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Saturday, January 29, 2011

Little Bear to Blanca Traverse in Calendar Winter

Peaks: Little Bear Peak - 14,037 feet
Blanca Peak - 14,345 feet

As per Page 115 in Roof of the Rockies:
FA: Joe Merhar and Dale Norton, 1931
FWA: Charley Mace, solo, 1981(first and possibly only)

Climbing Party:
Matt Bruton (aka Bruton)
Micah Morgan (aka MountainMicah83)

Route: (Times are approximate)
1/28/2011 - Car at 8,800’ to Cabin at Como Lake 11,750’- 2.5 Hours
1/29/2011 - Como Lake 11,750 to crest of West ridge of Little Bear circa 12,000’- 2 Hours
- West ridge circa 12,000’ to base of Hourglass around 13,300’- 2.5 Hours
-Base of Hourglass to Little Bear Summit, 14,037’ – 1.5 Hours
-Traverse to Blanca Summit 14,345’ – 4.5 Hours
-Descent to Cabin at Como Lake 11,750’- 3.5 grueling hours of post-holing.
1/30/2011 -Como Lake to Car at 8,800’- 1.75 quick hours



Matt and I have been talking for quite some time about getting this climb done in winter and have held off and been patient for several reasons to include skill level, partner comfort, snow conditions, and weather. Our plan was to do the route in summer first to have a good feel of what we were up against but our planned attempt was quickly changed this past summer when Kevin Hayne passed on the same route the week before up Little Bear. Out of Respect, we decided to avoid the area and go get Capitol.

Matt has been a technical rock climber for about eleven years and about the point we met about 2 years ago after hour wives, who were high school Pals back in the day, introduced us. Almost immediately we were best bros that felt like we were had been friends since grade school. We had many similar interests to include mountain climbing and snowboarding. I expressed interest in learning more technical rock skills from Matt and he began to teach me the ropes, so to speak. I really had a desire to learn due to my love of the alpine and within one summer, I was a pretty solid 5.10 rock climber. While pushing myself on harder peaks and 2 other of the great 14er traverses (Bells, and Crestones) in Summer, and pushed my snow climbing skills in winter and spring. This past year especially, I began to bump my climbing up from just sport climbing with fixed bolts for protection to trad, or traditional, type of climbing where you place your own gear in the rocks and your partner picks it up as they second behind you. We have been practicing those skills on all types of adventure climbing throughout southern Colorado and our summer road trip ending at the fun 6 pitch Monkey Face west face variation route in Smith Rock, Oregon with our friend ImNotHeySean this past summer.

This winter I have felt like I am finally ready for this monster of a climb (the type you don’t tell your wife or Mom about until you get back), but I have been working two jobs to pay the bills and afford my expensive climbing habits. I finally got tired of 70+ hours a week and decided to do away with Job #2. A couple of short days after ending Job #2, I call up Matt and ask him if he was ready for the climb if the weather forecasted something we liked for the coming weekend and the weather was going to be other than favorable, we would try something much safer and appropriate for the weather. A long deep breath and he says “I’m in.” At that point we agree not to tell anyone of our plan. We did this for a couple of reasons to include ridicule on the forums of people saying we couldn’t do it and how it has only been done once, but also because of other folks wanting to attend. While Matt and I have had our fair share of summit failures in our adventurous non-peakbagger attitudes that respect and love our whole adventure and not just the summit and the last thing we wanted on this climb was anything to get between our great partnership and ruin our usual flow… “Hey Matt… I was thinking,” “Yeah… I agree… we should go that way.”

Last week, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday roll around and the forecast is doing nothing but getting better and even better for the weekend. We can’t believe our eyes with a forecasted 30 degree high, 0 clouds, and 5 mph winds at 12,200’ for the area. We were in for summer alpine weather in winter conditions. Thursday night we lay out gear to do our final checks and agree on who is carrying what. Not knowing really how much snow to expect on some of the steep downclimbs or W12 ice to expect in the hourglass, we brought a decent sample of gear including 2X30M half ropes, 1 axe and 1 ice tool each, a picket, harnesses, rack of chocks, 2 ice screws, some slings, tons of spare webbing and a few tri cams ready to leave any of the gear behind in order to make it out alive. While laying out gear, I miss a call from our partner Jim aka Dancesatmoonrise) asking if I wanted LB via the South Little Bear summit from the Southwest ridge. I received the message the next morning and notify him that we are planning the same mountain on the same day. Because he had been on that SW ridge earlier in the winter and had been turned around due to complications, he had his focus on one thing and we couldn’t swing getting him to hang with us and take those world class photos he produces on our route.

Enough of the Dissertation. Without further a due…

The Journey Begins:

Noon Friday rolls around and Matt and I are off in my 2WD jeep, “Beans.” His jeep is Frank (the tank) and mine is Beans. Due to the fact Frank the tank has no heat and we have suffered enough winter cold in there, we agreed to take Beans and endure my selection of 3 cassette tapes because the radio is kaput.

3PM we arrive at Bean’s usual highpoint at 8,800’ just before the semi-steep little slope drops 20’ or so and then the upward progress moves to a whole ‘nother level. Up to that point the road has been slightly softer than normal but no snow really.

3:30 Pm and we are off with our 60lb packs ready for the adventure of our lifetimes. First thing I always do is say a quick prayer asking God to keep me safe and provide me an adventure, and tell him that if this trip may be my last, then it was his decision. Half a mile or so in, the mud turns to snow and mud and there are 4 wheeler tracks and Dancesatmoonrise’s and Benner’s group’s tracks from the weekend prior. No snowshoes needed, we make decent time even with the weight.


Not quite to what I consider the halfway point with a large flat campsite at around 10,200’, we enjoy the treat of an unexpectedly cut trail, not wearing slow shoes, and the beautiful sun quickly settling


Taking a rest around halfway and an hour in, I snap a pic of Matt’s 5.10 guide tennies. You think he has gotten enough out of them yet? Somehow he can still manage 5.11 in them but I think they are at the end of their life. He is trying to keep off the mountaineering boots as long as possible to save him from blisters and hurting his heel that has 14 screws from a snowboard jump gone wrong a while back.


After being too stubborn to think we needed snowshoes the last half mile or so to Como lake in the dark, we arrive at 6:30 at the empty cabin a little more tired and frustrated from post holing than we reckoned we would be.


First thing I do upon arrival to the cabin is proceed to air up my thermarest that has a 1” gaping hole in the side. After 10 minutes of blowing thinking I am so weak for some reason, I realize I have the hole and figure at least it will provide some barrier (Had we been expecting to camp in a tent on the snow, I would have had a closed cell foam backup). After downing a quick can of Old Chub beer to celebrate our success of this road I have just hiked for the 6th time, we eat our subway subs for dinner, drink some hot tea, and just talk about our climb in the dark while we make more water.


Getting ready to pass out at around 9:30 we turn on the lights and pack our summit packs only with what we think we need to make it back. We had a mess we had to clean up so the mice didn’t have a fiesta while we had our siesta.


Conquering Little Bear

With a restless night of sleep on the hard wood and sore hips, we awake at 3AM and begin making water for the day and for coffee and oatmeal and stick out boots in our bags to warm them up some before stepping out at our planned time of about 4:30. If we wanted any chance at the traverse, we needed to have as much daylight as possible on the thing and we had to still get past goal 1 of the summit of little bear first. An hour late at 5:30 we blaze out ready to rock on the packed trail put in the week before. A soon half an hour later as we reach treeline, we realize that our companions the week before did not follow the summer road towards blue lake and we were standing on the north side of the valley and had enough light to see that Little Bear was clearly on the South side. We reset our bearings and make haste and follow the trail a ways back down and then cut our waist deep sugar trail through the woods to the base of the first north facing 600’ couloir. Now at about an hour in, we drop snowshoes, and don crampons, harnesses, and axes wondering how the avalanche conditions would be on the north slopes.

It may look like I am peeing here as I am oblivious to Matt taking a picture, I am fastening my harness while admiring Little Bear in the rising light. I will take the opportunity to tell you now that this collection of pictures is a mix of both pictures that we both took. We both also took a good bit of video footage in hopes that we can make a small video in the near future.


Still looking like I am making yellow snow, matt snaps another pic of me while I am actually donning crampons.


A hundred or so feet up on the first small shelf and surprisingly firm snow, the morning lights begin to amaze us as we take a quick photo stop and also adjust gear.


A quick traverse to the base of the couloir and the sun was starting to hit Ellingwood Point. I still can’t believe the line we climbed last spring up that South face Direct line we did.


I snap a picture of Matt looking focused and ready to make this happen.


It begins to get lighter and lighter and after the bottom of the couloir being soft snow and us having to take the dry rock, the snow firms up and we dig a quick pit to check the layers. It seems the past few days of nice weather have melded the layers here. We had enough positive signs to encourage us to stay on the snow as long as possible. Nice boot steps a few inches in and we probably didn’t even need our spikes. You would have thought you were climbing in the spring at this point.


After quick work of the first couloir to make the West Ridge of Little Bear, the wind picks up. I look at Matt and mention that I know the solar winds are usually more intense at sunrise but a brisk 25 MPH I was not expecting. We have both been in the hills in probably no joke 100 MPH gusts so it was no big deal, but I was starting to wonder how much wind we were going to get on the traverse. Was it going to be enough for a no go or for us to have to rope up across the whole thing?


We packed away our crampons and pressed on up the ridge proper getting excited for the sun. This was the only point all day we had our Goretex shell jackets over our soft shells.


Finally, the sun peaks over the SW ridge at around 9AM


Roach’s route instructions mention that you don’t have to make the whole ridge before dropping towards the notch and aiming at the bottom of the hourglass but with the mixed conditions, we decided the ridge proper was the way to go. We make the top of the point and snap a photo while we snack and discuss the route ahead.


A few more minutes of soaking up the sun without any more wind and we were off.


Coming down below the notch, we got a view of the Famous Baby thunder. For you skiers, I apologize, I didn’t lean out more, but let me tell you, It’s not quite ready. It still pinches down to about a foot wide at the widest snow point. Nonetheless… Impressive. I don’t think you will ever catch me skiing that.


We put back on crampons at the edge of the first snow field. A quick test pit learned us that we had about a 1-2” sun baked slab over snow cone type of snow. Although a solid slab like that on top is usually scary, at 40 degrees, we couldn’t get it to release in our test scenario so we cautiously proceeded in the now heat of the sun. Burning up we made our way across the snow fields. Closer to rocks poking out, we were sometimes sinking to our thighs, and farther away we were walking on top of the rock hard snow with only our front 4 and sometimes side points sticking through the snow. This section took us quite a while longer than we thought as we chased the shadow across to try and keep cool in the shade. Matt takes the final lead to the base of the infamous hourglass that claims lives almost every year as he zens out.


After getting a good view up the hourglass and assessing conditions, Matt takes off up the first section. After taking a moment to myself to remember Lygon Stevens and Kevin Hayne, I snap a photo of Matt and pull out my second axe. He is already a pitch up.


Glad to be back in the shade for what would be our last time for several hours, I began my ascent of the hourglass on the excellent unexpected snow conditions for this time of year. This portion was my fear of the entire day on what we would encounter. If you didn’t think so already, we are in the “no mistake” zone. Everything must be deliberate and you cannot lose focus. There are no un-important steps and you can’t be afraid to tell your partner if you need to rope up or turn around. I was completely focused as I began my ascent.


Matt awaited me so we could stay close. I am in the zone and ready to rock and roll.


I look back… So far, so good.


I wish I had a picture for beta for anyone else of what we saw next but we only both got it on video. I will do my best to explain. We arrived at the infamous fixed rope and temporarily the end of the snow and the start of ice. There was nothing thick enough for an ice screw and it was nothing that couldn’t be led carefully with one axe and horizontal front point mountaineering crampons. With a few bounces on the rope, we decide it is fine to use for balance as we cross the small icy section of maybe 55 to 60 degrees one at a time and get back off that rope that disappears under the snow and we have no idea what it is anchored to.

After passing that section we have a choice between mixed snow and rock at a 45 left toward the summit, a straight 3rd class dry rock line to the ridge or a right line up 15” thick 60 degree W12 Ice. Not really wanting to test the system on the ice and knowing the enticing line left was straight toward the summit was not really the “right” way, we went for straight to the ridgeline between South Little Bear and the Little Bear Summit only 20’ higher than its sibling attached like siamase twins with it’s impressive ridge line.

Matt making the dry rock


With a few mixed climbing and dry tooling moves, we make dry ground. We decide to take a quick break while we multi-task and pack up crampons, jackets, gloves, and axes. Wow. We made the hourglass and still haven’t used anything but axe and crampons and now we are in long sleeve tee-shirts at 13,700 or so feet? Unbelievable.

Matt is the doorway to the hourglass:


A quick hot scramble later, we made the ridge. You can see from here why the hourglass is so dangerous in the summer. I suppose it is just as bad now but there is a lot lower of a chance someone is above you in calendar winter. Everything you step on, you have to take extra care not to send funneling down into the choke of the hourglass and kill someone. We decided to make good practice of not kicking down anything and managed to not send any rocks down the abyss.


A quick 3rd class jaunt up the ridge as we admired our first views of the traverse brought us to the summit of Little Bear. We are ready to start our climb


While snacking on some gummy bears and beef jerky and looking out towards the Southwest ridge, Matt notices our partner Dancesatmoonrise about halfway up the ridgeline, just before the giant notch. We both snapped some photos zoomed in and out of him as we cheered and waved. I am not placing them in this report because I gave them to him for his report if he decides to do one.

We sign the summit register and notice that the last person to sign was 20 October.

The Great Little Bear to Blanca Traverse in Calendar Winter

If you are a mother or a wife or parent or grandparent or get scared of heights, this is where I provide you my fair warning that you are about to see Matt in I in some scary situations and you may want to just stop reading here and appreciate that we we were successful.


We haven’t confirmed with the Colorado Mountain Club yet but we believe after extensive internet searching, that we are attempting to be the second to do this. Forums
Mountain Project

If we end up not being second, this doesn’t take away any accomplishment to me. I don’t climb to be first or second. I climb because of the adventure and sense of self accomplishment. That being said, if you know for a fact, we are not the second, please take the time to let me know so I don’t continue to claim something that is simply not true.

Standing there looking down the first steep few hundred feet of descent where the NW Face route meets the traverse, I began to think about Charley Mace standing there 30 year ago. Not knowing much about him, I figured he must be a BAMF to do this in winter.


Matt is making his final preparations as I decide to scout out the start of the route. It was 12:01 PM which is perfect because our go-no go cutoff was noon. Whew, we made it but just barely. That would get us about an F+ if this was educational. Click.

A small ways down I get a photo of Matt finishing up his last minute preparations.

Matt begins his descent onto the most committing route of our lives.

That first few hundred feet of descent were a relief after what I thought they would be. The climbing is slabby (smooth, low angle and not really too many holds) and I was worried it was going to be snow covered and require us to make rappels from the start. Maintaining full focus and 3 points of contact at all times, I continued with the regimen of checking each hold before committing. Shake every hand hold while your other 3 points are safe before you move to it and then after a hand, a foot. After the foot, your other hand. This is how I was going to be moving my body for the next few hours. It was like the game of twister only with 1000 to 1,500 feet of exposure on both sides. Mistake = DEATH. No Mistakes. To our surprise the sun and lack of wind actually made the rocks warm which didn’t require gloves.

On this route in the summer, you are supposed to be able to maintain the ridge proper for the entire route minus captain bivouaco tower 1/3 of the way across where you pass on the left or climb up on top and bivouac because you get scared to come down with the exposure and about 2/3 of the way across where you pass below a 5th class up-climb on the scree to the right. This was not the case for us. We were constantly having to find detours which were mostly left or north of the snow capped ridge. It created snow free climbing rather than stepping in the snow wondering what you were stepping on if it was slabbed left or right or if it was loose and about to blow.

Here is a picture of me navigating around a snowy downclimb on the ridge proper. Yes it is as steep as it looks!

Nothing like stiff boots to keep you upright. I don’t like that helmet. I think I am going to start wearing the red one again since Red is my favorite color.

About 1/3 of the way across. Up one tower, Down another. I wonder how far Dancesatmoonrise has made it.

Passing Captain Bivouaco, it was airy but it certainly wasn’t the crux of the traverse. It feels good to have 5th class skills as we pass under this gendarme.

Me negotiating a tricky spot with Culebra Peak in the top left corner.

There are two climbers in this next picture looking back at our progress and the Little Bear Siamese twins. Can you see where the second one is?

Hint…Look where I am pointing my camera.

It is Dancesatmoonrise… He is the tiny dot on South Little Bear. We are so proud of our partner. We begin to hoot and holler back at him. If you can’t see that small, you just have to trust me.

Matt Passing around another tower to avoid another up and down this time with the northern san luis valley left of him from the camera man point of view. Over his right shoulder is the Great Sand Dunes somewhere. I decided to go over this one.

Another shot back towards Little Bear-

At about half way and we have so far to go still-

Matt once again Passing on the left doing an exquisite job of managing any fear of the exposure in his head-

Making Progress

And a look back to check on our comrade’s progress. By Gosh. He is on the summit!

We are slowly closing in on Blanca as it finally starts to look like we are closer to Blanca and farther from Little Bear

One of many quick rests and a cigarillo to calm the nerves.

After the rest is what I consider the crux of the day with this downclimb what was surely over 5.2. We came right down that closest spine of that gendarme being careful not to touch the loose rock on the north side. Good thing we are rock climbers and are comfortable with 1” ledges.

Oh??? That doesn’t look that bad? How about if I climb up the next tower and take another picture. Would you saturate your pants if you climbed down this?

Finally in the heat of the day when we are wondering if we will make Blanca before we loose the sun, we make the scree field. That’s the whitest Scree I have ever seen in my life. It was kind of soft too so I donned my axe and crossed in the hip deep white scree to a safe position.

Alas… I have found Water. The sun has warmed the rock soo much that there is some runoff in a precarious spot. For carrying only 1 full nalgene for the day, I had about 1/3 left so I downed all of it and refilled to about the same spot. It wasn’t exactly a powerful rush of water coming out but it was nice to have the refill. This meant we would not need to break out the stove to make water.

Now with the breaks becoming more and more frequent, I rest as Matt refills his half nalgene and climbs past.

At this point, the east side of each tower is getting cool and shady. On the west/up slopes Blanca was getting closer. It was a race with the sun.

Once again, I don’t have shots of one of the most discussed portions of this route, the Knife Edge. We both took video’s because it looked like it was a cool part but I didn’t get a picture because I didn’t even realize it was the “knife edge” Matt made it across in a hop, skip and a Jump and me about 3X slower but mostly standing. It was a good 2’ wide for the most part with increased exposure.

We are almost there but so tired. We just both want to be done, but Blanca is the quickest way back to the Cabin.

Now we are trending upward for my 3rd summit on Blanca in 7 months. Gimme a spring and I have 4 consecutive seasons of Blanca summits. Spring is going to have to be Gash ridge or Ormes buttress though because I am tired of Como Road after 6 times

Finally, Just shy of 5 PM we make the summit a little over 4.5 hours after starting the traverse. Tired and successful we muster the best smile we can with Lindsey in the background catching it’s last bit of sunlight.

20 Minutes on the summit was more than enough as we began our race to be below the 3rd class terrain and to thesummit before the sun set. One Last shot of what we just did.


And the race begins…

We make the saddle just as the sun falls below the horizon and don our soft shells for the first time in hours since we were on the hour glass as the temperature of quite possibly the nicest day of winter begins to drop.

No more pictures from this point but you can imagine the posthole nightmare we experienced as we made our way down the sun drenched snow towards the Como Basin. A couple of high glissades made us quick progress until we needed head lamps and then we were in slog hell. We had that 1-2” Slab on top of the snow cone ice crystals and virtually no moon to assist us with lighting. A couple of steps on top and then 20 steps of busting through and bruising your shin on the top layer as you step forward before being able to stand on top again. This is very frustrating when you are exhausted. We crossed over most of the high lakes to try and minimize snow but they didn’t seem to help much. Eventually, after dropping down the steep headwall to blue lake we hear the pitch of the snow change under our boots as our crunches turn to squeaks.

Holy crap. We are standing on the middle of blue lake. I don’t care how frozen it is or that I walked over it in November. Walking over an Icy lake in pitch darkness is a scary thing. We quickly made our way to the side and picked up the tracks of the ascent party of the previous weekend. We were baffled that not any other soul attempted at least Blanca or Ellingwood on this beautiful day. Following the tracks, we reached our turnoff point where we turned back earlier that morning. You would think a cut trail would hold us booting but the heat of the day trashed the snow and we were punching through to our thighs and hips more than we were staying on top of the track. We made the decision to leave retrieving the snowshoes to the morning when the snow was once again firm and stumbled back to the cabin. Three and a half or four hours later (this takes us about an hour from Blanca to the cabin in the summer) we were back at the cabin exhaustified and exhilarated and frozen toes from boots overflowing with snow. You get to make up words when you are describing how tired you are right? It’s around 9PM and I attempt to de-boot myself and find after unfreezing my laces, I can’t even get my right boot off. Something is stuck. My sock was frozen to the boot so I had to leave the sock and remove my barefoot from the sock and boot. After settling in our bags and downing another Old Chub brewski we began warming our feet with dry socks and both passed out while trying to make water from snow and the stove died. A few hours later (I lost track of time) we both wake up and decide to boil water and make a meal. Mmm. Instant potatoes and chicken in a pouch. That satisfied the both of us and we reviewed the day’s videos and pictures before going to sleep. Matt records one last video. I am falling fast.

Matt “Do you think we should congratulate him?”
Micah “Who.. Jim?”
Matt “No. The guy…”
Micah “Charley Mace?”
Matt “Yeah… That was a hard climb”

Hiking Out

Next thing I know, light is peeping through the cabin cracks. It is morning. Matt is out cold. I realize that I have made the mistake I have always dreaded. I left my boots out and they were frozen solid like ski boots. So did Matt. All of this winter camping and we always sleep with the boots in the bags to dry them out and keep them warm and we were na├»ve enough to think we didn’t need to in this cabin with a gaping 1’ gap at the bottom of the door? I shoved the painfully cold scarpas into my bag and the fuel canister under my arm and passed out for another hour or so. The boots were still mostly frozen and we needed water. I braved the outside in socked feet and got a bunch of snow to make water and came back inside to begin making water to quench my thirst. After several hours of boot warming and continuously boiling and re-boiling water and putting it in nalgenes in our boots to thaw them, they were finally thawed. With a quick half an hour trip we had our snowshoes back on and were back at the cabin packing up to go home.

We make personal record time back to the car in an hour and 45 minutes, snowshoeing down to about halfway with very consistent steps avoiding the ankle breaker rocks. Running the last 50 yards to the car we make it and sit down laughing. We made it. We pull our growler of Rocky Mountain Brewery beer to celebrate our success before storming out to end the trip.

This was Freedom of The Hills at it's Best. God has made us a very beautiful playground to enjoy.

See you at the top!


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