Climbers: David (Zambo), Ben (Benners), Brian (Lord Helmut) & Andrew (Awknox) Vert: Approx 5,400 ft Distance: Approx 8 Miles Time: 15 1/2 hours Conditions: Felt like early Summer. We found the road to the Tobin Creek Trail Head void of snow, except for a few very thin patches. The trek to treeline was almost completely bare as well. We ditched snowshoes just before breaking the trees, and did not need them anywhere along the route.
Upon gaining the ridge, the snow was sparse and completely non-threatening. Avy danger was essentially zero, and we were able to traverse all the way to South Little Bear encountering only minimal snow along the ridge proper.
The Mamma Bear traverse was a bit of a different story. While certainly not as snowy as it could have been, there was still a very healthy layer of dry sugar snow along the whole traverse. Icy patches were scattered throughout as well. While the traverse was in about as good of condition as you could ever hope for in winter, we all agreed that too much more snow or ice would have increased the difficulty considerably.
Summary: There is no other way to describe this trip than as a complete blessing: a stunning mountain, a beautiful route, a strong and dedicated crew, perfect weather, and the chance to enjoy it all in paradise. From start to finish, almost every element of the trip turned out to be perfect, and made for a very rewarding winter ascent of Little Bear Peak.
The Bear Sleeps
It is January in Colorado. The icy chill of Winter hangs in the air at 14,000ft. Far, far above the plain of the San Luis valley, I stop to survey the utter magnificence of this place. There is a sheer 2,000ft cliff face to my right. To my left, I look down and see the entrance to the dreaded Hourglass, above which sits a dizzying maze of steep snow and scattered cliff bands.
Step by step, move by carefully planned move, our party of climbers navigates the ridge between South Little Bear and his magnificent summit. We have been trekking for almost 9 1/2 hours, and our destination is tantalizingly close.
Finally we reach our goal. It is winter in Colorado, and the sleeping Little Bear has allowed us to grace his summit....
The magnificent West face of Little Bear. (David)
A Quest to Find Winter
"Well, the snow directly under the guns was ok...."
That was about as much optimism as Ben and I could muster after a less-than satisfying (to say the least) day of skiing Keystone in December. As we drove home that day, we (along with so many others) marveled at the utter lack of winter this year in Colorado. La Nina has taken a heavy toll on any skiing prospects, and the motivation to hit the slopes is just hard to come by.
As we rolled over Loveland Pass and continued our journey home, the conversation inevitably turned to climbing prospects instead. With Lady Winter busy to the North and South, the opportunities for winter 14er ascents abound. Given the current situation, virtually every peak not in the San Juans seemed to be right at our fingertips: Holy Cross...Torreys...Ellingwood & Blanca...Huron...we quickly rolled through the peaks of interest to us and talked about what would be best.
In the end, we loosely settled on Little Bear. Knowing this was a special year to go and grab this difficult peak, the opportunity seemed too good to pass up. We were also very interested in the increasingly popular Southwest Ridge Route. We resolved to table the idea for the moment to enjoy the Holidays, and hoped that heaps of fresh powder would grace CO's ski slopes in the meantime.
And as we all know, the snow never came.
Planning For An Epic
I will not spend too much time covering the background of this route. We were able to find ample beta online, largely in part thanks to a slew of TR's from last winter, including this incredibly useful and stunning report put up by Jim last year. We found other vital pieces of information elsewhere on the web and by looking over various maps and our GPS.
Overall, the main benefits to this route are avoiding the hourglass and having an adventure on a much more 'wild' option to the summit. Although unmarked, long, and still a serious class 4 climb, in winter, this route seems to be the overwhelmingly appropriate choice for a summit attempt. Brian and Andrew were able to make the trip as well, and a three day New Year's Weekend fit the bill perfectly for our troupe of weekend warriors.
Bushwhacking in the Dark
Reports of horrendous bushwhacking through cactus from the Lake Como Road led us to choose the Tobin Creek TH option. Truth be told, there are some complications surrounding this choice and private land issues, which I will leave others to find and evaluate for themselves. Suffice it to say, we had no issues as we set up camp at the TH the night before. The air was warm and there was not a breath of wind in the sky. As tired eyes closed, we all carried a cautious optimism about the day to come.
As my watch alarm woke me up around 2:45, I found it as hard as ever to roll out of the cozy warmth of my sleeping bag and out into the dark and cold. But I suppose, this is the price we must pay for these adventures.
By 3:30 all gear was organized, boots tightened, equipment strapped on to over-sized packs, and anxious legs were ready to go.
Our journey in the dark took us straight into the woods and quickly heading Northeast to cross Tobin Creek. As others had advised, we made a careful point to cross at somewhere between 9,100 - 9,300 ft. We were able to cross right at 9,250, and avoided the cliff bands further up the valley.
From there, the route abruptly turns much steeper as it climbs to meet the ridge crest. After crossing the creek, we stayed roughly parallel to it, checking our progress along the way with the GPS. When we weren't busy getting hacked to death by every bush & tree imaginable, and cursing this awful, steep slope, we occasionally encountered the orange ribbons as well, confirming we were on route.
Our overwhelming impression was the lack of snow. We had debated footwear & flotation all week, but we were quickly realizing it had all been in vain. We encountered virtually nothing on our way up, and were very quickly regretting hauling snowshoes. By the time we hit the ridge crest at approx 10,100ft, we knew flotation would not be needed, and we stashed them for another day. At this point, Ben and I were just hoping we weren’t too big of fools for bringing mountaineering boots.
Petting the Bear on His Spine
Admittedly, I stole the line above from another TR. But, it is just too good of a description to not use for this ridge.
The ridge really is about as straightforward as the pictures show. Simply put, it is a long, long ridge run that is carries you all the way to South Little Bear. It is composed of endless Talus, and multiple humps. The best way to handle is to simply put one foot in front of another.
The obvious benefit to the trek is the stunning views. From the San Luis valley behind, to the Southwest face of Little Bear in front, million dollar views were to be had in every direction.
Ben surveys the day’s task. (Brian)
The climbing along the lower portions of the ridge is all class 2. As we climbed higher, the exposure to climber’s left gradually increased. However, with the snow all but absent from the South Face, any exposure was easily avoided, and the climbing was very straightforward and direct.
Barren slopes which I can only imagine would carry serious avy potential when loaded. (David)
The best option was almost always staying directly on the ridge, with thrilling drops just a step away. (David)
Brian modeling the wild face of the ridge. (Ben)
For the length of the route, the Hourglass looms. To say it looks suspect right now would be a huge understatement. (David)
Approximately 500ft, from the summit of South Little Bear, the route takes an abrupt turn North and the difficulty increases. Again, the South facing aspects were bare which thankfully eliminated any avy danger. This also allowed us to move a bit further right, onto the face when necessary. Although all of the moves are low class 3 on the ridge proper for this section, it was still nice to avoid any unnecessary exposure to the left. We knew we would have plenty of that to come later on in the day.
The relief off of the valley floor is one of the best parts of this mountain. (Ben)
A look back on the long climb below. (David)
Andrew nears the summit of South Little Bear. (Ben)
The closer to the summit of South Little we were, the more challenging the climbing became. Although everything was relatively straight-forward, there were a few optional knife edges and moderate scrambling near the top. But on the whole, I was pleasantly surprised and thankful at the relative ease at which we attained the first summit.
The final pitches to the summit of South Little Bear. The relief to climber’s left is stunning. (Ben)
Successfully reaching the first summit, with a seldom seen view of the Little Bear-Blanca traverse. (David)
A Dance With The Mamma Bear
Up to this point, I had really only had one though in my mind all day, if not all week leading to the climb: The Mamma Bear Traverse.
We certainly knew it was possible, as this had been demonstrated last year by several parties. However, we were not clear on just how difficult it would be. What conditions would we find? Was a rope necessary? How exposed is the climbing? Are there multiple routes across?
With only a few reports to go off of, we just couldn’t be 100% sure. As we stood at 14,000ft on one of Colorado’s most difficult 14ers, these questions became very, very real.
In preparation for this section, we had made all necessary precautions. We each had crampons and axes, and we also decided to bring a 35m rope and gear as well. It seemed the crux of the traverse was the initial down-climb off the summit of Little Bear, where we would have to take a snow covered ledge system to avoid a large boulder on route. From there, the idea is to regain the ridge proper for the remainder of the route.
Admittedly, this is not a great beta shot (Jim’s from last year was better), but it gives a basic idea coming right off of South Little Bear. (David)
There we stood giving it one final evaluation. Everything had been perfect to this point. The wind was dead calm, it was warm outside, there were no clouds in any direction, the traverse looked relatively dry, and the initial moves looked far easier than we feared.
We had been blessed all day, and there was little reason to believe this would stop now. With that, we began our dance with the Mamma Bear.
Past the intial downclimb and back on the ridge, difficulties like this one abound. (Ben)
Although crampons and axes were never needed, double plastics certainly made for interesting climbing for Ben and I. (Brian)
Peering down the hourglass is a haunting prospect. (David)
The initial down-climb went easier than expected. Although it was a class 4 scramble over some big exposure, the moves were obvious. Cautiously, we crossed this section and climbed back onto the ridge. In the end, the rope was not necessary and we felt it wouldn't have helped much even if we decided to use it. There is just too much lateral movement along the ridge.
The climbing was mostly dry, as I expect it is most of the winter. We stayed on the ridge crest almost the entire time, with the exception of a short section perhaps 2/3 of the way across. For this spot, we traversed on more ledge systems on the West side of the ridge.
For the entire length of the route, the sheer drop of Little Bear's East face loomed. While exposed on both sides, the East face was without question the scarier option. With knife edges, loose snow, and interesting climbing throughout, we took our time and carefully picked our way across. Testing every hold, watching every footstep...Little Bear drew closer and closer.
These are also the moments when you realize just how valuable good partners are. Without question, this was a team effort. The mutual support and camaraderie on climbs like this make it all worth it. As usual, each one of these guys showed himself to be a fine mountaineer this day.
As a matter of more beta, Andrew actually hooked up his GoPro camera to his helmet and made a short video of some of the terrain. This really captures it pretty well, if not embellishing the exposure just a hair via the cat-eye lenses.
At last, we rounded one final obstacle, and there it sat: the summit of Little Bear.
A fine summit shot. (Brian)
Blanca & Ellingwood (Ben)
Ellingwood Point (David)
Lake Como far below. (David)
Another shot of LB-Blanca. (David)
Standing in that wild and desolate place, I kept coming back to the theme of being blessed. This is a big and gnarly mountain, and we had just been given the honor of a winter's summit. Indeed, no one else had signed the register since September 28th.
The weather was perfect, the views unbelievable, and the company as trusted and solid as one could ever hope for in that place. Needless to say, the whole thing was quite special.
There and Back Again
And of course, the fun was only half over - we still had the traverse back! This time, the moves seemed much easier, perhaps emboldened by our confidence of having done it once before. We were also able to grab more shots of the traverse on the way back.
Beginning the secound round with the Mamma Bear. (David)
Navigating the ridge crest. (Brian)
Upon reaching South Little Bear again, I was content to let out a huge sigh of relief and happy to know all we had left was a long, long slog to the car. Like the way up, there is only one way down: put one foot in front of the other.
Ben stands triumphantly past South Little Bear (David)
Brian and the relief off of the valley during the descent. (Ben)
A good final beta shot of the length of the ridge. (David)
Our shadows bid farwell to Little Bear. (Ben)
A dawn to dusk effort, we used all of the day, and then some, to complete the route. (Ben)
As dark wrapped itself around us, we knew we had one final challenge ahead of us: finding the car in the dark. We reached the snowshoes right at last light. At this point we had already been going for 14 1/2 hours, but the only option was to dig down deep for the final mile and 1,200ft.
Thankfully, Andrew and Ben were able to skillfully and quickly navigate us right back to the car. We all agreed we would have been miserable and potentially very lost without the GPS to guide us.
Rolling up on the vehicle 15 1/2 hours after we left, we were content to collapse, and let the water, food, and beer flow like wine!
I've said it many times in this report, but we were very fortunate on this route. Virtually every challenge we faced turned out in our favor this day. This rarely happens in winter, and for it, I am very thankful.
I am also thankful for the men I was able to share this with. I think it can become too easy to miss the value in this, but it really is one of the biggest befits to these trips. Whether it was Ben freaking out because a tree hit him in the face, Andrew trying to hike us all into oblivion with his speed, or Brian, in his exhaustion & frustration, destroying every single tree branch he could touch in the last mile (hilarious to watch). It's these moments which are just as memorable as the peak.
And of course, the climbing on this route is superb as well. Once past the initial bushwhack, the long ridge offers million-dollar views and a series of unique obstacles and challenges. The Mamma Bear traverse is no slouch, and the exposed and challenging climbing makes you feel alive.
Also want to say thanks to everyone who has posted TR's of this route in the past year. This beta was very, VERY useful to us and we are indebted to you. Thank you very much for sharing!
My final thoughts as we left the Blanca group behind was on the creator Himself. As stunning and awe-inspiring as the high places of Colorado may be (especially in winter!), I think it is always important to remember the creator of these things. After all, how much more important is the giver of the gift, over the gift itself?
Thanks for reading my TR, and happy climbing!
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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