Peak(s):  Little Bear Peak  -  14,037 feet
Date Posted:  11/12/2021
Date Climbed:   08/23/2021
Author:  JROSKA
Additional Members:   mspin99, vallejoclmbr
 Hour Glass Half Full Perspective   

There has been a lot of recent focus on some of the alternate routes up Little Bear, as understandably, nobody is fired up to negotiate the notorious Hourglass gully. I have been no exception. In the past few years, especially since last September when I climbed Capitol Peak, I viewed Little Bear as perhaps my most challenging remaining task in terms of doing all of the 14ers, one that I’d want to do sooner rather than later, and tried to come up with a plan as to how to get it done.

Little Bear

Of course in my research the Hourglass sounded abhorrent to me but I quickly ruled out other options. I don’t have the experience to do it as a snow climb. As for the ridge routes, they just seemed too long and tedious (for me) and too much elevation gain in one day. I’ve accepted in recent years that personally, anything much over 4500 feet really needs to be split up into two days for it to work. So, risky as the Hourglass seemed, deep down, I knew that would probably be the only way that I’d be able to summit Little Bear. So this trip report covers the standard route up & down the Hourglass, with hopefully a bit of encouragement. I’m not here to say that it’s not as bad as people say, because it kind of is. However with a solid team in place and a sound plan, the risk can be managed.

The Hourglass

Toward the end of 2020, Mark Spinner reached out to me on on a potential plan to try to get together for a Sangre peak or two in the summer of 2021 as we both had similar goals and similar peak lists. After some back and forth we agreed on a Lake Como trip, with the focus and top priority being a Little Bear summit via the standard route. We met up in the spring for a quick hike and talked logistics, agreeing on late August (after schools started up) and during the week (for obvious reasons). We also were on the same page about the seriousness of the Hourglass, a super early start, and the humility to turn back if the mountain seemed too crowded. To minimize this, we chose Monday, August 23 as a summit day. Keith Meyer joined us and the previous Sunday, we set off for Lake Como to camp.

The journey begins

With my 2018 Jeep Cherokee I lost the nerve to keep driving about 2.4 miles up the road, leaving us with about a 5 mile hike to the lake.

Me & Keith where we parked

The hike to the lake was hot but we were all thankful to be blessed with a weather forecast with no rain in it.

Mark on the hike to the lake

I had hiked to Willow Lake a month prior and in comparison my pace here was slower, probably due to more sun exposure. But it was nice to reach Lake Como with plenty of daylight to spare.

I tried as hard as I could to smile after the hike to Lake Como

Mark and Keith talked to a few others who were camping and attempting Little Bear, and everyone seemed to be planning to start at 5 AM like we were. So we decided as a group, let’s try to audible to 4:30. I believe I slept about 2 hours, was very excited about that because I’m always thankful just to get any sleep and by about 4:45, we were off and running.

Hiking under the stars

I wasn’t overly enthusiastic to climb the first gully completely in the dark as I’d never done anything other than trail hiking in the dark. We knew it was necessary though to keep the risk of climbers above us in the Hourglass at a minimum. The moon was full that night, and I actually appreciated not being able to see in great detail what we were climbing up. It kind of helped direct me to focus on the task of getting up that thing. I did slow us down a bit (a fast 700 feet is just a lot right out of the gate in the morning) and I did have concern that a couple of groups of 2 did pass us up in the dark. However, we still reached the notch at 6 AM and this is the view you want at the top – still dark.

Looking west towards Alamosa under the moonlight

The traverse below the ridge was uneventful other than the surprising image of clouds attempting to develop so early in the morning.

Dark clouds for 6:30 AM

One thing that I found very helpful to our group’s safety was that from this point forward, Keith (who seemed to be moving the fastest) offered to be the “scout”, generally being up ahead, and providing a visual on the progress of the groups that had passed us. With this dynamic, we always knew as a group where the other parties were (generally speaking).

Mark on the traverse below the ridge

Which is really the only “safe” way to climb the Hourglass. You definitely do not want to be climbing up it blind, with no idea of who is above you or where they might be. When we reached the Hourglass, we were fully aware that anyone who passed us was up and out of it already, leaving just a solo climber descending (who probably left before we did)

Mark and me hanging out, waiting for the solo climber to descend

Once in the Hourglass, at 7 AM, the strategy was simple, with Keith completing sections first, stopping, visualizing above, and waiting for Mark & me to come up.

Keith inspecting the rope and anchor
From above, Mark and me climbing the steep section near the end of the rope

And of course, as the trailers, Mark & I could constantly monitor if anyone was behind us. Keith inspected the rope and anchor, and gave it a passing grade. The section at the bottom (just out of reach of the rope) seemed the most challenging.

Mark studying the steep section just below where the rope ends

It is this steep, and even in dry conditions there was still water trickling down. My mind went to the east gully of the Needle in comparison but the Hourglass is much steeper in my opinion. Some sections were comparable, but other parts (including most of the terrain near and just below the rope) were steeper, sheerer, with more challenges to find holds, and more consequence of a fall, than anything that Crestone Needle offers.

Looking toward the anchor

This is why it’s imperative to be aware of who might be above and plan accordingly. Encountering a falling rock while committed in one of these sections would be very bad. Lots of loose rock in the upper sections too.

Above the Hourglass, plenty of loose rock (foreground). And it's apparent where it goes and why it moves so fast.

But it is possible to mitigate the risk. Be early, be fast, communicate and be aware, and make safe decisions. We were thankful to be up there on a day with so few others on the peak. Had there been more people up there (passing us up in that initial gully) I was ready and willing to stop and wait, (and not summit) since I was holding up our group just a bit. Everyone in our group was willing to turn back and try again on Tuesday had we encountered a crowd of the nature that would have made it difficult to monitor who was above or below in the Hourglass. It’s not possible to eliminate the risk up there. But it is definitely possible to reduce it, and sort of get it out of your head. I think our group was able to accomplish that.

Mark climbing above the Hourglass

On the ascent we chose to head to the right after the anchor (as the route description indicates, you can go left or right). In hindsight there was some very steep climbing in here, almost to the point of, how in the world will I climb down this.

Mark at the summit ridge

It would have been better to go left – it’s more travelled, better cairned, probably less loose rock, and we opted for that on the descent. More direct line back to the anchor too. Left is best. Our group unanimously agreed on that.

Keith arriving at the summit (near cairn)
Mark and me (blue helmet) arriving at the summit

8:10 AM was the earliest I’d ever reached a 14er summit, and this record would not even last a full day as I’d reach Ellingwood Point summit at 7:30 AM the following morning.

Mark in front, Keith and me in the back

It was strange to see clouds like this so early in the morning.

We could see westward and somewhat north. Anything to the east, no way.

We could see west but had zero visibility toward Blanca or the connecting ridge. I’ve been partially or fully socked in on just three 14er summits – and they’ve all been in the Sangres!

Looking at Little Bear's SW ridge

So this was not a “sit on the summit and soak in the view for an hour” routine. The view was frankly, not that great.

No view of Blanca or Ellingwood! We would see plenty of them on the next day.

That early in the AM the weather wasn’t going to develop but we also knew the Hourglass descent loomed and continued to take a businesslike approach. We watched a twosome descend off the summit and gave them some leeway before heading down ourselves.

Keith descending below the summit

Again, we descended to the right off the summit (which would be left of the rope anchor if ascending) and found this to be very straightforward back to the anchor. The rope was very helpful on the descent.

Me using the rope for assistance

Downclimbing the section with the rope was challenging, more so than anything I’ve done and the coaching offered by Keith especially was helpful.

Keith giving guidance to Mark on the steep section below the rope

Footholds were tough to locate just below the roped section and it was good to observe each other.

More fun downclimbing

I know there are times I tempt myself with thinking “I’ve got the experience to go solo on this” but on Little Bear I was very happy to be in a group and more specifically, in a group of 3. I’m fine on a Class 2 peak by myself but Little Bear seems well suited for a team approach. As a solo climber I’d never be able to manage things like “is anyone above me in the Hourglass” on my own. With a team it’s easier.

Mark and me approaching the notch

Also it seemed like we communicated very well at all points during the “high risk” situation in the Hourglass. Sometimes I think we all have the tendency to get focused on the grunt work of the task at hand and assume “everyone else in the group is OK” but on Little Bear constant communication served us well. As a group we were spread out which expanded our field of vision but we were in constant communication with “no one above” or “climber below” or “I’m stopped, you can proceed” or “put your left foot there”. We worked really well as a team and it seemed like a group of 3 was a perfect fit to minimize the risk of Little Bear and especially the Hourglass.

Mark and Keith back in the "first gully"

That “first gully” was substantially less pleasant to descend in daylight than it had been to ascend in the dark. I had no idea that it was this loose under the moonlight. Also funny how I have no memory of being bothered by climbing over the talus pile on the ascent, yet on the descent, I was wondering why can’t I just go around this thing.

The talus pile. Everything about this gully was less fun when it could be seen in the daylight

Still, we were back to Lake Como before noon and what a beautiful sight.

Lake Como at noon. I love this area.

Once back to the campsite, staying another full day for Blanca / Ellingwood, provided a solid 9 hours to hang out at the lake and observe the mountain we had just climbed, a view I never did tire of on that day.

Little Bear towering above Lake Como

God makes all things possible but a big part of that equation was working together as a team. I know there are some reading this with the thought, “that Hourglass, I just can’t, there’s got to be another way”. I know that there’s a lot of discomfort with the pure randomness of rockfall and there was for us too. We were in the Hourglass for a good 2 hours and that is a fair amount of time. Again, the risk cannot be eliminated or ignored. But with thoughtful planning, caring teamwork and persistent communication and observation, along with a willingness to turn back at any point, I do believe that it’s possible to reduce the risk of this climb to an acceptable level, for our individual perspectives.

I’ve been at this since 2010 and until very recently, I never seriously figured I’d climb Little Bear so I’ll always be grateful for the team of Mark & Keith, and how the day turned out.

Blanca Group from the lower trailhead

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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Comments or Questions
Jan van Tilburg
Honest report
11/12/2021 19:47
about how careful one has to be in the hourglass! I have not done Little Bear and maybe now I will. Thanks for posting

11/12/2021 21:38
Trip Report. Thank you sir! Great photos both beautiful and informative.

And congrats standing on top of the little bear!

11/13/2021 10:07
Enjoyed your report, great focus on safety.

LB was my Everest on the 14er list, it has a daunting reputation.
I ended up climbing via the SW ridge after a prior failed attempt of the SW ridge.
I burst into tears on the summit - couldn't believe I'd climbed it.

Huge congrats to you!

great team work
11/14/2021 17:06
Congratulations on a wonderful accomplishment.

11/15/2021 20:08
Excellent TR. Brings back vivid memories from 2016. Thanks.

Excellent Report
11/17/2021 09:44
I'm going to use this for motivation - and advice. Well Done!

Well done!
11/18/2021 17:24
Great report, great pictures and great advice. Your photos really highlight the rockfall funneling risk. I completely agree that avoiding crowds, tracking other parties and communicating with other parties are keys to a safe climb in the hourglass (and also the "first gully").

In addition to avoiding weekends, here's another suggestion for avoiding crowds: If you have a perfect weather forecast and are a slower than average hiker like me, consider making a later start from Lake Como. The faster hikers will either have left for Blanca or greet you between the first gully and the hourglass.

Thanks for sharing your trip.

11/23/2021 21:35
Thanks for all of the compliments on the report. I like to try to take time and write one trip report per year and Little Bear is certainly worthy of a recap. It was fun to relive the experience as I wrote it. Again I appreciate all of the comments.

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