| Might as well try again - Mt. Bierstadt Snow Hike
Mt. Bierstadt - 14,060’
West Slopes (from winter road closure)
Round Trip: 11 miles (15 w/ my Friday night camping mishap)
Time: 7.5 hours (4.5 hrs. up, 3 hrs down)
I’ve been looking to get more experience hiking in the snow, and this weekend turned out to be a great learning experience. I climbed Quandary Peak in January, but there was not much snow. The week prior I kept going back and forth on whether I should attempt to summit Bierstadt since storms last Wednesday and Thursday increased the risk for avalanche. So, I was glued to the weather forecast and monitored the CAIC’s avalanche forecast. Knowing that with Friday/Saturday clear, a west wind that wouldn’t put Bierstadt at a higher risk of wind slabs on the west slopes, the relatively gentle slopes of Bierstadt, and the fact I’ve summitted Bierstadt four times in the summer, I should at least go and SEE the mountain and determine from there if I should attempt to summit.
I left work Friday night and drove up to the winter road closure near Guanella Pass campground, getting there about 6:30PM. I ate a quick snack, put on my layers, strapped on my snowshoes, threw on my pack, and headed out on the road to the summer TH at 7PM. Almost immediately I ran into someone who had been snowshoeing along the road. We talked for a bit and he let me know that he had peeled off of the road and forged his own path through the trees to cut out a good portion of the hike along the road to the summer TH. I appreciated the advice for a short cut, but because it was getting dark and that route was unfamiliar, I decided to stick to the road. He shouted as I started walking, “You’re the real deal!” and I replied, “Well, we’ll see about that!”
I had the snow covered road all to myself. The fresh snow meant that I was creating my own path and I could look back and see only my tracks - I loved that feeling! But I was not postholing, snow was 3-4 inches deep before I hit the packed surface from snowmobilers and other snowshoers who had packed the snow down.
Road all to myself
View of Bierstadt from the road as the sun goes down
The plan was to camp at the summer trailhead and set out early the next morning. Reality was much different… I believe it was Mike Tyson who said, "Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth." It took me an hour to get from the road closure to the summer TH (I arrived at 8PM) and almost immediately after the sun went down the wind picked up. Soon I found myself in a full on windstorm and struggling to set up a tent that was not at all made for these conditions. I tried for an hour, but my tent just wouldn’t stand up to the winds. Doh!
I packed up my stuff and started the trudge back down to my car. The wind was brutal but fun/exciting. I was kicking myself all the way down to my car- “how could I be so stupid?” was on repeat during the hike down. I also weighed my options and at one point contemplated chalking it up as a failure and just drive home. “No!” I said to myself. “I have to try again tomorrow.”
I slept in my car, got up at 4:45AM and was on the trail (again) by 5:30AM. Temp was 15 degrees when I started. The picture below shows that part of the parking lot is exposed (likely due to the high sustained winds), but that there is still enough snow to block the entrance to the bathrooms at the TH.
I was, again, the only person on the trail and found myself creating my own way up the mountain. The feeling of picking your own way up the mountain is one that is unmatched. I felt free - Bierstadt was my mountain. This feeling is one that has gotten me hooked on winter climbing.
I snowshoed across the Willow Swamps. Most of the time I floated above the willows on a hard frozen crust, but occasionally I fell through and was reminded not only of how much snow there was but also that I was walking on top of what is, during the summer, a muddy, wet, mess. “HaHA! this snow is much better!”
View of Bierstadt as the sun comes up
Looking back across the Willows
Once nearing the base of the mountain, I followed what is normally the summer trail to about 11,800 feet. At that point, I switched from snowshoes to crampons. It was not necessary to put on crampons at this point. In fact, snowshoes would suffice for the entire hike except near the top where you don’t need snowshoes, but I recommend some sort of traction.
BUT, I felt like putting on crampons because I needed the practice and just the idea of walking up a snowfield in crampons is exciting! Instead of continuing along the trail that cuts across the base of the mountain I went straight up through snow/rock mix to the snowfield that makes up the majority of the hike up Bierstadt. I veered away from the drop off to the north, as a cornice had developed and I didn’t want to risk it breaking away. I zig-zagged my way up the snow field until I hit the rocky area just below the ridge to the summit.
A view of the Sawtooth from the West Slopes
View of the summit
As an audiophile, (I think that’s an appropriate term here) the sound of crampons cutting through snow and then scraping across rock was addicting, I hope I’m not the only one who loves that sound! I gained the ridge and then the summit, taking 4.5 hours in total to summit. It was a clear, sunny, beautiful day in the Rockies and I was proud of myself for making it to the top.
Nearing the top
Nearing the top
View of the Sawtooth ridge
The hike down was uneventful, besides the absolutely brutal and exhausting wind blowing directly head on as I crossed the Willow swamp. The wind was not as fun this time….
I learned a lot about myself and had an incredible time hiking in the snow. I am hooked to snow climbing for the rest of my life. As always, I climb to create memories and to raise awareness for Alzheimer’s. If you’d like to learn more, please feel free to send me a message or visit my facebook page at facebook.com/1414ersforAlzheimers
Climbing for Alzheimer's Awareness
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):