Peak(s):  Little Bear Peak  -  14,041 feet
Date Posted:  05/25/2010
Modified:  06/02/2010
Date Climbed:   05/22/2010
Author:  KeithK
 Sands of the Hourglass   

MAY 22, 2010

"What you get by achieving your goals is not as important as what you become by achieving your goals." - Zig Zigler

Ta-tat, ta-tat, ta-tat... Raindrops created a rhythmic, relentless drum beat as we wasted away the night, bound to our tent with little in the way of optimism for the coming day. Memorial Day weekend, 2009, and we had set out to climb the Blanca Group, with Little Bear Peak as the primary target. Gazing out into the fog and mist over Lake Como, I knew that we'd wasted our time and energy, and caught one of the worst weather windows one could expect, even in the volatile Sangre de Cristo range. The spectre of Little Bear would have to return to its residence in the back of my conscience, and await confrontation on another day.

Mark and I met Otina and Darrin in Pueblo to exchange pleasantries, check for last minute needs, and discuss our plan. Our nearly identical extended cab four wheel drive trucks could not accommodate four adults, so we took both up the Lake Como road, negotiating the first stretch of annoying baby heads before slowing down to crawl along the rough, rocky and sometimes washed out jeep trail as it climbed onto the shoulder of the mountain. The only thing worse than driving this road would be to hike it, and I was very happy to have the vehicle and skills to at least reach 9,800', the switchback that features Jaws .5, a series of protruding rock that is negotiable in a stock 4X4 with the right amount of patience, judgment and ability. Even for its legend, that lower stretch of road is really not very difficult, and I would call the Engineer Mtn. Road between Ouray and Engineer Pass a much more stressful challenge.

If you lived in Ft. Garland, this would be your view...

The Crestone Group to the north at the start of the Lake Como Road...

A look at the Bear, complete with Hourglass, from the valley floor...

As we gathered our gear, and composure, Robert (rleclair) and his friend arrived in a stock Toyota 4-Runner, proving that the lower half of the road is not that big of a deal. We snapped a few pictures of the expansive San Luis Valley, and were off to trudge along two and a half miles of mostly uneven, ankle-testing rock. We were each equipped with two axes/tools, snowshoes, crampons and whatever necessities were required to spend two nights in the backcountry. Needless to say, our packs were very heavy, awkward and exhausting, and the three hour journey to Lake Como was much more of a test of will than an enjoyable backpack. Deep snow drifts began to block clean passage well before the lake, and we kicked, swam and post-holed our way along, finally reaching the lake well after 6 p.m.

Otina and Darrin are ready...

Mark conquers Jaws .5!

The San Luis Valley expands to the west before confronting the San Juans...

After a few frustrating yards, Mark, Otina and I decided that snowshoes were much more functional on our feet than on our backs, while Darrin tried his luck without for another few minutes. Finally submitting to common sense, he, too added paddles to his boots, and we made our way through deep, soft snow into the trees above Lake Como, aiming for a moraine directly below the next morning's initial challenge, the ascent gully to the west ridge of Little Bear Peak. There are ample areas to camp right above the gully that drains into Lake Como, in the trees, and we chose a nice wide area where we could all set up camp and not get in each others' way. Within minutes, another hiker emerged from the trees right next to my tent, and I certainly recognized him. I met Darin Baker last year on the eve of my biggest and most challenging Fourteener, Pyramid Peak. Ironically enough, our second meeting would be on the eve of my most ambitious climb to date, a snow climb of one of the most difficult, and especially dangerous mountains around. We introduced ourselves and chatted for a bit before Darin and his friend set up camp just a few yards from us. Water was collected from an exposed bit of the gully, food was prepared, and nerves were ignored as darkness fell upon the world, with the half-moon lighting up our snow-covered camp site in an eerie, fluorescent glow. Sleep would not come easily for any of us.

Darrin surveys Jaws 1...

Little Bear appears...

The wreckage of the fatal Jeep crash below Jaws 2...

A placque commemorates the perished Jeep driver...

Atop Jaws 2, ready to continue our hot, dusty trek...

Impressive to say the least...

Darrin needs to make sure the snow is deep enough...

Crunch, crunch, crunch... an overnight freeze had stiffened the snow, and our crampons rang out with each step as we left our camp, quickly reaching the base of the Couloir that would provide eight hundred feet of vertical gain within the next hour. Darin and his partner had left us just a few minutes earlier, and we were happy to have them build us a staircase. The snow was perfect for climbing, and the angle was even better, as we steadily stepped higher into the dark morning sky. Mark and I would later agree that hiking in darkness like this is a unique, exciting experience, where it's nothing but you, your headlamp and a few feet of ground in front of you. Shadows of ridgelines and nearby peaks would slowly materialize as the morning dawned, lending perspective to an otherwise mysterious effort.

Disappearing into the night...

Daylight greeted us perfectly as we arrived at the top of the ridge. Headlamps no longer necessary, we also decided to remove the crampons for what appeared to be a mostly rock traverse below the ridgeline. Two other climbers quickly caught and passed us; they chose to leave their crampons on their boots. As we began piecing together rock and snow, verglass ice proved to be another obstacle, and we quickly gave in and put the spikes back on. It was clearly going to be a mixed bag of climbing today. The face of the west ridge is steep, loose and unpleasant, and it was slow going for me. From rib to rib, we crossed short snow fields, aiming for Baby Thunder, the prominent, deeply inset notch that marks the end of the ridge traverse. The shadow of the mountain began to solidify on the floor of the valley behind us, and the secretive entrance to the business end of this climb worked its way in and out of clear view. A short break and we were ready to increase the ante, with longer, more serious snow fields blocking our path to the base of the famous Hourglass gully.

Beginning a mixed traverse...

From rock to snow to rock...

The route ahead...

Resting above Baby Thunder, as Ellingwood Point awakens...

Beginning the long traverse, destined for the Hourglass...

Occasional post holes added to the risk as we traversed over mostly firm snow above steep run out. I had noticed the deception early on, as cliff bands form along the base of the mountain, and a fall without self arrest would most certainly end in disaster. Firm axe plants and solid, level steps were a necessity here. Hidden from the sun, and fortunately from the wind, the journey continued to the apron of the Hourglass, and a clear view of snow all the way into the mountain. I found this to be one of the more interesting aspects of this climb, the fact that the summit of Little Bear is actually in view, if you know what you are looking at. It reminded me of Crestone Peak, where the mountain seemed to engulf the climber, and every high point seemed to be much farther away than it actually was. I was feeling the altitude and lack of fitness from a lackluster winter, and just kept finding each step as best I could. As I finally caught up to the rest of my group at the choke of the hourglass, the two faster climbers made their way down and past us, with Darin and his buddy not far behind. We could all feel how close we were, but I knew that it was only going to get harder from here.

The route is obvious...

Three pins for a spare...

There it is, continuous SNOW! Darin Baker's team meets us on their descent...

There is only one way to go, and that way is up...

The dangerous, deceiving Little Bear. We stayed right above the Hourglass, before turning left on an obvious line straight to the summit...

The top of the Hourglass is also the steepest part...

I'll get there, eventually... (image by Otina)

The snow was good and the axe plants were reassuring. We had hit the perfect window to climb this most imperfect mountain, and I was elated that the snow was solid, constant and consistent all the way to the summit. All that remained was to safely negotiate each step, to breathe, and to relax. This would likely be the closest thing to an "easy" climb of Little Bear as there could be. As I trudged behind, I watched my group ahead. Robert had caught me just above the choke, and passed me to join the three faster climbers ahead. One by one, Darrin, then Mark, Otina and Rob all disappeared over the crest of the horizon, and I could make out cheers of celebration, which quenched my apprehension and exhaustion well enough to maintain my progress. As the terrain steepened, so did my resolve, and another major step along this journey was about to be realized. Less than three years ago, I would never have imagined that I would be in this place, experiencing this achievement. Each and every Fourteener is a microcosm of a greater cause, a metaphor for every day challenges that present themselves in various manifestations, an opportunity to add definition to an always evolving existence. It felt better than good to be at 14,037'.

A nice look at the route to the summit, from the top of the Hourglass. Stay right before making a traversing ascent to the obvious line...

The group crests the summit ridge...

Tired but elated, I arrive at the top of the San Luis Valley... (image by Otina)

Mark basks atop the Bear...

Ellingwood Point and Blanca Peak...

Sangre de Cristo magnificence...

The power team... (image by Otina, courtesy of Robert Leclair)

The San Juans stand distant...

The southern Sangres...

Mt. Lindsey doesn't mind its status as the outcast of the Blanca Group...

Views of the Crestone Group to the north and San Juans to the west were awe-inspiring, as was the 6,000' drop to the floor of the San Luis Valley. The Sangres are truly spectacular no matter where you are. A quick snack and some photos were all I could muster as the rest of the crew was ready to disembark. The most difficult and dangerous climbing still remained, and I was apprehensive about down-climbing this mountain. It was by far the steepest terrain I had encountered on snow, and a true test of concentration. For the most part, we all down-climbed facing out, and I watched my three partners closely to see how they would maneuver the various stages of the descent. I only tried to face in once, and felt extremely uncomfortable; for the most part, it was a combination of plunge step and crab walk, with deep axe plants paramount to safety. Slow going, it felt like forever before I painstakingly entered the Hourglass proper, and adrenaline had my heart racing feverishly. Or maybe it was the small, Frisbee like rock that whizzed past me, reminding me of the most notorious danger on this crumbling mountain. It was only mildly relieving to finally emerge into view of my team, who had congregated on a rib a hundred yards along the traverse. There was still a monumental effort remaining to finish this task.

The down climb begins...

At the top of the Hourglass...

The south face of Little Bear...

Each post hole demanded a curse or two, and I never did catch my breath again. Various aches and pains would emerge throughout the descent, and this three or four mile route felt much, much longer to me. Crampons still on our feet, we gained the ridge crest above Baby Thunder and walked the ridge over rock and snow, withstanding increasingly heavier doses of wind. Although the sun was very warm, the wind was quite cold still. It was all too familiar, this exercise in perseverance, as we all just wanted to reach our exit gulley and the imminent relief of success. I watched the crew down climb from the ridge to negotiate an impassable notch, the notch that I assume marks the dangerous, deadly gulley that lures tired hikers into its clutches during summer thunderstorms. We knew better. The proper exit gulley is still a ways further. Following Otina's footsteps as much as possible, I began the third class scramble down. Crampons on rock were nails on a chalkboard, as I deliberated. Reaching up for balance, a rock fell. A big rock, about the size of a microwave oven, bounced off of my knee directly onto my big toe. "Ahhh! Now I've done it!" I thought, as the stunning pain shot through my leg. The malicious nature of this mountain was more than obvious. No worse for wear, I regained my composure and continued, finally reaching the notch of safety, with 800' of snow between myself and flat land. Darrin and Otina were plunge stepping with crampons, while Mark was ready to glissade. I attempted to follow the plunge steppers. As Mark slid steadily downhill, the plunge stepping was readily annoying, and it was not long before all three of us were precariously hanging onto the soft snow, removing crampons for the less resistant route. Darrin, then Otina began their glissades, as I fumbled to keep things on the mountain and not sliding away from me. Finally reassembled, I, too, sat down, grasped my axe across my body, and lifted my feet. I can only estimate that it was about 90 seconds later, maybe not quite that long, that I arrived at the bottom of the apron, an incredulous Otina looking on. I paid tribute to my friend KirkT, rocketing down this Couloir with nearly reckless abandon, but never feeling out of control or in any real danger. It sure felt good to be off of the mountain.

Walking the tight rope on the west ridge...

Otina peers back at our accomplishment... (image by Otina)

So much easier than walking... (image by Otina)

Talk of Blanca and Ellingwood was brief as we recovered under hot, bright sunshine at our camp. A decision to pack up and head down came easily for all of us, as the conditions did not seem to warrant an effort to climb more mountains the next day. The snow was soft and slushy, and a trek up into the basin would likely be long, tiring and probably miserable by the end. As it was, we had a more than daunting task ahead to simply carry our overly heavy packs down the goat trail, and the thought of being home by midnight on a Saturday was much more appealing than trekking out on Sunday. We worked very hard for this one. Thank you Mark, Darrin and Otina, for helping me reach this goal.

A customary parting shot of an unforgettable experience...

The reward of Little Bear's summit did not come without consequence. A punctured gaiter, a hole in my brand new hiking pants, sunburn, sore legs and an even worse sore throat all add up, and remind me that climbing Fourteeners is a committing, sometimes costly habit. For all of the physical anguish, the nerve-wracking adrenaline and the anxious moments, retrospect is always positive, and I cannot wait for my next big adventure. Looking forward to this summer's journey in the hopes of completion, I know why I do it, and why I continue to do it. It's a part of me, ingrained and permanent, that I had not even discovered three years ago, and more importantly, the aligning force that ties Monday to Friday to Sunday and over again. I have found my center.

Comments or Questions
Congrats to all!
05/25/2010 18:36
Looks like it was the perfect day for that climb ... I‘ve said I wouldn‘t climb that peak again, but I sure do get tempted seeing conditions like that. And, welcome to crampons, Keith ... I‘m sure most will agree with me that a slashed gaiter is an appropriate initiation. Thanks for posting. Happy trails!

05/25/2010 18:38
Keith, your report is my hope that next year similar conditions can and do exist to get me up that rock. Congrats to all of you on this climb! Look forward to hiking this summer with you!

Great Job Keith!
05/25/2010 19:27
Once again it was a great pleasure to climb with you, Excellent TR!
Oh, and 90 seconds down that final gully?!? You did it in 11 flat!

Presto-I too said I would never go back after climbing it last summer, but this mountain is almost fun with crampons and good conditions!

Big Bear
05/25/2010 22:46
I have been eagerly anticipating this climb since you invited me months ago Keith! I won‘t soon forget this one, and HUGE THANKS for driving up that road! 9,800 feet will have to do until they pave it. Great write up, congrats on this one! I‘ll see you on the next climb we do, or at REI in the gaiter section!

Awesome job!
05/25/2010 22:50
I told you Lindsey would prepare you for that . Seriously, well done to everyone! I had a blast in the 40mph winds at my bro‘s graduation! Great write-up as usual Keith!

05/26/2010 01:00
Kieth, Mark, all, great job!

”Each and every Fourteener is a microcosm of a greater cause, a metaphor for every day challenges that present themselves in various manifestations,
an opportunity to add definition to an always evolving existence.”

Eloquent. Great report, photos, effort. Bravissimo!

What‘s Next?
05/26/2010 02:24
Congratulations on your latest accomplishment Keith!
It was nice to run into you again, and thanks for the hospitality from your group. ;-)
Good luck with the rest of your goals this summer.

BTW...Leonard was in the Air Force, stationed at Shriever (in the Springs) when he rolled his Scout, along with his dog. He was friends with my brother-in-law. Sad ending, but he had great views when he left.

05/26/2010 02:59
I look forward to your trip reports like my daughters look forward to the next Janet Evanovich book. You have a great knack for conveying the feeling of the trip, while not neglecting the informative details. I look forward to experiencing that Bear of a mountain someday!

05/26/2010 03:22
Keith - congratulations to you and the rest of your team. I enjoyed talking with you guys at Jaws 0.5 as well as on the summit of LB. Like I posted in my blog this week, LB is a serious mountain and I would not want to do it in dry conditions. Bbbbbuuuttttt, the snow made all the difference in the world. See you on the trail! Climb On!

A steep step up
05/26/2010 04:15
What a difference a year makes, Keith. Impressed/glad you got LB done.

We must‘ve passed each other on the Lake Como road on Sat. at about 10K. I guess we didn‘t recognize each other, but understandable since I was struggling with my heavy pack and you were headed up the last climb of the day. If I HAD recognized you I would‘ve pulled a couple of beers out of my pack to toast your success.

Hope you find some more good snow climbs this spring. Got Holy Cross yet?

Anyways, I‘m glad we got your feet wet with Lindsey last year, because the climbing conditions on LB were $$$.

05/26/2010 14:13
Way to go on getting LB! Another great TR!

Nice work
05/26/2010 18:01
Both on the climb and the TR!

05/27/2010 23:24
Another perspective to add to a string of recent great TR‘s on this mountain. Congrats!

Very nice report
06/29/2010 20:08

I know this is a bit late, but I have been debating this climb as a summer or spring climb. Your report convinces me that I should save this one for next spring. Seems like a great time and good conditions in snow when properly equipped. This mountain scares me the most quite honestly. I went to the hourglass galley about 6 years back on an august day, looked up and in 2 minutes was back down the ridge. And a very good report by the way.

Great Job
11/30/2010 17:28
to all involved! Way to get it done in good condition, I'm thrilled that so many people are climbing this peak safely on spring snow. More and more I'm thinking I won't be back for another summer summit, it just doesn't make sense when you can zip up the Hourglass with 90% of the loose rock frozen in place. Terrific TR Keith.

Timing is everything!
02/05/2011 00:22
Awesome that you can put a complimentary TR so quickly. I love the contrasts! So happy we got to accomplish this goal, in such perfect conditions!

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