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 Subarea├╣ 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


  1. Awesome Brady! I don't think I would have made it passed, well getting out of the car. I would have kept it warm though. Thanks for sharing your experience. Glad you made it back safely!


  2. I enjoyed reading your report.


  3. You are right, this would be a much cooler feeling than running on a treadmill for an hour, that really blows. Good job, Brady!

  4. Good job on a tough mountain. Enjoyed your narrative.

  5. Good job! Being in TX now there are no Mts to climb. So I will live vicariously through you for a bit.

    Keep it up!


  6. Nice job, bro, sounds like you need some snow shoes. They act great as crampons and are lightweight if you need to take em off here and there.

  7. she IS the greatest. not going to lie, i don't like reading these. it scares me. and i didn't skip over the part you told me to. i'm glad you accomplished something that was important to you and you made it back safely.