Sunday, September 04, 2016

Little Bear

Strava - Approach - Garmin POS software won't upload it!

One of my favorite days on Colorado 14ers was when Mark, Loobster, and I traversed the ridges between Little Bear, Blanca, and Ellingwood Point. Since Derek had never done these peaks before, we planned to give them a go over Labor Day. To make a clean sweep of the group, our plan was to bag nearby Lindsey before heading into Lake Como for the other three. Now what do they say about the “best laid plans”?

The “road” into Lake Como is infamous and notorious. I believe it is the toughest road to drive in Colorado. To get clear to the lake requires a speciality vehicle - no stock SUV has a chance. We had no designs on getting all the way to the lake but hoped to get near the first named obstacle, “Jaws I”. Our Land Cruiser should have been up to the task, but it wasn’t running great and had some trouble idling at 12,000 feet on our 10-4 adventure, and then on the Lake City 14ers trip, it got some tire damage had to be fixed. In talking with Mark about the best ways to address these short comings in the two days before Labor Day, he ended up offering me his significantly lifted FJ. He drove that FJ when we went in last time and got us very close to Jaws I. I hoped to do the same, after Lindsey.

We took off at 5:25 a.m. on Saturday from our house with Sheri driving, me riding shotgun and Derek comatose for most of the drive in the back. We got off I-25 at an exit with not a single building or sign or anything. We drove to the town of Gardner where we found out Gardner’s nearest gas station is 45 miles away. The drive into Lindsey from there was 22.5 miles, one way.  We had less than a quarter tank of gas.  Game over. I’d never made a mistake like that before. We’d have run out of gas before we could get anywhere near a gas station if we had climbed the peak. We headed further south to Fort Garland, the nearest gas and on the way to Lake Como.

After gassing up, we decided to just head into Lake Como and we could get Lindsey on the way home. I buzzed up the lower part of the road, which wasn’t technically challenging, just very bumpy as the roadbed consisted almost entirely of baby heads. Actually, they are more like adult heads. It’s a bumpy ride.

We buzzed up past the normal stopping point for regular 4WD (at least according to and caught up to a caravan of speciality vehicles. They were just stopped in the road, blocking all passage while one of their vehicles cooled off. As will become very obvious, I’m a neophyte when it comes to 4-wheeling and I was a bit surprised at their audacity. Maybe the culture surrounding 4-wheeling is that no one is ever in a hurry to get anywhere and stopping and blocking the road is acceptable social behavior. We weren’t in a big hurry, but I put on the parking brake and hiked up the road to the second vehicle in the train, with its hood propped up. I see lots of vehicles doing this whenever they stopped - they popped the hood so that the engine could cool down quicker. I asked the guys eyeing the engine how long we’d be stopped.  He replied, nicely, “Oh we’re ready to get going now. Are you the guy in the FJ?” I said yes and asked how he knew that. He said, “Our tail gunner has a radio.” It probably wasn’t me the tail gunner was talking about, since right behind their group and right in front of me was another FJ.
At Jaws II
We followed this group for awhile. At one switchback the FJ in front of us pulled off and I was now behind the trailing speciality vehicle, which was now being driven by a kid that looked to be 14. Sheri had already recommended that we pull over and stop twice when we rounded another switchback that had the lead vehicles going very slowly. We gave them some room so that we wouldn’t have to stop every few feet. I watched the vehicle in front of me spin all wheels and balk before clearing an obstacle. That should have been a warning to me, but I continued up, very steeply. A large rock forced me right, towards the edge of the road. Falling off this road would total the vehicle and likely kill everyone in it. That happened at the Jaws II obstacle and there is a plaque there memorializing the killed driver. I lost traction, spun the tires and slid further right, to the very edge. Yikes! I stopped.

I shut off the engine and got out. I had to turn the engine off because I had to leave the FJ in gear because the parking brake wasn’t sufficient to hold it on the slope. Things didn’t look good. We jammed some rocks behind and in front of the wheels, hoping to stop and drift backwards and to give us better traction going forward. The surface of the road was wet just under the first layer of dirt and the mud was slick. I got in and tried again. No dice. Too dangerous. Sheri and Derek went up the road to see if there was a place to park or turn around. I got out the control cable for the winch.
Hiking the road into Lake Como
When I picked up the FJ from Mark, he immediately started telling me how to work the winch. I almost stopped him because I had no interest in doing anything with his truck where I’d get it stuck and would need a winch. I needed the winch now, as I feared I might lose the entire truck. I opened the back and some of our gear fell out onto me, as the road was so steep. I dug out the control and plugged it in at the front of the vehicle. I showed Derek which buttons to push and I pulled out the cable until I could wrap it around a 5” diameter root thirty feet up the road on the left side. I got back in to drive and Derek worked the winch. We had to go forward, even if we eventually wanted to back down the road. If we went backward even a few inches, we’d lose a tire over the edge and that would be the end of it.

Derek tightened up the winch and I could see the root flexing. I gunned the engine, but my tires just spun and smoked a bit. The root flexed even more. I feared it busting and rocketing toward me, smashing the windshield or hitting Derek. I told him to stop.
Little Bear
We re-assessed. A large tree was way up the road. I wondered how long the winch cable was and we decided to pull it all out. I was afraid to leave the truck unattended now. I kept my foot on the brake and the handbrake fully engaged. I asked Sheri if she would take over holding the brakes while I set up the winch. Her response, “I’m not getting anywhere near that truck.”

Sheri worked the winch control while I kept the truck on the road. When we previously pulled out the cable, it had bound up, pinched between coils. I had to tie a loop in it and jump on it with my foot to free it. Now Derek had to do the same. With the entire cable out, we couldn’t reach the tree. Dang. Then I realized that there was a sizable tree up the slope to the left. It was at a 50-degree angle to the road, but at least it would be pulling us away from the edge. Derek took it up there and wrapped the cable around the 14” diameter trunk. Now we had a firm anchor and the winch did its job pulling us away from the edge. I was able to then maneuver the FJ away from the edge and straighten it out. We were then in fine shape, but my confidence was shaken enough where it took me a moment to tell Derek to remove the cable from the tree. At least with the cable I knew I wasn’t going over the edge.
Derek at camp
With Sheri and Derek helping to guide me past large rocks and the edge, I backed down the steep slope to the switchback, where I was able to make a 4-point turn and head further down facing forward. Derek and Sheri walked down while I drove. With the FJ in 1st gear of 4WD low, it wouldn’t even roll down the hill. I had to give it gas. I shifted to second gear and still had to give it a little gas, but I didn’t have to touch the brakes. I got down to the next switchback where I was able to wedge it into a parking position off the road, next to another vehicle. Whew! I was never so glad to be parked.

We took awhile to pack our backpacks and then headed up the steep road again, this time on foot. It took us 45 minutes or so to get up to Jaws I, hiking casually. Just as we got there a trio of vehicles arrived and we stopped to watch the action. This is a serious obstacle and each vehicle went over it with a spotter directing him minutely. We documented it with our cameras. After the second vehicle got by we continued hiking and stopped again at Jaws II, the site of the fatal accident, to wait for the 4x4’s. There are two ways to do this obstacle. The hardest and safest is to be hard against the inside wall, but the jeep then gets tilted up at nearly a 45-degree angle. The lead jeep tried this ten times and couldn’t make it happen. He kept sliding to the left. In trying to position himself, his tires would get to the very edge of the road. He didn’t seem that worried. I was, just watching. He eventually gave up and went left, against the edge of the road. There is a key rock there and once he got his left tire positioned just right, and it had to be just right - within an inch or two - then he cruised up it no problem.
Our camp
We spent nearly an hour all told waiting and watching these jeeps, but it was interesting to us. Sheri eventually got bored and hiked up to Lake Como where she waited for us. We regrouped there and headed up higher to a great spot we knew from the last time we’d camped there. Surprisingly, it was still open and we set up camp. Sheri had brought in the newspaper and she read it while Derek and I reviewed our usual memory games: naming all the U.S. Presidents (44) and all the named elements (112). We ate a couple of the Mountain House dinners that we carried down from Denali and then retired to the tents at 7:30 to read and sleep.

My alarm went off at 5:30 a.m. and I started the stove for a cappuccino and to make Derek an eggs and hash brown dehydrated breakfast. Derek and I were off at 6:15 a.m. We waited that long on purpose so that we could go sans headlamps.
Traversing to the Bowling Alley in the fog
Going up the initial gully on the regular route up Little Bear, we passed five people. On the traverse to the bowling alley we passed six more. We were in a dense fog and once we passed people it wasn't long before we could no longer see them. We couldn’t see more than a hundred feet ahead and it made it difficult to determine the route, though we did find cairns to direct us. At the base of the fixed lines, we caught another party of three, and just above them was a party of four that were bailing. The lines were soaked and the slope was running with water. With the steep rock, the obscuring fog, and the soaked conditions, I didn’t blame them at all for turning back. Yet we continued.

We had no problems getting up the lines and then moving left onto drier rock. This got us a bit off route, though we weren’t that sure because of the fog. I climbed us into a dead end on a precarious ridge with death falls on either side and vertical, soaked rock above. We retreated back down fifty feet and traversed hard to our right, regaining the route. We thought we were the only ones on the upper mountain at that point, but on the summit we found three climbers huddled in an alcove, hoping to do the traverse, but waiting for the weather to clear.
Starting the traverse
We tagged the top and then continued right into the traverse. The only time I had done this traverse I had climbed up nasty verglas to get to the summit of Little Bear and then found the traverse to be bone dry. I expected it to be dry again, though I don’t know why. We were in a cloud.

This traverse is spectacular - extremely exposed, 4th class, but with near constant death fall potential. We started off okay, but then it was so wet that I couldn’t trust my feet, certainly not with my life and I made sure I had a secure handhold at all times. We went right over an intimidating gendarme and then it started to spit, part snow, part rain, part sleet. I called a halt to don our shells and to re-assess. We were climbing in gloves, which were now soaked, freezing our hands. The clouds rolled by with impressive speed. We could see a long way to the south, down to the town of Blanca or Alamosa, but we never saw Blanca or Ellingwood Point or more than a hundred feet along our traverse. To our right was solid fog. To our left, down to the basin where we camped, we could generally see to the ground, but not much along our ridge. We stood there for 25 minutes with nothing improving. Cold now, I called it off. It would have been very stressful for me to do this with a regular climbing partner, but with my 18-year-old son wearing running shoes, it would have been so stressful as to make me sick with fear. It wasn’t worth it. It was too dangerous. We retreated, passing the other three who were starting across, though one in their party looked way over his head. I don’t know if they made it, but I hope they turned around.
Retreating back to camp
We carefully climbed back to the summit and found three other climbers there. They had planned on the traverse as well but had already aborted. Good call. We should have done that. We carefully descended the wet route and passed two other parties, one of three or four and another of just two climbers. Our hands were still very cold and we descended mostly with balled-up fists. At least until we got to the fixed lines and used the ropes, despite soaking and freezing our hands further. Once down these and off to the side a bit, we were out of any rockfall danger and our hands slowly warmed up.

We reversed all the way back to camp, and the weather on top of the peaks stayed the same - socked in, windy, cold. We initiated a rockfall descending the final gully, though neither of us were standing on the rocks when they went. We must have loosened them and they went 20 seconds later. They didn’t hit us and no one was below, but they went down an impressive distance.

As we crossed the final talus slope we met a couple going up with a small Husky. The dog was in a climbing harness and they carried a rope to belay the dog to the top. People are crazy… The dog walked so quietly, like a cat.
Descending the final loose gully to camp
At camp, as expected, Sheri wasn’t there. The plan was for her to meet us at the saddle between Blanca and Ellingwood Point at 10:30 a.m. I figured we’d take two hours to do Little Bear (it took us 1h40m) and then two hours for the traverse (we aborted but spent 45 minutes going out, waiting and coming back). Derek stayed in camp, but I immediately headed up in search of Sheri.

I was casually hiking up the trail when I caught a group of five. I said hello and we exchanged pleasantries. Then one of the guys says to me “What kind of pants are those?” I immediately cringed. I was wearing my Dwight-Schute-mustard-colored Prana pants, a respectable climbing pant but one that seemed to clash massively with every shirt I owned. It wasn’t just that, though.

The only time another guy had ever made a comment about the pants I was wearing was when I met Chris Weidner and Alex Honnold in Eldo to climb the Diving Board. That morning I was just supposed to be climbing with Chris when the night before he called and asked if it was okay if Alex came along. Hmmm, is it okay for the most famous climber in the world to join us…Yeah, that will be fine. I was leaving for Europe to climb the Eiger with Homie in just a week and I had gone to REI and spent an hour searching for just the right summer alpine rock climbing pants. I found just the pair, a two-tone brown/black, tough, water-resistant pair and I wore them that morning, to test them out. When I jumped out of my car, all excited to climb with these famous climbers, Alex took one look at me and said, “What the heck are you wearing?! Are those waders?” I was immediately crestfallen. My prized Eiger pants immediately denigrated to fishing pants.
Sheri hiking out from Lake Como
Hence, when asked about my pants, I was thinking “They are ugly and this guy is telling me so.” I answered sheepishly, “Ah, I think they are Prana pants.” The girl next to him then said, “Prana makes the best pants for men.” I then said, “But the color is so ugly,” and she said, “I like the color.” Well, that didn’t go as expected.

A little further along, before I really started to climb, I spotted a blue rainshell-shod woman descending. I recognized the gait right away. It was Sheri. She didn’t notice me and stopped on a rock to rest and drink, but only to delay getting back to camp and not finding us there. She had hiked up to the saddle and immediately froze, so she couldn’t wait for us. She descended very afraid for us, hoping we hadn’t tried the traverse. She didn’t want to return to camp and just sit there worrying, so she delayed. Then she spotted me. She hugged me and said, “I’m so glad you didn’t do the traverse!”

We hiked back to camp and told her about our climb and she told me about her morning. Back at camp, Derek gave his version. The conditions were still chilly and we were indecisive about what to do next. I didn’t have a strong opinion either way, as I’d done all the peaks. Derek wanted all the 14ers, of course, but he really wanted that traverse and knew he’d have to come back for it. Hence, he didn’t need the peaks now. We decided to get warm in the tent for a bit and see if the weather would improve.

We did crossword puzzles, drank hot drinks and napped a bit, as extremely powerful thunder rocked the skies above and hail started to pelt the tent. We snoozed some more. At 2:30 p.m. we finally swung into action. We decided to pack up and hike out. The hike out went smooth and we found our FJ waiting for us. By the time we drove down the road, we were out of mountain mode and decided to drive home and relax watching tennis on Labor Day.

The trip wasn’t a rousing success and in fact was marked more by driving incompetence than anything, but Derek did climb one of the harder 14ers and his total now stands at 41. Seventeen to go.

1 comment:

Gayla Wright said...

Another family adventure?!? They all can't go smoothly. You lived to venture another day.