RT Length: 14 miles
Elevation Gain: 6200’
I’ve been obsessed with Little Bear Peak since I decided to hike all the 14ers. I knew if I wanted to hike them all I’d eventually have to hike this one, so I immediately began researching routes and difficulty levels. I do my best to attend all the 14er Happy Hours, and pick the brains of anyone who’s done the “harder peaks”. I read dozens of online reports, and came to the conclusion this was a summit I’d need to attempt in winter like conditions. The only problem is this year we haven’t actually had much winter like conditions. I’d like to complete all the 14ers by the end of this summer, and here we are in April and the conditions never really hit winter proportions for Little Bear. This was frustrating!
I’ve been desperately looking for current trip reports, but none of them have corresponded with recent weather, so my goal this morning was to hike up Lake Como Road and see for myself what the mountain looked like. Then I could assess when I’d be able to hike it (hopefully next week?).
I woke up at midnight with a low grade fever. This was not acceptable so I took a few Tylenol, and in the end didn’t end up leaving the house until 2am (dishes, laundry, etc. needed to be started or completed before I could head out). That meant I didn’t make it to the trailhead until 5am, which was later than I’d wanted to start. I parked my truck a little further up the Lake Como road than I had last time because I knew my truck could make it. I could have driven (much) further, but I wanted to make this hike count, and I love elevation gain.
It was a beautiful morning to hike! Lake Como Road was pretty much clear of snow and mud. If you have a vehicle that can normally make it to Lake Como the current conditions wouldn’t have prevented you from making it there. There was too much snow however past the lake to continue in a vehicle.
I made it to Lake Como just as the sun was rising. I’d carried my microspikes, crampons, and snowshoes the entire way. I never ended up needing the microspikes or the snowshoes. Here are the current conditions of Lake Como. Snowshoes would have been overkill (I wasn’t postholing, even on my way out).
For those of you who’ve never been to Lake Como, here’s what the camping situation looks like:
If it’s free you can bunk in the small cabin, or snow camp around the lake.
Snow camping isn’t an option for me personally, and I don’t like to chance it on cabins, so I hiked in instead.
This is where I got my first view of Little Bear Peak. The sun was just starting to rise, and the mountain looked magnificent!
I hiked around the lake, mentally cursed myself for bringing those snowshoes all this way and not needing them, and made my way to the cairn indicating the route to Little Bear. I was surprised to see two men sitting at the cairn, putting on their crampons. We had a quick chat. Here’s what I learned:
They’d spent the night at the lake. It seems one of them had hiked Little Bear before. The conditions in the hourglass were perfect today (I’m not sure how they knew this) so if I was even thinking of attempting it, today was the day to do it.
I told them I was going to see how far I could get today, but I probably wouldn’t summit. I’d also try to stay as far out of their way as possible.
What I didn’t tell them was I’ve never used crampons before, and I’ve never snow climbed. In fact, the first time I’d used snowshoes was two weeks ago. Now, I’m not completely daft. I have a lot of outdoor skills and I’m in excellent shape. I do 4000’+ feet of elevation gain daily (and have for 10 years), as well as an hour of yoga and 100 pushups a day. I boulder/climb at a local climbing gym. I’ve been mountaineering my whole life, just not in snow/ice conditions. I have a lot of theoretical knowledge when it comes to winter climbing. I’ve done tons of research and watched videos/talked with people about what to do in these sorts of scenarios. I just don’t have the actual practice.
I looked up at the route before me… (no pictures at the time because my hands were frozen, so here’s one from later in the day).
I contemplated my options. That gully looked mean. I hate gullies. Hate them. I’d rather do a class 4 any day than a class 2 with a gully (I love to boulder). This gully looked steep, but this gully had snow. Would that make it easier? (This picture was also taken later in the day).
I knew I’d need to do this hike with snow, but I have Raynauds, complicating the matter. I can’t hike when the weather’s too cold because my body over reacts and shuts down, telling itself I have frostbite (basically, that’s a condensed version). The weather today was pretty ideal for this time of year: 36* with 20mph winds. I took my crampons out of my bag and decided to put them on. Next I put on my balaclava, helmet, and goggles. I told myself I could always turn back if I didn’t feel safe, but I’d kick myself if I didn’t at least try.
I did my best to keep distance between the climbers ahead of me and myself, but watched them carefully for the first few minutes. Then I got out my ice ax and began my climb. Oh my gosh! Crampons are phenomenal!!! Yes, this was work, but they were actually sticking into the ice and snow, making me feel secure. This was much better than climbing up scree!
It was actually easier than I’d anticipated, and I kind of got carried away. What I mean is I just kept going without looking back down the route, and when I finally did my heart leapt into my throat. Holy Cow! That looked much steeper going back down than it did when I was going up, and the route ahead of me looked steeper still. I had a brief moment of panic (sanity?) where I thought about turning back, and then wondered how to even attempt that at this point? I took a deep breath and figured I’d gone this far and done fine: I’d worry about how to get down later. (Side note: it would have been safer to go back down at this point before the sun/shade changed conditions).
I made it to the top of the gully and was surprised to see the two hikers ahead of me taking a break at the top. In fact, they kind of startled me. I took a picture of where I came out of the gully to remember it for my return (the exit was at a notch, parallel to a small pond) and sat down to take off my crampons
And looked at the ridge ahead of me.
This was the west ridge. I was to follow it to the hourglass. It was actually pretty easy to follow, but had several cairned routes, making a direct route confusing. I have to say, this part of the hike looked nothing like any of the photos I’d seen of the route before. Probably because today the route had snow off and on. I ended up putting my crampons back on about halfway across the ridge, and then I just followed the ridge until I came to the base of the hourglass. Here’s what the route looked like turning back.
Woohoo! I’d made it to the hourglass! Over the traverse I’d played leapfrog with the other hikers a few times. I hate playing leapfrog with other hikers! It’s why I like to hike early and alone. I decided to sit and wait for a bit and let one of the hikers start up the hourglass to try and put some distance between us. (They weren’t hiking together at this point).
I gave him about 10 minutes and then looked at the route before me.
This looked sketchy, and it was. There wasn’t really enough snow to make this easy. The ice and what snow there was made crampons necessary, but cumbersome/slippery on areas where there wasn’t ice or snow. It was steep, and those ropes did not look safe. I didn’t use them, but for anyone thinking about using the ropes keep in mind several parts of the rope were secured to the rock by ice formed from melting snow, and that connection wasn’t very thick. In other words, by pulling on the rope you could dislodge the rope from the ice connecting it to the rock and fall back a foot or two (it would knock you off balance). Also, weather isn’t your friend and these ropes are left outside 24/7/365.
The hiker ahead of me was using the rope, and unbeknownst to him making my climb all the more difficult. The rope would swing back and forth, getting caught in my crampons as I tried to climb. Added to that he was kicking snow and ice down onto me. I decided to book it and climb past him. This ended up being a fabulous idea! I felt very confident at this point of my climbing abilities, and I was able to climb the rest of the way at my own pace. Oh, and the snow increased, making it that much easier.
A huge downside to the hourglass are the rocks that fall through the gully and down on you when you’re climbing up, and I have to say this isn’t just because of hikers above you. I was the first climber at this point, and the wind was so strong above the hourglass it was pushing rocks down into the gully. Big rocks. Wear your helmet, even if you’re the only one on the mountain.
I looked down and saw four climbers below me instead of two. Next I looked up at the rest of the route and decided to exit left. I love scrambling! This was going to be fun! I took off my crampons and had at it.
There was no clear path to the summit, and in fact what was South Little Bear actually looked like the summit and was confusing until I checked my topo map. After rounding a couple of outcroppings I found the correct summit of Little Bear and climbed to the top. Woot! I’d made it! I looked back behind me and saw climbers scrambling towards the summit as well. You can also see a look back at the west ridge route (the snow free part).
I had one of the hikers take a summit photo of me
Here’s South Little Bear from Little Bear
We chatted for a bit. It seems they were two cadets stationed at the USAFA. They seemed like great young men: very nice and respectful, but obviously kids having fun. I thought how nice it would be to have one of them date my 19 year old daughter…
I’d debated taking the Little Bear / Blanca traverse, but decided not to because I knew the way down and the conditions were already sketchy enough. It did look enticing though!
I don’t stay at summits long as a rule because I freeze, and I knew the hardest part of my hike was yet to come, so I was quickly off and on my way back down. I made it to the hourglass just as the last hiker was making it up. I called down and listened to make sure no one was below me, and then began my descent.
I’m not gonna lie, I slipped a few times. Down climbing is much more difficult than climbing up. The ice and crampons complicated matters. I slipped, but I didn’t fall. Actually, the scariest part of this part of the climb were the people down climbing above me. Just as I was finishing they started, and I’m sure they didn’t realize it, but they were kicking down quite a few rocks that chipped against larger rocks and started small landslides. More than once I heard the whooshing of rocks tumbling towards me, ducked, hugged the mountainside and put my hands up to protect my neck from rocks raining down. Several hit my helmet.
The traverse back to the notch took a lot longer than I’d remembered hiking in. I was really glad I’d taken that picture of the pond to remind me just how far I had to hike. I made it to the notch and looked down the gully. This picture does not do it justice! It. Was. Steep.
Well, there was nothing for it. I had to make it back down, and to do so I had to start. I turned and faced the mountainside and slowly began down climbing. The first 20 feet or so was pretty easy and I was able to figure out what I was doing. I practiced securing footholds and locking in my ice ax inbetween taking deep breaths.
And then everything changed. The snow became very consolidated and the tracks from this morning disappeared. I had to kick my crampons into the ice no less than 20-25 times to get each foothold. I mentally praised myself for investing in 14 point crampons. It was slow going and very physically exhausting. I could have used two ice picks instead of one ax. Despite what you may be thinking of me at this point, I’m overly cautions by nature. These toeholds were exhausting to form. I felt as if I was vertical down climbing, and the angle was very steep so I made sure each step was extra secure before starting on the next one. My footholds were probably 6-8 inches apart, and I had about 600’ to get through.
At this point I made the mistake of looking down behind me. In reality it was unavoidable because I had to make sure I was on a safe route, but the magnitude of what I was doing hit me, and hit me hard.
I’ve done some pretty scary things in my life: I’ve been shark diving without a cage, cliff jumping off 50 foot waterfalls, I’ve been in a car accident that took me off a gorge and into a raging river (I wasn’t driving), and I’ve raised 3 teenagers. This was by far the scariest thing I’ve ever done.
Here are some things that went through my head:
“That’s a very long drop. A very, very long drop”
“I can’t slip, and I can’t fall because I’ll just keep sliding”
“OMG, ok, if I do slip remember to self arrest”
“You’re wearing crampons, if you fall your feet need to be up in the air”
“Why am I not secured to a rope? This seems like something I should be roped in for”
“The mountains are very unforgiving of mistakes: One wrong move and I’m dead. I can’t be wrong”
My adrenaline was pumping. I decided the best thing to do was to focus on the task at hand and take it one foothold at a time. About halfway down the cadets made it to the top of the gully and began their descent. I tried to yell up at them to wait. All I could think about was them falling and sliding into me and me with nowhere to go to avoid this from happening. It wasn’t like I could dodge out of the way or anything. But they couldn’t hear me and began their descent. I’m sure they weren’t meaning to, but they were raining snow and ice down on me as they descended. I tried to move sideways and out of their direct path when possible.
Eventually I climbed out of the shadows and into the sun and the snow became softer and more pliable. This was great, except now I was postholing and it was hard to get a direct grip with my crampons and ice ax. This is when the cadets caught up to me (they’d been using my footholds so they were much quicker than I’d been). It was another 200 feet before it became safe to glissade (the slope had been too steep prior). They slid down (I didn’t because I had on crampons).
Once I made it safely to the bottom I took a good look at what I’d just done. Pictures simply do not do this feat justice: Down climbing that gully was much more dangerous in my opinion than anything the hourglass had to offer.
I’d been exposed for quite a long time on that slope. But I’d made it. I made it up and down that gully, and I’d done it on my own. I felt extremely satisfied with myself, and could now breathe a sigh of relief that the worst it was over. It was now I felt like I’d truly completed a summit of Little Bear Peak.
I chatted a bit more with the cadets, and then was off to hike the rest of the way back down to my truck. Along the way I came across several hikers who’d attempted Blanca but hadn’t summited due to wind. I’d had perfect weather on Little Bear, and thought how funny it is two mountains right next to each other can have such different weather, and then of how ‘smart; I was not to have taken the traverse.
I made it back to my truck and started the long drive home. It was 8pm before I realized I hadn’t eaten anything today: Nothing besides half a cup of coffee this morning and 4 small pretzels from a leftover snack pack at 2am. I’d brought food with me, but I never get hungry when I hike, so I never eat. I stopped at a Subway in Pueblo and got a 6 inch sandwich before finishing the drive home.
When I finally made it to bed I couldn’t settle down. My body was singing, but in a good way.