Little Bear Peak is Colorado’s most dangerous Fourteener. The Peak is located deep in the Sangre De Cristo Mountain Range, towering above the San Luis Valley at a height of 14,037 feet. True to its name, you should not poke this cute bear, nor climb all over it because you may just anger the beast.
Lake Como, also known for being the most difficult road in America, is a 5 mile hike into the lake, where we were setting up camp that night. The sun was setting Thursday evening as we began the long journey into the dark. Headlamps guided us in around 9pm and we attempted to sleep despite the 30+mph winds.
We set out at 5:30am, a little later expected after a night of restless tent-flapping. The trail felt all too familiar, after all, we were just there three weeks ago climbing the adjoining fourteener group: Blanca and Ellingwood Peak. Little Bear Peak is 14 miles roundtrip from the bottom of the parking lot, and we were grateful to get the first 6 miles out the night before. Funny how easy a map can make the last mile to summit appear. We had at least four obstacles that laid ahead: The Talus Gully up the west ridge notch, the long walk across the south ridge, the famous Hourglass, and the ugly, exposed remaining route above the hourglass.
Kelsey and I began the ascent into the Talus Gully with little optimism, attempting not to look at the loose rocks above. With each step we took, a small mountain of scree would slide below our feet. The occasional larger rock would fall and everyone would simultaneously scream “ROCK!”.
It continued like this for over an hour, and we quickly made friends with the young climber coming up below us. Liam was a junior in high school from Fort Collins, and shared the same goal of bagging this difficult peak. We fell into the saddle with surprise, watching the early morning sun peak its head above the valley. There were jokes of this mountain being the only bear I will probably ever see in Colorado. Crazy how I have lived here four years and never seen a bear in the wild.
Let’s just skip the long, enduring walk across the south ridge, as it was a series of elevation de/increase, leaving us a bit deflated for the hourglass. We approached with confidence, relieved to know we were the first to summit and therefor nobody would be above us. The most dangerous part of this section, and the reason for previous injuries and fatalities.
Nearly an 800ft vertical climb through a chute of slab, loose rock, this section really requires technical skills. The routes are unmarked, requiring you to determine each hand hold as it comes. There is a measly rope, however the other broken ropes at the top remind you to not rely on it.
Larger rocks drop, regularly and unpredictably into the steep, narrow section below, potentially resulting in fatal falls. There is no avoiding this unfortunate part of the climb, and for that reason, every climber spaces out and gives other groups room to safely climb.
Just out of the hourglass it begins to open up into another large field of loose talus. At this point we are straight bouldering without ropes and cautiously practicing three points of contact.
I step up onto a slab, sending a small rock down the gully. Panic ensues as I yelled “ROCK!” loudly several times, hoping that the two guys below were no where near. No bigger than a book, I sincerely hoped it would fuze out and stop after a few plunks down. However, the rocks on this mountain are like dominos, each one setting off the next rock tumbling down. It picked up speed, hitting another rock and combusting into five smaller astroids down the opening until you could no longer see it through the angle of the steep slope…
The next few seconds of stillness were nerve-wracking. The three of us quietly listened for any sign of good/bad news. Not hearing a thing, we continued up the steep wall of focus. We were in the home stretch, and the peak loomed over us from above, tempting us to come closer.
At the summit, I felt accomplished, and cute. I would not recommend this mountain for everyone, because it’s not just the technical nature of the route that makes this climb so formidable, but the unpredictable nature of rockfall risk. I was so proud of myself for finally tackling it and proving to myself that I was ready for the route.
I can understand why the hourglass is difficult to share amongst other climbers; I learned how to plan for rocks that ricochet, and how to accept those who consider themself too experienced to ever drop rocks on someone else.
As always, the climb down was exhausting. It is often overlooked that just because you can get yourself up, doesn’t mean you don’t have to climb back down. The hourglass down was challenging, and ran into another group where we paused and encouraged them on. It took us another a couple hours to back-climb down the gully and across the talus field.
We reached camp a little after 12pm and quickly packed up, knowing full-well the hardest part of this journey was going to be the brutal 2.5 hour hike down Lake Como Road again. The rocks rolled my ankle across every switchback and my mental energy was just as low as my physical.
We stayed optimistic, attempting to soak in the last views of Blanca before jumping on the road again. One quick food pitstop in Buena Vista (2.5 hours north) before I would drive another 2 hours toward Aspen. I was planning to reset my body clock and repeat the climb, just with the most technically draining 14er in all of Colorado – Capitol Peak.