| A big day on a (not so) Little Bear
With 5 of the hardest peaks left to finish the 14ers, I had resigned myself to the fact that they would have to wait until late spring and summer of 2012. I planned on spending the winter going after 13ers and increasing my overall mountaineering skillset. My plan for climbing Little Bear had been to attempt it in the spring as a snow climb, in hopes that the Hourglass would be full of snow and holding the deadly rockfall in place. The Hourglass is a narrow couloir that constricts in the middle, with any and all rockfall funneling exactly where you are doing the crux climbing on the route. After hearing too many stories of near-misses and actual accidents there, I wanted to climb it when conditions were as safe as possible.
However, this winter has been different, having very little snow. With winter 1/3 over, many mountains are still in late fall condition. This is especially true in the southern Sangre De Cristo range. For this climb I didn’t need my snowshoes, microspikes, crampons, or ice ax (which I carried anyway, of course).
Matt and I were lamenting the weekend weather and avalanche forecasts on Thursday morning when I remembered Kevin Baker’s trip report from last week. After quickly checking the weather, I asked him if he would be up for trying the Southwest ridge route of Little Bear. He thought I was joking. This route avoids the Hourglass altogether, adds a summit of South Little Bear, but is not necessarily an easier route. The traverse from the South summit to the official summit is called the “Mama Bear Traverse”, and it is not to be taken lightly, even in the summer with no snow. Despite being under the weather, Matt agreed that we would be fools not to at least give it a shot. Alarm clock set for 11:45pm, and with thoughts of Little Bear dancing through my head, I dozed off for a whopping 2 hours. Headed out the door at midnight for the drive to the trailhead, which is a term I use very loosely, as you just park at the corner of two 4wd roads.
San Luis Valley
We left the car at 8,800ft at 5:15 and started the brutal bushwack up the Tobin Creek drainage to gain the SW ridge. This has been said before, but I will repeat it again, cross Tobin Creek no higher than 9,200ft to avoid the steeper terrain higher up. There is a very vague route up to the ridgemarked by surveyors tape, but in the dark it was just something we would occasionally happen upon, and then just as fast lose it again. After the bushwacking it was very nice to finally gain the ridge and be able to just talus hop.
Start of ridge
Talus on ridge
Talus on ridge
Matt was dragging behind at this point and it was very obvious he was sick as a dog and getting worse with every step. While waiting for him around treeline I realized that at this pace we would be doing almost the entire descent in the dark, not good when there is no trail to follow. By the time Matt made it up to me, he had decided today was not his day. Class 3 and 4 climbing while sick and weak would be a dangerous combination, and the mountain isn’t going anywhere. He definitely made the right call. We parted ways after confirming his GPS knew where the car was and agreeing to try to check in every hour with my progress. It was just after 9am at this point.
My goal was to be on the top of South Little Bear by noon in hopes of completing the traverse in both directions and getting back below treeline before dark. I was feeling great and moved up the ridge fairly quickly, stopping only to chase down my helmet which the wind blew off my pack. Luckily I was able to find it, or my day would have been over before even getting a glimpse of the peak. Just before the point around 12,900ft, I finally got the view I had only seen in pictures.
First glimpse of Little Bear
Clouds over Ellingwood Point
Little Bear from summit of Pt. 13,133
Clouds obscuring view of ridge
This is one intimidating mountain, that’s for sure, and it is easy to see why it I considered to be one of the hardest 14ers. From this point the rest of the route became visible, and I still had a long way to go. After a slew of pictures from Point 13,133, I began the steep climb up to South Little Bear, this was about half difficult class two and half class 3. Once again I was thankful for my long legs when forced to straddle and scoot over the knife edge section. This part of the climb was surprisingly difficult with the snow and ice, but I made it to the south summit at 12:04, just in time. The views from here were amazing and I was staring right at the Mama Bear Traverse. I had read that it takes about an hour each way for the traverse, and that is almost exactly how long it took me.
Summit of Little Bear
Looking down the Hourglass
Ellingwood Pt and Blanca Peak
Look back at travers to/from South Little Bear
The crux of the traverse for me was the initial downclimb off of South. Due to the snow and ice making the ledges look none too inviting, I chose to stay directly on the ridge crest for probably 85% of the traverse. This meant more knife edges and climbing up and over towers, but it seemed much safer than playing Russian roulette on those loose, icy ledges. I apologize for the lack of pictures during the traverse, but I was busy staying alive, as this was certainly a no-fall-zone.
Blanca and Nt. Lindsey
At exactly 1:00 I pulled myself up to the 14,037ft summit of Little Bear Peak!! I was, and still am, in shock and amazed that I had just climbed Little Bear, solo, and in calendar winter. After taking pictures, signing the register, sending a few texts, having a Phish “Divided Sky” dance party, hooting and hollering, eating a Snickers, and taking in the amazing views of the nearby 14ers and the San Luis Valley, I got ready for the descent. The fact that I was only half way done with my day and with a few more hours of serious climbing ahead before I was out of the danger zone quickly got me focused again.
shot of LB-Blanca traverse
I reversed the traverse, which was easier this time because I had already made the routefinding mistakes on the way over, but it still took almost exactly an hour, topping out again on South Little Bear just after 2:00.
The class 3 downclimb was my last significant climbing of the day, and I was very relieved to finally make it back to point 13,133 unscathed. The race against sunlight was now on. Trying to move fast I almost forgot to turn around and take in the peak I had just climbed. Stopping for a rest at about 12,900ft I was able to stop and just stare at the mountain, jaw-dropping is an understatement.
Little bear on left, South Little Bear center
Looking down towards Lake Como
Little Bear Lake
The sun was getting low, so I pushed on and made it treeline just as it was setting. It is always really cool to take pictures of sunrise and sunset on the same day, with a great hike or climb in between. I wanted to stop and take a long break, but the increasing wind and darkness forced me to suck it up and keep trudging along.
While on the summit of Little Bear I had thought about the other reports on this route. Everyone complained about how long the ridge was and just in general how tiring it was and how long it took. I scoffed at them and actually thought to myself ‘this isn’t too bad at all, the others were greatly exaggerating’. The descent , however, had me echoing their sentiments exactly. It took me almost as long for the descent as the ascent, which seems like it should be impossible. The last couple hours of blind bushwacking was the epitome of torture and I was so relieved to finally make it to the car just before 8. It had taken me 14.5 hours to go 8.5 miles and gain about 6,000ft in elevation, but I had climbed Little Bear!
One last look
Sunset but far from done
Of course things never go perfectly, and Matt reported that the car battery was dead. Doh! Long story short, we waited 3 hours and eventually got jumped by an Alamosa police officer. I didn’t climb into my bed until almost 4:30am, but I am NOT complaining.
So now I have 4 left on ‘the list’: Capitol, Pyramid, North Maroon, and Crestone Peak. I feel more than ready for these tough climbs ahead and shouldn’t have a problem finishing them up by the end of this summer. Getting to summit Little Bear, in calendar winter, is definitely one of my biggest accomplishments in climbing thus far, and I look forward to whatever adventures come next. The only thing I would change about this trip would be for Matt to have made it, but honestly, I am impressed he even made it as far as he did with how sick he was. I have no doubt he will get Little Bear sooner than later.
Thanks for reading!
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