Little Bear Peak (14,037 ft.)
This is how Merriam-Webster defines community:
1 : a unified body of individuals: as a: state, commonwealth
b: the people with common interests living in a particular area; broadly : the area itself [the problems of a large community]
c: an interacting population of various kinds of individuals (as species) in a common location
d: a group of people with a common characteristic or interest living together within a larger society [a community of retired persons]
e: a group linked by a common policy
f: a body of persons or nations having a common history or common social, economic, and political interests [the international community]
g: a body of persons of common and especially professional interests scattered through a larger society [the academic community]
2: society at large
3 a: joint ownership or participation [community of goods]
b: common character : likeness [community of interests]
c: social activity : fellowship
d: a social state or condition
Good things have generally not happened to me in my life in the past. Members of 14ers.com have been more than a community in the strictest sense of the word to me over the years — they have been like a family — and that has been one good thing. For someone like me, they are the only people who I have to look up to and inspire me. I can honestly say that I consider some of them brothers and sisters; they hold a special place in my life, and for that I am thankful. I would not be the person that I am today if not for them. I don’t consider myself a bad or inconsiderate person in the least. I pay-it-forward when I can and without the positive influences in my life today, I would not enjoy my life as it has been given to me.
How do you repay a community for inspiring you? How do you thank so many people for the kindness, generosity, and friendship that has been given? I only have words for now, but I hope that someday I can give back to to so many people who have been such a positive influence in my life in the absence of a biological family. One of the greatest gifts you can give to those who have inspired you is to succeed. I hope I have and will continue to do so. I’ll then be able to give back some of what has been given to me. Perhaps I’ll inspire others someday.
When I was laid-off last week, I had a lot of well-wishes and a couple generous offers. Due to my job search I was not able to accept a few of those offers, but thanks to some unexpected vacation pay I was able to go on a climb that I never expected that I’d do — Little Bear Peak. When Britt, one of the community’s members, posted that he wasn’t going to be able to make the climb without a ride to the trailhead, I contacted him to let him know that I was interested in carpooling with him. We were going to climb with Kiefer, Steph, Mike, and Dani. I made plans with Britt to pick him up at his house at 1:30 AM and meet the rest of our group at the Lake Como Trailhead.
I arrived at Britt’s house and was surprised to find Kiefer and Steph there. They decided to stay the night instead of driving all the way to the trailhead. We ended up leaving around 2:00; Mike and Dani were parked on the side of the interstate in Colorado Springs and would be watching for us. They joined our caravan down to the trailhead. We arrived around 5:00 and hit the trail around 5:20 or so.
Britt, Kiefer, Steph, Mike, Dani, and I reached Tobin Creek in the gully and carefully descended toward it. The creek was flowing and there were some areas of snow and ice, so we made our way carefully down. On the other side was another gully that led us further up onto the ridge. Out of the gully, we started spotting some surveyor’s tape left by Search & Rescue a few years ago during a recovery mission and followed the trail up the ridge. With a heavier backpack than my comrades (Britt’s was probably as heavy as mine, though), I quickly started falling behind. I reassured everyone, though, that I would be alright. I was the only member of the group who had been up the southwest ridge before and was capable of making it on my own.
The weather that morning was spectacular; we stopped after about twenty minutes into the hike for almost everyone to strip off a layer of clothing. Because I normally hike in a baselayer and a shell, I didn’t need to do so. We bushwhacked through some vegetation to gain the ridge and soon found ourselves among the evergreens as we continued our journey upward. Sunlight continued to illuminate the landscape and we soon found ourselves approaching treeline. Mike and Dani pulled far ahead of the rest of the group; while I was still bringing up the rear, I was starting to catch up to the others, though. I found that snacking on a few things gave me the energy to do so. I looked at my GPS; we hadn’t even reached 12,000 feet yet. The top of the ridge was at about 12,833 if I remembered correctly. This wasn’t the easiest ascent and we had a lot of ridge to go to reach South Little Bear. I had no idea what the snow conditions would be like on top of the ridge, but I hoped that they would be favorable.
Britt, Kiefer, and Steph on Little Bear’s Soutwest Ridge
I met Kiefer at the top of the ridge and we talked for a few minutes. Even though we were technically close to South Little Bear, we still had a long way to go. There was snow on the ridge and that would certainly slow our progress. Kiefer continued on with Britt and Steph while I took a few minutes to rest and take some photos. Britt told me the day before that South Little Bear was his goal for the day; I had resigned myself to only that summit because I didn’t want to keep anyone else from traversing over to Little Bear Peak, but from my vantage point the traverse didn’t look like it would be too difficult as there wasn’t much snow on the connecting ridge between the summits. I would have to make a judgment call once I summited South Little Bear. Weather (well, other than potential winds) wouldn’t be much of a factor, so for that I was thankful.
The only navigational issues that one would experience along this route would be getting up the ridge. Once there, it’s pretty straight-forward. On top of the ridge, the path is simple and the goal is plain to see. There was a bit of snow just below the false summit that gave me pause for a moment, but I remembered staying close to the edge on the left which seemed clear of snow. During one of our stops, I informed my partners that there was a small knife edge just beyond the false summit. The knife edge was southeast-facing, so I didn’t know if the bypass route under it was going to be snow-free. I wanted to cross the knife edge like I did before back in June, but I didn’t think I was going to be able to catch up to the rest of the group before they reached the area.
One of the goals that I’d like to achieve is to always learn something new on any of the hikes or climbs that I go on. To do so, I mostly have to go on these trips with individuals who are more experienced than I am. On this particular excursion, this was certainly the case. Kiefer and Steph had been mountaineering for years before I even entered the scene and Britt had been involved in winter activities for the past couple of years. I didn’t know too much about Mike other than a few brief conversations when I met him for the first time on my first winter attempt on Humboldt, but I knew at one time he was involved with the Colorado Mountain Club, had numerous Colorado summits under his belt, had climbed Rainier, and had a solid reputation for being a strong hiker/climber. I had only met his wife, Dani, at the start of the day, but it was clear that she was more than capable of handling a trip of this caliber.
On my way up, I kept to the far left next to the edge of the ridge as much as possible because it was mostly snow-free. When I reached the false summit and topped out over it, I saw that Britt was already beyond the area of the knife edge and Kiefer and Steph were crossing the snow below it. I didn’t know which route Britt took (I later found out that he bypassed it as well), but I was determined to cross it (plus, I didn’t feel like taking my backpack off to get my ice axe out). I sort of half-leapt onto the edge and thought I heard someone call-out my name in the process, but I was way too focused to stop. The smooth rock faces on either side didn’t give me much purchase (especially with wet boots), but I made it across without much difficulty. Britt, Kiefer, and Steph continued to scramble up ahead of me as the summit of South Little Bear wasn’t that much further ahead.
I anticipated being able to rest for a few minutes once I reached the summit of South Little Bear, but when I arrived I saw that Kiefer and Steph were already preparing to depart to Little Bear’s summit. On the other side, I saw Mike and Dani starting to descend Little Bear and head our way. “You coming?” Kiefer asked. Having just summited with a 35-lb backpack, I was tired and wasn’t entirely sure. Down below, we had discussed leaving the packs on South Little Bear and traversing without them since they were heavier than any of us would have liked. I told Kiefer that’s what we did the last time I was on the traverse. I took off my backpack and sat down while watching them begin the traverse. I looked down at my pack; the ice axe seemed to be taunting me. I unbuckled my helmet and put it on, then unfastened the axe and felt its weight. I secured the leash around my right arm and stood up.
“Yeah, I think so,” I replied. I didn’t know exactly how far I was going to go, but I figured I’d give it a shot. As I started the descent of South Little Bear, I think I got a couple of surprised looks from Kiefer and Steph though it didn’t feel like I was unwelcome. I also noticed their ice axes on the ridge. “You leaving your axes?” I called out and they both nodded in affirmation. Kiefer tried to guide me down from South Little Bear, but I couldn’t hear him because the wind was starting to pick up. I made it down to them without any issues and we continued on together. From the summit, we stayed on the left side of the ridge and descended onto a small avenue below us before climbing back up to the top of the ridge. The last time I did the traverse, I remembered walking directly on top of the ridge for a bit of a distance. Once we rounded a rock, we did find ourselves on top. Snow covered a good portion of the surface I remembered walking over, so I we all basically scooted over the narrow portions. About half-way through, we crossed paths with Mike and Dani. We stopped for a few minutes to talk to them.
“Terry,” Mike said, “this is a great route. I’m envious that this is your second time getting to do it!” I appreciated the compliment, but I wasn’t so sure that I shared his enthusiasm! The last time I was up there it took us nearly fifteen hours to return to the trailhead. I had broken a couple of toenails and had blisters, so I wasn’t exactly sure why I was back up there again so soon, heh.
Mike and Dani mentioned that they would wait for us for a bit at the vehicle and we bade each other farewell as we continued on our quest to summit Little Bear. The crux of the traverse was coming up — a down-climb into a notch which was at the top of the hourglass couloir. This was the part I was most worried about; if the rock held snow or was covered by ice, a slip could prove fatal. When we climbed down from the top of the ridge and approached the notch, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the rock was dry. Kiefer descended first, then Steph, and me last. We crossed the notch and Kiefer commented, “This is great!”
“I can’t believe I’m about to summit Little Bear in the winter,” I told him.
“Fucking-a, man,” was his retort.
A short scramble later, Kiefer, Steph, and I walked triumphantly to the summit of Little Bear Peak. For me, it was an accomplishment that I didn’t expect. After all — this is my first winter actually attempting to summit the state’s 14ers. I felt a kind of confidence that I didn’t even know I was capable of. Summiting Little Bear was something that definitely was not in my sights. I remember Kiefer congratulating me among other things, but everything was kind of lost in the moment. What I do remember saying to him was, “Sometimes, people will surprise you.” I was just glad that I was able to join him and Steph for this winter summit.
Steph and Kiefer on Little Bear
Even though it was really warm for a late-winter day, we didn’t want to loiter for too long since the journey back down the southwest ridge was going to be long and arduous. The three of us quickly descended off of Little Bear and climbed back up the other side of the notch before gaining the top of the ridge again. We scrambled our way back toward South Little Bear without any difficulties. I expected the traverse to be a lot more difficult in the winter, but fortunately there was a lot of exposed rock on the spicier sections which made it relatively simple and more importantly — relatively safe. We climbed back up to the summit of South Little Bear and rejoined Britt. I had informed them that I needed to consume some significant nutrition before we started on the long journey back to the trailhead.
Looking down on Little Bear Lake during the traverse
After resting for a few minutes, we packed up and started down. When we reached the knife edge area, the descent became a little more treacherous. Winds had picked up and were blasting us in the face. Britt, Kiefer, and Steph decided to bypass the knife edge down low again. There was a section of smooth rock that proved to be more than just a minor annoyance for them. I crossed the knife edge again which was followed by a goading by Kiefer for my effort. With the ups and downs on the ridge, it was going to take us quite awhile to even reach treeline. There were many stops along the way and Steph took a spill once, but without injury. As the sun lowered in the western horizon, it no longer warmed our weary bones from the blowing wind. It was becoming painfully apparent that we would not make it back before dark.
A couple of last looks at Little Bear before descending to treeline
Britt, Kiefer, Steph and I reached treeline at 6:00. We still needed to find our way through the trees and descend steeply down to Tobin Creek before reaching a “road” near the creek and returning to the trailhead. Any bit of rest was welcome. My quads were on fire since I was still carrying about 30 lbs on my back. The final descent to treeline dropped us about 1,000 feet in about half a mile. I don’t exactly know why I decided to torture myself with this route again in less than a year. The likelihood that I’ll be doing the southwest ridge again is not very high! We had already been on the trail for over twelve hours and still had a couple left to go. If we lost daylight, finding our way down was going to be even more difficult. Even though we all had headlamps from earlier in the morning, we wanted to try and make the most of the light we had left.
It didn’t take long for us to lose the sun as we descended into the trees and lost elevation. Before long, I was finding it difficult to see my partners ahead. I called out to Steph and asked if she could still see Britt and Kiefer. She could, but barely. We stopped for some water and put on our headlamps before continuing our trek. As we walked through the trees, I stepped on a rock and it shifted — causing me to to twist my right ankle. Fortunately, my mountaineering boots were laced pretty tight and my ankle didn’t bend too much. I continued on limping a bit, but I didn’t feel I would need to stop. Kiefer offered to wrap it, but I didn’t think it needed to be. Since we didn’t have any tracks left to follow in the snow, we eventually lost our way. It was frustrating being able to see Alamosa and the town of Blanca and not knowing how exactly how to get down to them! Britt was able to guide us down to Tobin Creek and we found ourselves descending a loose gully. My gimpy ankle made descending even more dangerous as I accidentally dislodged some rocks that went spinning down below. Thankfully, no one was injured. We eventually all made it down to the creek, but had a steep ascent on the other side of the gully while bushwhacking through thorny bushes and scrub. I was able to guide us back to the “road” and from there we had a relatively easy walk out.
We arrived at our vehicles at around 9:00. After over fifteen hours on the trail, we were all ready to relax. I was offered a beer, but Britt and I still had a 2.5-hour drive home and any alcohol consumption would result in a sleepy driver! We relaxed and reflected on the day’s activities for 40 minutes before deciding to hit the road. Kiefer and Steph were heading to Alamosa for the night and had a couple ideas on where to go from there. Britt and I headed back toward Colorado Springs.
GPS stats from our winter ascent of Humboldt Peak. Add 0.4 mile to the total mileage (I accidentally left the GPS on South Little Bear).
Google Earth .KML file of my route (right-click and “save target as” to save the file). NOTE: For some reason, if you’re using Internet Explorer, when you “save target as”, it changes the file extension to .XML. This is incorrect. To be able to view this in Google Earth, change the file extension to .KML before saving the file. It downloads correctly in Firefox.