Sunrise from Little Bear Peak
Sunrise from Little Bear Peak, Sangre de Cristo Wilderness, Colorado
Little Bear has a nasty reputation among Fourteener-baggers, and for good reason. The route above Lake Como begins with quite possibly the most ugly gully I've ever encountered. Every massive boulder seems poised at the angle of repose. Start a rock rolling near the top, and it can easily thunder down the entire gully, threatening anyone below. And that's only the beginning. After some enjoyable ridge-running and easy scrambling, Little Bear aspirants encounter the real crux: the Hourglass Couloir. This steep, narrow, water-polished gully begins with some smooth slabs. The easiest line, straight up the bottom of the gully, is often slick with running water. Most guidebooks rate the route fourth class. Twenty-five years ago I had "flashed" (climbed without a fall) a couple of routes rated 5.12a, a very difficult grade of technical rock-climbing. Granted, a lot of years had passed, I would have 30 pounds on my back and I would be climbing by headlamp in hiking boots rather than rock shoes, but surely fourth-class moves wouldn't stump me. It was the dangerous terrain above the crux that worried me.
The rest of the route to the summit, still 500 feet above, climbs up rubble-strewn slabs and cliff bands. The slightest mistake sends boulders as big as cannon balls tumbling down the gully, which by its nature aims these lethal missiles directly at climbers grappling with the crux. The hapless targets would probably find it impossible to dodge or take cover. Clearly I didn't want anyone either above or below me when I was in the Hourglass Couloir. Nelson Abando, a climber camped nearby, planned to do Little Bear the same day I did. Although he was in his mid-sixties and lived in Florida, he came to Colorado regularly and had already done many of the hardest Fourteeners in the state, including two previous ascents of Little Bear. This time he hoped to do the notorious traverse from Little Bear to Blanca. We arranged that I would start down from the summit at 6:15 a.m. and meet him at the base of the Hourglass Couloir as he was heading up. Our paths would cross there, so neither one of us would be above the other in the couloir itself.
I left camp at 1 a.m. on the day after climbing Blanca, thrashed up the first loose gully and reached the base of the Hourglass Couloir around 3:30 a.m. It was a cold night, and the water flowing down the base of the gully had frozen into treacherous verglas. With the easiest line made impossible, I was forced onto more difficult terrain to the left side. I tried one set of holds and almost immediately reached an impasse. Surely I had overlooked the best holds. The route, after all, was supposed to be fourth class. I felt around again. There were no better holds. I backed down to a ledge to consider my options. Did I really want to do this? After all, I would have to climb back down whatever I climbed up. There was no easy line down the back side of the peak for my descent.
I moved left a few feet and tried again. This time I was able to unlock the right sequence - a diagonal series of moves up and right on sloping, insecure holds - and reached a ledge where I could regroup. Some tricky scrambling still remained, and I moved carefully and methodically, trying to ensure I didn't pull a big block loose and go tumbling after it.
The view of Blanca, Ellingwood, and Lindsey from the summit was spectacular, but the sunrise light was muted by a cloud bank to the east. All too soon, it was time to head down. The timing on the descent worked out perfectly. I down-climbed the crux carefully and encountered Nelson at the base of the couloir. I warned him about the verglas and continued down as he forged upward. Feeling drained after the tension of the climb and two midnight starts in a row, it took as long to descend as it did to climb the peak. Although the shoot had been disappointing, I had no intention of ever returning. When I got down to my camp, I ate, drank, and collapsed into my tent for a three-hour nap. I still had one more Fourteener to climb before this marathon shoot was over.