Ascent of Little Bear Peak

26 Sep 99

By Steve Bremner and Sam the Wolfdog

I've been doing a little exploring lately. Okay, I won't quibble--trespassing. When I read in a couple Colorado Mountain Guides that the easiest route up Little Bear Peak had been closed because the property owners had denied access this peaked my curiousity. September 12th was my first exploration of Blanca Basin. At that time I climbed Blanca Peak. and got lost four times. This time I knew my way.

First I'd like to pontificate a bit on trespassing. In Europe, where I lived five years in the mid-80's, Germany to be specific, there is a tradition of private property just as in the U.S. However, if private property owners in Europe completely closed off their property to hikers and recreators, given the much larger population burden they have, it would be a pretty dismal place in which to live. After all the owners of the private property themselves would be restricted only to their private property and would be unable to experience the pleasures of the countryside in other parts. Therefore throughout most of Europe it is completely legal to "wander" through farmlands along dirt roads or country trails so long as one does not trample crops or breach fences erected to contain cattle or domestic breeds. There are few fences constructed as here in the U.S. simply to keep people out. I believe after a couple of generations we will also evolve to this enlightened view of property.

The "grant" that includes Blanca Basin is an atavistic remnant of Spanish rule. I don't know this particular grant's history, but another grant to the "Taylor Ranch" that includes the 14er Mount Culebra (for which they now charge $40 a head for the "right" to climb) was given to a 12-year-old boy and a sheriff and distiller of Taos Lightening in the 1840's by the Spanish governor of Santa Fe simply beause they asked for it. When both were killed by Indians the boy's father bought out the sheriff's share for $100. We're talking about huge grants of land including major mountains. I saw no evidence that anyone had set foot in Blanca Basin for years.

As an opposite extreme to Europe there exists Hawaii. I lived there for three years ('93 to '96). In Hawaii private property holders have blocked access to public lands--national and state forests with prime hiking terrain. It was there that I learned to simply go where my conscience led me. To access the best trails you simply must trespass in Hawaii. My philosophy is to always leave only my footprints and to pack out more than I bring in. In other words whereever I go I pick up other people's trash, reasoning that if enough people think like me we can manage to offset the garbage-strewing cretins with whom we must coexist.

I must say at this point that there is a strong positive argument for the owners of these grants blocking access to the general public. From bears to coyotes to mountain lions, the wildlife of Colcrado has been harrassed, intimidated, and driven from the best grounds by rampant development and increased use of the backcountry by recreators. All intruders into the backcountry make an impact on the existence and prosperity of these major mammals. Though recently Rick Bass in his book The Lost Grizzly , provides evidence of the majestic Grizzly's existence in Colorado, they have been mostly wiped out. Wolves in the continental U.S. were once abundant. In a frenzy of slaughter in the mid to late 1800's they were nearly all exterminated. Now this proud and dignified animal is gradually being reintroduced in Yellowstone, Montana, and Arizona. It is well that large blocks of land are being kept truly as wilderness.

The most direct way up and into Blanca Basin is to turn right on an unmarked dirt road, 400 yards after the Blanca township's City limits sign (when approaching on US160 from the east). Further landmarks are a billboard for Rio Grand Motel on the left hand side of the highway directly across from the dirt road, and a sign for Blanca Peak maybe 100 feet prior. Drive directly north on that dirt road until it comes to a T, jog right, then immediately left on Oak Avenue. Continue on Oak Avenue until MM14th Street. Turn right and proceed about half a mile or so. You will see a road to your left with a "No Trespassing" sign on a piling and on your right away from the road is an abandoned silver trailer. I believe, though I haven't verified this, that the road with the "no trespassing" sign will take you all the way to the trailhead. I continued further for a 100 yards, turned up a rough 4-wheel drive road, then "stashed" my car off in the scrub forest.

fence leading to blanca basin Now hiking directly north up the rough 4-wheel drive road you come to a fence going at right angles--one side goes off to the east and the other side goes north. Proceed north with the fence on your immediate right. Continue for half an hour or so until there is a break in the fence where a road goes to the right. It appeared a barbed wire detterent had been snipped leaving the road open. On the left is a badly faded sign that says "No T---".

You follow that road to the right--there are fences on either side of the road for a mile or two until a road merges from the right. Continue another mile or so until the road runs directly into a fence. Do not cross the fence. Instead go north alongside the fence until you reach the road again 200 yards further along, where it once again comes to your side of the fence. Now you are at the former trailhead to Blanca Basin. The ruins of a cabin are off to the left in an aspen grove. As you move up the valley to the north along a very faint 4-wheel track you cross a small brook, then come on the ruins of a mine. This is where the trail to Blanca Basin begins. It's not much of a trail at this point, and if you lose it--not to worry. Just stay to the left of the dry gulch (the trail pretty much stays about 25 feet to the left of the gulch) heading north. Your goal is the ridge to the left, but it's easiest to go up the valley then reach the ridge at its northernmost extreme. Once on the ridge you will run into the trail--it's not the best trail, but cairns will keep you on course.

After reaching the ridge and leaving the valley, the trail climbs steeply with Blanca Creek far below to your left. Levelling off a bit you reach a nice patch of pine forest where on my Blanca climb of two weeks ago I noted a bountiful crop of chanterelle mushrooms. On that trip I didn't pick any. This time although much less of the delectable fruit of the earth was evident, on my return the following day I managed to garner enough to have a most tasty side dish of chanterelles sauteed with butter and garlic with my dinner that evening. I'm still alive so they must have been chanterelles!

Following the level patch of pine forest you soon come on an avalanche field, where on my Blanca trip I sampled as many wild raspberries as I cared to eat. This time there were some, but not enough to satisfy. Pick your way through the deadfall and find the cairn on the opposite side after maybe 75 yards or so.

Eventually the trails brings you to a crossing of Blanca Creek. Pay attention here, because it's easy to miss the crossing point. 50 feet up the trail on the other side and to the left of the trail are the ruins of a cabin. From my car to this point had taken me 2 hours and fifteen minutes. I set up my tent next to the cabin around 6:30 P.M. The wind was fairly strong and cold so I gave up easily on my attempts to build a fire. When I left Colorado Springs In my typical packing rush I had neglected to bring along dinner, so we would have to make due with a few power bars and beef jerky for this trip. In the tent after dark I sipped on the quarter full remains of a 750ml plastic "traveller's" bottle of vodka and read the second issue of the new magazine from National Geographic, Adventure. One feature article on the Queen Charlotte Islands interested me. I had passed to their right on a trip up the Inside Passage from Washington state to Alaska on a fishing boat in the 70's. This area of the world is still very much wilderness and therefore very appealing to me.
Awake around 4 A.M. I organized my "kit" with leisure. Though I didn't have "breakfast" I heard it once said that the secret to a successful day lies in a leisurely breakfast. I had a leisurely morning, anyway. I was on the trail at 5:30 following the track up to Blanca Basin. After the trail stopped climbing and started to level off I left the trail to begin ascending to the left through steep timber, talus, and cliffy terrain. The harvest moon was full and lit up my way. By the time the sun took over dominance I was above the timberline. The ascent from here was on rotten talus. Not difficult at all, but quite tedious. No rock was stable. Even the largest rock could move, sending another in its wake to wreak havoc on your calve or worse send you pitching to the ground. Sam the Wolfdog hates climbing through talus. Finally we reached the east peak of Little Bear. Maybe a quarter of a mile to the west was the actual summit. How to get there?
I started off on the right side of the ridge. This course was certainly not inviting, even intimidating with a precipitous 2,000 foot plunge to Blanca Basin the consequence of a slip. I treaded my way cautiously along, Sam refusing to partake in this dangerous endeavour. Finally after a couple tricky moves I lost heart and decided to turn around and give up on Little Bear. After backtracking I had a look at the left side of the ridge and quickly realized that this was the way. With minor difficulties even Sam made his way to the true summit along this more gentle route.
We summited around 9:00 A.M., three and half hours from our camp by Blanca Creek.. It was windy and cold, but by ducking over the ridge we found shelter and enjoyed a vista including the Blanca Peaks, The Crestones, Spanish Peaks, and even the ever present Pikes Peak far to the Northeast. So proud of Sam for ascending this very difficult 14er I gave him an entire 6 oz. package of beef jerky for his reward. Truly a remarkable beast. This was his 36th 14er. He has three additional ascents of Pike's Peak to his credit as well. I will get him up Longs and Kit Carson later. I know possible routes up those peaks that he can well manage. He is quite the rock climbing wonder though! Wilson Peak, Wetterhorn Peak, and Crestone Needle among his most glorious achievements.

The return was simply a matter of making sure I intersected the trail in the vicinity of my camp site, which proved easy enough. Along the trail afterwards I collected enough chanterelles for my later feast. Back to my vehicle around 3:30 P.M. I drove directly to Colorado Springs, home before seven that evening.