| Bierstadt - a little slog through the willows
We got a late start because my brother had to drive from Grand Junction. We met at the Mountain Buzz Coffee Shop in Georgetown for some "get up and go juice". If you haven't been to Mountain Buzz, I recommend it, lots of hiking guides available for reference, and the owner knows the conditions on the mountains.
Anyhow, we reached the end of the plowed road (about 10,500 ft and about 3 miles from the top of the pass) at about 8:30 am. There was a truck with NJ plates about .25 miles past the end of the road. Looked like it wasn't going anywhere until either the snow melted out, or someone went up there with a plow. A few days earlier, they might have gotten out in the early morning hours when the snow was frozen.
The view of the road from where we parked. The picture doesn't do it justice, you couldn't drive this.
We enjoyed easy hiking on solidly frozen snow until we tried a shortcut at the 1st major switchback. Snow in the trees as we tried to regain the road either had already softened up, or never re-froze the evening before, making for a tough slog up the steep slope. When we reached the road, we found that the new retaining wall made a difficult pitch up to the road. After that, we resumed easy solid hiking up the still firm road. Walking on top of the new guardrail made for an interesting walk.
Bill makes easy work of the solid snow on the road
The sawtooth visible through the trees (note the blue sky)
A little further up, and the sawtooth is visible more clearly (Bierstadt on the right)
Bill demonstrates walking on the guardrail (we left the road just above here)
We shortcutted the last switchback and followed old tracks into the willows. In an ominous preview of things to come, we started occasionally post-holing in as we started across the willows. Even more ominous were old tracks where someone with snowshoes was occasionally post-holing. But since the old tracks only indicated an occasional post-hole, we ignored it. We were finally forced to don our own snowshoes about 1/3rd of the way across the flats as the rate of post hole punching increased. We cautiously leapt across Scott Gomer Creek, wondering if with the warming afternoon temperatures we would be able to so casually leap across on our way back down.
Leaping Scott Gomer Creek (in hindsight we should've don this on the way back too)
We picked our way up the slope so that we could stay on snow as much as possible to the ridge at approximately 13,000 feet, then took the snowshoes back off. Then following the ridge, I was able to mostly follow the trail, bypassing large snowfields as much as possible. At the small saddle near 13,900 ft, the snow was largely unavoidable, but solid, so I finished the climb on the snow but didn't don snowshoes. The weather was great, the view even better from the top.
Looking up at the final pitch to the summit
My brother had fallen behind, so I ate some lunch took some summit photos, and rested for about 20 minutes then started my descent, hoping to run into my brother on his way up. My brother was at about 13,000 feet eating some lunch, said he was feeling fatigued, so he stopped and took a nap. I think this is a key point for people trying to summit a 14er, if you don't feel up to it, don't continue. My brother did the right thing; he didn't have the strength that day, so he didn't kill himself getting to the top, only to be too tired to make it back to the trailhead. And as you'll soon hear, we need all the strength we had to make it back to the trailhead….
On the summit
Looking West from the Summit. Old Geneva Basin(?) Ski Area Visible Left Center of Photo
He finished his lunch as we chatted with a couple that had also turned back short of the summit, then started out descent. We made quick work for a while on the relatively firm snow (I was wishing I had skis or a snowboard).
Bill demonstrates the fine art of the Posthole. Not long after this, the going was too tough to think about stopping for pictures.
At about 12,500, the snow had softened enough to require snowshoes again. As we approached the "flats" of the willows, we were occasionally post-holing even in snowshoes, so we aimed for the line of trees to the right and above the willows, hoping to find firmer snow in the shade of the trees. This was largely successful, however because the snow in the trees was deeper, when we did sink in, it was usually up to our waist, and often accompanied by a nicely executed forward tumble. And here is where we made our big mistake (although a later discussion with the other couple we saw indicated that it was probably only marginally worse than the other option). Because of concern over the flow in the creek we had crossed on the way up, and the fact that our route through the trees had taken us further to the right, we decided to follow some old tracks across the flats to the right (descending) of the normal path through the willows. Once we hit the true flats, there was no avoiding the post holes. Every step sunk at least to the knees, and the snow was soft enough to backfill on top of the snowshoes, making tiring work of each step. So, I said to myself "cheer up, it could be worse", and sure enough, as soon as I cheered up it got worse. Near the middle of the flats, as I pulled my snowshoe out of the previous step‘s posthole, I started to hear a bit of a slurping/sucking sound. Looking back, I saw our foot steps had taken on a more gray color of slush, rather than the white of the snow. A few steps later, my foot sunk to the knee in pure slush, flooding my boot over the top of my gator with ice cold slush. The next hundred steps or so, we literally were post-holing into slush. I don't know how long it took us to slog across to the top of the pass to that last switch back in the road, maybe only an hour, maybe two hours...but it was truly exhausting. We were beat, but because I was worried a little about my wet feet, and because I was supposed to catch an 8:40pm flight from Denver, we had to keep moving. While we were moving, my feet seemed okay.
When we finally reached the road, the snow was soft, but at least able to support us on snowshoes, so we made quick work of the descent on the road back to the campground, then as we doffed our snowshoes the couple we met earlier caught up to us. We discussed the slog across the willows, and found that they had only fared slightly better than us. It obviously took them just as long because we were just above the flats at the same time, and they followed us most of the way down the road to this point. I guess they still had dry feet, but commented that they just experienced the worst post-holing of their lives (as had I).
We got back to the car at about 5:30, I told my brother that I needed to haul a$# to the airport, and had to forego the planned post hike beer. I repacked my stuff put on dry shoes, and hauled buns towards the airport. I stopped at REI to return rented snowshoes, then resumed the wild ride hoping to make my flight. I felt pretty good about getting to the terminal with 30 mins until my flight, but what the heck!? The friendly folks at United said I HAD to be there with at least 45 minutes before my flight. Bummer! Lesson learned...despite a tight schedule, never pass up the chance to have had a beer with your brother.
All in all, it was a great hike up, and the hike down…well, what can I say, it was a helluva good workout.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):