Little Bear

25 Aug 2001 - by Kevin Craig

Bryan Barnett and I climbed Little Bear yesterday after a backpack in to above Como Lake on Saturday. My wife, Diana, still re-habbing after back surgery, joined us for all but the peak climb, though as a consequence, I was carrying a rather large load. She did manage to carry about 20 lbs though including her sleeping bag and rain gear. Fortunately, we were able to get her 4Runner up to about 9500 feet Saturday morning, which was a good thing since I was pretty whupped after both the hike in and out. Guess I've lost some of my Rainier conditioning.

On the way in, Diana witnessed a Toyota pick-up roll down the hillside at the obstacle known as Jaws 2. Bryan and I were a ways ahead on the trail when we got an urgent radio call from Diana. The truck rolled down the hillside about 200-300 feet to the creek bottom turning over about 15 times in the process. Amazingly, the driver survived with only a few cuts and, I'm sure, bruises. Fortunately, there were lots of other 4WD types around to help out. On our way out yesterday, we found the truck at the TH & I got some pictures. How they got it out, I have no idea.

Diana played good Samaritan one more time on the way in, bringing a lost dog back to her owner at Como Lake. Bryan and I had passed the dog on the way up and we radioed back to Diana that someone was looking for the dog at the Lake.

Both on the road and at Como Lake we saw just a ton (well, actually I suppose several tons) of 4WD vehicles. We camped above the lake, just across the stream from the notch in the LB ridge, but still heard vehicles coming up at 10-11 PM. Diana found some up at Blue Lakes the next day too, though we thought they were prohibited above Como Lake. Everyone was pretty friendly though.

Anyway, the climb yesterday was great fun. We had just amazing weather, not a cloud in the sky all day. We hit the trail at about 6:10AM to avoid having any other folks ahead of us. The slog up the scree slope to the Notch was tough but we were rewarded with an incredible view of the San Luis valley at (local) sunrise with the shadow of the Blanca massif stretching a long way out into the valley. The traverse to the "bowling alley" went well and quickly; there's a pretty well- cairned trail there now. By the time we reached the bowling alley, another group of 2 from Elizabeth, CO caught up with us and we climbed as a party of 4 to avoid knocking rock down on each other. There was only a small amount of water running down the center of the gully but was frozen into verglass in a few places. We mostly climbed the more solid rock on the left of the gully. There was purple 9'ish mm rope hanging down the center of the gully with a leather belt attached to the bottom. At the time, I assumed this was the one left by Lee Hendrick's party about a month ago when it snagged when they tried to pull it and conditions were to slippery to re-climb and free it (more on this later).

Some fun scrambling above the gully including a move or two of 5.0 brought us to the summit at 8:40. We were surprised that the climb went that fast, and a radio call to Diana found her still in her sleeping bag.

The views from the top were amazing! Clear blue sky from horizon to horizon. The LB/Blanca ridge is quite intimidating. Yesterday would definitely have been the day to run it, though, as the weather was awesome. 2 young guys arrived at the top shortly after with the stated intention of doing the traverse. Between them, they didn't have one piece of non-cotton clothing (one guys was wearing sweat pants); both were in approach shoes, only one had a (very small) pack; no rope, no pro, no sense(?). Well, I guess Mallory and that entire generation climbed high on Everest without much better gear. Anyway, they set off for Blanca and I have to assume they made it since there's no easy way off the ridge without a rope and we didn't see any helicopters circling by day's end.

The LB summit register had been placed a year ago July and still had about 3 clean pages in it. I gave the register that I brought up to the young studs doing the traverse since the guys from Elizabeth had been on Blanca on Sat. and said the register was missing.

We stayed on top for about 20 minutes. When another group of 2 arrived, we all decided to climb down together to again avoid knocking rock on each other. At the top of the bowling alley, I found the top of the purple rope. I had planned to un-snag it and bring it down for Lee's friend. I found, though, that it had been fixed at the top with a sling around a boulder. At this point, I couldn't decide if it was Lee's friend's rope or not. Either someone else found it and rigged it as a fixed line or this was a different rope. I recalled that, on the climb, there were a couple of knots in the rope, possibly where it had been cut by rockfall. Anyway, after much consideration, I decided to leave it in place. It was furthering public safety and wouldn't have been much use to Lee's friend in the condition it was in.

We allowed the other four climbers to down-climb the bowling alley before throwing our ropes for the rappel. I had purchased a pair of 50m Beal 8.1mm "Ice Line" half-ropes for the trip to save weight. Getting these thrown down the low-angle gully was quite a project as the thin lines really wanted to tangle, plus there was a bit of a breeze. After 3 tries each, I got them down but after knocking a fair amount of rock down as a consequence of throwing and pulling back up. A valuable lesson.

Bryan backed up the fixed, 3 piton anchor with a couple of tri-cams and I rapped first. I was feeling bad about rapping rather than down-climbing until I hit the verglassed section of rock. Experience this year has taught me how quickly a sporty jaunt can turn into a mini-epic, and I was happy we were rappin' (especially since, given the great weather, security was more important than speed). About 30-40 feet from the end of the ropes, I found a spot where (apparently) rockfall had cut entirely through the sheath of one of my new ropes! :^( This was also very instructive as none of the rocks we knocked down were even remotely large. I resolved *never* to venture into the mountains without double ropes.

I scrambled off to the side and Bryan pulled the backups and rapped down. Fortunately, we were able to get our ropes pulled without snagging or additional rock fall. Of interest, and in spite of Bryan's justified skepticism (I never really trusted this knot until Craig Leubben told me he uses it a lot), I used the "Euro-death-knot" (i.e. double overhand) to join the ropes for this rappel since the gully was low angle with lots of spots for a rope to snag. It worked like a charm and we could see how the knots turned up at a couple of ledges to allow the rope to run freely.

The descent went well though the climb down from the notch is 4th class dirt in a couple of sections and unpleasant everywhere. We met up with Diana who was lounging on a rock across the stream after her trip up to Crater Lake and did some lounging ourselves before packing up and heading down the road to the 4Runner. As always, the hike out was hot and a real foot-banger due to its steepness and the loose rock that's always churned up by the 4WD vehicles.

The drive down to the trailhead took us about an hour after which we stopped at the Navajo Trail restaurant in Ft. Garland (passable Mexican) before pointing the 4Runner towards Denver.

All in all a really great trip. Both Bryan and I felt that the climb was a blast, but that the difficulty and danger were a bit over-rated, at least in the condition we found it. Reminiscent of The Bells, but at least on LB, the underlying rock is pretty solid (unlike the Elk Range). A very fun and recommended climb.

Most of all, it was great to have my lovely wife along with me in the mountains again! Thanks also to Bryan for being a great and companionable partner.

So I guess it's off to the San Juans over Labor Day to try to bag my last 4 14'ers (well, except for Culebra).

Steve Bonowski adds:

Kevin: great write-up. Regarding the status of the Como Lake Road, it is open to motorized use all the way to the end. The district ranger decision to close the road at the west side of Como Lake was upheld on appeal to the regional forester several years ago. Due to immense opposition to any controls from the motorized community, the record of decision has never been implemented. CMC continues to discuss this issue with the FS at sporadic intervals.


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