| In the Sierra Blanca – Part 1: Little Bear
I'd been planning a trip to the Sangre de Cristos' Lake Como for an attempt on Little Bear Peak and Ellingwood Point for a few months leading up to this trip. I thought these peaks would be more fun and maybe safer in the spring. I also thought Snowmass would be fun to ski this spring, and when my plans changed on that trip, I tried to tag it on to the Sangres trip. Here's the original itinerary:
Friday May 14th – Drive from Denver to Lake Como Rd, backpack to Lake Como
Saturday May 15th – Snow climb of Little Bear via the standard Hourglass route
Sunday May 16th – Snow climb of Ellingwood and possibly Blanca. Backpack out. Drive to Snowmass.
Monday May 17th – Backpack in to Snowmass.
Tuesday May 18th – Climb and ski Snowmass, backpack out, drive back to Denver.
I probably should have never really expected to complete this entire agenda, but it's so easy to dream big when you are sitting at home reading trip reports.
Friday May 14th
All packed up and ready to go, I departed Denver with my friend Mike (jackmormon) an astounding 15 minutes early, at 9:15am. That never happens. We arrived at Lake Como road at 1:45 (15 minutes early), and drove as far as we felt was reasonable up the nasty 4wd road. We made it to ~8800' and called it good, still 15 minutes earlier than planned.
15 minutes later it began to hail. And hail and hail and hail. Then some lightning. Then four hours of rain. At 6:30 we decided it was time to bag the backpack in, not wanting to start the trip wet, or electrocuted. We set about unpacking our packs and setting up camp in the back of the Forester. Immediately the weather cleared – seems about right.
Sunset from Lake Como Road
At this point it was clear that Snowmass was probably not going to happen. I was bummed because I was really looking forward to skiing that huge bowl. In reality that was probably not going to happen anyway, as the backpack out of Lake Como eventually kicked our butts. No way we would have driven six hours to start another long backpack, this time with skis and related gear. I told myself that Little Bear was the real goal of this trip, and we went to bed on the early side.
Saturday May 15th
We woke up around 6am on Saturday and began the backpack in around 6:30. I had high hopes of zipping up to Lake Como and making a mad dash to Ellingwood and top it off with Blanca. I was upset about Snowmass and I wanted action. The Lake Como Road was indifferent to my ambition, and took its due toll. It was cloudy and relatively warm. About 2 or 3 inches of fresh snow fell the night before and it gave the road the feeling of the first snow of the year.
We crossed the first deep snow around the old mining ruins at around 10,600'. We put on snowshoes here but should have left them on the packs and just taken the dozen or so postholes – the road clears up again after maybe a ¼ mile. Soon we came to the stream crossing which was not difficult at this point.
Mike crossing the stream
Eventually (around 11k?) the road became more or less continuous snow (you can make it work) and we put the snowshoes back on. From here on out, we were in the world of snow.
We arrived at Lake Como around 10:30am and had already decided against Ellingwood and Blanca. Despite the fresh snow (or, perhaps, because of it), the snowpack really didn't get a good freeze the previous night. Not to mention we were tired and had a good deal of camp setting to do.
It was pretty cold just sitting around camp, although the sun broke through now and again. It was definitely clearing up, but still kind of gloomy weather. We went for a quick lap around the lake to see the start of the Little Bear route and to kill some time. Look for the massive floating arrow to find the first leg of the climb:
LB's West Ridge
Eventually some other climbers showed up. Micah and Matt from the Springs along with Baz the dog showed up first and claimed the cabin. Then Britian and his friend (forgot his name but I'll call him "Husker") from Nebraska came through and set up camp at the far end of the lake. Micah and Matt eventually convinced Britian and Husker to come over and share our area. We all shared a fire and the usual merriment that one brings. Micah, Matt, Baz, Britian and Husker all went out for Ellingwood the next day, which was a huge help for me when I got there on Monday. Micah and Matt (and arguably Baz) skied and rode it - nice work!
Sunday May 16th
The four am alarm was not so hard to accept since I was pretty uncomfortable in my tent. I thought that would be an early enough start to beat any late morning soft snow. I was going solo, so I had all the incentive you could need to avoid the snooze.
I was on the trail at 4:30. The snow didn't really get a great freeze again Saturday night, so I'm glad I left when I did. It was solid in the forest, but the 3 or 4 inches of fresh snow mixed with mediocre freezes the past two nights made it difficult on the steep ascent of the long West Ridge. Regardless, I was happy to be moving and working toward the summit after a day and a half of basically waiting. The clear sky and rising sun made the climb to the West Ridge an enjoyable, albeit strenuous, start to the day. Views of Ellingwood, Blanca, and the San Luis Valley got better and better.
San Luis Valley
On the ridge, I was able to get cell reception and finally called my girlfriend. She was kind of expecting me to call from the top of Little Bear the day before, so I think she may have been a little worried. We talked and I updated her on our plans.
Since there was hardly any wind, the West Ridge itself was a relative stroll compared to the rest of the route. At the end the remaining route to the Hourglass was clear:
Route to the Hourglass
This section of the climb tests your patience. It's not hard, and a self arrest shouldn't be too hard should you fall, but it's a long awkward contour and you might as well be careful. I plodded along, mindful of my race against the rising sun.
Finally to the Hourglass, I radioed Mike to update him on my progress. I think I may have woken him up at ~6:30.
Below the Hourglass
As advertised, the Hourglass is steep and keeps getting steeper. Each step is more and more committing. The snow was not rock hard, and I was kicking steps fairly easily. The snow was deep and gave me a good surface for self-belays. There was some powder on top, but it was mostly solid underneath. I made good time through the choke and was feeling pretty good about myself. My camera stayed in my pocket for the rest of the ascent as I focused on the increasingly difficult terrain, and increasingly unnerving consequences of a fall. Micah mentioned the possibility of rag-dolling through the Hourglass the night before, so that was a nice visual to run through my head. To add to the stress, I got off route somewhere and ended up climber's left of the actual route. This led to some hairy mixed climbing for the final 100' after the snow petered out. This is really not a fun place to be off route and every other hand or foothold crumbled when I tested them.
But, my perseverance paid off, as it usually does: I summited Little Bear Peak at 8:30am in great triumph over snow and rock! By 8:31 I had added South Little Bear to my list of peaks to climb. Damn.
South Little Bear
The views were amazing and the weather was perfect. I had blue skies, calm winds and this amazing peak to myself. I briefly posed with Blanca, but determined that the mountains were, and continue to be, more photogenic than me:
Blanca - Little Bear Traverse
I called the special lady friend again and she congratulated me on my 49th 14er. I was happy, but not yet ready to celebrate. The sun was now hitting the top of the route and the snow was of course softening.
I started down the correct route but can't remember if it was continuous snow from the summit. I think it was mixed climbing for the first 20 feet or so. But soon this yielded to steep snow and I found that plunge stepping and/or side stepping was not going to work for me. I faced in through the entire couloir which was tedious to say the least. Step, step, ax, over and over. My hands started getting numb from over-gripping as I set self-belay after self-belay. But the steps accumulated and I made my way:
This picture shows my ascent route, which is too far to the left.
Above the Hourglass
I would have been better off staying climber's right at the top of the Hourglass, or continuing straight.
Eventually I made it down and out of the Hourglass and retraced my route back to the West Ridge, trying to keep my focus. I started to get balling in my crampons which added some difficulty but I made good time to the ridge and was finally able to remove the crampons. When I made it to the ridge, I looked into Baby Thunder and saw three skiers climbing.
Skiers in Baby Thunder
Back on the ridge, I was feeling really good. The weather was still nice, and the snow was soft, but not too soft. I was hoping I could glissade from the ridge down to the forest. I started down from the ridge and after about ¼ of the way, past some rocks in the middle of the chute, I sat down and gave it a go. Nice and soft, I couldn't help the snow from building up and slowing me down. No problem, though, I had a nice ride down.
I met Mike at the bottom of the ridge and we headed back to camp. He didn't end up summiting Blanca, but enjoyed wandering in the vast upper basins between Ellingwood and Blanca, watching four people and a dog summit Ellingwood, two ski it, and three people ski Baby Thunder. Not a bad way to spend a day.
Now it was time to stretch out in the tent and bask in the high noon sun. It felt like an oven inside and I watched the snow melt off the trees. I could hear ice falls crashing down off the south facing walls near camp. I was completely content.
To be continued… In the Sierra Blanca - Part 2: Ellingwood Point
Sunset on Little Bear
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):