The purpose of this blog is to chronicle the adventures in rock climbing, mountaineering, rattlesnake rescue, and general crazy endeavors undertaken by a nuclear engineer living in Los Alamos, NM. The first few posts will likely be me playing catch up writing down some trip reports from a few adventures that happened this summer, but after I should be able to get things up pretty soon after they happen.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Color Me Crazy: Little Bear Peak, West Ridge Direct (5.4 Free Solo)

Little Bear's West Ridge Direct route will forever go down in my personal history as one of the most epic, exposed, dangerous, and ill-advised climbs I've done. Despite nearly crapping myself on several occasions out of fear, having to retie my shoes in perhaps the worst place possible, braving showers of ice in the Hourglass to repair a severely damaged rope, and sliding out of control down an ice and snow filled gully, this climb was one of the most exciting weekends of my life!

It all began about August 22, when Matt Jerousek made a post in the climbing connections section of asking if anyone was interested in doing the Little Bear - Blanca Traverse sometime in late September. Having made an attempt at the traverse at the beginning of August only to have my climbing partners chicken out after downclimbing from Little Bear, I was all over this. Matt, myself, and Scott Davis decided on a schedule of meeting up Friday, Sep 27th at the start of the Lake Como road, camping Friday night, hiking to Lake Como and scouting out the Northwest face of Little Bear on Saturday, and climbing on Sunday. The hope was that by waiting till the end of September the monsoon season would be over and we would have some awesome climbing before the snows set in. Well we were partly right. I was a tad hesitant about doing a 5th class climb with two complete strangers, but I figured that they probably knew what they were getting into.

Over the course of several weeks we solidified our plans, and watched the weather very closely. Everything was looking amazing until Friday just before we drove down, and the Blanca group was socked in with ominous clouds. I arrived after dark with a last minute addition to the group, my friend Zach Hill from Los Alamos. As we were driving up we could see large storms all around the area and what looked to be some pretty heavy precipitation. Zach managed to snag some amazing pictures near Tres Piedras. 

Fortunately Scott had arrived a few hours earlier and been able to catch a glimpse of Little Bear's north slope which showed more rock than snow. With this promising bit of news and Matt's arrival we introduced ourselves, downed a beer, swapped a few stories, and set up camp as the mercury started to plummet. Boy did it get cold that night. I think the low was somewhere in the upper 20's, but with 30-40 mph winds. Luckily I had brought my 4-season tent, a Coleman Exponent Helios X2, which handled the wind like a boss, barely moving even in the strongest gusts. Zach and I managed to get a fairly decent nights rest in my tent, and Scott slept well in the back of his car.

Matt was looking a little worse for wear in the morning, apparently he had woken up several times during the night to find the roof of his tent in his face... We quickly packed up camp and decided to run into town to grab some coffee and a warm breakfast. Me being me, I realized that I had forgotten my trusty spork and decided to snag some plastic utensils from the local convince store. 

Once back to the TH we loaded up all of our packs into the back of Scott's Toyota Sequoia and set off up the 4WD portion of Lake Como road. Now both Matt and I drive little 2wd hatch-backs, and were expecting to have to hike all the way from the 2wd area to the lake, which is not fun in the least. Luckily for us Scott's vehicle was an absolute beast and kept taking us further and further up the mountain. We ran into several sections that looked pretty dicey and assumed it was time to park the car and go on foot, but Scott kept pushing on. Eventually we reached Jaws 0.5 at about 9800' and Scott decided that it was the end of the line. Matt, Zach, and I didn't care, we were grinning like fools and completely ecstatic about the several miles, and 2000' of elevation gain Scott had just saved us. With light hearts and fresh legs we set off up the rest of the road to Lake Como around 12pm.

Packing up Scott's Car.

Matt adding wheel chocks to Scott's car at 9800'.

Right out of the gate Zach set a fast pace, man can that kid go. While the rest of us were huffing and puffing up the trail Zach went ahead and snagged a few awesome pictures at the stream crossing while waiting for us.

We took a fairly pleasant break before pushing the rest of the way to the lake, which we finally arrived at around 2pm. On the approach we managed to get a good look at Little Bear's NW face, our planned route to the summit and start of the traverse, it did not look promising.

Well we wandered around to the far side of the lake and set up camp in the trees next to a nice stream. With camp all good to go and the bear bags hung, we took off down the trail to scout out our route options. While heading out we ran into a couple of guys who had attempted the NW face earlier that day and been defeated by snow and ice around the "Black Hand", not exactly what we wanted to hear... Well we went up, looked at the face through the binoculars, and decided that it was going to be far to sketchy. The traverse looked clean, but the NW face had a lot of snow on it. 

Now there are really two documented ways up this mountain from Lake Como, The NW Face, and the Hourglass via the West Ridge. The NW face was out, and none of us wanted anything to do with the hourglass. We did know of one relatively undocumented, but possible route up the mountain that looked clean, the West Ridge Direct, which started the same as the route to the Hourglass, but instead of climbing up the Hourglass gully you just hopped up on top of Little Bear's imposing west ridge and stayed there till the top. Basically the only info we had going into it was that it was possible, Zach and I had glanced over a trip report of it before coming up and knew that it was going to be easy 5th class, in the 5.2-5.4 range. We were all strong 5th class climbers and felt our route finding skills were competent enough to see us through. We also figured it would be a good warm-up for the traverse, so we decided that we would take the West Ridge Direct route up, instead of the NW face. We headed back to camp, got a fire going, cooked dinner, and tried to thaw out are frozen toes. 
We hit the sack pretty early and decided on a 6am alarm. I was out like a light and ended up waking up exactly at 6am with a very strong urge to use the restroom. I reluctantly crawled out of my sleeping bag, put on every piece of clothing I had brought, and proceeded to taking care of buisness, but first a breakfast of yogurt, oatmeal, and coffee!

It was cold...
With breakfast complete, we loaded up our daypacks, and set off around 7:30 am. The first obstacal of the day was the 600' gully that leads to the top of Little Bear's west ridge. We donned our microspikes and took off!

Well, everyone but Zach, who didn't have microspikes and was using Scott's spare pare of YakTrax took off... I honestly thought that this gully was much better in the snow than when it is dry, Zach would disagree... You can watch the entire ascent of this gully in the following videos:

With the gully conquered we took a short break to warm our toes, and wait on the couple we saw ascending behind us. When they reached us we told them that the Hourglass sounded like a bad idea and invited them to join us on our adventure up the West Ridge Direct. They were both strong climbers and decided that it sounded like fun! So, now a party of 6 we set off towards the base of Little Bear's prominent west ridge, eyeing the ominous looking route as we approached. 

Once on the ridge proper things got very spicy, very fast. For nearly the entire length of the climb the width of the ridge varied between 4' to less than 1' in width, a serious knife edge. To top it off there was a large amount of 4th and 5th class, with a couple of 5.2 - 5.4 sections. Toss in some snow and wind and you have a recipe for a good time... yeah right...

It didn't take us long to reach our first crux, a 5.4ish chimney with a lot of air below. 

The second crux, a 5.2 slab was only a little further up the ridge.

From here it was more 4th and low 5th class climbing there were a few more difficult moves, but nothing compared to the two crux sections. Eventually as we got to within 200' of the summit we spied some cairns that marked the south-west side of the hourglass route. We angled towards these and stayed on the 3rd class crap that makes up the upper portion of the hourglass. 

Once on the summit we ate a quick snack and snapped a couple of pictures. I replaced the battery in my GoPro and we set off towards the traverse.

Zach and I descending from the summit towards the traverse.
As we moved further down the descent off of Little Bear the route became progressively more sketchy. There was a lot more snow on this side of the summit than the other and it was in all the wrong places. We donned our microspikes and attempted to find a route down with Scott in the lead.

Eventually we all concluded that this was way too dangerous to push our luck. (Think about this in the context of what we just did...) So we decided to turn back and descend through the hourglass, something all of us had hoped to avoid on this trip. On the way back to the summit we managed to get a good look at our ascent route.

I recorded everything from the first time we were at the summit until I was in the hourglass repairing the rope. Here are those videos:

Be sure to check out 16:30 onward of this video. A very large rock came loose.

There was a lot of snow and ice in the hourglass, and the rope had about 4 core shots that Matt and I repaired with alpine butterflies. It took a bit of time for us to all get down the hourglass, but man were we happy when that bit was over.

Well since it is taking me a while to finish this thing up, I'll go ahead and post what I've got and edit it later.

I'll just finish this up with my ill-advised glissade down the final gully: