Little Bear – 14,037′ – March 19th.
Steep, icy, dangerous, and challenging – Little Bear was ready to offer up a tough winter ascent and ski descent.
Chris Tomer pulled up in his Tacoma to meet us at the bottom of the Blanca Peak / Como Road in the early morning. It hadn’t dropped below freezing and the forecast was for nothing but clear skies. Torrey and Anna had both joined me for the evening and they were both stirring in their vehicles. I gobbled up some mini cinnamon rolls, downed some water and we were all ready to continue up the road around 2am. I jumped in with Anna and Torrey and we drove up the road behind Tomer. 20 minutes later we parked and started hiking up the road as it rose out of the San Luis valley, it definitely felt like spring.
In darkness we ascended in to the Como Valley in moonlight, reached the snowline at 10,000’ and kept climbing. It turned into winter as we got higher. It was a pretty cold early morning, in the teens for sure. Crossing Lake Como around 5am it was cold with an occasional wind gust, but we all knew the challenge looming above us. Above the lake we stashed some gear in the last trees and headed up the first gully to gain the west ridge. The steps were good and making the ridge, Tomer and I chatted as we watched the morning light and allowed Anna and Torrey to catch up to us for a bit.
We continued on. The ridge was awesome as the morning Belt of Venus owned the sky with a light show to the west.
Getting on the snow slope and traversing to the hourglass was fun and relatively quick.
I let Tomer lead and he made some nice steps up the firm snow of the Hourglass.
Great couloir climbing. The snow was firm and even icy in places – I’ll admit, as I climbed up through the narrowest part of the couloir, I knew skiing down this would be difficult. I always try to envision and plan out where my turns will go in my head, and usually hold to the plan on my descent.
The rest of the climb went by pretty fast. I followed Tomer to the Summit and were there by 830am. The top was blustery with gusts coming from different directions sporadically. Peak #16 of the project was a big one.
As I prepared for the ski descent I had the steepest section in mind. A solo climber named Drew made it to the top behind us and soon after came Anna and Torrey. The views were stellar on a crystal clear day. Clear views to the Crestones and to peaks in the southern Sawatch and San Juans.
I was anxious to descend. Chris headed down further to set up to shoot some photos. After taking a few more summit shots and a summit video I descended. The top of the peak was icy and rocky, but if we don’t get any more snow up there this season this might be my last chance to make some turns.
Above the hourglass I made some turns and side slipped down to right above the steepest part. There was a small choke of ice and snow that would have to be skied in a straight line with a quick right turn to the wider top of the hourglass. Without too much more thought I went for it. The rest of what transpired is something unlike anything I have ever personally experienced in my ski-mountaineering career. I’ve seen a lot of things on my years of expeditions and skiing, but I have never been the victim. My skis wouldn’t bite when I carved my right turn into the slope. I lost my balance and fell backwards. I spun around and plunged down the hill and into the couloir. I immediately accelerated. My mind screamed, “self- arrest, self arrest, stop, stop, stop!” But my friends around me watched and heard nothing but silence. My ice axe got ripped from my hands, my skis popped off and went flying. I accelerated some more. Somehow I first managed to get my head up and face my feet out like I was riding downstream floating in a river or down a slide in the park. I don’t know how but I steered myself away from the walls of the narrow choke point in the hourglass. Realizing I had no tools to stop me, I turned around and dug in with every other part of my body: mainly my knees, hands, elbows, and feet. A hundred and fifty yards later I came to an abrupt stop. I sank into knee deep powder below. “Are you alright?” Tomer shouted. “Ya I think I’m good”, I said. “I was just actually mad at myself for miscalculating the turn!” I told my friends I was sorry for crashing. I did a quick check myself but because I was on such an adrenaline rush, I felt no pain. Chris and Anna brought my skis and pole and ice axe back down to me.
Descending down the rest of the slope I couldn’t believe I was ok. I was so lucky not to have hit anything. That was the wildest craziest ride I’ve ever taken, basically all the way down the Hourglass for about 400 feet. Once on the ridge I took stock of the situation in the morning sun as we waited on Torrey to come down the couloir himself. I had a couple of abrasive cuts on my elbows and knees, but otherwise I was completely unharmed. Descending the rest of the mountain, I felt like I wasn’t ready to try and go up to Ellingwood and Blanca just yet.
We headed back down to the trailhead and eventually into Alamosa. As I skied down the Como road before having to transition to my hiking boots I kept replaying what happened in my head. I was on such an adrenaline rush that I still felt strange that it all happened. Then I actually went to the clinic and got checked out. Nothing broken and nothing but a few stiches in my right elbow. A little sore at the moment for one hell of a tumble, but It wasn’t time to quit on this project now – I would come back for Blanca and Ellingwood soon enough to wrap up these peaks.
Thanks for following along and I promise to stay safe as I move forward.