Oh Little Bear. How I’ve coveted and dreaded you. The crowning jewel of our 14er-filled summer. Also the one that spooked me the most.
Little Bear Peak is one of the hardest 14ers, right behind Capitol Peak, based on climbing difficulty and exposure. Capitol Peak is the one that had five deaths in six weeks this summer, which is crazy because prior to this year the mountain saw four deaths in the last SEVENTEEN years.
So Capitol has had a higher recent death rate, seemingly from beginner hikers trying to short cut around the infamous knife edge. But from my lurking on the 14er forums, Little Bear Peak is generally considered the most dangerous 14er related to the fact that it’s a crumbling mountain and rock fall is a significant risk.
Last we left off, we had backpacked into Lake Como and experienced some less-than-ideal weather conditions leading up to a class 4 climb. With the snow overnight, we decided to get up later (7:30) in hopes that it would melt. I peeked outside and everything was icy, dangit. And there was a giant cloud over us, but relatively friendly looking. The forecast was calling for no storms, so we delayed a little longer.
I drank my customary cup of green tea and choked down my customary bars. We started our hike around 8:45. From the base of the lake, the trail quickly ascends along the creek to meet a giant talus field within 5 minutes.
A few minutes later we arrived at the base of the gully. The gully is 600 ft long and has a mostly good trail up the scree field. It’s better than it looks from afar. Half way up we crossed paths with a solo hiker coming down. He attempted the summit but turned around at the hourglass because it was solid ice. Welp that doesn’t bode well! We decided if we had to wait it out then so be it. We reached the notch around 9:30. At this point I saw another hiker [and the only only other person ahead of us] atop the summit, in a giant cloud. We would make friends with him later.
From the notch we hiked along the ridge, stable rock and mostly easy. After the next notch the rock was less stable and there were multiple spontaneous rock falls ahead of us, making me loose my appetite for the rest of the hike. As we started up the hourglass we quickly saw that while the gully and ridge were largely snow free, the fourth class section was still in full shade and real slippery. Our hands and feet were numb as we started up the fourth class, every ledge filled with icy slush. At the narrowest + steepest section we saw it was fully sheathed in ice with a waterfall running underneath. Just how I like my fourth class, even more treacherous. The icy, steep pinch point was not passable at all, so we considered the fifth class wall to the left.
The thing with the hourglass is that you don’t want to hang out in it for long. It’s basically a bowling alley of bowling ball sized (or larger) rocks (hah), rocketing down from both people above and because the whole mountain is crumbling on its own. The section above the hourglass is a super loose scree/boulder field. We were expecting the solo hiker on top to come down at any time, raining hell on our heads.
We decided that it wasn’t a good idea to push through, the ice making it way more risky than it already was. Sooo we retreated in sadness. Towards the base of the hourglass we crossed paths with a guide and his client, who were roped together. The guide was oddly rushing up and kicking off rocks left and right, some onto his client, so we scrambled away as fast as we could.
A 10 minute hike away from the gully and we found a small rock roof to avoid errant rock fall. We waited 1.5 hours to let the hourglass bask in the sun for enough time. The waiting was filled with eating cheese and crackers, drinking water, trying to stay warm, and of course enjoying 3 bars of LTE halfway up a 14er. Definitely a good way to detach. I was hoping rock trundling guide guy would be down already so I wouldn’t have to be under him, but no such luck.
Around 1 PM we started our way back and lo and behold! Most of the fourth class climb had melted. Yay.
We made it up to the pinch point much faster but it was still iced over. Dan pulled on the fixed rope that was hanging down but it seemed to be loose AND it also brought down some rocks. So we climbed the exposed fifth class section [~20 ft of climbing with a 40ish ft or more fall potential] and I think it was the most focused I’ve been in the last ten years of my life.
Above the pinch point it was wet everywhere, so it was slow going until we were welcomed into the dirtyass second class section. At this point we saw rock trundling guide, his client, and the solo hiker. So happy we were out of the horrible rock fall zone as they were coming down. We talked to them for a while, the guide saying we were hiking this one in “conditions” and it wouldn’t have been his choice to hike up with the ice. Totally made me feel super hardcore until 2 seconds later I remembered that we still had to get down and dread washed over me.
So we’re above all the potential rock kicking people but now we are the potential rock kicking people. Dammit. So slowly but surely we made our way up. And BOOM we got to the top and its all elation and excitement but also some cold prickly fear to have to descend that mess. I tried to focus on enjoying it, but it was real hard to not let the unease color it. That’s ok, it’s part of the experience. We spent 15 minutes on top, enjoying the ridiculous views and marveling in the blue bird day. The foggy/cloudy/icy start turned into spectacular weather for 2 PM on a Colorado mountaintop.
Time to go. We made our way down the loose second class section. I thought this section was better than expected, I just had to go slow to not kick rocks down. Back at the fourth class section Dan was able to inspect the fixed ropes and their anchors, so we decided to use them. This made the wet/icy section much easier.
Then it was quick work across the ridge. We met up with the three other hikers from before, who were now hiking together. The solo hiker said he spent 4 hours on the summit, in a giant cloud, in ~30 degree temps waiting for things to thaw and contemplating the crazy 5th class traverse to Blanca (<–video set to some sweet music). When the guide came up and said he thought it was too dangerous, the solo hiker went down with them. We enjoyed talking with him about 14ers, climbing and canyoneering for the next hour – to the notch and down the gully.
Once we were out of the gully I could finally allow myself to be SO DANG EXCITED. Seriously, what a ridiculous mountain that we’ve wanted to do for a while. It takes [backpacking] effort to get to, and we had to turn back and accept that it might not happen, and then we summited it. Bah, what a fun goal and awesome adventure. A whole different beast than any other 14er we’ve done. On paper- 3.5 miles and 2,300 ft of gain – it seems trivial. But between the rock fall and exposure and mental challenge, Little Bear was far and away the most challenging day. Yay for 14er #39.
At 4 PM we got back to the tent and made ramen and ate a celebration Snickers. Then we laid around and read. I basked in the success for way too long. Part of that may have been happiness that neither of us got horribly injured. Ramen noodles + snickers + being alive = small joys in life.
The next day would bring a duo of 14ers – Ellingwood and Blanca.