Little Bear Peak
May 31, 2001 - West Ridge and Southwest Face
Little Bear had long been on our shortlist of peaks to climb. Rather than attempting it during the summer shooting gallery season, we decided to make it a snow climb to avoid both others on the route and loose rock to whatever extent possible. This also promised to be a classic turbo trip, departing on Friday at mid day, overnighting at Como Lake, climbing the peak the next day and driving back to Cheyenne Saturday evening.
We drove the Como Lake road to my last camp spot and then went another two miles to the second to last switchback before the road crosses over the saddle and into Chokecherry Canyon proper. I had seen street model 4WDs all the way up to the cabin ruins but this was far enough for my Toyota. We packed a tent and light camping gear and left the truck at 5 p.m. for Como Lake. The hike under load to the lake took a full two hours and we arrived just before dark and quickly set camp on one of a few flat areas melted out to ground. The lake was still frozen for the most part but the snow in the upper valley appeared to have stabilized from the prior week. I had remembered the first couloir on the Little Bear route having slide debris but now it appeared quite smooth. We also spoke with another party that had done Little Bear that day and was planning to move onto Blanca the next morning. We asked of the need to take a rope for the fabled steep portion of the climb and they indicated that they had not required one.
Our departure time of 5 a.m. came all too soon and we were quickly around the lake and putting on crampons for the climb up the first couloir. This snow climb was straightforward and we did not require any protection. Soon, we were atop the ridge and heading toward Little Bear. The route is somewhat marked by cairns but even that is not necessary as we simply traversed the backside of the ridge generally making for the second couloir that leads to the peak itself. Before reaching the second climb, we traversed a series of sloping snowfields but again protection was not required. I say protection was not required with an obvious caveat. We were both using crampons, had ice axes, knew how to self arrest, had practiced doing so within just a week or two of doing this climb, and found the conditions suitable for our skill, experience and level of training.
The second couloir is much steeper than the first and truly a narrow defile as often described in the guidebooks. The snow angle approached 60 degrees for perhaps a bit over one hundred feet before decreasing in steepness as one reaches the top of the couloir. We completed this pitch without running pickets but both agreed that had a previous party not descended in soft afternoon snow, leaving substantial footprints, we would have roped up and run a belay through the steep section. Once atop the couloir, the angle markedly decreased and the summit was easily mastered on a combination of snow and rock. From the top, one has the usual commanding view but can also survey the ridge route to Blanca. Quite a traverse, but one that will have to wait for another trip.
We descended the steep section and regardless of our efforts, managed to knock a stray rock loose. Quite often, I read guide book caveat for rock hazard on this climb and they accurately warn of the rock hazard on Little Bear. The one rock that got loose from us rocketed down the couloir bouncing off the walls and would have had about the same effect as a mortar round had someone been climbing up from below. We were confident that nobody was following us but true to guide book warnings, Little Bear is no place to be if another party is climbing above and we learned that lesson on a Spring snow climb when most of the loose rock covered. May the force be with any fool who climbs the peak below another party in any season.
We returned our made good time on the way back down the rear flank of the ridge and had an easy descent to the lake elevation via the wide first couloir, this time glissading down the now rapidly softening snow. The snow surrounding the lake had warmed enough to cause us to suffer through postholing for a hundred yards or so but we were soon at the camp, packing gear, and heading for the desert. As I mentioned earlier, the snow line was at the lake, therefore the hike out was a dry walk down the portion of the road best suited for modified Jeeps. We drove the last four miles to the highway and then stopped in a diner in Blanca for a bite to eat before heading north to Cheyenne. As is custom, we had passed an eatery on the way in and throughout the climb, badmouthed it based on appearance alone and dared each other to eat there on the way out. We did so in Blanca and were treated to service by a most bizarre looking waitress, a young lady seemingly caught between an impersonation of Elvira, the Queen of Halloween, and a rancher’s daughter. Sorry folks, didn’t get a photo of that one . . .
Climbs of Blanca Peak and Ellingwood Point, also from Como Lake . . .