Little Bear Peak may not be the tallest of Colorado's 14ers (it's #44/53) at 14,037 feet, but it is easily one of the most difficult and dangerous. Below its summit sits the technically challenging and sketchy Hourglass Couloir. This particular couloir is well known for its steepness and rockfall, thus giving it its Class 4 distinction. The Hourglass is not a place for the inexperienced or timid. Even above the Hourglass to the summit, the rock is crumbly and loose and the push to the top is plagued by rockfall. In addition to Little Bear's rigorous route, accessing the peak is no easy task either. Rising abruptly from the floor of the San Luis Valley is Blanca Peak Road, which winds its way up past Lake Como (a very popular destination for hikers and Jeepers, and the starting point for Little Bear) and into Blanca Basin, out of which soar two other 14ers, Blanca Peak and Ellingwood Point.
Blanca Peak Road is also very well known for being one of Colorado's toughest four wheel drive roads. Appropriately named, Jaws 1, 2 and 3 are sections of the road so heinous that only the most experienced off-roaders can make it past. Even then, its passage is not guaranteed. The road is merciless and even deadly.
On this particular trip, our plan was to get as high up the road as possible in a friend's truck and then load an ATV with all our gear and hike the rest of the way in. We reached the limit of our off-roading ability with 2.5 miles to go to Lake Como, our eventual camping spot for the night. With the ATV loaded, we ambled up the final 2.5 mile stretch, Dave and I on foot, Chris on the ATV.
Still 1.5 miles from Lake Como, dusk was approaching fast. Periodic glances behind us reminded us how far we had risen above the San Luis Valley, seemingly a world away in the fading evening light.
I had been up this road once before, in July of 2007. Seven years had done a lot to alter the memories I had of the road and the mountains looming over us. I could have sworn there were smooth sections along the way to Lake Como. I was wrong. Completely wrong. There isn't a single stretch of this road that doesn't jar and shake you. Maybe having to walk the last 2.5 miles was the best way to travel.
Nearing Lake Como, the day's final light fades into darkness.
By 10:00 PM, our tent was pitched and we were settling in for a very short night. Five and a half hours later, we were awake again, ready to begin the slog to Little Bear's summit. Stepping outside our tent at 4:00 AM revealed a brilliant night sky lit up by countless stars. In the mountains, away from any light pollution, you really get to experience the beauty and vastness of space. I could see the Milky Way with my own eyes, no telescope needed. I was blown away, awestruck and speechless by the creation around me.
Within 5 minutes of departing camp, we were already postholing in thigh-deep snow. Imagine sinking down past your knees into snow with almost every step and then having to pull out each leg, take a step, and sink right back down into the snow again. And repeat. It's exhausting, and not how you want to begin a hike. We finally made it to the base of a couloir that was still covered in snow. We were hopeful that ascending it would be relatively straightforward and less taxing, since we'd be using crampons and ice axes. Unfortunately, the snow was rotten and the bottom 2/3rds of the climb was spent postholing again.
After what seemed like hours of climbing, we finally topped out the couloir. We were greeted with a gorgeous view of the San Luis Valley, thousands of vertical feet below us.
Next step: traversing a ridge to the base of the Hourglass Couloir. The going was slow and required precise footing and focus. Before long, the sun crested the summit of Little Bear and began warming the alpine environment that dwarfed us.
We soon began to realize we weren't making good time and reaching the summit was still several hours away. Dave was also suffering from a chest cold that was sapping his energy. We ultimately decided to turn around. Knowing the most difficult and challenging terrain was ahead, we didn't want to risk any accidents in the Hourglass or up higher.
Re-traversing the ridge was again mentally and physically challenging.
Dave's expression represents the experience perfectly.
Fortunately, part of our descent back to camp was made easier by glissading down the couloir that gave us hell hours earlier.
We were hoping to avoid having to posthole back to the tent, but we didn't have a choice. In fact, we ended up postholing through even deeper snow because of the route we chose to take, which we hoped would take less time. Back at the tent finally, we packed up, loaded the ATV, and began the slow walk back to the truck. One final glance of Lake Como revealed the sheer beauty of this area.
Hopefully it won't be another 7 years before I return to Lake Como and Blanca Basin. When I do, though, I'm sure the memories I have of the hideousness that is Blanca Peak Road and the difficulty of the trail to Little Bear's summit will have faded a little. What will continue to be vivid in my mind is the awesome beauty of this stretch of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Lake Como, Blanca Basin and the three 14ers that dominate this area are quintessential Colorado.