Mark and I go way back. Not exactly dawn-of-time back, but he was working at STScI while I was in grad school at JHU. We met at the climbing wall one night and, subsequently, he introduced me to multi-pitch rock climbing at Seneca and to the woman that would later become my wife. We've drifted apart recently, but astronomy is a small world and things can only drift so far before they collapse again. Mark was on a 2 1/2 week Colorado tour and we agreed to hook up to "climb some hard 14ers and other adventures". He left the details largely up to me. [cue evil laughter]
I'm not as passionate about climbing 14ers as a lot of other people, but I'm happy to climb them if they're interesting. With my recent ascents of Mt. Sherman and Pikes Peak, I've completed the 14ers in the Front and Tenmile/Mosquito Ranges, so we'd need to travel farther afield for something new. I've also been itching to get out and take some late-summer time in the mountains to unwind from a busy, scattered summer. If said unwinding involved exploring new areas of the state, new mountain ranges, camping, and some challenging routes, so much the better!
There's nothing little about Little Bear! We camped in the meadow on the far side.
The Como Lake Road rises from 8000' to 12,000' in about 6 miles and is a nationally ranked 4x4 road, reportedly the hardest in Colorado. We managed to drive Mark's rented Jeep Liberty about two miles up to 8800' before the rocks got to be watermelon-sized and continuing any further was more than my nerves could take. The weather was hot, but we shouldered our packs and trudged up the brutally steep road. After a couple of miles, we passed a highly-modified jeep headed slowly down the road. Farther, it seemed amazing that anything with wheels could pass over the meter-high rock steps and loose gravel gullies that passed for a road. It was hard even to hike in this stuff with the ankle-turning loose rocks and steady, leg-killing grade. Still, there were recent tracks all the way up to Como Lake at 11,700' and beyond.
We reached the lake and gratefully set up camp in a meadow at the north-eastern end. Mark deployed the tent and arranged camp while I scouted our route for tomorrow up Little Bear Peak to the start of the traverse. Technical difficulties with the Whisperlite forced us to scrounge firewood in the evening twilight and boil water over a small but efficient fire. The stars came out and we set alarms for 4am.
As Gerry Roach says in his popular guide book, there is nothing little about Little Bear. (Indeed, I wonder where Big Bear is.) The standard (easiest) route up the peak is solid 4th class and helmets are a very good idea. We got a cold, predawn start but were quickly sweating with exertion. The first bit of climb was up a couloir which would probably be lots of fun if it were full of snow. As it was, we slipped and picked our way through loose scree and broken rock to 12,600' as first light painted the amazing vallies below.
Mark hikes the ridge at 13,000' as the shadow of the Blanca massif stretches west across the San Luis Valley.
Climbing up the Hourglass.
After gaining the ridge, we hiked north east along easy trail to the west face of Little Bear. The Hourglass, an appropriately shaped gully of water-smoothed rock, started at 13,500' and rose through a nice constriction. Three fixed ropes had been left in the gully and while not strictly neccessary, we were happy to use them in our ascent. We made good time and knocked loose only one small rock into the funnel below. Another few hundred feet of 4th class, high-altitude scrambling brought us to the jagged summit at 14,037'. It had taken us 3.5 hours to this point, but we were feeling good. Mark, unused to the altitude, was moving slowly, but moving confidently and well.
To the north east we could clearly see the dark mass of Blanca Peak and between us and it, a sinuous, razor-sharp connecting ridge. Roach lists four "classic" 14er traverses and this is reportedly the hardest of the lot. Go big or go home, right? It's rated as 4th class with a few 5.2ish moves thrown in. I've done quite a number of ridge traverses, but this one promissed to be longer and meaner than most of them. Mark looked nervous but willing, so we girded our loins and set out.
Blanca and Ellingwood (left) from the summit of Little Bear. Route-finding shouldn't be a problem!
Another view of the ridge from part way along.
The exact details of the traverse are a bit hazy to me now. According to the route beta it's a mile and a quarter long and is rated at 5.2.
Me doing a low-5th class traverse around a tower. There's a whole lot of nothing under my heels!
The rock seemed solid enough, but huge cracks shot through everything and it looked very scary. I kept telling myself, "This is a 14er traverse. Hundreds of people come through here every year. Anything loose will have been pulled off years ago. You have nothing to worry about. Trust the rock!" Still, there were a couple of close calls. A toe hold broke on me while skirting around a large tower and only quick reflexes saved me from a relatively mild ten foot fall. Another time, while traversing around the same tower, a 200 pound rock cut loose just after I'd finished using it as a hand hold. The rock went tearing off into the valley, exploding like a bomb and filling the air with the sickening scent of rockfall. Only after the echoes had cleared did I notice that it had ripped two long scrapes down the inside of my left elbow. Mark had a close call as well when a palm-sized stone shifted under him and went skittering into the void, nearly taking him along as well.
And then there were the towers. The initial downclimb and knife-edge ridges were certainly the technical crux, but the ascent from the 13,650' saddle to Blanca was guarded by at least four (six? eight? three dozen?) large, rounded towers. We would climb leadenly up one towerd and see that it dropped down a hundred feet to a notch with a dangerous, technical downclimb, only to rise again higher to the next tower. It never seemed to end! My GPS said we were only 0.25 miles from the long-anticipated summit of Blanca, but it seemed to take forever. At one point, when we thought we had surmounted all the obstacles except for the 3rd-class talus scramble to the summit, we discovered another knife-edge ridge. We were tired, annoyed, and emotionally drained. We just didn't want to do it and were deathly afraid that we would slip and fall. I focussed all my energies and moved carefully across on two feet. Mark crawled. And it happened again on the next tower!
Mark scoots on yet another bit of knife-edge ridge. I swear this stuff is overhung on both sides!
Finally, on the summit of Blanca. Mark looks tired.
After four hours of total mental focus, we finally gained the summit and looked back at the ridge from hell. We were too drained to be giddy and too shaken by the experience to be triumphant. Mostly, we were just happy to be alive in this amazing place. And it was an amazing place: spectacular views in all directions, soaring ridges dropping away on all sides, no sign of foul weather, and the sure knowledge that it was an easy couple miles on class 1 and 2 trails back to camp. All thoughts of bagging Ellingwood Point were banished from our minds in favor of a campfire, dinner, and taking off our boots on level, safe ground.
Looking back at the Little Bear-Blanca Traverse. It is every bit as evil as it looks! Lake Como is that tiny little lake down there in the valley.
Only it wasn't easy and it wasn't only two miles as I'd expected. We dropped down the north face of Blanca and quickly found that there wasn't really a trail. There were cairns everywhere, but short segments of steep trail tended to come and go interspersed with steep, brutal talus. We were off-trail as often as on and made slow and painful progress down off the summit. Even off the steep stuff, the trail was incredibly elusive and painful.
At long last, we reached Crater Lake and the bone-fide trail; still rocky and rough, but at least well-defined. We trudged back and arrived at camp at 5:15, 12 hours after leaving it and much more dirty and tired. Lighting a fire this time was much harder for some reason, but we were eventually able to cook dinner and gratefully collapse. I slept out under the stars until 4am when a sudden rain storm drove me back inside the tent for another few hours of thorough, deep sleep.
We'd planned on sleeping in and lounging around the lake for a while, but a careless remark about huevos rancheros spurred us into a moderately early departure. The road on the way back down wasn't quite as bad as the way up, but it was still no fun. In 2.5 hours, we reached the car and, by noon, we were sitting in the San Marco Restuarant in downtown Blanca, CO, enjoying burritos the size of our heads and enjoying the storm clouds gathering over the Blanca Massif.
It was a mighty, dangerous, mind-bending trip and I am exceedingly glad to have survived it. For now, my appetite for challenging ridge traverses has been fully filled and I will concentrate on other goals for a while.
|See Chris's photos|
After our tough times at Lake Como, we were really glad that the trail from the North Cottonwood Trailhead was smooth and level. We wound through gorgeous forest past a scenic, babbling river with the aspens just starting to turn under gorgeously clear blue skies. After a mile and a half of such buccolity, we turned north and started ascending steadily into the valley formed by the Continental Divide on one side and Mt. Columbia on the other. Chris and Andy located a spatious campsite at 11,600' just at tree line with a gorgeous view of Mt. Harvard and its unnamed sub-peaks at the end of the valley.
Hiking in on Saturday morning.
The view from camp at 11,600'. Mt. Harvard is the non-descript lump in the middle.
It was still early, so everyone but Amy set out up the valley to see the reportedly-beautiful Bear Lake at 12,300'. We wove our way through willows to the base of a prominent fin, then scrambled up increasingly difficult rock to the flat plateau above. The lake was, as advertised, stunning with deep green waters reflecting the ragged cliffs above.
The impressively blue-green Bear Lake.
To the south, Mt. Yale dominates the view.
The return to camp was a bit tougher, but we had a fine time cooking dinner and being social. Chris had, inexplicably, hauled in a pound of frozen shrimp, cans of mushrooms, baby corn, raman noodles, and various sauces, and concocted a really impressive Asian stir-fry that would have fed an entire platoon. Night came and we sat around watching stars for a while. We saw a bright space station pass and and Iridium flare before a thick fog crept in and made everything very photogenic.
Who says white boys can't cook? Chris whips up an impressive camp feast of scrimps, baby corn, celery, and other goodness.
Chris's impressive fog, moonlight, and campfire photo.
Mornings are cold at 11,000' at the beginning of September! We crept out at 6 am and stood around stomping and puffing to warm up. By 8, things had warmed up a bit as we set off up the trail. After an hour, we were fully hot as the good trail gave way to large talus on a steep bench above Bear Lake. Thankfully, this trail was well marked with tall cairns and we had no trouble staying on-course.
Mark and the view from 13,500' to the north west.
Luna rests on the way up her second 14er.
The climb up to the Divide was steep, even if the trail was in good condition. There were still 2800' to climb from camp and our legs and lungs protested the continued abuse. I found a really nice spot on the ridgeline at 13,500' and called for an extended rest. The views into the Missouri Basin to the west were spectacular and we could pick out probably a dozen 14ers on the horizon. After this, it was another long push to the rocky summit. The final hundred feet were especially hard for Luna over slabs of steep rock, but soon the whole party was ensconsed on the small summit at 14,420'. This was Andy's first, Luna's second, Amy's seventh, Mark's eighth, and my fourteenth 14er. (I have no idea how many Chris has climbed but it's quite a few.) It's also the highest point we've been on for many of us. Fortunately, Harvard was a lot easier than my previous highest point of only three days before!
Approaching the summit.
Amy, Luna, and Andy on the crowded summit.
Mt. Harvard is, however, a summer 14er and not one of the terribly isolated or technically challenging ones. We were quickly joined by another couple dozen people and dogs from all walks of life. Amy, Luna, and I started our descent and were soon joined by the rest of the party. The descent went without incident back to camp where we lounged about for a little while before packing up and hiking back out. Our feet were nicely tired by the time we got back to the trailhead, and milkshakes and burgers at K's Diner in Buena Vista definitely hit the spot. Three 14ers down. Did we have anything left for a few more?
Mark on the next-to-next-to-last tower on the First Flatiron.
This time, we started at the base of Baker's Way and effectively skipped the first two pitches of Fandango. Mark took P1 and got us above the first roof to a comfy belay stance. I took the second pitch, traversing across and easy slab, then up a complicated gully to a contrived anchor. Leading with Mark's rack was interesting as he uses a very different organizational system than I do and with a different set of gear. It's funny how used to a system you get, but adapting was undoubtedly good for me. Mark lead the crux third pitch and was a bit wigged by the lack of protection and spicy moves at the top of the second roof. Despite my protests that he ought to take P4 as well since it is the best of the route, I was stuck leading the fist crack to the ridgeline and the great views of the Indian Peaks.
The weather was great and we took our time in two more pitches along the ridge to the last false summit, then the unroped scramble to the true summit. Gliders soared overhead, tourists snapped photos from the rocks below and we were in no hurry to depart. Finally, however, we rigged the rappel and slid 100' down to the west bench. A fine end to a fine week of climbing and catching up.
The Wilderness Journal