Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Soggy Bear and the Unforgiving Road

Lake Como Road (Approach)

For many people, the way to access Blanca, Ellingwood, and Little Bear is up the bumpy, dusty, hot lake Como road. On this trip we saw 3 vehicles that were disabled by what many reguard as the toughest 4x4 road in Colorado. If you have a 4wd vehicle, you should be able to make it to within 4 miles of the lake, leaving nearly 3k feet of elevation gain before you reach the end. This area is noted by the Bear Country sign, which is easy to see. We went a little further up the road, to the tight hairpin turn. Immediately after the Bear Country sign you get to a rough portion on the road- this is the worst of it for quite a quile. It's a challenge for many 4x4 vehicles.

Little Bear, Ellingwood Point, Blanca Peak, and Mt. Lindsey (L to R)

Our first glimpse of Little Bear from the road

At Lake Como, after 90 minutes of hiking.

Relaxing, Colorado Style

Scott taking the road around the lake

Little Bear Peak - 14,037'

West Ridge / SW face aka "Hourglass"

Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.
-Helen Keller

It was 8:30 in the morning. It had been raining pretty steadily since 12:30 AM. I know this because I had spent the last 8 hours awake in my sleeping bad listening to the rain fall on the tent and on the soggy forest.

The previous evening, the rain had held off, but a swarm of mosquitos mercilessly attacked us and drove us into the tent. As we layed in the tent at 7PM, drifitng off to sleep, we watched as a dozen mosquitos buzzed around inside the rain fly. It was mildly cool and overcast, apparently perfect conditions for mosquitos to attack. Then again, Lake Como has been known to play host to hordes of mosquitos in the past, and even my thin long sleeve fleece and hiking pants had been little protection from the persistent bloodsuckers.

Here at 8:30 in the morning, we knew the window of opportunity was closing fast. It had been an annoying 13 hours cooped up in a ultra-lightweight 2 person backpacking tent, with scarecly enough room to exist without bumping into each other.  Currently, we had climbed some 40+ peaks in a row without a single failed attempt. And this was going to be the first.

"Lets go" Scott said, with an edge of impatience and excitement in his voice. And that was it. The rain had mostly stopped, and yet the trees around us still weeped, heavy with moisture. We knew the way, we had scouted it out the previous evening. And in less than 5 minutes we were scrambling up the pile of loose boulders and small rocks that marked the start of our route.

The fog was thick and obscured the view above us as we climbed into the loose gully. We decided the name "Pakistan" adequately described the rugged, loose, and miserable ascent pathway. Sticking to the right side, hugging the solid rock wall, we slowly and carefully climbed up, knocking down rocks and small boulders on occasion.

Past the boulder hump near the start of Pakistan

I hope you like loose rock...

You can tell I am thrilled to be on this section

At the top of Pakistan

Typical terrain after Pakistan

A window to the beyond

Foggy Notch. This drops off dangerously about 10 feet away

Looks like we found it!

The weather wasn't great, but didn't appear to be getting worse, so we decided to keep going forward. Initially we had some difficulty locating the correct HG gully. Because of the fog, we couldn't see that far ahead of us. We ended up being about 50 yards further down than we should have been, but we did figure things out when we decided to climb a little higher and see where we where. The trail past the gully comes and goes, and so can be difficult to follow.

Start of the class 3 stuff

Looking down from the initial class 3

Looking up into the base of the hourglass Gully

No exageration, the side was that steep

Climbing into the start of the HG gully

Looking up at the hourglass. On the left is solid rock that probably goes low 5th class and  is vertical / overhanging

The "Crux" of the hourglass

Climbing up out of the Hourglass

One major advantage we had because of the poor weather was that no one else was climbing Little Bear that day. I'm not sure if they backed out due to the weather, or we just got lucky. Anyway, it was really nice not to have to worry about rocks coming down from other climbers.

After climbing the constriction, we traversed climbers left and then climbed up and over this bench

A look at the terrain between the hourglass and the summit

Class 2/ Class 3 climbing abounds above the Hourglass

Nearing the top, the terrain eases just a bit

Bears on little bear!

Bear pose.  Blanca peak traverse is just behind me.

The summit was completely socked in. The best views we got was of neighboring sub-peak Mama bear, and the start of the Blanca traverse. It was chilly and the mist started to condense on the sleeves of my fleece, so we decided to make haste after eating our summit snickers, snapping a few pics, and checking out the summit log. It appeared (as we had suspected) that no one else would be attempting the summit that day.

Coming down to the constriction in the rain

About 10 minutes after we left the summit, it started to rain. The rocks that had been drying out were all getting wet again. We found ourselves on the climbers left side of the gully, and we had to make a sketchy traverse to get back to the right side. From there, we inspected both of the anchors, I tested both ropes. We decided we needed to get down as quickly as possible, with the worsening weather. With that in mind I did use the rope to help us get down past the constriction, quickly. I never "hung" from the rope and found good foot and handholds to support my weight. Still, it was nice having the rope there, giving us a little extra protection had we have slipped on the wet rocks.

Looking back up at the wet rocks

Finally past the constriction, the rock is all soaked

Little Bear Lake is down there, I'm pretty sure

Looking through "the notch" to Blue Lakes basin

Actual visibility? No way! That's Lake Como down there.

We packed up as quick as we could and headed down the road. We were tired and didn't want to chance it with the weather.

Coming down Lake Como Road just leaving the lake

About 15 minutes after we set off from Lake Como, we started to hear the ominous sound of thunder. It started to sprinkle, which quikly turned into and icy downpoar. We put on our rain shells and continued down the trail, hiking for nearly an hour in the pouring rain. Driven by the thought of a warm, dry truck, we hustled down the road from our campsite in 75 minutes. As we approached the truck, we could already tell that the ground was drying out. My concerns of sliding off the edge in my truck were unfounded, and we made it down to the highway without too much drama. I did set the truck down on the frame on one of the last obstacles, but the damage wasn't too bad.

A parting look at the Southern Sangre De Cristo mountains

What do you think. Would YOU have attempted Little Bear in these conditions? I think LB definately lived up to it's reputation as the hardest 14er. It was steep and exposed for the last 700 feet of climbing. The wet rock didn't help, but the lack of other climbers certainly did.


  1. I'm glad you made it up and down okay. I wouldn't want those conditions. The Hourglass continues to ooze water even after the rain stops.

  2. Mountain Hiker- you are absolutely right. The rock above the hourglass holds water for a long time after the rain stops and will continue to wet the hourglass area. We took a risk by climbing these conditions and it worked out for us. It could have turned out worse for us, perhaps you could call it lucky. We attempted to read the weather and mostly guessed right.

    I do feel that the quality of solid rock in the hourglass is interesting- it still maintains some grip when wet; then again, the main waterfall area has been polished by years of water movement. Nearby lichen covered granite is treacherously slippery when wet; thankfully this is largely absent from the hourglass gully.

    Thanks for reading the blog and taking the time to comment. Your contributions on are appreciated.