Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Little Bear Peak (8/10/04)

Route Name: West Ridge to Southwest Face (Hourglass)
Lake Como TH Start Elevation: 6500 ft. (my estimate)
Lake Como Camp Elevation: 11,750 ft.
Summit Elevation: 14,037 ft.
Elevation Gain: 2300ft. (7537ft.)
Round-trip Mileage: 3.5mi (from Lake Como) (+4.75mi up Lake Como Road)


Our trek up Little Bear began with the infamous death march up the Lake Como Road. We dropped off our van around 6500 on the Como Road when it became evident it would go no further. Our arrival at the Lake Como Road came on the tail-end of a backpacking trip in the Comanche-Venable area of the Sangres. So these would be nights #5 and #6 in a row out in the backcountry. The plus side is we were very well acclimated and ready to roll on these peaks. Our challenge going up the Lake Como Road would be carrying the roads we intended to use on Little Bear (they were heavy!). Another interesting detail we had with us was our good friend Jim Laatsch was going to meet us up at Lake Como. We were supposed to arrive first and then he would find our camp. Well the hike up the Lake Como Road starts out very hot, almost desert-like. Thankfully the temperatures cool quickly and you enter the trees more as you get nearer the lake. Along the way you pass rock formations in the road, commonly known as Jaws 1 and Jaws 2 which the 4WD enthusiasts like to pull their custom vehicles over. We were blown away at a few points that anyone could drive something up this road as it was even a challenge hiking it at times. We arrived at the Lake a little before nightfall and found a nice camping spot off to the southwest side.

This was when our second adventure began. It was getting dark and there was no sign of Jim. We knew we had to stay up and stay visible with lights that he might have a chance at finding us. We didn't like the thought of him hiking solo up into the backcountry only to not be able to find us to camp with. So Denny and David decided to head for the trail and hike down a bit to make sure we met him. Sure enough they found him and we were all relieved. He joined us in our tent; this happened to be the first time we'd tried to sleep four in that tent. Comfort really wouldn't matter this night as I'm certain that none of us got much sleep. It was amazing the adrenaline (and nerves perhaps) we had running through the night knowing what lay in store for us in the morning.
In the morning we left camp and traversed around the south side of the Lake to the steep, rocky gully that leads up to Little Bear's West Ridge. It took us awhile to get up that steep gully and climbing in it was not easy. This was the first of many points this day where we had to be especially careful not to kick rocks down on those below us. Upon reaching the ridge we were treated to the only section of "easy" hiking this day. Once on the West Ridge there is a fairly easy to follow cairned path through the rocks leading towards the Hourglass gully. We took some great pictures of the route ahead of us and enjoyed a rest next to some 2 foot tall cactus plants in the rocks.
Finally we made it to the base of the Hourglass. We were pleased to find there was nobody else directly above us which is almost a must at this point. We observed there was some water running down the middle of the hourglass and the old rope was still affixed there as well. It was shocking at first how steep the initial climb was, but we also knew that it mellowed out after a short while. According to the route path on Google Earth (for what its worth), the initial hourglass climb was at an 80 degree angle for about 100 feet. I remember vividly climbing up through this first part and was about 10 feet up and thinking "I can't believe I'm doing this." There was a moment's panic thinking "what if I can't find the next hand-hold" but it went away quickly and everyone moved along well. It seemed like the near-vertical climbing was over with almost as quickly as it started and we were to the area where the ropes get fixed. Now the "fun adrenaline" was really kicking in and we were loving it. Above this point the SW Face fans out wider as the top half of an hourglass does. I can't recall how, but somehow Jim and I started up a gully towards the west and Denny and David headed more east and we actually found ourselves separated by a small rib in the midst of the climb. We were extra careful in not letting any rocks loose as there were other climbers coming up the hourglass that morning. And let me tell you, this is by no means an easy task not kicking rocks loose as they're all loose to begin with! It wasn't long though and we made the summit to a round of shouts and cheers. The climbing in the upper hourglass was a challenge but after making it up the steepest narrow section of the hourglass we could have climbed anything that day.
We really enjoyed the summit and this was such an amazing feeling having conquered arguably one of the toughest and most dangerous 14ers in Colorado. And one could literally spend days up there enjoying the outstanding views from atop as the nearby 14ers, the northern Sangres, and the San Luis Valley are all there before you on display. But we still had challenges on the descent to get through. We made good work of descending the upper hourglass and quickly found ourselves face the near vertical pitch to get down the heart of the hourglass. Now is when our ropes finally came into use. We set up a rappel and harnessed ourselves up. Thankfully David had had some practice in his summer camp work that he knew exactly what he was doing on the ropes and the anchors and he was our expert on doing this properly. We each took turns rappelling down the hourglass and this was a treat. Never had done anything like it before (maybe never again) but what fun it was. I think for me the real joy was to be in such a dangerous and impossible location and yet I felt so perfectly safe. We all safely completed our rappels and after retrieving the rope we were joyfully on our way back down the West Ridge to Lake Como. Mission accomplished.


I did not have the original track from this hike so I have included a more recent track for the SW Face route up Little Bear from Lake Como.


Here are my photos from this amazing hike:

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