| Why Not Bierstadt?
Having recently received punishment from snow, ice, and wind on Longs Peak, I decided to take it easy and climb Mt. Bierstadt on a lazy Sunday afternoon. It would be a leisure hike, I told myself. A stroll where I would watch my knees, save my breath, and take some photos. This was my resolution, and I was determined not to waver from it. There would be no running, leaping, bounding, or dynamic motion of any sort! Good old-fashioned walking, that's what this was about. I started off at a very tardy 11:11 AM to encourage good behavior. But no sooner had my feet touched the muddy trail than I lost control of my acceleration and bolted for the summit. I wasn't quite running, but walking at 4.5 mph is close enough. Perhaps I should quit wearing trail runners when I plan on a slow-paced hike.
Covering the approach with a ground-eating stride, I noted the consistency of the trail; it was distinctly similar to the icing on a fudge brownie. Fortunately, the mud wasn't too deep and chocolaty, so it neither slowed me down nor tempted me to break out my titanium spork and try a bite. Zipping past a few parties of hikers, I greeted everyone with a smile and a wave as I darted around them, taking care not to splash anyone with the copious mud. I was pleased to encounter a couple of boardwalks, which granted relief from the fudgy trail, but to my irritation the spaces between the planks had an annoying tendency to snag the tips of my trekking poles and stop me dead in my tracks. I couldn't be bothered to put the poles away, so on the boardwalk sections I took to holding them out to the side like oversize insect feelers.
The irritation of carrying trekking poles notwithstanding, I was grateful for their help at the first stream crossing, which consisted of muddy rocks bordered by crusts of ice and snow that obscured both the decent footholds and the banks. Probing and balancing with the poles, I made short work of the crossing and avoided getting a shoe full of water. The trail soon began to rise, and as I gained elevation, I came across icy patches where willows shaded the trail. The trekking poles came in handy again, keeping my feet from slipping out from under me on these sections. I considered stopping to put on my microspikes, but I was making such good time that I felt it would be a shame to slow down. However, after nearly sliding out around a couple of turns, I was forced to reconsider. I took a quick break to eat a snack, take a picture of the lovely vista, and don my microspikes.
View looking west from Bierstadt
Contrarily, Bierstadt refused to provide me with any more ice slicks for the next half mile or so. But when I began to climb the slope in earnest, working my way along a path of well-trodden snow and light ice, I was thankful for the traction, which no doubt spared my calves from the thankless workout of hiking on a slick surface. I continued to gain elevation, and the snow-covered shoulder of Bierstadt loomed above me, with the naked rock of the Sawtooth jutting out to my left. My eyes now flickered upward toward the slopes of the summit, where my stare alighted on other hikers as my incorrigibly competitive brain gauged whom I might overtake. Far up in the distance, an insect-sized solo hiker was making swift progress toward the top. There was no way I could catch up to this person, but for some reason my legs began churning harder, driving me up the slope against my will. I was gasping for air and regretting the decision to hike today. A mountaineer's adage sprang to mind: "You don't have to be having fun to have fun." That certainly described my trek up the final slope of snow and talus, where I passed several parties, all of whom chuckled at the aptness of my quote. I was heaving for breath, pushing as hard as my lungs and legs would permit, and growing increasingly cold in a persistent wind that swept down over the summit ridge.
I knew I should probably stop and put on my heavier gloves, and perhaps my shell. But by now I was very close to overtaking my target. Powering along the final ridge, with just my glove liners and wool shirt to keep me alive in the biting cold, I admonished the uncooperative wind to pipe down a bit. It refused to comply, so I obstinately kept going, although my hands were now devoid of sensation, and I thought I could literally feel my core temperature dropping. Having stopped only once on the whole hike, I arrived at the summit mere seconds behind my oblivious competitor. It was 12:40 PM. By this time, I was quite cold, and I eagerly anticipated putting on my shell and ski gloves, which were stowed in my pack. As I caught my breath and took in the views from the summit, I struggled to unbuckle the sternum strap of my pack. After about two minutes of desperate fumbling, I concluded that my numbed fingers were clearly not up to the task and begged my companion for help.
"Think you could unfasten this buckle on my pack, dude?" I inquired of the twenty-something blond hiker who was taking a satisfied survey of the vista.
My friend obliged, and I as I worked hard to put on my extra layers, I got to know him a bit. His name was Blaine, and he was going to school in Boulder. Like me, he had thought about hiking over to the Sawtooth, and then onward to Mt. Evans, but he wasn't entirely sure about the prospect of such commitment. And yet we both thought that Bierstadt really hadn't provided quite enough challenge for the day, and that it would seem like a pity to just turn tail and slink back down the way we had come. So Blaine and I struck up a deal to traverse along the ridge, where we would at least top out on the Sawtooth. After that, we'd see if we felt more like retreating or summiting Mt. Evans.
Our descent from Bierstadt's summit down to the Sawtooth ridge was plagued by postholing between boulders. The snow was at the exact depth that obscures large stones from sight but doesn't prevent your feet from plunging down between them. I probed around with my trekking poles, while Blaine simply forged ahead. When we made it down to the saddle on the ridge, the talus scramble became more manageable, and we could merely hop from rock to rock on our way across to the large gendarme that guards the ridge. Climbing to the right around this rocky outcropping was fairly easy and almost completely snow-free, with virtually no exposure. Once we arrived on the far side of this stony sentinel, we were treated to a grand view of mountains stretched out below us, so we paused and snapped a few pictures before continuing on to the Sawtooth itself. There was a mildly exposed traverse here, but there was no snow or verglas, just a bit of scree. The Sawtooth ridge was enjoyable, but in present conditions it was certainly not at all technical.
Bierstadt as seen from the Sawtooth
More of the view from the Sawtooth
From here, a protracted hike along talus brought us to the top of Mt. Evans, where we were able to enjoy yet another beautiful and isolated summit. Though it pains me a little that there's a parking lot just below this peak, I took solace in seeing it completely empty this afternoon. After snagging a couple more photos, Blaine and I decided it was time to head back down. We were cold unless we kept moving, and it would certainly be a good idea to beat the sun back down the mountain.
Though it's possible to descend by crossing back over the Sawtooth ridge and then back down the West Slopes, a shorter option is to descend a communal trail that winds its way down the prominent gully on the north side of the Sawtooth. So we hoofed it back across the talus, following cairns when we could spot them and blazing our own path across the boulders when we couldn't. We navigated down into the gully, where we found a narrow track which sported a good bit of loose powder among the rocks and dirt. There was no real exposure on this path, though there were plenty of places to slip and get a nice sporty bruise. To avoid this, I moved downward slowly and deliberately, taking full advantage of my trekking poles and microspikes. Blaine didn’t bother with either of these and slipped a number of times, though his falls were always so benign-looking that I never worried about him.
Bierstadt and Sawtooth ridge as seen on descent
After slip-sliding down the gully, we found ourselves down among the willows once more. The path was a little indistinct in places, and there was certainly more than one route that would lead us back to the trailhead. Though the sun was getting low on the horizon, we were both fairly confident that we’d make it to the cars before sundown, which was good, because I was the only one with a headlamp.
I gingerly trod through the icy muck surrounding the lower-lying willows, trying not to put my foot through the veneer of ice that kept me out of the water below it. Blaine kindly went ahead of me, since he was the one wearing actual boots. Once or twice he plunged in up to his shins, with an audible gasp of discomfort each time. Thankfully this kept me from following directly in his tracks, and I managed to avoid the worst of the frigid swamp.
Our trek was almost over, but I was growing quite tired, and my headache had actually worsened despite our descent from altitude. My right ankle was sore from chafing against the wall of my shoe, and my right knee was beginning to swell a bit from all the abuse I’ve been putting it through lately. It was clear that I would soon be slowing Blaine down, so we shook hands, and he struck out on his own while I took a well-deserved break, changing my socks for dry ones, eating the last of my snacks, and downing 400 mg of ibuprofen along with a large helping of water.
Before long, I was feeling pretty good and set out through the willows again. Several narrow paths diverged, and I believe I chose the wrong one, because I was soon mired in a substantial swath of marsh, from which I had to extricate myself by leaping between small willow hammocks. At the edge of the marsh, I spied some boot prints and followed them until they were again lost in the snow and mud. At this point, I followed a game run though the willows. Judging by the tracks, it was made primarily by moose, and it conveniently led me in the direction of a marker post denoting the West Slopes trail. Eventually, I hit the communal trail once more, and this led me back onto the boardwalks of the West Slopes.
Despite the glut of muddy boot prints on the way back to the trailhead, there was practically no one left on Bierstadt, and I sauntered back to the car under a glorious sunset with open mountain vistas in every direction. As the boardwalk clattered underfoot and snagged at my trekking poles, I smiled to myself in reminiscence of the humid Florida swamps that had been my only hiking ground for the past eight years. Even if this altitude still gives me a headache, Colorado is hands-down the winner.
Sunset outperforming my lowly iPhone camera
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