Little Bear Peak (14,037'/4278m): May 21-22, 2010
There is nothing little about Little Bear. Little Bear is widely considered one of Colorado's Toughest 14,000 foot peaks, especially in the summer. In winter conditions, the peak can be very difficult also, but I prefer the winter conditions because the snow allows you to climb on ice and in safer conditions with less rock-fall hazards. For our climb on Saturday May 22nd, we had perfect conditions to attempt Little Bear in an extremely fast ascent. It would be my 4th climb of Little Bear, and Chris' 2nd time up the peak.
Chris and I traveled to the Lake Como TH at about 8500' located near Alamosa, CO, and also located southwest of the Blanca Massif which includes Little Bear peak (14,037'/4278m). We arrived at the trailhead in sunny but windy conditions, parking near the bottom of the very rocky and bumpy Lake Como road.
We began the hike into the Lake Como basin at 11am and arrived at Lake Como at 11,800' in 2.5 hours at 130pm. Warm conditions soon gave way to spring and late winter conditions at the lake, with lots of snow on the ground and temperatures in the 40's above 12,000'. Lake Como was also still frozen this time of year!
About a half mile above the lake we set up our open bivy camp and used the rest of the afternoon to relax in the warm sunshine, while prepping for our climb the next morning, eating some food, shooting tons of photos and videos, doing some bouldering, and building stone walls around our bivy sites to shield us from occasional wind gusts. The view from our 'living room' was stellar!
The sun finally went down about 830p, and so after a lean dinner of noodles, instant potatoes, elk jerkey, hot chocolate, and a snickers bar, we hit the hay with alarms set for 4am. The evening began with light winds and a very bright half moon. At one point i woke up at about 2am and the moon had set; the sky was alive with billions of bright stars.
At 330am Chris and I both woke up before our alarms went off and noticed two climbers' lights heading up the 45 degree snow slope to the west ridge of Little Bear. We boiled water and ate oatmeal and cinnamon rolls we had brought along. After the meal we packed up our sleeping bags and cashed all our extra gear in my rock shelter. After a call of nature and a crampon check, we left camp at 5am and headed up the north facing keyhole chute to gain the west ridge.
By 525am we passed an additional group of four climbers moving very slowly along the start of the ridge. We were now on the west ridge, and there was enough morning alpenglow light to turn off our headlamps. The south facing slope of the west ridge was covered in a few inches of old crusty snow which was great for walking on in crampons. With a light wind cresting over the ridge from the south and west, we pushed on towards the west face of Little Bear.
Once on the west face proper of Little Bear at 13,200' At 545am we could see up the remainder of the route from a nice vantage point below the west facing hour-glass chute.
The entire chute was snow-filled and angled at about 70 degrees for about 500 vertical feet. We advanced further up the face to the entrance to the chute. By 605am Chris and I noticed two climbers moving very slowly above us half-way up the chute. That was the two lights we saw going up the route at 330am! It took us only an hour to go up the same amount of mountain that the two guys climbed up in three hours! We caught those guys prett fast. Our pace was incredible! Very fast and very efficient.
I briefly announced to Chris: Summit ETA 25 minutes....and we began making our way up the steep western facing chute.
In ten minutes more I passed the two men with about 300 vertical feet to go until the summit. They looked at me in astonishment. They couldn't believe how easy Chris and I had climbed the peak and passed them. Heading up the last section of the snow chute as it angled right and then back left to arrive on the summit directly I remember looking back at Chris and saying...."lets finish this man!"
At 630am I arrived in the summit to a bright morning sun and a cold but light wind. Chris was only about 50 yards behind me and came to the top just minutes later. We sat to the east of the summit below the corniced side to stay out of the wind and warm ourselves in the rocky mountain sunrise. Views were awesome!
After the classic red-bull and summit videos, we enjoyed some PB&J, some power bars and jerky and then greeted the two men we had passed a bit earlier as they arrived on the summit by 7am. We congratulated them on their successful summit and they congratulated us as well. They were astonished at how quickly we had made the summit. Chris and I had made the summit of Little Bear from our camp in the Como basin in a mere hour and a half! Very fast! But we both felt great!
Our new friends were happy to snap some photos of us before we signed the summit register and began our descent by about 710am after almost 45 minutes on the top.
The descent of the snow chute was tricky but very rapid. Leaning back we dug our crampons in to the crispy frozen snow of the chute and climbed down the west chute.
I really wish I had brought my skis at that point as the steep chute looked awesome!
At about 745am we greeted the four people we had passed at the top of the keyhole entrance to the ridge crest at the start of our climb at about 530am. They were going very slowly and struggling to summit, but were safe and doing ok. We encouraged them on and continued down to camp.
The sun was just about to rise over the Blanca and Ellingwood saddle at 830am as we arrived at our bivy campsite. We basically took what was ours and completed our climb from camp to the summit and back in less than three and a half hours! Strong work!
After we packed up camp and filled up our water bottles and camelbacks, it was down to the FJ cruiser via the Lake Como road where we arrived back at our vehichle by 11am (2 hours down from camp). Basically we took less than 24 hours including a long rest at our high camp to climb Little Bear. What a fun trip!