Little Bear-Blanca Traverse
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Looking at Little Bear, about 1/4 of the way along...
As Gerry Roach writes in "Colorado's Fourteeners: From Hikes to Climbs," "Simply put, this is Colorado's most astonishing connecting ridge."
The mile-long ridge between Little Bear Peak and Blanca Peak is beautiful and awe inspiring. Anyone attempting it should probably consult a real guidebook for details. My purpose in listing it here is to make a few notes (rather than provide a detailed route description) and to open this up for comments.
Both Gerry Roach and Louis Dawson's guides provide excellent, thorough route descriptions. However, route finding on this ridge is very easy: simply put, you just don't have that many options. For 95 percent of the climb you stay on the very apex of the ridge. Exceptions being skirting the "Captain Bivwacko Tower" to the left (looks hard but only requires one highly exposed move) and then later skirting Point 13,860 to the right (this obvious roadblock comes shortly after the Little Bear/Blanca saddle and is a vertical wall that blocks the way) by descending slightly, cutting across some talus, and then immediately heading back up to the ridge crest again. The climbing is very exposed almost the entire way and there is almost no relief from this so be prepared. Generally the whole ridge is 3rd-4th class with a few sections of harder 4th class bordering on easy 5th class (approach shoes should be sufficient). There are no sustained sections on the climb and you can rest wherever you want. However, the true crux may be in maintaining a high level of concentration for a mile of dangerous climbing. Rock quality is usually very good but test your holds. The ridge can be windy.
Guidebooks suggest doing the traverse from Little Bear to Blanca. I believe the traverse could be done in the other direction without adding difficulty, however the traverse would be significantly more tedious in this direction. Also, apparently typical times range from 2-8 hours for the traverse. We moved at a very casual pace and took frequent breaks and still finished in 2 1/2 hours. I can't imagine a time of more than 4 hours to be "typical."
Good luck if you decide to tackle this! The route is truly awesome and a whole lot of fun!
Logistically, roping up for this climb (let alone belaying individual pitches) makes very little sense. However, a light rope could be helpful in an emergency.
|Photos of Little Bear-Blanca Traverse Slideshow
BETA PHOTO: The traverse on August 22, 2004 (from Ellingwood)
...about 3/4 of the way along the ridge. Little B...
Climbing one of the many small towers along the
Dropping off the summit of Little Bear, looking at...
Dropping down off the summit of Little Bear, this ...
Another section of tricky downclimbing before Cpt....
The final section before reaching Blanca.
On LB, looking across gnarly traverse to Blanca. ...
Robbie ignoring the exposure while working around ...
Monkey-boy swinging around another piece of expose...
Robbie shooting a GU to stay sharp on the knife ri...
On Blanca looking back over ridge. 2+ hours on th...
Looking straight down from the LB/Blanca ridge. T...
Chris Johnson dowclimbing off of the summit of Lit...
Enjoying lots of exposure along the LB/Blanca trav...
Chris Johnson downclimbing another knife edge alon...
The full Little Bear/Blanca traverse as seen from ...
Me on the snowy traverse in early June.
Photo by ...
Final steps up Blanca after a snowy traverse.
Just a *little* ridge... The traverse looking bac...
BETA PHOTO: Traverse as seen from the Little Bear summit on 1/...
|Comments on Little Bear-Blanca Traverse
|By david goldstein|
Sep 4, 2003
Poor rock (and judgment) on this route was the cause of my closest call ever. Somewhere in the middle of the traverse I tried to cut straight across the face of a pillar rather than taking the less technical, but longer, path up and down the pillar. Midway across the face, as I was committed to glued-on holds and thinking, "Messner must deal with sketch like this all the time", my sole foothold broke off. I fell a few feet, slammed into a small, sloping slab and started sliding towards the several hundred foot drop off. Just before the abyss, I grabbed a projecting rock and stopped my slide. My partner, who had observed the full sequence of events, said he had been sure my number was up and had already started envisioning/planning a body recovery.
|By Darren Mabe|
From: Flagstaff, AZ
Sep 5, 2003
I was just playing devil's advocate; I haven't done the route, but would probably not rope up if there was potential of killing my partner. Two more cents.
|By joshua deuto|
Sep 9, 2003
I agree that the use of a rope on this rig would be a bit tedious. I guess it would be safe to say that this ridge is low fifth class for the medium-to-upper-fifth-class climber. It could be a nightmare in a few spots.
I thought that this was the single coolest traverse I've done in the state of CO. It really does flow, and one can move fast across it. I think it took me 1.5 hours from the summit of Little Bear to the summit of Blanca. The beta provided in these postings is accurate... stick to the ridge crest and don't fall, be careful around a few of the little towers.
I thought the traverse between Blanca and Ellingwood Pt. actually contained more fifth-class climbing, sticking to the ridge crest proper, although with much less commitment and exposure (which define the Little Bear/Blanca ridge!)
|By George Bell|
From: Boulder, CO
Sep 9, 2003
Josh says: "this ridge is low fifth class for the medium to upper fifth class climber". I find this statement confusing, the difficulty of a climb should not depend on the ability of the climber! What would you rate the traverse for a "lower fifth class climber"?
Let me see if I understand what you are getting at. By strict definition, a rope is needed for any climb rated 4th class or higher. However, sufficiently advanced climbers may choose to climb routes at the bottom end of this scale unroped (so called "third classing", which further confuses the issue). So are you saying that in your opinion a medium or upper fifth class leader (what is "medium", though, 5.8?) could do this traverse unroped? Just trying to understand where you're coming from!
If you can't get good anchors in, it's debatable how much safety a rope adds. It could actually become more dangerous because the rope gives a false sense of security, or you could trip on it and it will slow you down. But it sounds like a rope could have halted the type of fall taken by Dave Goldstein (if he hadn't saved himself!).
|By joshua deuto|
Sep 9, 2003
Hey - sorry George, I put the wrong 'josh' in. That previous post, and this one, are from me, josh deuto.
My point about the comment 'lower fifth class for the medium to upper fifth class climber' is simply an attempt to put the climbing in perspective. If I had little to no experience in the technical rock climbing realm (i.e. no real fifth class experience) it would still be conceivable for me to be physically able to pull off many lower fifth class rock climbs (5.0-5.5) This said, in my experience, one would want to tackle this particular ridge traverse only after establishing a comfort level in the 'medium' fifth class range (5.5-5.8). I say this because I believe it to be requisite on this ridge to move fast, and limited climbing experience significantly slows things up. I think everyone would agree that a party should 'move out' as not to get caught on this thing in a storm, for instance.
I think a rope would only be useful on this climb if used to simul-climb, with the knowledge and experience to do so. ..or to have in the event that an emergency retreat becomes necessary.
Jan 7, 2004
Awesome route; I would do it again any time. Try to do it when no one else is up there, because getting to the top of Little Bear is very dangerous.
|By Mark Hyams|
Mar 28, 2004
This has to be one of the greatest fourteener outings in Colorado. I did this ridge in 1996, and one of my main motivating factors was that I didn't want to downclimb the route on Little Bear! It was also the first of the "four great 14er traverses" that Roach describes that I tried, mainly because the route-finding seemed simpler than the rest: just stay on top.
I also had one of my closest calls ever on this route. After skirting the vertical wall about two-thirds of the way along by going right, I was climbing up the talus to regain the ridge, and I pulled on a very large boulder, maybe 4x4x1 feet, and it shifted on to me. It was balanced perfectly, but I could not push it at all up, so I figured what I had to do was let go and jump aside and let it go crashing down the slope, unfortunately my left foot didn't get out of the way in time, and it smashed down right on it. I credit my Sportiva Makalus for saving my life. Any flimsier footwear and my foot would have been shattered into a thousand pieces. In fact, I thought it was, until I took my boot off and probed around a bit, and it was okay. I laced my boot up and limped off to finish the route okay. I then hobbled down back to Lake Como, where I was sure there was no way I could make it down without help, but I rested a day, and my foot felt a lot better, and I climbed Ellingwood before leaving the following day.
All in all, this route has it all: views, position, good rock. Spectacular! But don't tell anyone about it!
|By Cory Cleveland|
From: Missoula, MT
Aug 11, 2004
Great route. Worth a trip, in spite of the crowds of vehicles and campers at Lake Como. The road to the lake (and beyond) is a 4-wheeler testpiece, so don't go expecting an alpine wilderness experience. The crux of the route is probably avoiding rockfall on the way to Little Bear's summit.
The rock on the ridge is nice, and the route went quickly unroped. The distinction between 4th and 5th class climbing on here was difficult to discern. It all felt about the same to me. Like 4th class, that is. Routefinding along the ridge was straightforward, just follow the path of least resistance. Most of the time you are right on the ridge, with some amazingly airy knife-edge traverses along the way.
|By George Bell|
From: Boulder, CO
Oct 29, 2004
We walked in to do this last August, and one problem we discovered is that snow/hail lingers on the standard route up Little Bear (which faces approximately west). It probably takes a couple afternoons of good sun to melt summer snow/hail off, but instead we got another storm and a few more inches overnight. Snow on this route was more than we bargained for, so we just hiked up Ellingwood and Blanca.
|By Chris McEvoy|
May 14, 2006
I would like to add my two cents to the Little Bear/Blanca Traverse.... I would highly recommend a running belay for the traverse from Little Bear to Blanca. Yeah, tripping over your rope might be a problem, but that is typical when climbing low class rock. It is better to have your seat belt when you need it than to need it and not have it like mentioned earlier in this string of beta. It is each person's choice depending on their ability and confidence level but keep in mind... if you fall or f... up, someone is going to have to risk their life to get you out dead or barely alive. A rope and a spartan assortment of pro is a must for any exposed alpine line.
From: Grand Junction
Aug 6, 2006
No rope needed, it would get in the way, be OK with 5.0 and 4th class climbing and OK with exposure.
Aug 25, 2006
Did this car to car in 10 hrs. from the 8,000' level (about 2 miles from Hwy. 150). Finished with Ellingwood Point then down its W. Ridge. Thought I would post this for others curious about times. I was movin' pretty quick, but I'm definitely no speed demon. Hint: do the W. Ridge of Little Bear instead of the shooting gallery of the normal route. Stayed right on the ridge except for one spot. Beautiful exposed ridge with a few spots of low 5th - a little harder than the traverse itself and a great way to wake up - sans rope.
|By Charles Danforth|
From: L'ville, CO
Sep 5, 2006
The comments here are all good. In particular, the difficulty is not that high, but it's a "long" ridge and is mentally and emotionally taxing. In particular, getting over/around the four big towers at the Blanca end was a real struggle. The rock is mostly solid, but I still had two close-calls; one foot-hold broke when skirting a tower, and one body-sized block cut loose just after I stopped hanging on it. Yikes!
As far as statistics, we took 3.5 hours from Lake Como to the summit of Little Bear (Hourglass Rt), 4 hours on the ridge, and 2.5 hours on the descent (total of 12 hours camp to camp with various summit lounging). My flatlander partner had to stop a lot to rest and we took our time on the summits and on the descent. I suspect I could do the traverse in 3 hours otherwise.
|By George Bell|
From: Boulder, CO
Aug 27, 2007
FA: Joe Merhar and Dale Norton, 1931
FWA: Charley Mace, solo, 1981 (first winter traverse)
Josh: I would think traverse times of 4-8 hours are from roped parties.
We did this traverse yesterday and it was fantastic! This route is far better than any other 14er traverse I've done due to staying on the crest almost the whole time and the generally solid rock (it is best on the Little Bear side). Out of habit, we kept looking for ways around the towers, but invariably the only possibility is going right over the top (ex Cpt Bivwacko). We took no rope and this worked out well. There is tons of exposure, however, and everybody needs to be comfortable soloing 5.2. Perfect weather and dry rock are also helpful (necessary, in fact, for us).
It seems to me the traverse might be slightly easier technically from Blanca to Little Bear. I guess the reason why the guides recommend the other way is that you don't want to be going down Little Bear late in the day. Also, the one spot where you leave the ridge and traverse the south side would be less obvious in the "wrong" direction.
Two local students from Alamosa were doing the traverse at the same time. One of them carried nothing but the shirt on his back. If that isn't going fast and light, I don't know what is! I don't know how he managed it without any water.
Sep 9, 2007
Be cool free soloing high altitude, sketchy, exposed low 5th class, and you don't need a rope or climbing shoes. We did it in hiking shoes, 2 hrs, 20 min to cross the ridge with few breaks and a steady, but safe pace. After Blanca, we tagged Ellingwood for a 3 14er day.
George Bell- we signed Blanca's register under yours!
|By Mike McMahon|
From: Vernal, Utah
Sep 16, 2007
Wow; high exposure on a fantastic ridge. More than anything, I found this one to be a real mental challenge of staying completely alert for the entire traverse. In a few spots, the ridge is severely doubly exposed, a slip, trip, or missed step would surely result in death. This would certainly be a bad place to be in a storm. Anyway, if comfortable with the grade and heavy exposure, I highly recommend this one!
Sep 24, 2007
September 22, 2007- Little Bear-Blanca Traverse.
7000’? altitude gain, 14 miles?
Below are some times and conditions notes for someone who wants to do a day climb late in the season. Watch the ice on the NW Face!
1:30 am: Wake up.
2:00 am: Start driving south- 470 to 25 to 160 to 150.
6:30 am: Arrive at a point where I no longer want to subject my truck to abuse, about 2.5 miles from Route 150 turnoff at about 8,000 feet altitude.
7:00 am: Fanny pack is loaded with 40 oz Cytomax, 2 iodine tabs, 3oz wind shirt, 5 gels and cell phone. I begin my run up the jeep trail.
-1 hr 27 mins- Arrive at Como Lake. The jeep trail is very poor for running. Those Jeeps really do a number on that trail.
-3 hrs 05 mins- Summit of Little Bear. I climbed the NW Face. It was pretty tame and going very quickly until I reached the last 100 feet which was covered with frozen snow and verglas. This portion took me a solid ½ hour. I spent 15 minutes frozen in one spot. I had to decide if I wanted to commit to verglas moves left or grab portable shale holds to the right. I went to the left of the summit block and arrived safely. The summit is baking in sunshine. I call home and take a minute to warm my frozen hands.
-4 hrs 35 mins- Summit of Blanca. The traverse is good fun. I stay to the south and east aspects even if it means harder climbing. The north and west sides are dangerously icy. I descend the slope between Blanca and Ellingwood to the lakes.
-5 hrs 34 mins- Arrive at Como Lake, sit down to make some water with the iodine pills. I have been dry for a while.
-7 hrs 00 mins- Arrive back at my truck.
6:30 pm arrive back home in Golden, 16 and 1/2 hours after leaving.
From: Boulder, CO
Jul 7, 2008
Did the Ellingwood to Blanca to Little Bear traverse this past Saturday - after all that loose scree I was SO happy to realize this was the first weekend of Sunday liquor/beer sales in CO when we got back out of there on Sunday!
|By mark felber|
From: Frisco, CO,USA
Jul 19, 2008
I did this 5 years ago and came back for a repeat a few days ago (7/16-7/17). Bivying at Blue Lakes and going up the NW face lets you avoid a lot of the crowds at Lake Como and rockfall that I've heard about on the West Ridge. There are existing bivy sites at and around Blue Lakes, so no need to trample the vegetation, just use an existing site.
The Lake Como road seems to be losing its appeal to the 4WD crowd, more people were parking passenger cars at the bottom trailhead and walking the length of the road instead of driving their trucks and jeeps as high as they dared and walking from there. High fuel prices aren't all bad, are they?
|By Jesse Morehouse|
Aug 23, 2009
If you are reasonably fit and a mediocre climber or better, I'd plan on 2 hours to summit LB, 2 hours for the traverse and that leaves you the rest of the day since you probably started up LB at 5 AM to avoid the crowds (I counted 8 on LB's summit at 7:45 in mid August on a Saturday)
I'd recommend at least filling the rest of your morning by hitting Ellingwood and descending its SW ridge (fun 3rd class) for an enjoyable loop. Back at the Como area by noon and plenty of time to act like a lazy climber and sip whiskey all day or hike out and do something else!
From: Colorado Springs
Jan 31, 2011
I can now certainly say that Charley Mace is not "possibly the only" to do this traverse in Calendar Winter. This past weekend on 1/29/11, Matt Bruton and myself (Micah Morgan) did this winter traverse 30 years later in 4.5 hours and although we carried technical climbing gear, we used none.
|By George Bell|
From: Boulder, CO
Jan 31, 2011
Awesome job, Matt and Micah! Congrats on the winter traverse!