| Little Bear NW Face and Blanca via Traverse 6-18-05
Climbed Little Bear via the NW face and then did the Traverse to Blanca on 6/18/05.
Drove up to about 10,000' on Lake Como road. This is the second time I have driven this "road". The first time was about 6 years ago. On that trip I had decided to park at the bottom and hike the whole road. I had three dogs with me and we hiked up the road and then I set camp and climbed Blanca with two of the dogs. In the morning I woke up and the dogs' paws were so tender they could barely walk. One dog refuse to leave camp. I carried her (she probably weighed 60 lbs.) and my pack down to 10,000', tied them to a tree and went down to get my truck. Recovering the dogs was very high stress. I was really concerned that my truck, a stock Nissan pick-up, would break down on the road and I would be stranded with injured animals and no way to get off the mountain.
This time I took my van which is a modified 4x4 with 33" tires, lots of power and great clearance. It was still terrifying. When you arrive at the bottom of the road there are always a bunch of 4wd vehicles parked there. Take heed, these people know something you don't. I will never, never, never, drive this road again. I will either walk it or ride in someone else's jeep.
Nevertheless, I did make it to a nice camping spot at about 10,000'. I spent the night there and woke up early and hit the road at about 3 am. I got to the base of Little Bear just as it was getting light and took a good look at the route. There was a good sized snow field leading up to the start. I used my axe and crampons for this section. You could probably get by without crampons by staying on scree and crossing the snow where the fields are shortest, but I felt that an axe was required especially while traveling on firm snow.
The NW face route is really enjoyable. It is no harder than 4th class with several easier sections, though it is easy to see how if you are not careful you could wind up on more challenging ground. My rule for climbing class four routes is - if it seems like it is getting hard or scary take a moment look around and make sure you are on route. Most of the time if you will quickly see an easier way.
The route starts to the right of a large blocky looking black water mark commonly referred to as the "black-hand". From there you traverse a little left and then up and then up toward the first notch to the left of the summit. The rock on the bottom tends to be a bit loose. The final section onto the ridge is classic. Fourth class climbing on solid rock in an airy position.
For the traverse to Blanca you start by down climbing the section you just climbed until you are back at the notch. From there you follow the ridge for most of the way with occasional detours around obstructions. Most of it is easy scrambling and there are even a number of sections where you walking upright along the ridge. At about 2/3 across the traverse you hit a series of points. The first one has a near vertical face and it is obvious that it can't be part of the route. You turn this point to the right and then climb up into a notch. Soon after departing this notch you start the exposed knife ridge, this is where the real fun begins. My first thought when I saw the terrain was "this can't be right". Roach describes it as having solid rock, I beg to differ. The knife ridge seemed to me to be composed of large blocks of rock that while generally stable certainly could become loose. This section requires careful climbing and is very exposed. At one time I was going across it straddling the ridge with a leg on each side. Beyond the exposure the climbing is not difficult. I'm not sure that it even goes beyond fourth class, but a wrong move would extract a very high penalty. This section last for about 60-80' and is definitely the highlight and crux of the traverse.
You hit one more notch and then there is easy scrambling up to the summit of Blanca. The traverse took me about 2.5 hours, taking my time and not pushing it. I have done both the Wilson – El Diente and the Crestones traverses and would say that Little Bear- Blanca is definitely the most challenging and enjoyable.
Roach says that the traverse can take up to 8 hours. I can't see how this would happen unless you had both adverse weather and exceptionally poor route finding skills. I would suggest that if you think it might take you 8 hours to complete the traverse you should perhaps consider a different route.
From the summit of Blanca I came down a large snow field. At one point as I was glissading down I whacked my pinky on a rock. I thought it was okay, but after a couple of minutes I realized that blood was pooling up in my glove so I stopped to put a band-aid on it. I then descended another 800 vertical feet and stopped to take off some layers. As I put my pack back on I had a strange feeling that something was wrong. I suddenly realized that I had left my camera 800' above me when I stopped to take care of my finger. Ouch! I slogged back up the snow field carefully retracing my steps and luckily was able to find my camera fairly easily.
I got back to my van about 10 hours and 20 minutes after starting. I was fortunate that on my way out I did not encounter a single vehicle coming up the road. Did I mention that I will never, never, never drive this road again?
Overall, it was a great trip and I would highly recommend this route for anyone who feels comfortable on unroped exposed moderate climbing.