I’m very afraid of heights and exposure but I’ve been thinking about the Sawtooth for over 5 years now, despite never having seen it in person. As a hiker stuck in Wisconsin I’ve had nightmares about this route! I’ve been researching, asking about, looking at photos and trip reports and just fantasizing about completing the Sawtooth and was able to talk my wife into joining me for an attempt at this elusive route. Neither of us have done Bierstadt before and I’ve done Evans on my bike but never made it to the actual summit. I was so paranoid about the Sawtooth that I ordered actual hiking boots (Garmont Flash GTX) so my bad ankles would be stable on the traverse.
We didn’t make it out to Colorado last year (after the birth of our second child) and we were afraid to load up two kids under 4 for a 16hr road trip each way until my parents volunteered to meet us in Breckenridge for a few days. Now we had the babysitting we needed to make a go of a 14er or two, I had a few on my list (Huron, Holy Cross, Capital, Bel-Ox) but my soul really wanted to take on my fear of heights and the Sawtooth. So my wife and I talked about it and decided that would be the hike this year since it wasn’t too far from Breck and it’s on my bucket list. 8/6/13 would be the day!
We woke up early on Tuesday morning and we were in the car by 5am and to the trailhead shortly after 6.
There were only about 8 cars in the lot at this point with a new car arriving about every minute and a half. We set out and figured only a couple small groups were ahead of us. The boardwalks were icy and I counted about 5 separate sets of footprints and one set of paw prints. We made quick work of the willows and boardwalks and even made it across the creek with no issues!
Once we started going up our Wisconsin legs and lungs definitely felt the effort but with views like that and the sun starting to peek over the Sawtooth we had no complaints.
I can tell I’ve done some easy 14ers in the past as once we hit the saddle the class 2 finale was probably the most technical hiking I’ve done on a 14er before but was no problem and was a blast! I see why so many people choose this hike!
We made it to the top of Bierstadt in under 2:30 including stops and photo ops so we were feeling pretty good! Only got passed by two groups and we passed one ourselves.
There were a half dozen or so people on the top and we took the summit photos and pointed at other mountains, etc. I think when you get up to the top this early, the elephant in the room is, “Who’s going to do the Sawtooth” as everyone is sizing everyone else up. We saw a couple young guys with helmets that we assume we’re going to (they ended up giving it a look and not going for it) and talked to two others who sounded like they were going to. Jess (my wife) and I decided that we’re going down Bierstadt to give it a look and were planning on going for it. My stomach was nervous so I couldn’t eat much but I felt full of energy.
We were fully prepared for being very high for a very long time. We knew the Sawtooth would be tough both physically and especially mentally. What we weren’t prepared for was how difficult getting to the Sawtooth would be. Not unmanageable, just slow and steady and lots of work. Downclimbing the NE side of Bierstadt was difficult. We’re not entirely sure but we think we went down the face a little south of where we should have but our route was relatively safe and while very steep and it took seemingly forever we liked the way we went. We were soon joined by the two we were talking to on the summit and they passed us, clearly more comfortable bouldering downhill than we were (not that we were uncomfortable…just slow.) It was nice to have someone ahead of us as we were trying to do some route finding. We finally made it to the saddle and that’s when the route got really fun!
Trying to find routes and spot cairns is what we loved most (we are avid geocachers) and then figuring out our way was a blast. Class 3 scrambling is fun and felt very safe along the ridge even though at times we could see the 1000ft+ cliffs not too far from us (we stayed close to the ridgeline.) From the first notch to the large last gendarme we still were moving slowly but we really felt good, only getting off track twice before backtracking to correct to avoid some smaller cliffs.
We lost track of our “friends” at the last gendarme so we felt we’d be on our own from there on. The last gendarme stumped us (my wife was leading) as we couldn’t find a route. Finally I spotted a cairn that was straight up (as I was taller and standing as my wife was sitting and looking), the toughest climbing yet. It took a couple maneuvers to make it up a pretty steep slope with limited holds. It was easier for my 6’ frame than her 5’5” body but she went for it too and had no problems. From there it was a class 2 hike/scramble up to the beginning narrow part of the Sawtooth ledge. This was the part I was most scared of as people seem to do it quickly and there were very few pictures that had people on them for scale. That being said, it’s basically flat (by mountaineering standards) and while it was plenty exposed it wasn’t really scary at all.
I was tall and had a lot in my pack so the one boulder I just crawled under but other than that there were only like 2 steps/spots that made me think at all and they seemed very safe.
Across the ledge I felt like the sketchiness was over. Jess did not. The steep slope up scared her a ton, as a slip here could be bad (it didn’t seem too bad to me, but looked scarier when I looked back at it.) The funny thing is we met up with our friends again, they found a way to the upper sawtooth which looked harder but less scary. We finally met up at the point where the two routes converge and had some easy bouldering from there.
The last corner doesn’t look scary either but once you get around it, look back, it’s only like 5-6 feet wide with tons of exposure.
But soon we were in the grassy boulder field and heading to Evans, now a group of 4. It took us 3 hours to get from the summit of Bierstadt to the top of the Sawtooth. The euphoria of crossing the Sawtooth was quickly replaced by fatigue and maybe some altitude sickness as I couldn’t eat anything still and my hydration was slowing. One of our “friends” was also feeling the effects as well so once we got to the base of the Evans false summit we split up again.
I also soon sent Jess ahead (Mt Evans has bathrooms, she’s much faster than I was at this point, and I was struggling) and we all trudged at different paces. This is a really long slog anyways, add in some stomach cramps, a headache and just being tired and I started to worry. When one hiker asked me if I was ok, it made me worry a little more, especially since clouds were forming quickly. But I just zoned out, put my hiking and bouldering on cruise control and slowly and surely made it to the parking lot area. Starting the switchbacks up I saw Jess a few switchbacks behind so I forced my PB&J and waited so we could summit together! One of our “friends” summited the same time too! It's kind of crazy to do all that work to gain the Evans summit and see people who drove up in flip-flops!!!
It’s then when we formed a plan to try and hitchhike back down to Idaho Springs and have my dad pick me up. Once we took some summit photos and figured out the virtual geocache we headed back to the lot (our other friend was coming up for his summit, hooray) and saw the obligatory mountain goats and tried to hitchhike.
Except we apparently suck at hitchhiking. After about 20 minutes a guy from Ohio (Midwesterners are nice!) gave us a ride. Just in time too as the rain/hail mix seemed like it would’ve been brutal!
My fear of heights and stomach cramps almost resurfaced on the drive down, what a crazy road especially when busy. But we made it without incident and parted from our other new friend.
We didn’t have money or a credit card (oops) so I nursed a coffee at Tommyknockers (wife had soup and soda) but wishing I felt up for a beer or two. My dad (and our daughter) picked us up and paid our tab as it was pouring in Idaho Springs. Got to Georgetown and started up the pass to get my car. But I was getting really sick so they ditched me at the side of the road and I spent the next half-hour in the rain puking. Fun! The ride back to Breck after they picked me up was rough (a couple more puke spots) and then got back to the condo and went to bed right away (6:30.) Woke up at 9pm and felt better but took another day or so for my tummy to fully recover. No photos available of this part though!
Proud of my wife for tackling the Sawtooth with me. She’s definitely the strength I needed to accomplish something like this and the two 14ers I’ve done with her (this and Grays/Torreys) she’s been better off than I have.
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