Climbing Little Bear Peak often ranks among the hardest 14ers. The standard approach from Como Lake involves ascending a couloir below the main summit called the "hourglass" and any rock that falls off the upper section of the summit block, gets funneled right through the hourglass. Wanting to avoid this rockfall hazard, Hakan, a fellow 14erworld member, discovered a route up the southwest ridge that bypassed the hourglass couloir. Other 14erworld members Ryan and Erin had tried this route last year but were unsuccessful due to the confusing bushwhacking involved to gain the southwest ridge. Confident they knew the route, they were kind enough to let us tag along for this adventure, and what an adventure it turned out to be. The photo below shows our route up the southwest ridge to the summit.
June 4th, 2004
The group consisting of Ryan, Erin, John, Jeff, Amy and myself had agreed to meet at the Lake Como Road at 3 a.m. Saturday morning. Amy and I decided to drive down to the trailhead Friday afternoon and sleep in the 4runner. We didn't get out of Boulder until almost 4 p.m. which caused us to hit traffic around Golden and also from Denver to Colorado Springs. The going was slow until the Springs, but was smooth sailing after that. We didn't reach the trailhead outside of Alamosa until 9:30 p.m. It was an extremely warm evening making a sleeping bag almost unnesscary. We crawled in the back of the 4runner hoping to get a couple hours sleep before the climb.
June 5th, 2004
The alarm sounded at 2:30 a.m. and we were reluctant to wake from our slumber. We had a quick breakfast and drove to the meeting place were we found Erin, Ryan, and John sound asleep. Amy knocked on their vehicle to wake them up, and we quickly drove over to where we would meet Jeff, the last member of the group. Erin and Ryan had discovered another dirt road last year that allowed closer access to the Tobin Creek Basin than the Lake Como Road. This road is accessed by turning right after 2.6 miles from the CO 160 / 150 junction. We followed this road for 2.5 miles where it made a sharp left turn. Immediately after this turn another road heads to the right which is the one to take. We followed this road for a couple more miles and the road gets quite rocky and rough, definitely not passable to a low clearance vehicle. We made it to the end of the road at around 8,800 feet about 4 a.m. and found Jeff and his friend Jay patiently waiting for us to arrive. Everyone got their gear ready and we begin hiking about 4:30 a.m. The bushwhacking at first isn't so bad as we proceeded upward staying on the west side of Tobin Creek.
After hiking for about 20 minutes or so we came to a steep hillside that led down to Tobin Creek. The hillside was loose dirt and rock so everyone spread out and descended their own line down to the creek. The bushwhacking near is creek is much worse but we managed to find a decent place to cross Tobin Creek. The stream sounded quite big, but it actually was only about 3 feet wide. John saved the creek crossing on his GPS so we could use it on the return. John had stored waypoints into his GPS for the ridge so it was a matter of connecting the dots. After crossing the creek we turned north again and proceeded up a steeper slope, hoping to gain the ridge on the east side of Tobin Creek Basin. The bushwhacking up the slope wasn't as bad as around the creek, but many things still manage to scratch, poke, and attempt to trip you. Wearing gaitors and pants was a must. We gained the ridge and the vegatation changed from bushes to trees. We were gaining elevation quickly and looking back, we were now well above the valley. The trees were beginning to fade a little bit and we were hoping to be at treeline soon. John was monitoring our progress with his GPS as we pressed onward, and the enormotity of our task didn't set in until he informed us we still had 3,700 feet to climb. With that discouraging news we pressed onward.
As the trees began to fade, we could look back and see the massive shadow of the Blanca Group stretching across the valley below. Finally the trees faded out and now the route became a boulder hop. In the photo below I'm a little above treeline, with one of the many bumps along the southwest ridge behind me. About this point Jeff's afterburners kicked in and he quickly left us in the dust.
Around 7 a.m. we made it up and over the first major bump along the ridge and stopped for a quick break. The photo below shows the ridge to the summit, with Little Bear's main summit on the left and South Little Bear in the center. The hourglass route is marked in red. We were hoping to be on the summit in 2 hours, but would be a little off on our estimation.
Dissecting the ridge one obstacle at a time, we continued onward fascinated by Little Bear's awesome west face. The peak definitely looked intimidating. The ridge so far to this point was just a boulder hop and was going pretty quickly. We could peer down on Little Bear Lake and even see the Crestone Group off in the distance. After making it up to 13,500 we had the section in the photo below between us and Little Bear's south summit.
The ridge to gain the south summit had a couple class 3 sections with one knife-edge obstacle that could be bypassed on the right side. We opted to travel over this knife-edge that was quite simple, but the exposure on the north side was incredible. The photo below is the group making our way to South Little Bear.
The slope to South Little Bear was quite steep and slowed us down a little bit. Gaining a false summit it was a casual stroll over to the south summit. Blanca Peak begin to appear on the right side of the photo below.
We made it to the south summit and we were welcomed with the view below to the main summit. As Hakan put in his trip report, "the fun has just begun".
We decided to pair up for the traverse and as we proceeded across, Ryan and Erin, and me and Amy took turns leading the way. The traverse from this point is basically stay on the ridge until it became too difficult, then downclimb on the left side around the difficulties. In the photo below John and Jay are downclimbing around a difficult section.
Several times we would downclimb on the leftside to bypass an obstacle, then climb back up to the ridge and continue to the next difficulty. There was some loose rock on the spine of the ridge that didn't instill much confidence. Several sections of the ridge had some tremendous exposure on both sides. In the photo below Erin and Ryan are about 1/2 across the ridge. CLICK HERE to see a larger version.
In the photo below Amy is shuffling across a narrow ledge on the left side of the ridge.
Nearing the main summit we once again had to bypass on obstacle by downclimbing on the left side of the ridge. The photo below shows the upper half of this downclimb but the lower half of this downclimb was definitely class 4.
With the last notch in the ridge behind us we began the final section of the traverse over to Little Bear's main summit. We had to be very careful with loose rock since we were now above the hourglass couloir and didn't want to send any projectiles down at any people that might be coming up. We could see that the hourglass had an icy section near its narrows part and was pretty melted out on the upper part.
Traversing near the summit John had grabbed a hold of a large rock when a portion of the rock, about the size of a microwave oven, pulled out like a chest drawer. John was able to move to the side in time to avoid the rock taking him down the couloir. We all yelled "rock" as loud as we could, watching the boulder gain speed traveling towards the hourglass. I prayed that nobody was in there since a rock of this size would be hard to dodge. It was a very sobering reminder of why we chose the alternate route to avoid the hourglass. Luckily nobody was in the hourglass but thinking about the "what if" almost made me sick to my stomach. John wasn't doing anything careless, that's just how loose and nasty the rock on Little Bear is. We very gingerly continued to the summit and met up with Jeff who had been waiting for us. The views of Blanca Peak and Ellingwood Point were incredible. Mt. Lindsey was standing tall to the east and brought back many fond memories. It was now a little before 11 a.m. and the ascent had taken us 6 hours. We were excited to be on the summit, but the thought of traversing the ridge back to the south summit wasn't comforting. In the photo below Blanca Peak can be seen behind Amy and I.
We all signed the register which almost looked like a 14erworld member list. Many familar names were in there from successful snow climbs up the hourglass over the past several weekends. It was nice to finally sit down to have something to eat. The ridge from Little Bear to Blanca looked incredible and pretty intimidating, it can be seen in the photo above. Little Bear drops almost vertically to the north as I peered down on Lake Como. There were some clouds building off in the distance so nobody in the group wanted to stay long. We all departed from the summit after about 10 minutes since it was a long, long way back to treeline. The photo below shows the traverse back to the south summit, yes that is still the southwest ridge all the way to the right side of the photo. Jeff is circled in red.
We made it back across to the south summit without much difficulty in about 30 minutes or so. We almost had the technical difficulties behind us with the exception of the scramble off the west side of the south summit. The last bit of scrambling went pretty quickly and we were soon back to where we stashed our trekking poles. Now we just had a long boulder hop in front of us. As we made our way down the ridge we could see 2 people ascending the hourglass. We thought it was a little late in the day to be trying to climb Little Bear, but we were thankful they weren't in the hourglass a couple hours earlier. The ridge seemed endless as we continued down to treeline. It was now pretty hot out but the wind was blowing off and on which helped keep things cool. In the photo below Ryan and Erin are almost back to treeline.
Me knees were beginning to hurt so Amy and I were descending a little slower than the rest of the group. We made it back to treeline where the group was waiting for us and we continued downward. For the second time today, "the fun had just begun" as we descended the steep slopes bushwhacking through the vegetation. The last slope before Tobin Creek was steep, loose and overall just not much fun.
Jeff, Erin and Ryan had gotten out of sight of John, Amy and myself but John had the GPS so we knew we wouldn't have any trouble finding the cars. We made it back across Tobin Creek without much difficulty and John led the way back to the cars. We arrived back at the vehicles at 4:30 p.m. bringing our roundtrip hiking time to 12 hours. My feet and joints were killing me and it was a relief to take the boots off and relax. It was nice to have Little Bear behind us, all of us agreed that we would be hard-pressed to ever climb Little Bear again, especially witnessing that boulder rocket through the hourglass. We departed the trailhead down the bumpy road back to the highway. Ryan, Erin, and John were headed to Almamosa for dinner while me and Amy started the long drive back to Boulder. Many thanks to Erin and Ryan for coordinating this trip and allowing us to tag along, Jeff for blazing a trail, and John for his expert navigation back to the vehicles. After repeating many 14ers for Amy, I was finally able to up my 14er count to 44 while Amy is now at 32. This was definitely the hardest 14er I have climbed so far. This route is by no means easy, but it does avoid the hourglass and the rockfall hazard that it harbors. I would recommend an even earlier start than our 4:30 a.m. start and definitley watch the weather closely since you are on the exposed ridge for such a long time. This is one 14er that I definitely don't feel is over-hyped, it demands respect and should be approached accordingly.