Little Bear is described as one of the most dangerous Fourteeners due to loose rocks everywhere and the potential for being hit by a rock flying at high speed. The standard West Ridge route smooth rock gully, aptly named the Bowling Alley (or Hourglass), is a shooting gallery and funnels falling rock like a pinball machine onto climbers below. Yet, it's one of the most interesting, challenging Fourteeners with sustained 3-4th Class climbing on relatively unmarked routes. Ascending via the NW Face (with no climbers above you) can avoid some of the rockfall danger inherent on the standard West Ridge route. The Tour of Little Bear ascent via the NW Face and descent via the standard route was challenging route finding, almost continuous 3-4th Class scrambling, and a lot of fun. It's a great adventure and highly recommend for experienced climbers comfortable with serious exposure and 5th class climbing in boots. A helmet, rope, and harness should be mandatory for this climb in best conditions, and a rappel will be welcome on the descent. With early season ice/snow or if caught on the mountain by rain, a rappel is the only safe way to descend the wet, slippery rock in the standard route Bowling Alley.
June 19, 2004, Kevin, Mark Bryan, John Mars, Greg Olson, and Doug Cook drove to the 4WD Como Lake road just west of Blanca, CO. Going west on US 160, turn north on CO 150 (which leads to the Great Sand Dunes National Monument). The 4WD road cuts off to the NE from CO 150 only about 2 miles north of US 160 - we missed the turnoff on our first fly-by. After about 2 miles on the dirt road, 2WD parking at 8,000' leaves a 4.5 mile/4,000' backpack. The Como Lake road is listed in 4WD guidebooks as the roughest 4WD road in Colorado. Even hiking the road, which is strewn with loose, round rocks, in desert-like conditions is difficult. The further you can drive up the Como Lake road, the easier the backpack. In 1998 when I first climbed Little Bear on a CMC trip via the standard Bowling Alley route, we were able to drive two 4WD vehicles to a small parking area at 10,000'. This trip we managed to get two high clearance pickup trucks as far as 10,400' where there were several parking areas along the road, one large enough for 8-10 vehicles and a flat campsite. Not too far beyond this elevation you encounter the first of several high rock steps, called the Jaws, which are challenges for Humvees and modified 4WD vehicles. One of the Jaws sections has a plaque that was placed in the rock in memory of a 32 year old person that died there a few years ago when (if I remember the story accurately) his vehicle flipped front over the back and he was killed when the roll bar failed. Other accidents have been by rolling vehicles sideways off the Jaws and down the side of the road into the sparse forest. The drive from Denver to the 8,000' TH is about 210 miles and took four hours. Plan on another half-hour to drive approximately 2 miles and 2,000' to where you decide to park it rather than break it.
We backpacked about 2 hours (2 miles/1,700') to a campsite in the forest just beyond Como Lake at 11,900'. Arriving at camp around 3 PM allowed us time to hike the 4WD road toward Blue Lakes and scout the conditions/difficulty of the NW Face route, which is rated Class 4, the same as the standard West Ridge route. Deciding which of the "black water marks" (described in Roach's 14er Guidebook) identified the initial Class 4 headwall was difficult, but we agreed on what appeared to be a line that would go. The route looked a bit intimidating, but we thought it was within our abilities. We would carry helmets, harnesses, a few small sets of pro, and two 100' sections of 8.5mm half rope. Although the NW Face was nearly melted out, we would also take crampons and ice axes for the descent in the shaded Bowling Alley which would likely have snow/ice on the route.
We left camp Sunday morning at 5:30 AM and retraced our steps up the road toward Blue Lakes. The Forest Service apparently prohibits 4WD vehicles from driving beyond Como Lake, but we didn't see any signs limiting access. Both lakes and the surrounding area appeared to be in pristine condition, with only a few pieces of charred wood evident when hiking along the shores of Como Lake. It's a beautiful high alpine area at 12,000'. Climbing quickly turned to 4th Class with breath-taking exposure. One section required a couple of high risk 5th Class moves, and we decided to rope up. Mark lead the section, and we proceeded to pick lines of least resistance up the loose, rock ridge toward the Little Bear-Blanca ridgeline. Above the initial headwall, there were a few cairns, but we generally followed our own best guess to try and find a 3rd-4th Class route. Although we tried to climb close together to avoid the inevitable rockfall from gaining enough speed to cause serious injury, John was hit with a small piece in the back of his hand (which required a bandaid to stop the bleeding), and Doug caught a small rock in the shin. No one was on the route above us, which would have made climbing extremely dangerous - or impossible. We didn't need ropes on the rest of the ascent which included sustained, fun Class 3-4 rock scrambling. We reached the ridgeline and headed up the "elegant, exposed Class 4 ridge for 300 yards to the summit." The initial 25-30 feet on the ridgeline was about 3-4 feet wide with huge exposure on both sides. (It reminded me of the Knife Edge on Capital Peak, but without the steep sloping sides.) Remembering to breathe, you focus on your feet and hands and go! We summited at 10 AM - a 4.5 hour climb of about 2800 vertical feet. (Per Suunto altimeter; guidebooks show 2150-2300' from camp at Como Lake.)
After a short break on the summit, which included congratulating Kevin on his accomplishment and presenting him with a Flaming Boot pin (to commemorate having climbed all the Fourteeners), we headed down the standard Bowling Alley route. After downclimbing an initial loose, steep section, we found the first of three rap anchors. The left-hand side of the gully had two bomber pitons pounded full length in a horizontal crack with several slings (unfortunately tied in an American Triangle which amplifies the load on each anchor). The slings were nearly new, and we rapped down the smooth rock, some of it covered with verglas, without setting up a backup. The 100' rappel took us to a lower angle section where we downclimbed to the next rap anchor point. Several slings had been threaded through cracks in a huge boulder, with one around the rock - which unnervingly popped up when loaded. Kevin backed up the slings with a cam, and we rappelled down to the next semi-flat spot with the last person pulling the backup pro. There was a rope in this lower, steep section of the Bowling Alley that had been left several years ago as a fixed hand line. I checked the rope as I rappelled, and I would not trust it. There were several sections where rock damaged areas had been tied off in a loop to isolate the damage. Other areas of the rope showed damage that exposed the core, and in one spot the sheath was cut all the way around the rope. Although this fixed hand line may be helpful as a last resort for desperate climbers, I think the risk of an accident from the rope breaking under body weight far exceeds any benefit. The fixed rope should be removed as soon as the lower section melts out from the ice. Little Bear has been climbed by this route for years without fixed ropes.
At the bottom of our second rappel, we carefully downclimbed some ice and hard snow to the low angle entrance of the Bowling Alley. For both rappels, we tied the ropes together in the European Death Knot (aka Double Overhand) to decrease the chance the knot would snag when the ropes were pulled. Both times the ropes pulled without problems. At the end of the second rappel, on the right-hand side (looking downward) there were two pitons nailed in a vertical crack. A couple of slings were a few feet downhill, partially stuck in ice. Another section of rope lay below in the ice/snow. It appeared this was another fixed hand line that had been set up in this relatively easy to climb lower section of the Bowling Alley. Apparently, either the slings to which the rope had been tied were cut by the eyes of the pitons, failed due to weather exposure, and/or had untied with use. It was obvious the fixed ropes were a safety hazard and should be removed.
It took us 3.5 hours to descend and hike back to camp. We didn't see any other climbers all day - amazing!! - especially for a Fourteener in June. With the unavoidable, very dangerous rockfall in the Bowling Alley, we were lucky to have climbed on a weekend day in relatively safe conditions and not been forced to stop during our descent to wait for climbers below us to ascend out of the shooting gallery. We hiked back to our campsite - an 8.5 hour round trip climb - packed up, backpacked down to the trucks, slowly crept in low gear 4WD down the rough road, and arrived back in Denver about 4 hours later around 9 PM. Tired, but with that strange sense of accomplishment inherent in mountaineering and pushing the limits of your abilities and experience.
Steve Bonowski adds:
Excellent report Doug. Thanks for the update on the road closure past Como Lake. As for the ABC designation, I will offer and contend that Culebra is definitely NOT boring, but in fact is a unique treasure. It's the last of its kind, a relatively pristine and untrammeled 14er. While not technically demanding on its western approaches as we all know, the scenery is spectacular with views from Shavano down to Wheeler Peak. I've also noted some interesting and potentially harder routes on the east side of the long summit ridge. Unfortunately, those are on the Crawford property, which remains closed to climbers, and one WILL get hauled into court in Trinidad on trespass charges if caught on his land.
Doug Cook replies:
Guess we can agree to disagree on the "boring" rating of Culebra! Unless it's changed, when I was lucky enough to get on one of the last CMC trips several years ago - and begrudgingly paid the $50 per head climbing fee - Culebra was just a long walkup with no challenging climbing, routefinding, or views much different from other Fourteeners. Agreed, it doesn't show signs of overuse like many Fourteeners - of course due to the limited access. I believe that if it wasn't a Fourteener and access was unrestricted, it would probably be in about the same condition. There wouldn't be much interest in climbing an isolated peak that was about as interesting as Mt Sherman.