The Little Bear – Blanca Traverse

There are generally considered four great Colorado 14er traverses, i.e. ridge traverses between two 14,000′+ summits in Colorado. Now, there are many ridges connecting numerous 14ers in our state, but most of them are simple hikes or scrambles. What makes there be four great ones is the exposure of the ridge, at least 4th class scrambling, sometimes length of ridge and time required to complete the ridge, and especially the commitment level. The other three great  Colorado 14er traverses are the Mt. Wilson – El Diente Peak Traverse, the Crestone Traverse linking Crestone Peak to Crestone Needle, and the Bells Traverse linking South Maroon Peak to North Maroon Peak. Having completed the Crestone Traverse earlier this summer on my 2nd try, that left me with only the biggest and baddest of all the great 14er traverses: the Little Bear Peak to Blanca Peak Traverse. Still not being able to really rock climb due to my ongoing forearm tendonitis, its been a summer of scrambling high on our beloved peaks and to do some of the traverses that have been on my list for some time. I had completed the Bells Traverse three times in the past and the Mt. Wilson – El Diente Peak Traverse twice, but now having traversed the ridge from Little Bear Peak to Blanca Peak I can truly say it lived up to its reputation and puts the other ridges to shame in just about every aspect: length, exposure, 4th class/low 5th class scrambling, and especially commitment. There is truly no way off the ridge if something should happen, i.e. storms, lightning, fatigue, etc. You either complete it or turn around. At the low point of the ridge, one could scramble down into the Blanca Basin in case of emergency (as in to escape lightning), but this puts the climber in the wrong basin from Lake Como. The Little Bear – Blanca Traverse is truly one of my favorites to date and it was just so much fun and continually challenging and exciting. My good friend J Weingast and I have done a lot of ridge traverses in Colorado and I think we are both in agreement that this one was one of our favorites. This traverse would be the last of the four great Colorado 14er traverses for J, Derek Drechsel, & myself. Also, Derek & I would have done all the traverses together, which was pretty special.

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Rewind about 7 1/2 years to a late October 2006 attempt at these peaks for our first visit to the Blanca Group. We didn’t know what we were in for and my buddy Lee Hoffman’s jeep almost took a nose dive between Jaws 1 & 2 into a creek bed. Fortunately, the Alamosa 4WD club came to our rescue the next day after we camped out on the road. That morning, several of us and Rainier attempted at least one of these peaks, but witha decent amount of snow and no snowshoes/skis, we didn’t get very far past Blue Lakes in the Lake Como basin. So, not much (if anything) went our way that first attempt at these peaks. Live and learn.

Now, rewinding to Memorial Day Weekend 2007 before J, Kristine, & I left for Denali puts us back in this Blanca Group camped at Lake Como for two nights with all our good climbing buddies and furry K9 friends. It was the first time any of us had been to these three peaks (Little Bear Peak, Blanca Peak, & Ellingwood Point) and we had a truly incredible weekend climbing them snow-covered with our ice axes and crampons. Rainier was with us as well and was able to summit both Blanca & Ellingwood. Not only did she summit these peaks, she ran laps around the rest of us. I guess we were all in our youth back in those days. The climb up the standard “Hourglass Couloir” on Little Bear was exciting and made for a great, steep snow climb. Its a very dangerous place to be in summer or dry conditions due to rockfall and this is precisely what makes Little Bear to be considered the most dangerous 14er by its easiest route. So, we all vowed to never climb the “Hourglass” without snow. A little blast from the past:

Rainier & I on the summit of Blanca Peak in May 2007 with the connecting ridge to Little Bear behind us

Rainier & I on the summit of Blanca Peak in May 2007 with the connecting ridge to Little Bear behind us

Rainier & I looking off at Ellingwood Point & the northern Sangres from the summit of Blanca Peak

Rainier & I looking off at Ellingwood Point & the northern Sangres from the summit of Blanca Peak. This is one of my favorite photos

Our Denali team (J, Kristine, me) on the summit of Blanca Peak

Our Denali team (J, Kristine, me) on the summit of Blanca Peak

Kristine & I on the summit of Ellingwood Point in May 2007 with Little Bear Peak behind

Kristine & I on the summit of Ellingwood Point in May 2007 with the northwest face of Little Bear Peak behind

The "sun's out guns out" pose by the boys on Ellingwood Point

The “sun’s out guns out” pose by the boys on Ellingwood Point over Memorial Day Weekend 2007

Kristine leading the charge up the "Hourglass Couloir" on Little Bear Peak in May 2007

Kristine leading the charge up the “Hourglass Couloir” on Little Bear Peak in May 2007

Kristine & I on the summit of Little Bear Peak

Kristine & I on the summit of Little Bear Peak In late May 2007

Unfortunately, our good friend Reid Jennings was unable to make the climb and so that left Mike Santoro, J, & I driving down in my Tahoe from Vail and meeting Derek Drechsel at the lower Lake Como trailhead on his way back to Denver from Albuquerque for work around dark on Friday night.

Little Bear Peak from the 8,000' level at the start of the Lake Como Road. The start of this rough 4WD road can be seen on the left of this picture

Little Bear Peak from the 8,000′ level at the start of the Lake Como Road. The start of this rough 4WD road can be seen on the left of this picture

We all piled into my Tahoe with all the gear and started for my truck’s third time up one of the roughest 4WD roads in Colorado though I always parked at around the 10,000′ level before the really nasty 4WD sections dubbed Jaws 1, 2, & 3. The sections over Jaws 1,2, & 3 shouldn’t even be in the 4WD category – one needs a certified rock crawler for these sections. So, after driving around 2.5 miles up the road very slowly and over some tough sections in the dark, we reached where I always remembered parking and set up camp. Mike & I slept in the back of my truck while J & Derek shared the tent.The alarm went off at 3:30am and after some coffee & oatmeal we were on the road by 4:30am. The moon was bright as it was almost a full moon. After what seems like a few weeks of torrential monsoonal flow, we would finally get our bluebird Fall day. We hiked by headlamp the 2.5 miles up to Lake Como at 11,750′ in about an hour marveling at the Jaws 1, 2, & 3 sections and how these rock crawlers are able to navigate such serious terrain. Other climbers who had camped at Lake Como were stirring and headlamps were visible. We continued up the Lake Como road to above the lake turning south across a creek and made our way through the forests to the base of the northern access couloir to Little Bear’s west ridge. The last time we climbed this couloir was in snow, which was definitely easier than the scree-filled 35 degree couloir presenting itself to us today. However, we made really good time to the top of this couloir and the start of the west ridge.

Early morning on the start of Little Bear's west ridge direct

Early morning on the start of Little Bear’s west ridge direct

Heading towards the meat & potatoes of the west ridge

Heading towards the meat & potatoes of the west ridge

I had been wanting to try the rarely climbed west ridge direct up Little Bear after seeing Alan Arnette’s blog entry & video on his team’s ascent up the route earlier this summer. It just looked so good and I figured would be a good warm-up for the traverse to Blanca. And, the west ridge direct surely didn’t disappoint. Great 4th class/easy 5th scrambling on a super exposed arete hit us right off the bat above the “Baby Thunder” couloir.

J getting into the scrambling of the west ridge direct

J getting into the scrambling of the west ridge direct

Mike on an exposed 4th class arete

Mike on an exposed 4th class arete

A really fun slab portion of the arete. There was a piece of webbing slung around a rock at the top of this slab

A really fun slab portion of the arete. There was a piece of webbing slung around a rock at the top of this slab

J on the upper west ridge direct

J on the upper west ridge direct

The terrain mellowed out to class 3 about halfway up the ridge, but then more 4th class fun was to be had. J & I made  a few seriously exposed low 5th class moves out over the northwest face to avoid a overhang on the ridge proper, moves which could have been avoided by traversing south as Mike & Derek did, but it was fun and exciting all the same.

Me displaying this short low 5th class yet exposed section

Me displaying this short low 5th class yet exposed section

Almost to the summit of Little Bear Peak via the west ridge direct

Almost to the summit of Little Bear Peak via the west ridge direct

Me on an airy perch

Me on an airy perch

Northern Sangre de Cristos with Crestone Peak & Crestone Needle visible above the Great Sand Dunes

Northern Sangre de Cristos with Crestone Peak & Crestone Needle visible above the Great Sand Dunes

The boys coming up to Little Bear's summit with the beautiful San Luis Valley far below

The boys coming up to Little Bear’s summit with the beautiful San Luis Valley far below

We all reached Little Bear’s summit by about 8am for a time of about 3 1/2 hrs from the truck.

J on the summit of Little Bear for the 2nd time

J on the summit of Little Bear for the 2nd time

Little Bear Peak summit (14,037')

Little Bear Peak summit (14,037′)

The west ridge direct definitely goes down as one of my all-time favorite routes up a 14er. Highly recommended for folks who enjoy that sort of thing. I would think the ridge is even downclimable with maybe a rappel or two in there if used as a descent route. It was a gorgeous morning though a bit windy. The stiff breeze continued with us the entire traverse to Blanca so we accepted it as our climbing companion. We made our way down the northeast ridge of Little Bear from the summit to start the traverse around 8:30am. The downclimb off of Little Bear’s summit to the ridge proper is one of the traverse’s cruxes because of the exposed 4th class downclimbing.

Mike & I heading down Little Bear's northeast ridge to start the traverse

Mike & I heading down Little Bear’s northeast ridge to start the traverse

Mike & Derek on the downclimb off Little Bear to start the traverse to Blanca

Mike & Derek on the downclimb off Little Bear to start the traverse to Blanca

The boys downclimbing off Little Bear's northeast ridge

The boys downclimbing off Little Bear’s northeast ridge

We made it down to a small notch and continued on to the northeast up and over several towers and knife-edges on great rock all making for an incredible traverse. The sustained “airiness” and exposure was so exciting. We saw two climbers ascending Little Bear’s northwest face below us and we made sure not to kick anything down on them from the ridge proper. These northwest face climbers turned out to be Tyler, aka MountainMedic, from 14ers.com and a friend.

Climbers below us ascending the northwest face route of Little Bear

Climbers below us ascending the northwest face route of Little Bear

Derek on an airy move with Little Bear Peak behind

Derek on an airy move with Little Bear Peak behind

The climbing never really exceeded low 5th class, but it felt like more in places because of the exposure.

J & Mike on the traverse

J & Mike on the traverse

Derek heading down to another notch in the ridge

Derek heading down to another notch in the ridge

Me on a knife-edge of sorts with Blanca Peak in the distance

Me on a knife-edge of sorts with Blanca Peak in the distance

A climber can be seen on the summit of Little Bear Peak behind J & Derek

A climber can be seen on the summit of Little Bear Peak behind J & Derek

Mike and some air below him

Mike and some air below him

Traversing around to the north of a small tower - I think this is the tower dubbed "Captain Bivwacko" tower, but who knows. There are so many towers

Traversing around to the north of a small tower – I think this is the tower dubbed “Captain Bivwacko” tower, but who knows. There are so many towers

J & I had to climb it though

J & I had to climb it though

J downclimbing a knife-edge ridge of another tower

J downclimbing a knife-edge ridge of another tower

The knife-egde we downclimbed

The knife-egde we downclimbed

I believe this was the low point of the traverse - around 13,600'

I believe this was the low point of the traverse – around 13,600′

A nifty and fun little chimney

A nifty and fun little chimney

Me having some fun

Me having some fun

The first half of the traverse definitely was harder and more airy than the second half of the traverse up to Blanca though the 750′ vertical gain up and over three major towers and an exposed “catwalk” to Blanca from the traverse’s low point was a whole different kind of challenge. The middle section of the ridge was essentially class 2-3 talus walking and we made good time on this part until the 1st tower up to Blanca reared itself up in earnest.

Mike on the "walking" portion halfway across the ridge

Mike on the “walking” portion halfway across the ridge

Derek with a tower on the right and Little Bear Peak behind him to the left with climbers on its summit

Derek with a tower on the right and Little Bear Peak behind him to the left with climbers on its summit

Typically, folks traverse to the right (south) of the 1st tower, but J & I decided to find a way up and over as we always love the “ridge proper” method. We found a weakness in the tower at the right up a dihedral and to a left-ascending traverse. It was about 100′ in total of low-mid 5th class climbing.

Our line up the 1st tower went up the obvious dihedral right of center and then back left to the summit

Our line up the 1st tower went up the obvious dihedral right of center and then back left to the summit

J stoked to have climbed the 1st tower head on

J stoked to have climbed the 1st tower head on

We met Derek & Mike around at the base of the notch after the 1st tower’s summit ridge. It was then a short scramble up to the infamous “catwalk” portion: a very narrow (1-2 ft) wide ledge system with serious exposure on both sides. It made for great pictures.

Climbing along the ridge to the "catwalk" and the 2nd tower

Climbing along the ridge to the “catwalk” and the 2nd tower

Along the "catwalk"

Along the “catwalk”

Mike & Derek traversing the "catwalk"

Mike & Derek traversing the “catwalk”

Derek on the "catwalk" with Little Bear getting further & further away in the distance

Derek on the “catwalk” with Little Bear getting further & further away in the distance

After a short scramble up to the summit ridge of the 2nd tower, it was a short downclimb to the notch and the base of the 3rd tower. The ascent up the 3rd tower was easy enough considering what we had already traversed and we were soon on top of Blanca Peak around 10:40am for a traverse time of just over 2 hrs.

Derek on the summit ridge of the 3rd tower with the San Luis Valley over 7,000' below

Derek on the summit ridge of the 3rd tower with the San Luis Valley over 7,000′ below

The Little Bear-Blanca traverse from Blanca's summit

The Little Bear-Blanca traverse from Blanca’s summit

Looking north from Blanca's summit

Looking north from Blanca’s summit

Blanca Peak summit (14,345')

Blanca Peak summit (14,345′)

Its a bit lengthy, but here is a video of the boys reaching Blanca’s summit after the traverse:

I really felt great to have completed this traverse and we were all very pleased with how well it went. I would definitely come back and do this traverse again despite the effort in getting here – it was that good. The wind was still whipping pretty good and it was getting cold. We departed the summit around 11:15am or so and descended Blanca’s standard northwest ridge. I had thoughts of continuing onto Ellingwood Point with J, but my throat was really starting to get sore from the stiff wind we had been enduring for hours, I believe. I thought it best to get down and save my throat, though we definitely had the energy to continue on. Another time. It was a bit disappointing though because besides Ellingwood Point the only other 14er I need to have climbed all the Colorado 14ers twice is my original finisher, San Luis Peak. C’est la vie. Nevertheless, I’m glad we continued down to get out of the wind and we still had a long descent back to my truck. The hike down to Lake Como was beautiful and we stopped several times to refill water and take in our surroundings. Once back at Lake Como we chatted with Tyler and his friend who had descended down the “Hourglass Couloir” and were packing up camp. It was good to meet those guys. We got some good looks at the ridge we had completed as well the entire hike out.

Little Bear Peak from Lake Como. The west ridge direct follows the right skyline and then the traverse to Blanca follows the left skyline

Little Bear Peak from Lake Como. The west ridge direct follows the right skyline in the foreground and then the traverse to Blanca follows the left skyline

Derek's panorama of the entire 3.5 mile ridge line we traversed from the notch in Little Bear's west ridge (far right) to Blanca's summit (far left)

Derek’s panorama of the entire 3.5 mile ridge line we traversed from the notch in Little Bear’s west ridge (far right) to Blanca’s summit (far left)

We finally reached the truck around 2:30pm for a 10 hour day including many stops and rests on the way down. It was a great day out in the highcountry with my good friends. We feel lucky to have had such a nice day for a ridge like this. We packed up the truck and it took an hour or more to drive the few miles down the extremely rough (for a stock 4WD) Lake Como Road. After dropping Derek off at his car, we all headed north for some awesome burgers at the Steel Horse Grill in Villa Grove. Derek then headed back to Denver while Mike, J, & I found a cool car camping spot up the Marshall Pass Road off Poncha Pass and had a nice campfire under the stars. I helped them shuttle cars the next morning so they could ride the famous Monarch Crest mountain biking trail and then I headed back in my truck to Vail. My truck sure has been through the ringer with over a decade’s worth of 14er trailheads (many more than once), but the Lake Como Road continually proves to be the roughest ride we’ve been on together. The Little Bear – Blanca ridge was certainly all that it was advertised to be. I hope to go back there with Kristine someday to try it with her.

  • Carol

    Great job! I can only admire what you are doing, you all have such nerves to climb the edges.
    Outstanding achievement. We hiked Mt Blanca on Thursday, it was cold after the nightly rain and
    snow but it was nice to see all those beautiful mtn. Bless you all.

  • 14ers.com Wildatheart

    I kept looking for your ropes and gear but never saw it in any of the shots.

  • jbchalk

    Carol – thanks for your wonderful comments. Congrats on your Blanca summit! You guys sure sound like you were in the middle of that storm that Thursday with the recent snow. Well done. Best to you.

    Wildatheart – for those kinds of ridges, yes, I carry a small 30m/8mm rope in my pack, harness, a slew of slings and a few select nuts & cams; however, we didn’t feel it necessary to break the gear out for this traverse. Some folks would prefer the occasional belay. Its all a matter of one’s comfort level. The use of a rope would have definitely slowed things down a bit.