photo: A rarely-seen view of Blanca and Lindsey from inside the notch on the summit ridge

By 10:30, we'd finally made it to the summit. It was one of the least satisfying summits I've ever been on. The views were fantastic, the weather was perfect, but I knew we'd have to walk right back into the danger zone to get out of there in one piece.

Dave and I with the summit ridge in the background

Challenger, Kit Carson, The Peak, The Needle and Humboldt (from left to right)

We only stayed on top for about 10 or 15 minutes and decided we'd better get a move on in case the wind started to pick up. The return trip was uneventful, if not faster since all the route-finding kinks had been worked out. Sufficiently numb to the exposure at this point, we were all able to move a little more smoothly and confidently back to the south summit.

Me on the way up the Class 4 section near the notch

Terry working his way back to the ledge system that leads back to South Little Bear

Jerry and Terry working their way back to the ledge to start climbing back up to South Little Bear

Jerry, Dave and I working back to the false summit of South Little Bear
(Photo courtesy of tmathews)

We paused for a few minutes on South Little Bear to rest and refuel. No sooner had we stopped when the wind started howling up to 30-40 mph. We were awfully glad that the Class 4 climbing was over, but with our packs on our backs once again, the wind started pushing us around. The goal now was to just get down this miserable ridge and out of danger before the wind made anything worse.

Jerry, Dave and I turning west and away from the most exposed portions of the ridge
(Photo courtesy of tmathews)

Lower on the mountain with better light we got a good solid look at the summit ridge and the magnitude of the west face:

Little Bear's impressive west face

We also got a close-up look at the Chinook that was stranded at Little Bear Lake due to the rescue operation that got turned sideways. This pilot deserves a medal of commendation for landing that thing shiny-side-up:

Note the damage to the tail rotor.
(Photo courtesy of tmathews)

The remainder of the climb down was uneventful, just a long, relentless talus-hop. The valley below took a long time to get down to, and we were all grateful to finally get back to our campsite some 14 and a half hours later.

The long trek back down the ridge
(Photo courtesy of tmathews)

Terry's GPS tells the whole story ...
(Photo courtesy of tmathews)

A look back at the entire route
(Photo courtesy of tmathews)

This was easily the hardest 14er I'd ever done - both from a physical and possibly technical standpoint. It was unnerving being on the mountain so shortly after Kevin's passing, but we also felt that this route needed to be shared with others who may also be looking to avoid the Hourglass. Truly an epic day, but one that I'm not looking to repeat any time soon.

This one was for you Kevin, RIP.


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

 Comments or Questions

Ah....I could have used this!
03/16/2011 00:30
To bad I didn't see this TR BEFORE doing the SW ridge. Nicely documented...well done!
And tmathews's GPS tabulated 8,000+ feet of elevation gain again on March 12, 2011. So, maybe it really is that much with all the bumps you go up and down. Tough route no matter what the GPS says!
Good job on your trip and report too.


Great info.
12/10/2010 18:48
Thanks for the pics and narrative, that just went to the top of my list for next summer.


SW Ridge
07/29/2013 18:29
Thanks for writing this up, Phil. Nice complement to Terry's reports. This route would be so much fun if there were an easier way up to 12,700 feet or so. Impressive recall on the route on the ridge.

Doctor No

Well done!
08/04/2010 20:10
Nice work, guys!


08/04/2010 20:48
I'm sure we won't be the last people to attempt that ridge, so I really wanted to help future climbers negotiate the traverse. I think we were all a little too sketched-out to worry about building cairns ...


08/05/2010 03:35
Really hammers home why that route takes time. Nice write-up.


Loved it
08/05/2010 03:40
Good write up!!!! After reading this TR I almost want to do this route again. It was great to have Dave, Terry and you climbing with me. i think we should tackle a hard route like this one every year on the solstice.


08/05/2010 17:21
My partner and I attempted this route yesterday. We made it half way across the traverse, to the point where you say here to drop a little to the east (right) side. We just weren't sure about the route and loose rock, so we bailed. A hard decision! You do a great job here describing the route - I know it will help other people like me who climb in the future!

Quick question - why do you think it turned out to be 8,000 ft gain? I think the TH is at about 9k. Did you summit pt 12,880?


Thanks, Lynn.
08/05/2010 19:21
Lynn, the GPS added it up to be 8,000 - there's just that many undulations along the way even though the summit is < 5,300 feet higher than the trailhead. As for Pt. 12,880, I guess we did get that as well - it kinda got lost in the shuffle ... Congrats on getting as far as you did, also. That's a rough hike, for sure.


rough indeed!
08/05/2010 21:20
I think we may have cut some elevation gain off by dropping away from the ridge and traversing a few points, such as 12,880.
Anyway, thanks!


Great Trip Report!
08/07/2010 14:37
Thanks for sharing that! It looks like a fantastic hike to attempt someday!


Excellent write-up!
06/07/2011 18:38
I wish I'd had seen this one earlier. This is the best description of the SLB/LB traverse I've seen yet. Hopefully, I'll get to use it soon.

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