| Petting the Bear on his Spine - Little Bear via SW ridge
Peaks: Little Bear and South Little Bear
Route: Southwest Ridge
Date: June 5, 2011
Length: 8.0 miles roundtrip according to Roach (if you can believe it - I don't)
Vertical: 5300 feet (...or 8,000. Who really knows?)
Time: 16 hours
Who: Lynn (LynnKH) and Natalie (nkan02)
I spent the previous weekend in the Sangres climbing Blanca and Ellingwood and getting familiar with the geography of the Little Bear. The standard route through the Hourglass did not appeal to me for a number of reasons, and I was intrigued to learn about the Southwest Ridge route, an alternative to the Hourglass route. I was starting to read the trip reports on the subject and what I saw looked more or less doable to me, at least up to the summit of the South Little Bear. I knew that several things had to fall in place for the attempt to happen – very good weather, strong team, powerful car to get to TH and strong route-finding skills. What are the chances?
I posted a comment on the previous SW ridge report that I would be up for it, and on Thursday evening got an email about a possible climb on Saturday, meaning that I had to leave for Sangres on Friday night. I felt it was very last minute and was not ready. Then I heard that Lynn was going to attempt the route the following day, on Sunday. I asked her if anybody else was going with her, and she said no, but she would not mind company. Lynn had the car that would get us to the TH (I have a Subaru that would stop short maybe another 0.6-0.8 miles from the TH) and she knew the route from the previous scouting trips. I hiked every weekend since the beginning of May, felt great and did not think I would be a drag. I said “Let’s do it”.
Since it is a very long and strenuous hike, and you will stay above the tree line and 13,000 for hours, it is best attempted on a perfect weather day. You want to avoid any chance of snow, rain or wind in the forecast. No matter how early you leave, the hike is likely going to take longer than expected. Take more water than you usually take, as there will be no water sources and due to the long day (see below) you are likely to run out of water (I did).
You are going to encounter many challenges on this hike. I will list them below:
1. Bushwhacking and trail finding. Unless you’ve scouted the route in advance, you are likely to spend a good 1.5-2.0 hours in the dark looking for the ridge. There is no official hiking trail, and the route is currently marked by the pieces of orange and white tape, which is not always easy to find in the dark.
2. Once you get on the ridge, get ready for talus. It will be your “friend” until the summit of the South Little Bear at 14,020 and on the way back.
3. Elevation gain. Although the Roach book puts an elevation net gain at 5,300 and 6,000 total, it certainly feels much more than that. I’ve seen an estimate as high as 8,000, so it is somewhere in between.
4. Length. This is another strange thing about this route, the numbers about mileage and elevation just don’t seem to add up. The 8 mile roundtrip feels like a 16 mile roundtrip, and if you look at the climbing times posted in other trip reports, they seem to cluster in the 14-16 hour range, which is highly unusual for a 8 mile-long hike.
5. Staying above 12,900 for hours. Estimates may vary, but for us it was 8 hours. We left Point 12,900 relatively early at 9am and did not get back to it until 5pm. This could potentially have a “slowing down” effect on you.
6. The traverse to Little Bear! Class 4 climb with high exposure.
7. Loose talus. We tried to reduce the trip’s elevation gain by skirting around Point 13,500, but quickly realized that we should better stick to the ridge even at the expense of additional elevation gain on the way back. The reason was considerably worse talus and route quality as soon as you veer off the ridge to the East.
1. You avoid the Hourglass.
2. You avoid the Como road.
3. Travel light. The ridge is free of snow for most part of the year. Lynn hiked it in December and it had very little snow. Definitely there was no snow on it in June (except for smallish patches near the SLB summit).
Translation – no ice ax, no snowshoes, and no heavy mountaineering boots. We did not bring a rope either. The poles are most likely not necessary after the first 2K of elevation. My backback was very light, and I should have brought more water with me. All you need is light comfortable boots with sticky soles. Lynn hiked in her Keens, I had my Vasques and we were fine.
Lynn and I both woke up around 3.30-3.40am in our camp at the beginning of Como road and got ready to head out to Tobin Creek “trailhead” by 4.15am. By 4.45am we reached the TH, parked the car and hit the road. Route finding would have been a challenging and frustrating experience for me, but Lynn has done it before, so we made a good progress. We still managed to lose the trail right near the Tobin’s creek, but since she knew the general direction to the ridge, we bushwhacked through the creek and eventually re-discovered the marked trail half-way up the ridge. After the talus started, I quickly noticed that my hiking poles were more of a hindrance than help and I decided to stash them to lighten up the load. I stashed them in what I thought was a well-marked tree trunk at about 11,000, which proved to be a poor choice later.
Upon approaching Point 12,900 near 8.45am I was feeling a bit fatigued (it was still pretty early in the morning and it was unusual). Lynn made me realize that we gained 4,000 of elevation in 4 hours. After a “refueling” stop and eating a few energy bars, I was feeling better and the next Points on the ridge were not much of an issue. However, soon after the start of the climb to the South Little Bear, I was starting to feel tired again. We finally reached the SLB summit right around 12.00pm, an hour and a half later than planned. Lynn was ready for the final push. In preparation for the traverse, we left all the non-essential items (bulk of the food, clothing, car keys) on the South Bear Summit, thus significantly lightening our backpacks.
I felt pretty confident that I could get to the South Little Bear with Lynn. It was all Class 2 – Class 3 scree and talus hopping. Long, tiring, but doable. The traverse was a different thing, and I have only done one Class 4 climb before, which was a snow (couloir) climb. However, I have recently got into rock climbing, and I was hoping those skills would be helpful on the route like that. Still, nothing really prepares you for the exposure on this traverse. Lynn has been on the traverse before (but turned around mid-way), so she led the climb. We skirted to the left of the ridge and reached the lower ledge. Then we used the middle ledge to traverse to another side. A couple of mini-ridges went well. Then we reached the point where Lynn and her team turned around last time. If only we could get past that point. I got out the FCSquid’s TR out of my backpack (it was an essential item I took with me from the SLB summit) and studied the photograph. Here was the rock in question, we have easily identified it by unique stone marks. The TR read that we should bypass it on the right (east), but all I could see was the 2,000 drop-off and was not comfortable with the idea. I said “there is more than one route around this thing”. Lynn, luckily for me, agreed. I suggested a downclimb to the left (west). I went ahead with it and got stuck on a smooth slanting ledge for a while searching for good holds. I found none. The holds were way too round and far in-between. The foot holds were too slanted. I climbed back up to the ledge. Again Lynn suggested going over the ridge and to the right. “Let me try again”, said I. I studied the route again and if you ignore the exposure, one of the routes a bit to the left seemed like a viable option for a downclimb. Very slowly I slid with my back to the west, finding solid foot and handholds with each grip (surprisingly, but incredibly welcome at this point). Once I got down on a solid wide ledge, Lynn saw that the route I picked was doable. In no time we were both standing on the solid ledge. It was great that Lynn did not push me to go outside my comfort zone and gave me time to find an alternative to something I was not comfortable with.
The first downclimb was over, and our spirits went up. The next downclimb would happen immediately next on the traverse down to the top of the Hourglass, but we were relatively calm and confident at that point, so it all went without a hitch. All the excitement with the downclimbs and search for viable traverse routes, ledges and most importantly, solid foot and hand holds made me forget about the immediate exposure to the west side.
Once we got to the top of the Hourglass, Lynn said “it is all standard route from here”. We were 5 minutes away from the summit of the Little Bear and I was starting to think that maybe it is going to happen. We reached the top by 1.30pm. It took us about an hour to get from SLB to LB, but that included about 20 minutes of me being stuck on that ledge in the middle of the traverse and trying different exit routes. All in all, it took us nearly 9 hours to reach the summit of Little Bear from the car. The numbers seemed mind-boggling.
It was way too late at that point, but the weather surprisingly held up. We took pictures, signed the register, but the return route was always on my mind. However, as the prior trip reports mentioned, you become sufficiently numb to the exposure, and the route puzzle has been figured out, so the traverse back took just 35 minutes. Once safely back on the summit of the South Little Bear, we breathed a sign of relief. I had no idea at the point that my least favorite part of the climb was just about to begin.
We packed our stuff back into the backpacks and headed down. The route a bit to the east of the ridge seemed shorter, so I drew a mental line and tried to stick to it. Very quickly I encountered some interesting ledges that required a 3rd downclimb of the day, this time over a small waterfall. Lynn, upon observing my efforts for some time, smartly headed back to the ridge. Luckily, just a week or two before, I was doing some rock climbing outside in a canyon and encountered a situation like that. I sure glad I had this bit of experience to deal with the waterfall. Everything went well, but it convinced me to stick closer to the ridge. I think we hit Point 13,500 point at about 3pm. It was still ~4,5k elevation drop to go. It was starting to sink in, just as we were getting more and more tired. On the descent, I slipped and fell on talus a few times, getting a few bruises in the process. I think being above 13K for so long was finally catching up to me and affecting by balance and coordination. It was definitely time for me to head back to the ridge, as talus seemed to be more stable there. We regained Point 12,900 at 5pm, me feeling thoroughly exhausted by then. The tree line was finally within sight, but it was still a long way to go. At the tree line by 6pm @11,900, we still had 3,000 feet in elevation to lose and yet to find my trekking poles.
At that point, for no good reason other than we were tired and not thinking clearly, we started going way to the left, and probably dropped 0.5k in that manner. As I was not recognizing the forest, I finally suggested we head back up to the ridge, which we did. We somehow missed the spot where I stashed the poles and we were way too tired to climb back “the correct route” to look for them. I was really slowing down at this point, my knees were starting to bother me, as they only do on 12+ mile hikes, but the talus and the steepness had no intention of abating. Another 2,000 feet drop to go. The sun was setting down. Lynn was getting worried that we won’t get to the car before dark and route finding will be again a challenge. I could not believe it would take us that long. Sure enough, we spent the last 30 minutes of the hike in the dark looking for trail markers. We finally got to the car at 9.05pm, unbelievable 16 hours and 20 minutes after we started. Overall, it was an extremely challenging physically and mentally day, but we did achieve our objective.
P.S. If you think I made it all the way back to Denver that night, think again. I did made it as far as Pueblo, and had to pull over to take a nap.
P.P.S. Poles were recovered on the special "pole-retrieving" trip the following weekend.
The photos are quite a bit foggy due to the wild fires that were raging south of the Colorado border at that time and were affecting the air quality. Otherwise, it was a day with "0" chance of precipitation.
Below are visual illustrations of our successful ascent that still somehow feels like a Pyrrhic victory to me until the memories of blisters, pain and fatigue wear off:
out of the woods and onto the talus. Point 12,900 comes into view. It will take at least an hour to get there
Looking back at the ridge
Rough overview of the route ahead
Approximately at 13,500
Lynn is taking in the views
Charging ahead to the South Little Bear summit.
Near the summit of SLB
Exposure to the east near the summit of SLB
The route looking back
Lynn is celebrating her 2nd South Little Bear summit.
Lynn is at the beginning of the "Mama Bear" traverse
So far, so good.
Exposure to the west
Lynn just downclimbed to the top of Hourglass. It looks like we are in the clear
On the summit of the Little Bear
Blanca and the LB-Blanca traverse
starting to head back
the beginning of the traverse
Lynn's strategy is to stick with the ridge
near the summit of SLB
back to SLB and overlooking the route
Overview of the traverse from SLB. Not hard to see why climbing the ridge on the right (East side) just did not look that appealing to me...
Some of the hindrances on the way back. Small couloirs and waterfalls. Slippery when wet.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):