Do you know how to drive your friends nuts for 16 hours? I do! In two quick and easy steps….
Step 1) Choose to climb Little Bear via its southwest ridge legally from Como Road
Step 2) Use the word undulation 4,567 times in the 16 hours it will take to execute.
Little Bear Peak (14,037’)
South Little Bear Peak (14,020’)
Route: Southwest Ridge
Trailhead: Como Road @ 8,000 feet (High clearance 4 WD not required)
7,000 ish feet of gain
The southwest ridge of Little Bear is rarely climbed, you will know why after reading this. Most whom have attempted/climbed Little Bear via the southwest ridge start at the Tobin Creek trailhead at 8,820 feet which requires driving roads located on private property. Now, I am not scared of much in this life, but the Sangre de Cristo mountain people, them some scary shits when it comes to their land, so we figured we would keep it legal and start from 8,000 feet on Como Road. Part of the allure of this route is the lack of information on the inter-webs and the down right brutality of the miles as a whole. There is also no need for a high clearance 4WD vehicle. Living in a state with such easily accessible information and mountain summits, I become obsessed with completing routes that lack both and this happens to be one (at least regarding our approach from Como Road). This route has been on my radar for two years so I must write about it.
Chris, Allison, and I started up Como Road at 2:43 a.m. under a no mooned sky after some typical morning f’ery.
We climbed 800 feet up the road chatting about life when Allison jumped to my left letting out a shriek and grumble. Como Road is so beautiful.
Now try to imagine this at 2 a.m. in the beam of a head lamp.
We cut off the road around 8,800 feet and for the rest of the day there isn’t one inkling of a trail. We contoured between 8,900 and 9,100 for three miles heading east/southeast until we hit Tobin Creek. To be honest, even in the pitch black this part of the excursion went smoothly aside from one nasty creek crossing before Tobin Creek and some haunting thoughts of the Sangre de Cristo mountain people creeping through the desert scrub, machetes in hand — out for a morning hunt.
The creek coming out of Chimney Gulch was flowing and full of those really awful stabbing shrubs. Every trip report I read stated there would be NO water source along the way. Incorrect. In early September when everything should be at its driest there is the Chimney Gulch water source and Tobin Creek is raging (or maybe it’s all this late August moisture). I believe others said this because they started at the Tobin Creek trailhead and not 3 miles away on Como Road. After Tobin Creek there is no water source and one hell of a long, hot, time consuming ridge. If one is so inclined to do this route legally there is at least one reliable water source at Tobin Creek. That being said I carried 2.5 liters of water and drank maybe 1, but I am really into dehydration.
The Tobin Creek crossing is not that bad, I have whacked through worse, but the aftermath to get to 10,000 feet (yes only to 10,000 feet) is AWFUL aptly labeled “horrible” on the topo map above. Now I have bushwhacked by myself up Crestone Peak from the Cottonwood Creek trailhead so I am no stranger to the abuse the Sangres inflict upon those willing to go off trail but this is some next level shit. Imagine clawing your way up a near vertical slope on loose dirt/rock/talus blocks riddled with cacti and low growing Pinyon Pines, now throw in some blood stealing thorn bushes, wave the magic wand, make it denser than liquid mercury and walla you have the START of Little Bear’s southwest ridge. It is almost like this mountain does not want to be climbed and grew itself a vegetation wall of hell.
None of us thought about pulling our cameras out because we were to busy pulling cacti out of various body parts, so just imagine it looks like this but with thorns.
There is talus below tree line, but the below tree line talus ain’t got nothing on the above tree line talus. Talus for days, no talus for weeks, no talus for months but really talus, lots of talus and when I say it keeps going and going I mean it undulates forever until you reach the false summit of South Little Bear which has its own false summit. There are 48 false summits on this ridge. SO MUCH UNDULATION. The three of us are good at putting our heads down and slogging but it felt like five lifetimes had past by the time we got to PT 12,900’.
All of this was fine because I love the Sangres. Out of all the ranges I think they best match my personality, rough around the edges, abrupt, dark, grey, rugged, difficult, and inhospitable unless worked for. I love the dramatics of the rise and fall of their mangled cold walls.
As we followed the undulations of ridge proper it finally turned north towards Little Bear. With this turn we could hear the sound of a freight train, Chris asked if there was perhaps a waterfall the size of Niagara nearby. We all chuckled, nope just the wind and it blew with the fierceness of a starving pack of wolves hunting elk. This added an element of excitement to the disappointing climb we were about to partake in. There is information on the “technical” section of ridge from the false summit of South Little Bear to Little Bear. Basically stay ridge proper and use the west side to bypass a large fin. Passing the fin is the only time we really had to drop from proper and the climbing is very intuitive. The few reports we read amped us up for some difficult and exposed climbing, and after what we went through to get to the fun part we were excitedddddd, we earned our scramble!
This is the only way I know how to describe this traverse. As a trail runner I love to be able to get into a rhythm on trail, the mind wanders just enough but not too far from the task at hand, otherwise I would eat it. It is a wonderful form of meditation. Scrambling a nice aesthetic exposed class 4 ridge puts me in the same place, get in a rhythm and it’s a form of therapeutic meditation. However, there are trails where I can never find that rhythm, these trails are “unrunnable” becoming choppy and unpleasant causing disconnect. The flow lacks and while it’s doable and I do it, I will always prefer the runs where everything syncs together beautifully. This ridge was like an “unrunnable” trail, it’s doable and I did it, but eh. However, the views of the Little Bear to Blanca traverse from South Little Bear are epic.
That being said, there are some narrow sections with a good amount of exposure on both sides and the rock is very questionable. My biggest concern for this outing was the recent two weeks of rain/snow/ice the high country has been getting. Peak condition reports spoke of inches of snow and grapple being laid down above thirteen thousand feet in the Sangres. I have read many an account of an entire section of ridge giving out after a big moisture event and water deposited in the cracks of rock during freeze/thaw cycles increases the risk of a major rock slide event. The more people who use a route to climb a mountain the more likely the rock will be touched and moved around, the less likely it is to go. Point being, no one climbs this route so the whole ridge is one big ticking time bomb. While traversing from South Little Bear to Little Bear I was climbing in between Allison and Chris. Allison crossed a very narrow section, I crossed it, and then as Chris crossed it the whole thing gave out underneath him causing a large rockslide down the east face. It was absolutely sobering. We had discussed the potential of this happening and his weight was not entirely on the one section that went. Because his points of contact were spread out he was fine even though the ridgeline is forever changed.
We dropped our packs and went for Little Bear.
Next I gouged a hole in my knee.
There was no one else on the mountain but we were very careful climbing high above the hourglass, which for the record looks miserable. We summited at 11 a.m. eight hours and seventeen minutes after we started, wind roaring aloft.
Now to reverse the entire route. I would be lying if I said we did not have a discussion about descending the hour glass and walking out on Como Road. I believe this would have been WAY easier (although I will never really know). I have found that even when descending eludes to being a daunting task it normally goes much quicker than expected (not the case here) and when in dangerous terrain it is always better to go back the way you came (probably a better decision than a blind descent of the hour glass). The wind went from hurricane force to tornado like as we entered the eclipse of Little Bear’s southwest ridge.
After scrambling back to the false summit of South Little Bear and then descending 4,000 feet of talus in soul crushing wind, one could say we were growing weary. With exhaustion comes sloppiness and by the time we began descending the final 900 feet to the Tobin Creek crossing it was an all out shit show. We would track to far east and then try to make up for it and track to far west and all this through that thick wall of hell Little Bear grows out of its bowels. Still no photos but it looked a lot like this.
It is also worth mentioning that it was hot and we were all wearing long pants, long sleeves, and gators (an absolute must through this terrain). Even though Allison took a tree branch to the ass and put her full body weight onto a cactus she remained the most positive. Allison is my spirit animal and I am so happy to have shared some grueling days with her. I hit the partner/friend jack pot with this one. And of course Chris is my best friend in the entire world.
This is a small section of what the gps looked like.
One re-crossing of Tobin Creek, a threat of putting Chris’s head in a fire ant mound, 3,000 animal bones (probably mostly human), 28 tree branches to the head, an accidental encounter with a rattle snake, 70 undulations, and 16 hours later we were back at our respective vehicles.
Chris sent me this picture of himself at work the next day.
This is a great route to do if you hate yourself.
”Your life’s course will not be determined by doing the things that you are certain you can do. Those are the easy things. It will be determined by whether you try the things that are hard.”