South Little Bear
Little Bear Peak P300
Huerfano County HP
Blanca Peak P5K
Ellingwood Point P300

Fri, Jul 31, 2020

With: Tom Becht
Eric Smith

Etymology
Story Photos / Slideshow Map GPX Profile

Continued...

Four Colorado 14ers are collected close together in the Sangre de Cristo Range, southeast of Great Sand Dunes National Park. We had climbed Mt. Lindsey four days earlier and had come back for the other three today. The standard approach is from the west via the Lake Como Rd, often touted as Colorado's toughest 4WD road. The 2WD parking area where we camped is located around 8,100ft, one of the lowest THs for a Colorado 14er. In Tom's jeep, we managed to drive to just over 10,000ft, saving us a few miles, a few thousand feet of gain, and quite a bit of time. Getting further would have required getting over some serious obstacles, so well short of Lake Como we started off around 4:45a, expecting a long day.

Eric had already been to two of the 14ers and was only interested in Little Bear, the hardest of the three and class 4 by its easiest route. Tom and I had been very interested in the traverse between Little Bear and Blanca, a low class 5 route considered a classic among Colorado traverses. However, Tom had promised to help Eric up and down the hardest part of Little Bear known as the Hourglass, which would not allow the traverse to be followed. I was still planning to do the traverse by myself, selfish bastard that I am, but both Tom and Eric supported the claim that I had offered the same help myself. For the life of me I couldn't recall doing so and stubbornly tried to hold my ground, but by morning I was resigned to forgoing the traverse - there's only so much selfish bastarding even I could do. I still wanted to get all three summits on one go, it would just require more miles, elevation gain and time to do it the long way.

While hiking up the road to Lake Como, we found at least four serious obstacles we could not have surmounted with the jeep. We would find only a few vehicles further up the road, the highest of which was a Grand Cherokee that had been rolled and righted before being left on the side of the road with a broken drive-shaft, among other problems. No vehicles were to be found at Lake Como. We spent an hour and a half to reach the lake, soon after leaving the road to start cross-country to the south, aiming for a loose talus slope leading to a saddle on Little Bear's West Ridge. A solo climber was just starting up this slope ahead of us, keeping about the same pace. It would take about us half an hour for the ascent, the slope narrowing considerably towards the top with some class 2-3 scrambling before it was done. At the ridgeline we had a nice view looking south into the Tobin Creek drainage southwest of Little Bear, with Little Bear Lake nestled at the bottom of the upper basin. Our route turns east here to traverse the south side of the West Ridge. The solo climber chose to climb the ridge directly while we followed the standard route with a use trail and plenty of ducks. We were happy to find the entire drainage in the shade, helping to keep us cool as we worked our way east towards the Hourglass. It took most of the next hour to complete the class 1-2 traverse, landing us at the base of the Hourglass where several other parties were already engaged.

This was the one place we were most worried about rockfall since the Hourglass funnels all the rocks from above into a narrow opening. It was the only place in Colorado where all three of us wore our helmets. We climbed the class 3 rocks and slabs below the narrowest part, then more carefully headed up the polished slabs at the neck, rated class 4 in the CO guidebooks. A handline ran down the middle of this section from above, but it isn't really necessary unless the rock had been wet, perhaps if it had rained the previous evening. There was some wet portions of rock, but these were mostly avoidable. A short distance above this we spied a party of five ahead. They seemed surprised to see us making our way up and asked, "Are you going to keep climbing?" I think their expectation, and perhaps it's more usual in Colorado, was for us to wait until they had ascended to keep from being in their line of rockfall. I had no interest in hanging out on some precarious perch dodging rocks, so I replied simply, "That's our plan." They stopped moving and in a few minutes we had caught up and turned right, away from their ascent route. This would take us up to a point south of Little Bear, and off the standard ascent route, but it would allow the other party to continue without worrying about us. It was loose class 3 scrambling, so we had to be careful about knocking rocks down, but it was easier than the Hourglass and we could relax more.

South Little Bear lies about a quarter mile from Little Bear on a connecting ridgeline. Eric and Tom expressed no interest in it, and though I had initially dismissed it, our route to the east of the Hourglass brought me tantalizing close to it. Ahead of the others, I thought I could easily reach it and meet the others atop Little Bear soon after they arrived. It turned out the point I had been looking at was a false summit and the distance was quite a bit further than I had first surmised. The scrambling between them was fun, but involved, taking about half an hour for the diversion where I had expected about 10min. Consequently, Eric and Tom were waiting some time atop Little Bear before I arrived, but they didn't seemed to mind and were probably glad I wasn't there to rush them off the summit. They were talking to a couple of other climbers, one of them the soloist who'd gone up the West Ridge, while the larger party of five had just started their descent. I looked only briefly at the ridgeline connecting Little Bear to Blanca about a mile to the northeast. It would have been fun and faster too, but would have to wait for some future visit. I was already resigned to the long way around and was eager to get on with it.

We decided not to hang around any longer so that we could beat the group of five down through the Hourglass. We descended the same class 3 upper gully we'd ascended, meeting up with the other party where the two routes converged. I thought there might be a short test of wills at this point, but they very graciously waved us through, which we acknowledged before quickly descending down through the Hourglass. It took us only six minutes to get below the narrowest part of the route where we found two ladies crouched and waiting their turn. They had gone into hiding when the party of five appeared above, but hadn't expected us to come down before them. "Do you think we could start up?" one of them asked. I recommended otherwise, and they resigned themselves to a longer wait. We were happy to get through the bottleneck in quick fashion be done with it as we started the traverse back to the West Ridge saddle.

With Tom out in front, I noticed that Eric had slowed considerably as soon as we were through the Hourglass. I kept both in sight as I played the middle location, noting the time and our pace and thinking it might be time to leave Eric. I first caught up to Tom to discuss it with him, then waited for Eric to catch up as Tom continued. Eric knew exactly why I had paused here, offering as a defense, "I'm moving as fast as I possibly can!" I pointed out that this simply wasn't true - Tom and I were moving at the same pace as we'd done earlier on the traverse but not so with Eric. I think once he had gotten done with the section he'd feared the most, his adrenaline levels dropped off and perhaps without even thinking about it, his body went into cruising mode. Now that we had gotten Eric down through the difficulties as promised, my concerns turned to whether Tom and I would be able to reach the other two 14ers before afternoon weather developed. Eric acknowledged this and agreed that he could probably get himself back safely. I darted off to join Tom.

It was after 10:30a when we got back to the road which we followed up to Blue Lakes where the road ends and becomes a single track trail. Ellingwood was a pile of gray rubble on our left (north) and Blanca a similar pile on our right (south) as we made our way along the over-ducked trail. The trail goes on and on, through boulder field and talus, past several lakes and petering out in several places before we spied a helpful duck to get back on track. It was after 12p before we reached the ridgeline connecting the two 14ers. We turned right to tackle Blanca first, the easier of the two and another half hour away. Just before reaching the summit we left the ducked route to traverse across the uppermost part of the NE Face to visit the Huerfano County HP high on Blanca's East Ridge. We found a duck but no register and hardly paused before climbing the ridge to Blanca's summit. We still had mostly blue skies, but clouds were beginning to develop and it looked like the monsoon conditions were returning.

It was now 1:40p and seemed like we were going to be the last folks atop Blanca today. Another pair of climbers had descended just before we had come up the East Ridge, giving us the summit to ourselves. We didn't stay long because of the weather and the lateness. It would take us another hour to make our way from Blanca to Ellingwood Point, mostly along the connecting ridgeline. Almost all of this was class 2 with acres of large talus to negotiate. We dropped off the ridge onto the west side a short distance while following ducks, but it probably would have been better and more fun to just stay on the ridge the whole way. After reaching the summit and looking for a little more excitement, I led us more directly down the south side of Ellingwood, ignoring the ducks that wanted to draw us more easterly towards the ridgeline. The route worked out quite nicely, even featuring some class 3 scrambling we hadn't seen since Little Bear, and dropped us onto the trail below its more tedious parts. We hiked back along the trail past Crater and Blue Lakes, happy to be on a trail and heading downhill for the rest of the day. We startled a small herd of bighorn rams near the shores of Blue Lakes around 3p. They were probably used to the climbers being gone by this time and looked a little annoyed to find another party still coming down.

At Lake Como we came across a group of three young men heading in the opposite direction. Tom paused to speak briefly to them, evidently they had backbacked up to the lake and wanted to tag a few 14ers the late afternoon. The sky behind us in that direction had grown ominously dark and it seemed certain to start raining up there soon, and we thought it crazy they would consider it. This didn't seem to deter them and they continued merrily on their way. Back on the road and below Lake Como, we began to come upon numerous other backpacking parties making their up to camp at the lake. It was a Friday afternoon, so this was the frontal wave of the weekend crowd that would make a temporary home in the drainage. Lower, we came across several groups of ATVs making their way up. We watched a group from Texas tackling one of the difficult spots, eventually working through it - looked like a lot of work. Around 4p and half an hour from our vehicle, we came across Eric making his way down. He had napped at Lake Como after getting back to the trail, and otherwise found ways to while away the extra hours. When we returned to the jeep at 4:30p, a large group with several trucks were trying to park and load their gear onto a couple of ATVs for the haul up to the lake where they planned to camp. The ATVs seemed to be overloaded with people and gear and we wondered how they were going to get through the difficulties, but I suspect this wasn't their first time doing it, and they still had almost four hours of daylight. They were happy to occupy our parking space after we drove off.

We drove back down to our campsite at the 2WD parking area where we took showers and a had a short happy hour before Tom had to start his long drive home to Southern California. Eric and I decided to camp a second night at this location while we figured out what to do for the next three or four days. We said our goodbyes before Tom drove off, leaving Eric and I to finish our beers with a few hours of remaining daylight. Life was pretty good it seemed...

Continued...


seano comments on 09/10/20:
It's too bad you missed the traverse, as it's the best of the "classic" 14er traverses, and no harder than class 3-4. Maybe you can head back while California is on fire...
Tom B comments on 09/11/20:
When we first met up with Eric 10 days earlier and you had promised to help him up and down the Hourglass, I was actually upset at you for sacrificing the traverse to help him. I wish I had your short-term memory but we'll get it next time...
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This page last updated: Fri Sep 11 06:02:26 2020
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