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Sunday, May 10, 2020

Little Bear Southwest Ridge

Date:   May 9th, 2020
MissionLittle Bear Peak via the Southwest Ridge
Who:  My friend Ali and I
Length:  14.5 miles
Elevation gain: Approximately 6200 ft.

Mountaineering requires an ability to keep memories of lessons learned.  We call this experience.  Yet, it also takes the ability to quickly forget the days that are exhausting, terrifying, or just downright painful either physically, mentally, or both.

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

I've been climbing with my friend Ali for a while now.  Since our first summit together on La Plata Peak in the winter, we've had some intense and long days; including a winter summit of Yale complete with waist high trail-breaking for miles and a memorable day on the Maroon Bells Traverse.

When winter of 2020 rolled around, Ali had one 14er remaining to complete the list of 58 Colorado 14ers.  The last challenge remaining was Little Bear Peak.  Little Bear is one of Colorado's most dangerous peaks, due to class 4 climbing on notoriously loose rock.  This mountain has claimed lives and will continue to do so.  It is part of the larger Blanca massif which rises nearly 7000 ft directly from the floor of the San Luis valley.  This mountain's lore starts with the fact that the granite on this mountain is 1.8 billion years old.  The massif is also known as a sacred mountain to the Navajo people.

I've always wanted to be there for a good friend's 14er finisher.  After my first climb of Little Bear, which involved a 19 hour day and me almost getting my head taken off by a boulder knocked loose above me, I vowed I would never go back.  This is where a mountaineer's ability to quickly forget comes in.

Little Bear SW Ridge in January 2020

In January 2020, Ali pitched the idea of Little Bear's Southwest Ridge.  I didn't want to miss his final 14er, so I was in.  That day we started from somewhere around 8200' on Lake Como road, and had an epic bushwhack across the dessert floor through Junipers, cacti, and brush so thick that we occasionally army crawled to get through it.  We quickly realized that starting from this location was a bad choice.  We made it to 12,900' that day before turning back due to exhaustion, wind, and lack of remaining daylight.  We were on the mountain and/or bushwhacking that day for nearly 15 hours.  

Just a little San Luis valley love.

On that first attempt, we were however rewarded with a spectacular sunset, almost Little Bear's way of inviting us back again.  And yet this day, this mountain ripped a water bottle from my pack and tore two snow baskets off my trekking poles. I also ripped a hole in a wind layer.  It was as if we had to pay a "price of admission" to Little Bear's Southwest Ridge.  Again, I vowed never to return.

January 2020 sunset over the San Luis valley.

In March 2020, I again broke my vow and we went back for a second attempt.  This time starting from about 8400' on a four-wheel drive road closer to Tobin Creek.  We made it to 13,100' before turning back due to heavy winds and near whiteout conditions.  On the descent, I had terrible altitude sickness with a splitting headache and I was incredibly nauseous.  On this day, the "price of admission" was a hole in one of my gaiters which happened when I fell into a cactus and one of my gloves was ripped open somewhere along the way also.  Again, I vowed to never go back. 

March 2020 - Little Bear Southwest Ridge

March 2020 - the sun obscured by clouds

In early April of 2020, I sprained my ankle badly in a glissading accident on Fletcher Mountain.  Ali and my friend Drew assisted me out and the next day my orthopedic doctor told me to use crutches for two weeks and then weeks 3 and 4 I could start biking.  Weeks 5-6 I could do "light hiking" and mountain biking was ok.  After 6 weeks, I could start ramping hiking activity back to normal.

Sad jeep : (
I was on crutches for 5 days.  I started mountain biking on day 6.  I was light hiking on week two.  Twenty-four days after my injury I soloed 13ers Dyer and Gemini.  Three days later I climbed Guyot, albeit in some pain.  

Six days later, a stellar weather forecast for Little Bear on May 9, 2020 appeared.  I knew how badly Ali wanted to get this mountain done.  I felt like my ankle was about 80%.  In my eyes that was good enough, knowing that the 4000' of talus on Little Bear's Southwest Ridge would be the biggest of challenges for an injured ankle.

We drove out the night before and due to a miscommunication we first drove up the wrong four-wheel drive road and then retreated and found the right one.  Then we decided to push it a little too far up a less traveled road and this resulted in driving through an increasingly narrowing four-wheel trail and the price was scratches down the entire passenger side of both of our vehicles.  

We stopped at 8300'.  We set the alarm for 3:15am.  I fell asleep in the back of my Jeep almost immediately despite being annoyed at the damage to my Jeep.  I ultimately decided to chalk up to the "price of admission".

We started hiking under a full moon at 3:45am.  The bushwhack was on; through the dessert full of cactus, yucca, and every thorn-filled bush you could imagine.  In spite of my ankle hurting, we made pretty good time.  We arrived at the treeline at 11,500' around 8am.

We were both feeling confident at this time.  We pushed onward through the loose talus that wobbled or shifted with every third or fourth step.  The weather was beautiful and we were both surprised by how little snow there was.  

Sunrise over the San Luis Valley

Onward through the talus we pushed, staying mostly on the top of the ridge and dealing with a few PUDS (pointless ups and downs).

Ali walking part of the 4000' of talus.

Here we started to approach some interesting terrain

This video taken from "South Little Bear"

Views of the ridge over to Little Bear.  It looks both fun and intimidating from here.  It was around here that I wished I hadn't carried my crampons and ice ax this entire way, because it was clear that our route was free of snow or ice.

Ali scrambling up the ridge.

Some class 4 climbing.  

This is the moment Ali reached the summit of his final 14er.  Smiles don't get more genuine than this.  I know this feeling personally.  It's such a tremendous accomplishment.  It demonstrates the dedication to a goal, the mental toughness, the physical ability one has, and grit & character.  And let's not forget the miles driven, the ability to overcome adversity, sleep deprivation, inclement weather, and downright exhaustion. 

Oddly, May 9, 2020 is six years to the day of the first time I climbed Little Bear Peak.  In 2014 I climbed it via the Hourglass, and 2020 via the Southwest Ridge.  Conditions were entirely different and a demonstration of climate change.  Just take a look at the snowpack differences behind me in the summit photos from 2014 vs 2020.

May 09, 2014 - summit of Little Bear Peak

May 09, 2020 - summit of Little Bear Peak

I was so happy to summit.  My happiness was mostly for my friend accomplishing a goal he'd been working towards for a long time.  I was just grateful to be a part of it.  

After a brief summit celebration, we looked back on the long ridge and the reality of our day was just beginning to take shape.  We weren't phased though.  Our dopamine levels from finally reaching the summit were at all time highs.  We began our descent with huge smiles and a new bond that only days like this in the mountains can create.

Ali doing a little class 4 climbing on the way back across the ridge.

Below is a video showing the intense exposure on this ridge

This is a SERIOUS no fall zone and the hand holds are small and not plentiful, but at least the rock here is solid.

Our descent was long, arduous, and absolutely exhausting.  We stopped several times.  Both of us were nursing minor injuries and extreme fatigue that endless talus fields seem to do to a person.  We were both rationing water too.  I had started with 3 liters and was down to 1/3 of a liter by the time we reached the tree line on descent.  If one were to try this route in summer, with the sun baking this ridge, you may need 4 or even 5 liters of water to sustain yourself.

As a final "price of admission", or so I thought, I again slipped and fell into a cactus.  My right hand landed directly on it.  Thankfully I had a glove on, but I spent the next 15 minutes walking and picking needles out of my glove.

Ali and I both were struggling with mental fatigue as 8pm came and went.  Finally after 17 hours, we reached the Jeep at 9pm.  While backing out of my parking spot back onto the narrow four-wheel drive road, I hit a big tree stump and ripped the side bumper off of my Jeep.  This was the last "price of admission". 

I still drove home content, with a smile.

A disclaimer:  There is some debate as to whether or not access to this route requires crossing private property or not.  Some believe you can access this ridge via National Forest, others say you're trespassing on private property.  Do your own research.