| broken down cars, rockfall, and sketchy climbers
Last summer I decided to put off Little Bear till the spring when it would be covered in snow and do it then as a snow climb and snowboard descent which would allow me to avoid the dangers of the standard route during the summer. Unfortunately, due to a lack of snow in the Sangres and getting sidetracked mountaineering in the Pacific Northwest I did not get an opportunity to climb Little Bear this spring either. With only four 14ers left and reasoning that if we got up there early enough and moved quickly we could avoid most of the hazards of the route, I decided to give Little Bear's standard route a try as a summer route.
Joel and Stuart were both interested too so we made plans and left thursday morning for the hike in. Joel and I left Avon about 8am and Stuart left from Denver at the same time. We met at the 2wd trailhead for Lake Como. Stuart piled his stuff into my Blazer, with his dog Rocco who would join us for most of the adventure, and we began driving up the road. I had no intention of going more than a couple miles. I like my Blazer and it is not modded enough to attempt the whole drive up to Lake Como but I knew we could shave a few miles off the hike in if we made it part of the way.
A mile into the drive my car's overheating light popped on and I stopped my car to see what was going on. Upon further inspection I found out that coolant fluid was leaking profusely out from under my skid plates towards the front of my engine. I grumbled to the other guys that we were not going anywhere. After talking to my roommate who works in the automotive industry I gathered that it may be a water pump failure and that I would have to get it to a shop in Alamosa before driving back to Avon. I did not want to cancel the trip so we parked my car at a turnoff and decided to hike in the rest of the way. I would deal with my car after the climb the next day.
We sorted gear and started hiking up Lake Como road.
We made good time up the road. We passed a group of three that were moving slowly up the road and stopped to talk to them briefly. They said that they were climbing Little Bear the next day as well with two others. I asked them what time they would be starting and mentioned the rockfall hazard on the route casually. They did not even know what the Hourglass was. I mentioned that it would be important for all of us to communicate the next day and that we would be happy to stop if we were above them when they were exposed and that we might ask them to do the same. They were cordial and said that sounded good. We continued the hike in. I was a bit nervous about seeing the condition of the group and and the fact that I could tell they had not studied the route in any detail. We talked to them again at camp later in the evening. Four guys in their 40s with some mild guts and not so fit bodies and one of their teenaged sons. They had mentioned that this was their first backpack all summer. Awesome!!?? This was not the group I had hoped to be around us for the climb. We kept our mouths shut but noted all the facts and potential problems with having this group around us the next day.
We found a massive patch of wild rasberries right off the trail on the way in and proceded to gorge ourselves on wild rasberries. They were incredible.
We camped on the far side of Lake Como just below the base of the first gully on Little Bear. Since the other group had mentioned they would be leaving around five we decided to leave around 4:15am so they would at least not be above us on the climb up.
My alarm went off at 3:30am and we made our way out of camp a bit after four. We scrambled up the loose but fairly easy gully to the ridgeline in the dark. We climbed along the ridgeline briefly and then dropped off the ridge onto the other side of a climber’s trail that took us to the base of the hourglass.
The hourglass is a narrow, polished 4th class gully that constricts at its crux so any rock knocked down from above runs right through the constriction. I have climbed every 14er except Sunlight, Windom, and Pikes. This section has more objective hazard than any other route I have been on the 14ers. No amount of skill, training, or preparation can protect you from getting hit by rocks in this constriction if someone is careless above you. Speed and conscious, deliberate movement is the only thing that protects you here. After climbing this route, I can say that I have no intention of ever repeating this route in the summer. I would love to do it as a snow climb when all the rock is covered in snow but I will never repeat this route in the summer. This route is far too loose to be a safe summer route. The only reason why it is climbed regularly in the summer is because it is the easiest way to Little Bear’s summit. Otherwise no one would ever climb this route without snow on it.
Anyway we knew no one was above us at the time so we swung up into the Hourglass and climbed up it. The Hourglass itself was relatively dry, with only a little water running through the center. The climbing was polished sustained 3rd/4th class for 300 feet or so before the Hourglass opened up onto the upper face.
From there the route became looser but supplied some fun sustained scrambling as we took the climber’s left line up to the summit.
We summited at 7:00am. Views were awesome and the sun hit us right as we stepped onto the summit. We watched the shadows shorten as the sun rose over the Sangre de Cristo Range.
We had some breakfast on the summit and took photos. After a half hour or so we decided to start the descent. We began down climbing and yelled, “climbers above” several times to let anyone know who was below us that we were descending. We stepped very carefully knowing that the other group was possibly below us even though we heard no shouts. We knocked no rocks and just as we were getting about 200’ above the hourglass we heard climbers below us. We yelled down that we were going to stop moving until they got clear above the hourglass. The climbers knocked several rocks down the hourglass as they were stepping above. It was the group of five we had met the day before.
We asked them to wait while we got through the hourglass so that they would not knock any rocks on us while we were descending. We promised to be quick and they said they would wait. We began the descent. Just as Joel was making the crux climbing moves right in the tightest, most exposed part of the constriction and I was just below him on a ledge in the middle of the Hourglass a couple people in the party decided they did not want to wait anymore and started climbing. They knocked a shower of rocks down on top of us. I managed to jump out of the way but Joel had no where to go and got pelted with rocks. Fortunately the rocks were small enough to just bruise and not maim and kill. We were pissed and a little shaken but everyone turned out ok. We booked it out of there quickly after that. Joel just came out of it with some bruises.
We made our way back across to the trail back to the lower gully. I realized that I had left my camera a little back on the trail when I had changed clothes. I told the other guys I would go back and get it. They said they would meet me back at camp and took off. I found my camera quickly and just as I was picking it up I hear someone screaming, “Rock! Rock!” and then someone else screaming, “Oh f*ck, Oh F*ck” as I watched a slew of large, killer boulders come cascading out of the hourglass. Fortunately I was far removed from the bottom at this point in time. I yelled and asked if everyone was ok. Two voices yelled back yes. I waited to see people start coming out of the hourglass but no one came. I yelled again and no one answered. I think they were probably just embarrassed but I wondered if someone else was injured. I was not willing to climb back up the hourglass solo to see so I made my way back across to the first gully and descended back to camp. About an hour later as I was packing up camp I could see only three of the five coming down the lower gully from camp.
Worried that something had happened I grabbed my pack and walked back up to the base of the gully at tree line. The first climber came around the corner and I asked if everyone was ok because we had been worried about them. He said that everyone was ok, there were just a few people dragging. He stated that they had knocked some rocks down the “dealy” (Hourglass) and that it had been scary. He offered no apologies to us for showering us with rocks earlier in the day and stated that they were going to go up Blanca and Ellingwood now. I stated that the last time I heard rocks falling and people screaming like that someone had died and then walked off annoyed at the careless attitude.
I am amazed at how little people understand hazards around themselves sometimes and how they can be a hazard to those around them. I tell this story to reiterate how dangerous this route is. This is not a route to learn scrambling on or to do as your one 14er climb in the summer. You need to be very surefooted, aware, and fit to move quickly up and down this route. I hope this will be a good addition and helpful read for people in the future attempting this route and reading tr’s on 14ers.com . This route’s route finding is not difficult or complex compared to some of the 14ers but the unique shape of the route makes this route in my opinion to be the most dangerous route on a 14er in summer conditions that I have done. If you are considering this route, carefully consider the danger, and if you are a competent snow climber save it for spring time when there are few if any people and most of the rocks are covered in snow. If you do go in the summer, start very early, communicate with those around you, be willing to stop when your movements can be a hazard to those around you, and do not hesitate to ask those above you to stop moving (politely) while you move through an exposed section as well.
Keep in mind that no matter what you do, this route has a certain level of danger involved that cannot be mitigated and that is a risk you will have to take if you climb this route, especially in the summer.
It is a huge relief to have climbed this route and be done with it. I look forward to returning in the spring when it is safer and doing it as a snow climb/snowboard descent. I do not recommend this as a summer climb at all though.
Afterwords I took off to deal with my car and Joel and Stuart went onto summit Blanca and Ellingwood as well!