| Little Bear - My Final Fourteener (and first trip report)
Soon after I was bitten by the 14er "bug" I created a list of the summits that I would only attempt if I decided to try and finish them all: the Maroon Bells (too much loose rock), Pikes Peak (a burger joint at a summit?), Culebra ($100 to owner?), Longs (too crowded), and Little Bear (the shooting gallery known as the hourglass, generally recognized as the most dangerous standard route of any 14er). Six years later, the only peak remaining on my list of 57 was Little Bear.
The idea for a snow-climb was first suggested to me by Yog (14ers.com tagline), who I met while climbing Culebra in 2010. He said that under good snow conditions the hourglass was a safe and easy snow climb, loose rocks were not a problem. So in 2012, with my summit list at 48, I started following 14ers.com more carefully in the spring, watching for an opportunity to snow-climb Little Bear. Reports last year indicated that conditions were a little too icy. While checking 14ers.com this year I read an April 16 post by seth0686: "guysÖ.. GET ON THIS MOUNTAIN NOW!!!!!" My adrenaline immediately shot up, and I started watching the weather, looking for a good window for a climb.
I drove from Kansas City to Colorado on April 21. A problem, unfortunately, is that my aerobic conditioning is the weakest in decades. My 62 year-old "out-of-warranty" body suffered from plantar faciitis this winter, so I havenít been running since November, and have significantly reduced the time spent on a stairmaster. So I needed to take at least a few days getting acclimatized. I day-hiked up the Lake Como jeep trail on April 22 to check out the lake, and was disappointed to find winter-camping conditions: complete snow cover and inaccessible water at the lake outlet. Moreover, temperatures in Alamosa were dropping into the teens at night, so Iím guessing that they would be in the single digits up near 12,000 ft. Would my sleeping bag keep me warm? Would water freeze-up over night? Who knows? Maybe Little Bear is going to have to be a day-hike. On a positive note, I had a close encounter with eight bighorn sheep on the hike both up and down the road.
guarding the trail
I spent two more days getting acclimatized, first exploring the lower section of the Southwest Ridge route towards Little Bear, and then hiking up the trail towards South Zapata Lake from the Zapata Falls trailhead. Finally, On April 25 I drove my RAV4 as far up the Lake Como jeep trail as I could, certainly farther than it was designed for. After several pumpkin-sized rocks scraped my undercarriage, I pulled over around 8900 ft. elevation, prepared for Little Bear on April 26. The terrain was so rocky that I decided not to pitch a tent and slept in the back of my vehicle.
Early in the evening I saw another climber coming up the road. He introduced himself as Shawn (Exiled Michigander on 14ers.com), said that he was also attempting Little Bear, would be camping higher up, and that weíd probably see each other on the mountain tomorrow.
I head up the Lake Como Jeep Trail at 2:15 a.m. Friday morning, prepared for a long day. A full moon in a clear sky lights up the surrounding mountains, providing a glimpse of the challenges ahead. I arrive at Lake Como a little after 5:00 a.m. and see another headlamp ahead, it is Shawn. It takes us a minute in the dark to find the jeep trail hidden under the snow that goes around the lake, but we are soon on our way.
After passing by the lake and post-holing a little on the east end we hike up out of the trees onto more stable terrain amidst the first glimmers of daybreak in the sky. A few minutes later we are atop a snowy knob below the gully heading to the west ridge of Little Bear. We see three other climbers heading up the gully ahead of us. We turn off our headlamps, stash our hiking poles, get out our axes, and take our first food break. Shawn offers me hot chicken broth. Yummy, winter campers sure know how to live.
The hike up the gully is pure pleasure. After hiking for hours in the dark, Iím exhilarated by the first light of day. The snow is a little soft, but the climbers ahead had created secure footsteps through the snow. This is so much easier than the two times I climbed this gully during the summer, scrambling along the gullyís east edge trying to avoid slipping on loose rocks (Iím thinking: "Yog, youíre a genius"). I say to Shawn, "This snow is perfect." He almost agrees, but recalls a time when he travelled in slightly firmer conditions, where his crampons just floated along the surface.
Unfortunately, perfection seldom lasts. When we reach the crest of the ridge the trail becomes a mixture of rocks, snow, and a little ice. Iím confused. On snow I wear crampons. On rocks I take them off. What should I do when the conditions are 70% rocks and 30% snow and ice? The tracks indicate the climbers ahead are wearing crampons. Shawn takes his off. I follow Shawnís lead.
Now Iím uncomfortable. Without crampons Iím frequently slipping on the snow-covered sections of rock. We leave the trail and head toward the top of the ridge looking for flatter and more stable conditions. The scrambling is difficult. I tell Shawn Iím uncomfortable and that this might not be my summit day. He ignores me and continues on. I put my crampons back on. They are clumsy on some sections of rock, but overall Iím feeling better. Shawn points out where he turned back during his attempt last year when conditions were icier.
About halfway along the ridge towards the hourglass, we are back on a soft smooth snowfield. We see the team ahead of us at the base of the hourglass. Weíre feeling great. We march across the serpentine trail as it weaves up and across the long patch of snow.
traversing the west ridge
Iím optimistic about reaching the summit. Shawn says he can tell that we are above 13,000 ft. because he can feel the thin air straining his breathing. But the conditions are excellent and we make steady progress. We start up the hourglass.
approaching the hourglass
hourglass from below
Someone in the team ahead of us must have military training, because the steps they created are so consistent and well-spaced it looks like only one person rather than three are ahead of us. We ascend the steep staircase, with each step plunging the shaft of our ice axes into the snow to self-belay. I recognize the surroundings from an aborted summer trip, and I tell Shawn when we are in the middle of the hourglass, the crux of the summer route. We are moving so smoothly heís skeptical, but I confirm our location on the topo map in my GPS.
After we pass through the crux of the summer route Iím expecting the trail to become easier, but instead it becomes more difficult. The route becomes a mixture of snow and rocks, which is much more challenging than the snow. The snow at the edge of the snowfield is too thin to self-belay with the shaft of the ice ax. And the handholds and footholds that would be secure when dry in the summer are now slippery in the snow. Moreover, the structure of crampons is not well suited for all potential footholds. And there seems to be less friction between wet rock and steel than between dry rock and hiking shoes in summer conditions. We both struggle. I try to prolong the time on the snowfield by leaving the trail established by the team above and stay closer to the center of the hourglass. Shawn sticks with the established trail. Neither of us is comfortable (Iím thinking: "Yog, youíre an f--ing lunatic"). For a while we are both stuck, unsure of how to proceed. Then we see the team descending from above, which is a good excuse to rest and wait for guidance.
back on rocks
As the first team member descends and sees me stuck off the trail he points at me and says, "Look at the mountain goat." I ask if the trail gets any easier above. He says that we are in one of the hairiest places, but that the crux of the route is above us. They used a rope to belay themselves over a short section during the down climb. I ask "Is a rope necessary?" He responds, "Take a look and decide for yourself. The views from the summit are unbelievable."
As they pass by I again express my doubts to Shawn. "Are you sure you want to continue?" He says: "We need to come back through here anyway, we might as well go up and take a look." I hesitate. Iíve never been averse to turning back from a summit when Iím uncomfortable. I take to heart a comment from Gerry Roachís book: "When someone says: 'You can do this,' what they really mean is: 'I can do this, and I want your company.'" But I decide to continue. With a little more effort we both get through the rocky section and back onto snow. Shawn says, "That was the worst 20 minutes of my life back there."
hourglass from above
The route levels off a little and we make steady progress until we come to the rock rib that the other team had belayed with a rope. Itís a short class 4 section that would be relatively easy when dry, but not so easy when the holds are slippery with snow and ice. With creative use of his ice ax, Shawn pulls himself up the rib. I detour upslope, looking for an easier alternative, and find a place where the rib is shorter and climb atop it.
After a short traverse across snow and rock, we reach the final steep snow gully that leads to the summit. I rest for a moment and marvel at the vast acreage of rock ribs and gullies, all littered with loose rock, all of which funnels toward the same target. Any rock knocked loose by man, woman, goat, marmot, or the frost/thaw cycle becomes a deadly projectile as it accelerates down to the neck of the hourglass. Iíve found most 14ers to be easier than expected. The opposite is true for Little Bear, the route seems more dangerous than advertised, if that is possible.
The final snow climb is the steepest section yet, but we proceed upwards, self-belaying by plunging the shaft of our ice axes into the snow. For anyone who is thinking about this snow-climb but worried about their self-arrest skills, donít worry about this section. This section is too steep for anyone to self-arrest. If you slip, just take a split-second and kiss your ax goodbye.
final summit push
We reach the summit, exhilarated. The endorphin rush is tempered only by the recognition that we are only halfway to our goal. Shawn says: "It was an honor to be with you on your finisher, but I hope you donít mind if I delay my congratulations until weíre back down." I smile with appreciation: "I couldnít have done this without you." The statement is true, Iím always willing to go further on risky terrain when Iím with someone. Itís not obvious why. A companion, of course, can always aid in a rescue after a fall. But a fall from most places on this route would be fatal, regardless of who is around. Maybe the old saying is true: "No one wants to die alone."
We sign the summit register and take pictures. The snow conditions can change in the afternoon sun, so we canít linger.
Shawn on summit
John on summit
The return is slow but uneventful. The descents through the steep snowfields take longer than the ascents. The wind has blown snow to cover the steps that were visible on the way up, so we have to kick new footholds with each step. It seems more difficult to drive the shafts of our axes into the snow, though Iím not sure if the conditions have changed or we just have less energy. We are especially relieved to get below the hourglass where the route becomes less risky.
To keep us from relaxing too much, the weather takes a turn for the worst. Snow starts to fall, the wind picks up, and we hear a thunderclap. Iím lagging a little behind Shawn, but trying to maintain a safe and steady pace. When we get to the gully that takes us back down to the lake, the wind is howling up from below.
Wind and snow descending final gully to lake
Self portrait of Shawn Snowbeard
The snow in the gully has softened and we are sinking in up above our knees. We plunge downwards clumsily, but steadily. As we get to the bottom of the gully and hike up the knob where we stashed our poles the weather breaks, the snow stops, and the sun comes out. Shawn offers his delayed congratulations and we take a few more photos.
paying final respects to Little Bear
From here the trail is routine so we can completely relax. I look at my watch, and see that by the time I get back to my vehicle I will have been hiking and climbing for over 16 hours. Shawn and I finally have a chance to talk about something other than the climb and the conditions. We share some of our personal stories. We both grew up in Michigan, both enjoy a good bottle of wine, and both have an interest in economics. Through Shawnís comments and questions about economics, he unknowingly plants the seed for an article Iíll consider writing. We say our goodbyes when we get to his campsite. He repeats: "It was an honor to be here for your finisher."
"I couldnít have done it without you."
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):