After living away from my home state of Colorado for about 10 years, I finally made it back here last year and have been trying to make up for lost time. New mountain bike, new snowboard gear, and a lot of time spent hiking in between. Last year I climbed Democrat/Cameron with a friend, which was the first 14er I had climbed since 20 years ago when I was a kid!
This year I planned on hiking a lot more 14ers, but with the crazy weather this summer most of my time was spent mountain biking the front range. Around the middle of August, I finally got the itch to feel some high altitude and made my way up the standard Bierstadt West route. Once at the top, I was immediately drawn to the harsh looking Sawtooth ridge and wondered if this was something I could attempt. At home later that day, I poured over the Sawtooth trip reports and decided that it would be a great way to test my experience level and comfort. While not afraid of heights/exposure, I certainly don't seek it out. But for whatever reason, I have become far more comfortable with exposure as I've become older.
I arrived at the Guanella Pass trailhead just before 7 am, and being a Tuesday there were only a few cars in the lot. I quickly made my way out, and made fast work of the standard route with several pleasant views along the way.
Nothing beats being out on these trails while watching the sunrise!
I was able to make the summit of Bierstadt in about 90 minutes, which meant I was up there around 8:30. I wanted to be off Evans by noon, as I am super paranoid about thunderstorms.
Looking down on the impressive looking Sawtooth!
Starting down towards the Sawtooth, I was surprised how time consuming it was just getting down there. It always amazes me how the large scale of these mountainous features can screw with your planning and interpretation of distance.
After painstakingly making my way through the Sawtooth, I finally had the notch in sight. Just making your way here is pretty interesting, as there are many, many options. I tried to stay as high as possible, as losing elevation that you eventually need to regain always sucks. But at the same time, I had to keep telling myself to not do anything stupid. While most of the climbing here is Class 3, there are some 3+ and 4 spots. There were a couple of sections where I was a little sketched out, knowing that if the route didn't work out and I had to back down, it would be beyond my comfort level. This only happened a couple of times, and was simply a matter of stopping and finding a more comfortable route. That's what I love about this area, there are so many options (and tons of cairns reflect that).
After getting through the notch to the West side of the Sawtooth, the ledge is AWESOME fun. I felt very comfortable on it, and like everybody said it looks worse than it is. Still, the exposure is for real and you absolutely want to make sure you have secure footing the whole way through.
Here's a quick video I took on the ledge that might indicate the level of exposure a bit better. Again, it looks worse than it really is.
After making my way out of the ledge and the beautiful Evans Tundra on the other side, Summit lake came into view as I worked my way towards Evans.
Sharing the summit of Evans with all of the tourists was kind of a surreal experience... Looking off to one side and seeing a parking lot with almost an amusement park like atmosphere, and to the other side where you "start" from the summit of Bierstadt with the Sawtooth quite visible.
While I made the summit of Evans by noon (my goal), there were definitely some signs that weather might be moving in. I quickly ate a snack and made my way back towards the Evans tundra and the gulley back to Guanella. I couldn't resist taking this parting shot of Summit lake with the weather moving in.
Maybe I'm just an idiot, but finding the gulley was a pain in the ass! My paranoia about wasted descents took over, and I walked almost all the way to where Mt. Spalding starts before I figured out where the gulley was. For some reason the cairns just weren't that clear to me, and the photos in the route guide (Mr. Middlebrook's) just weren't helping me that much for this particular section. But eventually I did find it!
Going down the gulley is time consuming. At least it felt that way, as I was starting to get tired, I was hungry, and I ran out of water in my 100 oz camelbak (woops!). But it was definitely pretty cool, and there was a pretty awesome waterfall down at the bottom. There are some pretty rough spots throughout the gulley descent, and you are absolutely not done with the technical portions of this hike while on this section. This shot below is what I had come down so far (and still had a lot more to go).
Shortly after getting out of the gulley, I started to hear some thunder up towards Evans. I now felt considerably more comfortable since I was much lower, but I still faced the infamous willows swamp. All I can say is this place is the WORST! Several times I sunk down to my knees, and to say it is a confusing maze is an understatement. On top of now being tired, dehydrated, and wanting to haul ass to beat the weather this was an exhausting experience. When I FINALLY made it back to the standard trail, I was ecstatic! Walking back to my car, the weather was definitely in full force at the top of Evans and Bierstadt.
The whole trip took me about 8.5 hours, including breaks. It was awesome, and making it through the Sawtooth solo was a very rewarding experience. It really gave me confidence in my ability to continue working on Class 3 terrain skills, and I would recommend it to anybody looking to start that next step in their experience level. But for the love of God, please bring some gaiters or something for that willow swamp at the end!
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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