Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Little Bear Peak 3/21/2011

Total Mileage: ~13 miles
Total Elevation Gain: ~6200 feet
Starting Point: Lake Como Road
Total Time: 13.5 hours

From Lake Como 11,750 ft.

Alright, here's the situation. My wife's friend came to visit for a short vacation. I got keys to the brand new Porsche....and headed to Little Bear Peak. Except it wasn't a Porsche, it was a Subaru. And it wasn't new, it's an '08.

A typical hike for me has always involved waking up quite early and driving 2-3 hours to arrive at the trailhead around 6ish. I devised a new strategy for Little Bear because I wanted to get as early a start as possible. I decided I would just drive there at night and sleep in my car at the trailhead. So, I arrived at the Lake Como Road at about 11:15 pm the night before and set my alarm for 4:45 am. The Chateau SubareaĆ¹ was very accommodating and I was treated to a continental breakfast of apple strudel and Sunny D! A weird side note, when I arrived I noticed the clock in my car said 11:15 pm and my phone said 10:15 pm as did my watch (which sets the time automatically). So, I'm not sure if there is a time difference between Colorado Springs and Blanca, CO or not but I went with it. This sort of sucked because that would mean I would lose an hour coming home. My phone and watch stayed behind one hour during the whole trip.

I ate my delectable breakfast and was geared up by 5:00 am to get going. There was a faint glow over the mountain ridge to the East but it would be a solid hour before morning light would become available. I had been walking for about 10 minutes when I realized I forgot my camera in the car. I hate turning around but I reasoned that if I did, not only would I have photographic evidence of this adventure, I would also get another bite of strudel and wash it down with a little more Sunny D. New starting time would be 5:30 am.

The first leg of this hike would be a 5.25 mile long "road" to Lake Como. This road is not accessible, even in the summer, by anything but an ATV or a heavily modified 4x4 vehicle (or feet). I found a cool video on youtube that shows a bunch of cars going up the road. The video calls it the Blanca Peak road. Same difference. Blanca peak is an adjacent peak that is accessible by this same road. I came these abandoned log cabins maybe half way to Lake Como and looked up to see my first glimpse of Little Bear Peak.

Little Bear center and in the distance.
Snow wasn't present until about this point. It became deeper and every now and again I would drop through to about my knees. This wouldn't prove to be a problem until after I reached Lake Como. Reaching the lake, I stopped to re energize and soak in some views the surrounding peaks.


From Lake Como 11,750 ft.

The plan is to come back in the summer and hike these two.
 The next leg is to find and climb a north facing gully 600 feet to gain the west ridge leading up to Little Bear. Just to get to the bottom of the gully took me about 90 minutes when it should have taken about 20-25. After rounding the north end of Lake Como I reentered the trees and every step was exhausting. For about a half mile I would sink to my knees or deeper into the snow. The top 3 inches were crusted over but underneath was pretty soft. I've reconsidered my position on snowshoes. One situation in particular had me crawling on my hands and knees because I found I wouldn't sink and it was faster than the alternative. Not only did I waste valuable time here but also valuable energy. I'm glad I was the only one on the mountain because I was getting mad. Audibly mad. I reached the bottom of the gully at 9:45 am and took some time to refuel and calculate the best route up the gully.

From the bottom of the gully. Only the bottom half is visible.
As I ascended I glanced far to my right and I saw another set of tracks that had ascended the gully before me. I figured those tracks would provide more compact snow to climb on so as soon as I could I turned hard right to get onto these tracks. Life got easier from there.

Halfway up the 600 ft gully looking down.

And then looking up.
I reached the top of the gully at 10:45 am. A solid hour that definitely would have taken longer without the aid of those previous tracks. At the top there is 12,900 ft. point that blocks the view of Little Bear. Some go up and over, but I decided to go around. Once around the ridge of that point I could see the rest of the route to the summit.

Remaining route.
Looking at the distance from where I was to the base of the "Hourglass" I had considered calling it a day. Which would have made it the 57th time I had considered throwing in the towel that day. Since I was enjoying myself, I figured I would hike, however slowly, until around 3 pm. The weather was great. The coldest that I saw that day was 30 F and that was on the summit. The temperature hovered around 40 F most of the day. I had plenty of food and liquids. Sitting there contemplating an early return I realized I wasn't even that tired. I was afraid of getting tired, which is a lame reason to turn around. Especially with my wife being entertained by her guest for the weekend I decided to press on and set my turn around time for 3 pm regardless of where I was.

From the above picture it shows that I would cross a snowfield to a patch of rocks and then across another snowfield to more rocks until the "hourglass." This was an exhausting process. I stopped frequently but only for short amounts of time. I began to think of all the people around the world who are just as exhausted as I am but they're running like gerbils on treadmills. I get to be exhausted in the middle of snow capped mountains and lakes on a sunny day. When it's my turn to be a gerbil, I get done with a solid run and I head to the drinking fountain and think to myself, "That sucked." In contrast, when I finish hiking across a snowfield, I land on a patch of dry rocks, bust open a Gatorade and with the same feeling of exhaustion I think to myself, "That was awesome!"

Before too long (2.5 hours) I arrived at the base of the Hourglass. I ran into a familiar set of tracks heading straight up. I followed them down with my eyes to see that whoever these tracks belong to had started way down in the basin. They were very likely the same tracks that aided me up the north facing gully earlier on. From the base of the hourglass I snapped a picture looking back on what I had accomplished.

I should take a second here to give some background on this "hourglass" I keep mentioning. If you're my mom or my wife or anyone that will scare my mom or wife by talking about this you should skip the next paragraph.

Little Bear is one of Colorado's toughest 14ers and this is due to the last gully that must be ascended. The name of the gully is the "hourglass." It is a large funnel that is quite steep and full of loose rock. People have died climbing this route and maybe the greatest danger is from climbers above you knocking down loose rock into this natural funnel. Hiking this route in March provided a few safety precautions that a summer summit would deny. First, being alone is an advantage in my opinion. Knowing that nobody is above you or below helps to make this a safer endeavor. Second, when the hourglass is filled with snow/ice it provides purchase points that create greater stability. This is assuming that the climber has appropriate gear. I would use the butt end of my ice axe to create a six inch hole in the snow/ice before placing my foot in it. Doing this at every step is tedious but ensures that when I put my foot in the snow and commit to that step it will hold. I wore microspikes and it was sufficient. Crampons would be ideal. As I gained more elevation in this final gully below the summit I did have the opportunity to shift to dry rock to continue. I was so much more comfortable on the snow and ice that the rest of my route was determined by where I could remain in it. The tracks that I mentioned earlier chose a route on dry rock so I could only follow those tracks for a short while. From the base I got a picture looking up but it hardly does it justice.

The tracks are visible here.
It took me about an hour and 20 minutes from the base to the summit. I was pooped. I scarfed down a Clif Bar and 20 oz. of water, took some photos and made haste back down the mountain.
Summit shots:

From the summit looking down on Lake Como.

Looking down the way I came up.

Yours truly!

I made the summit at 2:35 and left the summit at 2:40. I was back down to the base of the Hourglass at 2:49 pm. I used my ice axe as a brake for a controlled glissade down the Hourglass. This is another advantage of doing Little Bear in the snow. The descent isn't as dangerous in my opinion. I cruised back across the west ridge to the top of the 600 ft. north facing gully. I glissaded down that gully as well in about 6 minutes.

I was dreading the postholing nightmare awaiting me at the bottom of the gully back to the south end of Lake Como. I took a little detour from the way up but it turned out to be almost as bad. For every two steps on top of snow I'd have to take five steps waist deep in snow. I was ecstatic to reach the road where I would only sink down to mid-calf. It was 4:45 pm when I reached the Lake Como road. It was a mindless jaunt to the car where I arrived at 6:45 pm.

I had waited until arriving at the car to really assess what I had accomplished. I think Ed Viesturs (famous mountaineer) was the one who said "Getting to the summit is optional. Getting back down is mandatory." Once I was down, I was elated to have completed one of the most difficult and probably the most dangerous 14er in Colorado. I ran a half marathon a few years back and I can say unequivocally this was harder. Physically and mentally I had been pushed nearly to my limits. My only regret is that I wish I had completed this hike one day previous to be able to claim a calender winter summit of this mountain. A big thanks to my wife for allowing me to pursue this hike and this hobby in general. She is the greatest!

Notes to Self:
-Sleeping in cars sucks
-buy more Clif Bars

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Mount Cameron, Mount Lincoln, and Mount Bross 3/12/2011

Total Mileage: ~12 miles
Total Elevation: ~3000 feet
Starting Point: Paris Mill (3 miles south of Kite Lake)

Mount Lincoln summit viewed from the summit of Mount Cameron.


Almost one month ago I came to Kite Lake to climb the four 14,ooo foot mountains surrounding it. I made it to the top of Mount Democrat and turned back, leaving the other three for another day. Last Saturday was that day and I couldn't have asked for more cooperative weather in March. The approach was identical up until Kite Lake. I brought along my buddy Eric who climbed Grays, Torreys, Castle and Conundrum with me back in September. We started from Paris Mill at 6:30am. At Kite lake I made some adjustments to my route from my previous experience up Democrat. No trails are readily visible but everything is blanketed in snow so erosion isn't really a concern. The goal was to find the most gradual path through and out of the basin. This go-around I stayed much higher on a ridge that I had previously left alone on the Democrat hike.

The red here was my previous route one month earlier and the blue arrows give an idea of how I changed things up. If I did this hike a third time I'd stick to blue route as closely as I could. I felt we really moved through the basin quickly and efficiently.

Still in the basin looking back on Kite Lake Trailhead from the the ridge.

Finding a route out of the basin. Followed a snowshoe path made a hiker a bit ahead of us.

Once out of the basin we had to make it to the Democrat-Cameron saddle. From the saddle the remaining route would simply be following ridges of mountains leading to their summits. From the top of the basin we paused a bit to determine if we would follow the hikers path or look for a better option.

This guy really went for it. We decided on another route to the saddle.

From the same point where the above picture was taken we glanced to our left and saw a much more gradual approach to the saddle.

 Route out of the basin as viewed descending Mount Bross.

From the saddle between Democrat and Cameron it was as simple as following a straight line to the summit. A long, steep, straight line. We arrived at the saddle at around 10:15am. We made great time to Cameron and on to Lincoln summiting Lincoln at around 11:30am.

Just shy of the Mount Cameron summit.

On top of Mount Cameron 14,238 ft. Mount Democrat is directly behind me (green).

15 minutes later on Mount Lincoln's summit. It was cold.

Seen from Mount Lincoln.

Seen from Mount Lincoln.

From Lincoln we descended and started to make our way to Mount Bross. Wind picked up quite a bit and it felt like the temperature dropped 15 degrees in as many minutes. Made it to the top and stayed long enough to document with a photo.

Mount Bross summit 14,172 ft.

The route down was clearly marked but consisted of a lot of loose scree. It was not a fast descent by any means. It actually felt like it took forever to get off Bross. The wind was getting wild on top of Bross and didn't let up until we had descended about 500 vertical feet.  We ended up back at Kite Lake just as some campers were arriving. Eric and I were joined by a fellow hiker and climber named Luke towards the beginning of the hike. He tagged along with us the entire way and it was great company. The more the merrier. From Kite Lake it was an easy 3 miles back to the car. We ran into this cuddly fella on the way back.

My first Porcupine spotting ever!

Great fun. Great company. Can't wait until the next one.

Notes to Self:

- if you realize that you've forgotten sunscreen and you're only 100 feet from your car, turn back and put some on. It's not nearly as inconvenient as not doing so.