Mountain(s): Little Bear Peak (14,041')
Distance: 11.5 miles
Elevation Gain: 6,200'
Roundtrip Time: 23 hrs (over 2 days)
Little Bear Peak is one of Colorado's most difficult and dangerous 14ers. Its West Ridge route currently sits behind only Capitol Peak's Northeast Ridge route (i.e., the knife edge) as the 2nd most difficult 14er standard route in Colorado, according to the 14ers.com user rankings. However, the route description on 14ers.com actually states that it is "probably the most difficult standard 14er route". Additionally, mountaineer and 14er expert Gerry Roach says in his book Colorado Fourteeners: From Hikes to Climbs that he thinks the Hourglass gully at the top of the route is "the most dangerous spot on any of the standard routes on Colorado's Fourteeners". It goes without saying that this mountain doesn't play games. I would have to be on top of my game to climb it safely.
So when my buddy Matt texted me a few days beforehand saying he was going to be hiking Little Bear, Blanca, and Ellingwood - three 14ers northwest of Alamosa, CO - I naturally agreed to join. It gets better though. His plan was to hike the Little Bear-Blanca Traverse, a 1.5-mile-long Class 4/5 ridgeline connecting the two peaks. This is one of Colorado's Great Traverses and is said to be even more difficult than the route up Little Bear. To do it, the weather needs to be near perfect. You must be well-prepared and experienced at climbing on highly exposed rock. I had been considering this traverse all summer after another friend of mine said he wanted to do it. Ironically, he ultimately wasn't able to join this time so it was going to be just myself and Matt.
From my home in Laramie, WY, it is about a 6-hr drive down to the Lake Como Trailhead. This road takes you up to Lake Como at ~11,750'. I drove down the day before, arriving at the Blanca Peak Road around 4pm. The road begins down at ~7,700' in the wide open and incredibly flat San Luis Valley. The Blanca group is a cluster of peaks that includes Blanca Peak (14,345' - 4th tallest in Colorado), Little Bear, Ellingwood Point (14,042'), and Mount Lindsey (14,042'). They rise abruptly from the east side of the valley floor and form what is known as the Blanca Massif. I had a postcard-type view of the whole thing driving in (Photos 1 & 2).
LAKE COMO APPROACH
The way up to Lake Como is rough, regardless of whether it is done on foot on on wheels. Let's just be honest... it completely sucks. The first 1.5 miles on the road looks like what you see in Photos 1 & 2. In other words, nice and smooth. After that, rocks the size of bowling balls begin filling the road, making for a bumpy 4WD ride for the next ~2 miles. We parked at what used to be the standard parking area for most 4WD vehicles at 8,800', about 4 miles from Lake Como. We strapped on our 70-liter Osprey packs - each loaded with ~40 lbs of food, water, camping gear, and other hiking necessities - and began heading the rest of the way up the road on foot. Oh, and I also had my bulky 10-lb camera/lens as well... #hobbies
Right past where we parked, the road begins ascending through about six switchbacks, the last one of which is at ~10,100' and only 2.5 miles from the lake. I realize now that I could have easily driven my 4WD SUV up to that spot and parked there. This would have made the hike in (and out) that much easier. Next time! Beyond that last switchback, however, the "fun" begins and the road turns incredibly ugly. Hikers have given nicknames (Jaws 1, Jaws 2, etc.) to the series of rocky obstacles that line the road along the way. These can be seen in Photos 3-7 (I think I'm missing Jaws 2), which don't really provide a sense of scale. Some of the rock slabs are 2-3 feet high!
This would certainly be fun in an ATV or some type of four-wheeler. What is astounding, though, is that people actually drive their SUVs, Jeeps, and trucks all the way to the lake (see video below)!!! And yes, I'm pretty sure every one of them bottoms out at some point. There are vehicle scratches all over the rocks.
While we didn't have to worry about any of that, the hike was still fairly brutal with 40 lbs on our backs. We started hiking just before 6pm (way too late, I know) and arrived at Lake Como just before 10pm. In total, we did about 4 miles and gained about 3,000' of elevation. The goal was to wake early the next morning and hike all three peaks. If completed, this would add an additional 6 miles of round-trip hiking/climbing and 3,600' of gain, including a Class 4 climb up a dangerous gully and a Class 5 ridgeline traverse, all followed by a 4 mile walk back to the car.
The weather forecast called for a 40% chance of thunderstorms after 3pm. As a meteorologist, I know what that type of forecast meant, especially after reading the rather broad forecast discussion. A buddy of mine would have called it a "CYA" forecast, short for "cover your a**". In other words, there will be storms somewhere, probably, most likely over a mountain, at some point during the day, but maybe not. Anyway, if we hoped to complete our goal we would need a pre-dawn start, a fairly quick ascent of Little Bear, and clear skies until at least early afternoon. We set up camp, made some preparations for the morning, hid/hung our bear vault/food bag, and got to sleep by 11:30 or so.
My alarm went of at 4:30am, although I had already been awake for some time. I estimate I only got ~2 hrs of sleep that night. Matt thought he got closer to 4. This is why you start hiking in earlier the day before so you can go to bed at a reasonable hour. Anyway, it was still dark (and fairly warm!) but there were others up as well and another group already ahead of us on the trail.
We packed up our smaller and lighter day packs and hit the Blanca Peak Road at 5:30, arriving at the turnoff for the Little Bear route 15 minutes later as first light was beginning to appear in the sky. The first major hurdle was to ascend a 600' loose gully (Class 2+) to the top of Little Bear's west ridge at ~12,600'. We reached the top by 6:30 (Photos 8 & 9) and met up with another group of climbers. The six of us would stick together for the remainder of the climb, especially later when we entered the Hourglass.
Soon after, the sun rose and cast a beautiful shadow of the Blanca Massif over the San Luis Valley to the southwest (Photo 10). What a gorgeous morning it was!
The route follows a faint trail that weaves east through the rocks just below (south of) the crest of Little Bear Peak's west ridge. It is about a 0.7 mile trek from the top of the loose gully at ~12,600' to the base of the Hourglass gully at 13,300'. Along the way, the view of Little Bear's southwest ridge and southwest face opens up (Photo 11). Here, the Hourglass appears (Photo 12).
We reached the bottom of the Hourglass by 7:45am. This was good time! If we could make it up to the summit within the next 60-90 minutes we would be in excellent shape to attempt the traverse.
Beginning at 13,300', the Hourglass ascends about 700' right up to the summit. It is at its narrowest for about 100' right at the bottom, which is the route's crux. Here, several Class 4 moves on smooth rock are required (Photo 13). In summer there is often water running down this part of the gully, decreasing traction and, if frozen, increasing your chances of slipping. To help with the ascent/descent, an anchored climbing rope is often hanging down through this section. One would be wise to avoid using this rope too much without fully inspecting it, since it could be old, weathered, and weak.
We ascended up the gully one at a time, in order to avoid kicking loose rocks down on each other. Some of us chose to stay far left of the water and climb more rugged Class 4 or low Class 5 rock (Photos 14 & 15). I took a line just to the left of the water and found that handhold and footholds were there, but not terribly easy to find.
Above this narrow section, the gully begins to open up and the climbing does ease a little. However, the rock becomes less solid the higher you ascend. Thus, the chances of knocking rocks loose and sending them cascading all the way down the gully increases. Believe me, the rocks will go all the way down, bouncing off the hard rock slabs and potentially hitting a climber below! Folks have been injured here as a result of falling rocks, perhaps even fatally in rare instances. Near 13,700' the gully splits, where we stayed to the left on mostly solid rock and headed up toward the summit (Photos 16 & 17).
I stayed even farther left and ended up having to climb about 20 feet of what was probably low Class 5 rock close to the top of the west ridge. For me, that was the hairiest part of the climb and put me about 10 minutes behind the other climbers. The view from there, however, was stunning (Photo 18). By this point, I was pretty pooped. That 2 hours of sleep was catching up to me. I was only 150' below the summit but needed energy pronto! It took me about 30 minutes to pull my way up, arriving at the summit around 9:30am. A four-hour ascent, not too shabby!
It felt great to reach the top, but I needed to refuel and I stupidly didn't bring a food item that was lunchworthy. All I had was half of a breakfast burrito, some almonds, and a bunch of energy bars. Needless to say, I did not enjoy "lunch". Matt and I stayed on the summit for about an hour while the group of four that we climbed up with headed back down the Hourglass shortly after I summited. The views from the summit are worth going back for (Photos 19-23).
The real decision, however, was whether or not to go for the Little Bear-Blanca Traverse (Photo 24). While I rested up, Matt went and checked out the initial descent onto the traverse and said it was quite exposed (Photo 25). I called my mom just before 10am to tell her we had made it safely to the top but that we were unsure about our next move. With no clouds in the area at the time I said that everything looked good for a go at the traverse, if I could muster the energy. She said that maybe some clouds would show up soon, making us turn back. Wouldn't that be a God thing!
Sure enough, by 10:15 a few small cumulus clouds had formed over Blanca Peak. A small thundercloud had also developed a bit further off to the east, a sign that the atmosphere was not stable (Photo 26). Based on the forecast, the presence of clouds this early in the day, and my lack of energy, we bailed on the traverse. Turns out Mom always knows best! I texted her to let her know of our decision... I think she was delighted. A God thing indeed!
We took a different route back down through the Hourglass, staying on the left side looking down (climber's right). There was a lot of loose rock near the top but we made it down to the top of the narrow section without any issues (Photos 27 & 28). Getting through the Class 4 rock near the bottom (Photo 29) took some negotiating (i.e., careful decision-making). Overall, the downclimbing was actually a bit harder than the climb up in some respects. Before we knew it, however, it we were out of the Hourglass and on our way back to Lake Como.
The trudge back to the lake took 2.5 hrs but felt like 4. We did pass another group of two heading up and made sure to warn them about the growing clouds over Blanca. Sure enough, but the time I made back to the first loose gully above Lake Como I had heard thunder. Back at the campsite by 2:15pm, we packed up our large Ospreys as light rain began to fall. A half dozen or so Jeep Wranglers/Rubicons had made it all the way up during the day. I thought perhaps one of them might be willing to give us a lift back down the road. Well, they all departed before we were ready to leave so there's that.
We headed back down the Blanca Peak Road at little after 2:30. A good thunderstorm developed overhead and it rained persistently for about 2 hours. Temperatures also dropped quite a bit, probably into the high 40s, and it became pretty windy. After arriving back at the car around 5pm, I drove Matt back down the road to his car at a parking area near 7,900' and we parted ways.
As I was driving away, I took one last look up to Little Bear. What I saw was quite unexpected (Photo 30)...