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Sunday, May 11, 2014

Tickling a Little Bear

Date:   May 10, 2014
Mission:  Climb Little Bear Peak (elevation 14,037')
Who:  Brent, myself and 3 others from CMC that we met the morning of our climb (Uwe, Richard, and Darren)
Length:  10 miles
Elevation gain: 4000 ft.

Views of Blanca Peak (right) and Ellingwood Point (left) from the summit of Little Bear Peak.

17:00 Descending the gully from the west ridge 

"ROCK!  ROCK!  ROCK!!!" come the screams from above.

My head snaps around to view up the gully, and well above me I see a rock tumbling directly towards me and gaining speed fast. 

In the first split second, I was assuming it was like to two other rocks I'd been struck with that day, which were both about golf ball sized.  The quick glance above revealed this was no golf ball sized rock.  This thing was about the size of a microwave and was tumbling fast and gaining speed thanks to the rock's partner in crime named gravity.

Looking up the gully up to the west ridge.  Pic taken about 5 minutes before the rock fall.

To complicate the situation, I had just stopped and had taken my crampons off in preparation for a glissade the rest of the way down the gully.  My backpack was off sitting next to me, my crampons in my hand, and my ice ax stuck into the snow.  There I stood, unable to move quickly due to no crampons and no ice ax, not to mention legs that have been hiking for over 16 hours, with a small boulder barreling towards my head.

The rock started tumbling well above me, long enough for me to step left and see that the rock was taking that line.  At the very last split second, I stepped back to my right.  The rock hit my backpack with a glancing blow, just barely missing me.  I realized just then that if I was not able to shift a foot to my right, I wouldn't be here writing this right now.  Somehow I instinctively reached out and grabbed my backpack to keep it from tumbling down the gully too.

Thankful to be alive, I look up the gully and humorously yell to my climbing partners  "Hey, don't do that."  It wasn't until later I heard Brent's side of the horror.  He had just stepped on a rock at the top of the gully and it just dislodged.  These things happen in the mountains.  It wasn't a mistake, it wasn't because of a lack of care or attention.  It was just a loose rock that decided now was the time to go for a run. 

But wait, how did we even get here?  Let's back up about 16 hours to the beginning. 

00:37 - A restful night under the stars

I wake about 20 minutes prior to my alarm which was set for 1am.  I woke to 3 other climbers walking past our camp.  We had camped at 10,200 or just past Jaws .5 on Lake Como Rd.  I had opted to just sleep under the stars, and it might have been the best night of sleep I had in a month of battling insomnia.

I woke refreshed and ready to go, and after gearing up and eating a quick breakfast, Brent and I began the notorious slog up Lake Como Rd. at 1am.

03:30 - The gully up to the west ridge

Making quick work of the road, and a brief 1/4 mile on snowshoes around Lake Como and through the trees to the tree line, we were at the base of the same gully mentioned above.  This is where we met up with Uwe, Darren, and Richard who also had their sights on Little Bear's elusive summit.

Brent and I stashed our snowshoes and put our crampons on.  We began the snow climb up the gully in the dark.  Being my first time using crampons, I quickly learned how much it can suck to have a crampon come loose.  This happened twice to me on the way up.  After making an adjustment after the second time, this would be the last time I had issues with my crampons the rest of the day. 

We topped out of the gully at 12,600 onto Little Bear's west ridge.  It was still dark, and by the time we had removed our crampons the CMC group of 3 led by Uwe had reached the west ridge too.  After a brief discussion, we agreed to work together as a team for the rest of the climb due to the known rock fall dangers of the hourglass couloir. 

04:30 - The west ridge traverse

The traverse down the west ridge is often overlooked when people research this route.  And while it's not super challenging, it does have a fair amount of loose rock, steep snow slopes, and it feels longer than it appears on the map. 

Sunrise!  I just love seeing the shadows created by mountains.

Me along the west ridge traverse.  (photo Brent)

07:00 - Base of The Hourglass couloir

Starting up The Hourglass, I remember thinking to myself that it felt less steep than I was expecting.  Now, don't get me wrong, there's plenty of steep sections that got my attention, but I really expected to feel more fear.  I felt nearly none.  A few of the others in our now group of five were even sketched out by the steepness, the ice, the loose rock, or the combination of any of those.  I however was not, and I also still had a ton of energy.

Because of my energy level being so high, I thought we were moving a bit of a painfully slow pace that was set by those in front.  I told myself to be patient, be a good team member, and just enjoy the views and the climb, which is exactly what I did.

Brent starting up The Hourglass.

Brent at the top of The Hourglass.

08:30 - Out of The Hourglass and on some class 4 rock.

We went left at the top of The Hourglass at the rocks that often anchor some shitty old fixed rope that you would never see me using, much less trusting with my life. 

Above the couloir, there is still plenty of adrenaline pumping class 4 mixed snow/rock climbing to be done.  There's even an occasional patch of ice to overcome. 

We went through this section with ease all of us now knowing the summit was surely going to be ours today.

Looking down on Brent navigating some class 4 rock/ice/snow.

Richard navigating a tough section of rock in crampons.
Uwe climbing up the last section of snow before the summit.
Darren, Richard, and Brent topping out on the summit.

09:30 - Little Bear summit! 

"There will be a time when you think everything is finished...That will be the beginning."  ~ Louis L'Amour

Upon reaching the summit, I nearly had tears of joy in my eyes.  Over the past year, I've battled through the worst injury of my life, the worst depression of my life that came as a result, and several failed winter attempts for a variety of reasons.  This was the hardest mountain I had ever done, and this summit meant so much more to me than a check mark on a list of 14ers.  It was the end to a culmination of a series of events that I see as one of the most challenging periods of my life.  But it was also more than that.  It was a new beginning.  

We enjoyed the views, snapped some photos and had a few bites to eat. 

Summit group photo (minus Uwe who snapped the photo).

Views of the Crestones in the distance.

Views of Blanca and Ellingwood are just breathtaking.

10:00 - Beginning the descent - Uwe really shines

Uwe had pretty much assumed the role of our group leader.  It was within an hour of knowing Uwe, that I saw he was a great mountaineer with some amazing experience.  He was happy to offer helpful tips and he was just great in assisting others who were having some troubles on the mountain.  He is a group leader with CMC (Colorado Mountain Club) and he'd climbed Little Bear Peak six or seven times now, and he's even led a group up Denali one time.

I offered to Uwe to lead the group on the down climb, in attempt to set a decent pace that would get us out of The Hourglass before the snow warmed too much from the sun and turned to mush.  He agreed.

Down climbing from the summit.

On the down climb, I was confident enough to side step my way down, always with a good ice ax placement.  Others were more cautious and did a "face in" approach, which I had also used in certain spots.

I had one good scare above The Hourglass.  With both crampons firmly planted, I lifted the ice ax to find a new placement.  At this very moment one crampon slips and the momentum pulls me free.  I immediately jam the pick of my ice ax into the side of the mountain with all my body weight and self arrest before falling more than 3-4 ft.  A good scare, but no injuries.  If I didn't self arrest right away, it definitely could've had a different outcome.

Brent and to some extent Darren, had a slow pace down the upper class 4 section for a variety of reasons (crampon failures, fear, etc.)  I think they'd be the first to admit that they were both more sketched out on the down climb than on the way up.  It's one of those personal psychological battles that often take place in the mountains.  I've had plenty of these battles myself. 

In fact, back in the middle of March I had hiked up the Lake Como road solo, with the intent of climbing Blanca the following morning.  I setup a camp in that shitty little cabin before the lake.  While making dinner, I accidently spilled my food all over the snow out front of the cabin. I ate what I could and then lay in my sleeping bag unable to sleep.  For some reason the walls of the cabin and the wind making noises outside had my brain working overtime.  After trying everything I could to calm myself, I eventually just gave up and packed up all my stuff and hiked out in the middle of the night. 

The point is, fear hit all of us from time to time.  In this situation, I felt helpless as a climbing partner.  All I could do was offer encouragement, be patient, and offer the occasional helpful reminder of reality (like oncoming weather, etc). It happens to a lot of people, and it's often a growing experience or an eye opening lesson for many individuals.  I'm not going to lie, it was frustrating, because as a climbing partner of Brent's I felt an obligation to help, but there was very little I could do.  This is where Uwe really shined however. 

This is where we all waited as each of us climbed down the section above.  Plenty of rock fall bounced over our heads.

Uwe had sent us one at a time through this dangerous section (pic above) with a lot of loose rock.  I was the first one through it and sat waiting for the others, when a golf ball sized rock came bouncing down and somehow went around the giant boulder I was behind and struck me right in the face.  Thankfully it was a glancing blow off my chin, but I did turn my back to the uphill after that. 

In that same section, I heard Brent yell with a clear sound of fear in his voice.  It then stopped suddenly, which I knew was a good sign.  I would find out later that Brent had lost his footing and slipped 6-7 feet before luckily coming to a stop on a big rock below him.  This moment really struck fear into Brent I think, and once you add in the fatigue, and the numerous times he had crampons coming loose in bad spots and Brent was nearly paralyzed with fear/frustration. 

Uwe was like a godsend at this point.  Every time Brent had a crampon come loose, Uwe strapped it back on.  Uwe was even chopping steps out of the ice to provide more solid footing for Brent.  Uwe was doing anything he could to inspire Brent to trust his skills and gear and get down safe.  Uwe even offered to put Brent on a rope/belay, although Brent declined.  Eventually, they both made it out of The Hourglass safely and in one piece.  The unmatched patience and help that Uwe provided from the class 4 section above the couloir to the bottom of the couloir was simply amazing.  I am forever grateful to Uwe for this and will happily treat that guy to a beer any time I see him. 

13:30 - we are all spread out in The Hourglass

Richard and I were nearly at the bottom of The Hourglass by the time Brent and Uwe had started at the top.  Darren was halfway down, but while we were waiting, Richard and I had our own battle.  I asked Richard "Should I climb back up there and help?"  Richard replied assuring me that there's nothing I could do that Uwe wasn't already doing and that Brent was in good hands with Uwe at his side. 

Darren down climbing as Richard and I watch and wait.
We waited at the bottom of the couloir for nearly an hour wondering about how well or how badly it was going above us.  It was already past 2pm, the wind had picked up, and we all knew that the weather was forecasted to drop over a foot of snow on this mountain starting at midnight.  The wind was too loud for us to yell back and forth.  Richard and I were freezing and having muscles begin to cramp after sitting still for so long.  We finally just made the tough decision to just begin the traverse back.  We did relay a quick message to Darren and Darren relayed back that he could see them still slowly coming down.

16:30 - Nearly complete with the traverse 

Richard and I were intentionally stopping for long breaks in attempt to keep the bottom of the couloir in view and when we finally saw Brent and Uwe emerge from the bottom of The Hourglass a sense of relief came over both of us.  We slowed our pace in attempt to let the group of Darren, Richard and Brent catch up.  We all finally met near the top of the gully that leads down to Lake Como.

Richard on the traverse with Brent, Uwe, and Darren in the background.

And now... we're back to the beginning of this story where a rock nearly makes my wife a widow and where my daughter nearly became fatherless.  

17:30 - Glissade!

Immediately after the small boulder that nearly took my head off, I throw my gear in my pack, grab my ax and I start the fun glissade to the bottom of the gully.  I dropped about 400-500 ft. in elevation in about 2 minutes. 

At the bottom I went and found Brent and my snowshoes we had stashed earlier and sat down, thought about my family, reflected about life in general, and took some notes on my phone about the day full of adventure. 

Upon everyone else reaching the bottom, Brent apologized for setting that rock loose, which I had forgiven already before it had even passed me on the slope.  We exchanged congratulatory comments and took some pictures knowing that all 5 of us would remember this day for the rest of our lives.

Brent and I at the bottom of the gully with Little Bear looming in the background.

The slog down Lake Como Rd was the definition of slog.  All of us were also completely out of water at this point. 

22:00 - Finally!

Brent and I reached his FJ at 10,200' right at 8pm when the sun was setting, 19 hours after we had started.  We had both nearly lost our lives, made some lifelong friends, and summited Colorado's most dangerous 14er.  Now we had one challenge left, survive the 4-5 hour drive home.

The Blanca Massif.  Pic taken the previous day.