From the Como Lake Trailhead, West ridge route
Kirk and I decided to climb Little Bear Peak the weekend after my Elk Tooth hike. Elk Tooth was not a very pleasant hike for me because I’d had a mild case of food poisoning the night before and was very weak during the climb. I was a little worried that I hadn’t completely recovered from that trip and now we were about to attempt one of the hardest fourteeners in the state. I also needed to climb Ellingwood Point since the first time that I came to this area to climb Blanca, I didn’t even realize that Ellingwood Point was considered a fourteener.
Kirk and I left Denver around 11 am and drove to Colorado Springs where we had lunch at the Cracker Barrel. We then took the standard route south through Pueblo and a very nasty yet short hail storm, turned west at Walsenburg, headed over La Veta pass to the Lake Como trailhead. I was driving the Grand Cherokee which meant that we didn’t have to hike from the trailhead like we both had already done once. The road was pretty rough but we were able to drive pretty high. We found a great parking spot then got our stuff together and set off for our campsite which was to be above Lake Como.
It really didn’t take us long at all to arrive up at the lake. I think we only hiked for about an hour and a half and we were there. This was much nicer than hiking all the way from the valley floor about about 8000 feet.
Along the way, we saw many jeeps and other 4WD vehicles attempting the difficult road up to Lake Como. Some of the obstacles look very difficult. We passed two vehicles that blew tires and one that was in the process of being winched up over one of the obstacles. It was sort of annoying actually because the fumes from the exhaust were noticeable. It turns out that if you’re in a hurry to get to Lake Como or above, you might as well hike the hard part; it’s a lot faster.
We arrived at picturesque Lake Como and paused for some pictures. Little Bear looks over the Lake and we could see a lot of the route from this point. On the other side of the lake, the road because two huge mud trenches. I can understand why some people want this road closed. The tundra is really damaged on the northern side of the lake. The forest service should close it as soon as you arrive at the lake. There’s no real reason to continue. There is a sign at the other end of the lake that says “Road closed to motor vehicles” but everyone was ignoring it. It was very annoying seeing jeeps drive by above treeline.
The area above Lake Como has some of the best and most plentiful campsites in Colorado. So much of the ground is level and soft up here. You’re just below treeline, so you have plenty of great views, and there’s an abundance of water too. We camped a little below where Scott and I camped a few years ago. I remembered the area well enough and after a little bit of scouting, I found our old campsite.
Kirk set up the tent and I headed off to refill the water supply. The sun started setting pretty quickly and we ended up cooking our dinner in the darkness. This was one trip where I did not pack lightly (or cheaply) on the food and it paid off. We both ate very well and it was very satisfying. I brought along oreos this time as well as vienna sausages. Good stuff. After eating, we hung out around the campsite for a while watching the stars.
I slept great (I always do up here, strangely enough) and we awoke to a very cloudy morning. There were clouds swirling around the summit of Little Bear. While we were eating breakfast, the sunrise started breaking through the clouds above the peaks. It was a really amazing sight; it seemed that the ridges were on fire.
We left for the Little Bear somewhere around 7am. Our first goal was to gain the west ridge of Little Bear. The way to do this is to climb up a unusually stable talus gully to a prominent notch in the ridge. The gully is not that long (nothing like the one on Elk Tooth the week earlier) and it didn’t take us long at all to get up there. Along the way, we had great views of the foreboding summit of Little Bear. The clouds were still pretty low around the peak.
From the top of the notch, we had great views of the San Luis valley 5000 feet below. From this point, we began hiking west along the ridge. We didn’t stay on top of the ridge for a long time. We dropped over to the southern side and follow the cairns to another prominent notch. The gully to this second notch is way too steep and narrow to climb. So, don’t even think about climbing it. In the picture below, this notch is the low point along the ridge.
From here, you can also see the remainder of the route. From the notch, we headed right (south) around the southern side of the peak and headed for the Hourglass, aka the “Bowling Alley”. You can just make out this section in the picture below. It’s the narrow slot in the corner of the two ridges below the right side of the summit.
At that time, we weren’t exactly sure where the Bowling Alley was but I was pretty sure that it was indeed the gully on the south side of the peak. However, the Fourteeners CD-ROM by Crestone Systems has a picture of the route that is incorrect. It shows the route climbing up over some dark, water-stained rocks. This obviously wasn’t the route. They’d better fix that before they get someone in trouble. I can’t believe someone let this slip by.
Anyway, we climbed up to what we thought was the correct route and discovered that there was a team of three climbers rappelling down the Bowling Alley. We had indeed chosen the correct route. The climbers yelled to us to let us know we should wait until they were all down so they didn’t accidentally knock rocks onto us.
The Bowling Alley (“Hourglass”) is appropriately named. It’s a steep gully usually with water running down it. The middle section is the most narrow part and is obviously the inspiration for the name “Hourglass”. According to most of the guidebooks, the 4th class section is about 150-200 feet long. However, I think it’s only about 30 feet long, but it’s hard 4th class. It’s very steep and with water running down it (which we had), there’s even less room to choose a route. Any rock knocked from above gains velocity very fast and is funnelled straight down through this section. This can be very very dangerous. So, the advice I would give to anyone would be not to attempt the climb if there is anyone above you on this section. Be sure that the climbers above are on the summit and know you are coming or who are waiting above, without moving, for you to climb up this section. Fortunately, for us, there was no one else on the peak.
After all the climbers were down, we scrambled up the 100 foot 3rd class section (which was very easy) to the climbers. One of them asked me, “How long is your rope?” – sort of seemed like a subtle and indirect query of our skills as mountaineers. Anyway, they asked because apparently their rope was about 15 feet too short. It ended right above the trickiest part of the climb. Oops. Might as well have not brought it. When I told them we were free climbing it, they looked kind of surprised.
We gave them about 15 minutes to get down and then started up. I went first. This section was indeed tricky. The easiest spot looked to be the very middle. The only problem was that there was water running down it and it was most likely slick. Anyway, I didn’t feel like getting wet so I chose a very narrow ramp leading up and to the left. I had to climb about 10 or 15 feet though of steep rock to get up to it. The climbing was kind of tricky and scary. At least it wasn’t exposed. A fall would be no doubt painful but not fatal. I would not attempt something this hard if it was above cliffs. No way. I made my way up on small footholds to the ledge and then traversed up the narrow ledge. This was pretty tricky too since it was so narrow. At the top of the ledge though, the climbing became much easier.
I paused at the top to watch Kirk come up. He started up the right side which appeared much smoother. Eventually, he ran out of safe footholds so he traversed across the water and onto the ledge and then tenuously headed up.
This section was the toughest section on any fourteener that I’ve been on to date. However, I still think Capitol is a harder peak overall. The scrambling just doesn’t relent on that mountain.
Above this 30-foot tough section, the scrambling continues but it is much easier. Also, the guidebooks mention that above this section, you must be very careful of rockfall. This is so true, however, it was very easy to avoid rocks by hugging the left side of the gully. It was very solid for about 300 feet. The right side was loaded with baseball size rocks and I bet that most people go that way. That was where the permanent sling was for rappelling.
We were both worried about coming back down that section but for now we headed up the gully for the summit. I was about 150 feet ahead of Kirk and scouted the route. It was pretty straightforward. I only had to retrace my steps once. Finally, I came to the top off the gully and popped out onto the summit. This finish was sort of like Wetterhorn. You’re climbing and climbing, then suddenly you realize you’re there. I started shouting, which relieved Kirk – he knew it wouldn’t be long until he arrived.
Little Bear has a fairly small summit. It’s the high point of 3 steep ridges.
We stayed on top for a while taking pictures and enjoying the views. We were able to spot our tent below. The west face of Little Bear is nearly vertical. It’s a long long drop down into the Lake Como valley.
We started down after about 20 minutes. Kirk went first when we got to the crux. I coached him down and he finally made it. Then it was my turn. I was relieved to discover that the descent was, for some reason, much easier than the ascent. Once we got down from the 4th class section, we started celebrating.
Back at the trail near Lake Como and our tent, we met the other party. We told them that we had no problems in that section and that the climb was really fun. They then mentioned that they were going to do Ellingwood tomorrow and asked what we were going to do. I replied, “We’re going to climb it now.” “Now??!!” They were stunned, but I was feeling great. Kirk wasn’t sure if he was going to go but after a short break at camp and some food, we headed up the valley for an afternoon attempt on the southwest ridge of Ellingwood Point. Consequently, Kirk decided not to try since he’d already climbed it and the clouds looked menacing. I was confident in the weather and I felt strong so I climbed it too!