August 18, 2016

Little Bear Peak – 14,037′

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Sangre de Cristo
377' (Blanca Peak - 1 mi NE)
Alamosa/Costilla County
10 mi NNW of Fort Garland
18.9 mi NE of Alamosa

West Ridge & Hourglass (Class 4+)

Google Maps


This is the 27th 14er I've climbed, in August 2016 with my friend Matt. This peak is actually the shortest 14er in the Sangre de Cristo Range and only the 44th tallest in Colorado, yet it is one of the state's most difficult - and dangerous - to summit. It is sometimes climbed together with neighboring Blanca Peak, via an extremely exposed and challenging ridgeline known as the Little Bear-Blanca Traverse. Little Bear Peak is easily seen from many areas to the south and west, rising over 6,000' above the San Luis Valley. 

-The Approach-

We hiked the standard West Ridge route, which takes you up the infamous class 4 Hourglass gully on Little Bear's southwest face. This route officially begins on the east side of Lake Como, near 11,900'. The approach to Lake Como (11,760'), via the awful Blanca Peak Road, is long and rough. Very high clearance 4WD vehicles are often able to make it all the way up to the lake. However, several large, nasty rock obstacles along the road make easy passage almost impossible. Thus, do not drive all the way up this road without a vehicle intended for extreme high clearance 4WD conditions.

Most people park somewhere along the road before these obstacles and hike in from there. From the beginning of the Blanca Peak Road at CO 150 (~7,700'), it is about 7.2 miles to the lake. 2WD vehicles can drive 1.5 miles up the road to several pull-offs at ~7,900', beyond which the driving gets rougher. The Lake Como Trailhead begins about 2 miles in at 8,000'. From here, it is 5.2 miles to the lake and 3,900' of elevation gain. 4WD vehicles with some clearance can continue another 1.25 miles and park just before the first switchback at 8,800'. Recent improvements to the road (as of July 2016) actually make it possible for many of these 4WD vehicles to park as high as 10,100', at the final switchback ~2.5 miles from the lake. This is the last parking opportunity before the first significant rock obstacle begins.

-The Route-

Starting from the Lake Como Trailhead it is a 13.5 mile round-trip hike with almost 6,200' of elevation gain to the summit of Little Bear Peak. Starting at the lake shortens it to 3.1 miles and ~2,300'. Thus, most people hike in the day before and camp at the lake, making the summit attempt more manageable. 

The Little Bear West Ridge route begins at the Blanca Peak Road near 11,900' and cuts off the the right (south). There may be a cairn along the right side of the road marking this spot. After immediately crossing Holbrook Creek and ascending a large rock pile, the route follows a 600' loose gully up the side of Little Bear's menacing west ridge to a notch in the ridge at ~12,600'. From here, the route turns left (east) and meanders along the south side of the ridge, following a subtle trail marked by occasional cairns.

After about 0.75 miles, the trail reaches the base of the Hourglass gully at 13,300' where the class 3/4 climbing begins. This is a dangerous place since any rocks that come loose above fall all the way down the gully, potentially hitting a climber below! Additionally, water may be running down the smooth center of the gully in summer, complicating the climb. A long fixed climbing rope is often dangling down the gully as well and should not be trusted, since there's no telling how long that particular rope has been there! Rather, climbers should use the rope only for support.

The crux of the route is near the bottom where the rock contains several large diagonal orange streaks. On the right side where water may be flowing, the rock is smooth and rated at class 4. On the left, it's is a little more rugged and challenging, with perhaps a class 5-5.2 move necessary. Once past this section, continue up the gully on mostly stable class 3 rock to the anchor of the fixed rope. From here, it is only ~450' up to the summit. 

Route finding becomes necessary here as the gully opens up to the point that the ideal path to the summit may not be obvious. Since other climbers may be ascending below, it's best to stick to the more solid rock in order to avoid sending rocks screaming down the gully. In my experience, climber's left above the fixed rope anchor seems to provide the best line to the summit. However, an occasional class 4 move may be required in some spots.

If one chooses to go left, make sure not to go all the way to the top of the ridge. Instead, angle toward the summit above the center of the gully where the slope eases a bit near the top. If ascending on the right side of the gully, the rock becomes very loose and broken, but may not be as steep as the left side. Reach the saddle between Little Bear Peak (to the left) and its sub-summit, South Little Bear (to the right), and turn left, following the easiest line to the top. There may be cairns marking the way.

Descend the same route back down to Lake Como. More experienced and ambition climbers may decide to try taking the Little Bear-Blanca Traverse (class 4/5). If so, it should only be done in optimal weather conditions and with plenty of water and time to spare. There is nowhere to go but forward to Blanca Peak once one commits to the traverse!   


Trip Reports

Little Bear Peak (August 2016)