| Bierstadt / Sawtooth / Evans - avoiding the Willows
Bierstadt Standard route / Sawtooth traverse / Mt. Evans / Mt. Spalding.
Trip Length: 12.1 miles
Trip Duration: 10 hrs. 15 min.
Elevation Gain: 4500 ft.
Climbers: Myself, Longshanks (Eric), and Adam.
On the 9th I drove down from Fort Collins with Longshanks, picked up Adam on I-70 and went up Guanella Pass. We 'preloaded' about 50-60 oz. of water and got on the trail by 6:40 AM. Longshanks was dressed for a hike in Moab. Adam and I were dressed for a summit push on Denali. The right amount of clothing would turn out to be somewhere in-between. We ended up layering up and down the whole day.
The weather was looking pretty unsettled, but nothing really threatening - so we pressed on. Pretty soon, the summit of Bierstadt got enveloped in clouds, that hovered around 13,500. That layer wouldn't burn off for several hours.
As the sun began coming up we could see that Grays and Torreys were completely shrouded, but it made for a really cool sunrise:
As the Sawtooth and gulley began to fully come into view, we started planning an alternate exit for later in the day. I'd been reading enough horror stories about the Willows that I was convinced there was a better alternate route. The line in yellow shows how we ultimately descended later. Where I took this photo, I marked a waypoint on my GPS to use as a trail rendezvous marker on the way home.
By 13,000 ft. we were all already beginning to 'unload' our 'preload'. Oh well. Over-hydrated is probably a better alternative than dehydrated. Just before 9:00AM, we topped out on a very fogged-in Bierstadt.
Noone was thrilled about trying to cross the Sawtooth in this kind of weather, and being totally fogged-in, we couldn't really tell what it was going to do. Taking a bit a chance, we started the descent in the hopes that this morning cheese would burn off as the sun got higher. Halfway down the to the saddle of the Sawtooth, we lucked out and things started clearing up. That magical balanced rock that fascinates everyone? ... still there.
Once we could see the route ahead more clearly, we decided to traverse out along the ridgeline. It's a bit more technical, exposed in places, but a lot of fun. Any place that makes you uncomfortable is easy to back out of and traverse lower. However, this is a longer descent than you think from the summit of Bierstadt. It took a surprising 70 minutes from leaving Bierstadt's summit to make it to the Sawtooth saddle. The route is Class 3 mostly, but you can mix in some lower Class 4 if you want to amp up the difficulty.
However every Class 4 section has easy Class 3 alternative if you get sketched-out. The best example is the final gendarme before crossing over. The route we took up the chimney is shown in red, the more popular route is shown in blue.
The group ahead of us actually took a line to the left of the chimney which looked like even more fun.
A climber in the group ahead puts that final obstacle into scale:
If you choose the harder line up the chimney it's about 25-30 feet of Class 4. Plenty of handholds, but really steep - and it exits out a narrow opening at the top of the gendarme.
Longshanks nearing the top:
Adam getting started:
Adam topping out to the first ledge:
Longshanks finishing the narrow exit:
The top of the gendarme before the crossover:
Once you start out onto the Sawtooth, the route is pretty straightforward. It's not very technical, but it's also no place to screw around. We chose the standard line in yellow, but the group ahead of us (circled) chose a higher line in blue. The blue line removes some of the exposure along the way, but adds a switchback into the traverse.
The group ahead on the higher line shows scale:
Just after getting started you have to duck under this overhanging rock where the trail is pretty close to the edge. Not a big deal, but if you're 6' 2", your pack will probably scrape the rock like mine did on your way by ... just something to keep in mind.
The crux of the traverse in my mind is just before turning the final corner. The ledge chokes to a pretty narrow passage with a noticable angle, and the edge of the cliff comes up to meet you. Once again, not very technical, but it grabs your attention. After crossing over to the north side of the Sawtooth, you get some really cool vantage points looking down to Abyss Lake:
We really weren't making very good time, and the weather was beginning to form to the southeast, so we picked up the pace and took Bill's standard route along the West Evans ridge (to the right of the ridgeline, following the cairns). Although it doesn't seem like it, once beginning the Sawtooth traverse until summitting Evans, you'll have to gain back nearly 1,000 vertical feet.
The other trip reports are 100% accurate here. The traverse feels longer than you think it will (probably due to altitude and the vertical you have to regain), and the people you encounter on the final switchbacks from the parking lot will annoy you. While you're busy sucking wind after a 4-5 hour slog, your new friends will look fresh as a daisy, decked out in wife-beaters and acid-washed jeans. One lady was actually carrying her miniature dog to the summit. The gleeful signing of the summit register by those who've just conquered their 200 ft. "Everest" does stick in one's craw.
Anyway, I felt we'd done enough work (about 5 hrs. from trailhead to summit) to warrant a summit photo and a sip of Fort Collins' finest:
After a quick lunch and 15 minute break, it was time to think about heading back. The weather was not moving in the right direction, and we didn't want to get caught out on the bare rock if it got wet. We took a small detour and traversed the length of the West Evans ridge. This is a really fun Class 2 / Class 3 scramble that only cliffs out in one point. A simple traverse below the obvious exposed rock and the whole route can be taken along the crest of the ridgeline.
Once off of Evans, we made a hasty decision to squeeze in Spalding before dropping down the final gully. It was about 1:30 PM, the distant thunder was beginning to become not-so-distant, and we were getting a little nervous about being up so high at this hour. The clouds were rushing straight up the face of Spalding and began swirling and converging on top of us:
OK, Zeus. I can take a hint.
There's nothing really noteworthy about the final gully other than it's loose, somewhat steep, and flat out sucks when your knees are tired and you've been above 13,000 feet for 6 straight hours. The worn trail will take you down a small cliff band as shown, and down towards the dreaded Willows which is apparently littered with 'Lightning Sand' and Rodents of Unusual Size (R.O.U.S.'s). I wanted nothing to do with either.
If you depart the trail to your left just below this cliff:
You'll stay above the waterfall, and more importantly, the Willows. The traverse can be done by hopping across the small streams. If you watch your footing carefully, you won't get your feet wet. Here's the shot of the traverse we chose to cross the waterfall. Once against the lower flank of Bierstadt, stay below the cliffs, but above the springs and streams for a dry passage. The route in yellow was our way home, and the blue line is just about where the Bierstadt trail passes at its northernmost point.
Another view of the route (just above the waterfall):
We found that climbing the gully above the waterfall and the gully to instersect with the Bierstadt trail felt like climbing the Hillary Step. Although only about 150 feet of vertical, it comes at the end of a long, tiring day.
The weather held out just until we found the Bierstadt trail (just above the switchbacks). Then, we got our first rain of the day, and the lightning strikes started getting closer to Guanella Pass.
A few kids bombed by us on the way down looking like they were dressed for a Blink 182 concert, not a high alpine environment. Inexpicably, as the rain and thunder started picking up, some guy passed us going up the trail! Judging by his gear, he looked relatively experienced. Judging by the "Amy-Winehouse-on-the-way-to-rehab" expression on his face, we quickly decided not to challenge him on why he was heading right into the teeth of a building storm. He could still be up on the mountain for all I know.
The final hike back to the parking lot was a miserable slog, partly because is was raining pretty hard, and partly because it's uphill past Scott Gomer Creek. But boy, was I glad not to be picking my way through the Willows. At one point, a lightning strike hit within 1/2 mile. Everyone on the trail instinctively started running. After about 50 yards, everyone instinctively stopped. Running just wasn't going to happen with no gas left in the tank.
We made it back to the truck by 4:50PM - wet, exhausted, and hungry. No one was in the mood for the 'celebratory beer'. That would have to wait until later. All-in-all, a great day in the mountains - a successful trip, no one got hurt, and we lived to tell of a great adventure. Next up, Long's / Meeker via the Loft! 8)