| First Cat. III: Bierstadt, Sawtooth, Evans
This is a trip report to document a climb of Mt. Bierstadt, Mt. Evans and the
connecting sawtooth ridge on Tuesday, July the 6th of 2010. I think there are three sorts of people who might find this report interesting. The first would be those who'd like to know the climbing conditions at that time. Second are those who'd like to see what I think are some fairly unique "action" shots of the very begining and the very end of the sawtooth traverse. (Specifically, these are the times respectively when you are descending a talus slope from the summit of Bierstadt, and ascending a ramp to exit the ledges just below the sawtooth itself. Unbenownst to me, my climbing partners got shots of me at both of these times. I hadn't seen many pictures like them before, and I think they rather accurately depict what it's like to climb in these places.) The last set of people who might be interested in this report are those who are now comfortable climbing only in category 2+ conditions and would like to know what it might be like to attempt their first category 3 climb.
I can answer the first question quickly and immediately: the weather conditions on this Tuesday in early July were crystal blue, clear and calm. This is the high-altitude Colorado weather that peak baggers might do well never to expect. I feel infinately lucky to have gotten it for my first cat. 3 climb. There was no snow or ice at all on the sawtooth ridge save for a small field on the talus just below Bierstadt's summit. We decided to climb below it, and it wasn't clear anything could have been gained by climbing in this area even if the snow had been gone.
The second group of people, those interested only in our photos of the Bierstadt descent and the ramp, might like to scan our photos (which I'll attempt to include in-line with this document) and dispense with the rest of the text.
Lastly, it is "new" climbers (those who have not yet attempted a category 3 climb) whom I hope will find the most value in this report. I was one of you until a week ago, and write from a decidedly wide-eyed perspective. As such, I expect the remainder of this document will be found to be vastly subjective.
At this point, I'd like to take a moment to introduce the cast of characters. For the last five years, I've had the pleasure of climbing with a friend and former colleague named Ray. It rained rather spectacularly on the first backcountry trip I ever did with him, and I nicknamed him "The Rayn God." It's never much caught on with anyone else, but I like it. Ray's natural athleticism and his work ethic are both monumental. My only regret is that I'm holding him back from his climbing potential by repeatedly planning trips more in line with my own abilities than with his.
Three years ago, I also had the pleasure of begining to climb with my nephew Garrett. His poise at 20 is startling, and it's valuable to him in the mountains. He's who I would have been at that age had I had both more confidence and a more fashionable haircut.
I'm David, but a nickname of mine that stretches back these twenty years since the first days of college is "Whoopi Cat." The story of this climb for me starts back in 2003 when in a matter of weeks I accomplished the two highest priorities on my life list. At the end of May I became a yoga teacher, and on June 16th I moved out west (to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where we have both mountains and superb wine). To live in the west for me meant to experience the mountains as wholely as possible. Winter meant snowboarding them, and summer meant climbing them. It's humorous to think of that now. I had a reasonably good idea of what it would be like to be a snowboarder. I assure you I had none of what it really meant to climb mountains.
Nonetheless, I met a climbing partner at work not days after starting the job. His name was Mike and an old backpacking partner of his had recently moved to Seattle and summited one of the cascades. Mike was hot to top out on one of the 14ers, and read somewhere that Blanca was a good "firsteener." I had quite a bit of backpacking experience (I owned a tent!), and he wanted me to go along. I made the summit on that Sunday in August of 2003, but I like to do things in my life with a good bit more grace than that when possible. There may be those in the world who are naturals at climbing mountains. I'm not one of them.
But the bug bit, apparently, and by the end of that summer we had finished Redcloud, Sunshine and Handies as well. The next year we climbed Pikes Peak, Torrey's, Grey's, Lincoln, Bross, Democrat, Quandry, and Bierstadt-without-the-scary-part. The next summer Mike left for an attempt on the appalachian trail, and I never climbed with him again. I hope he finds what he's looking for; it's not on top of a mountain and it's not in the woods, and it isn't in a pipe any more than it had been in the bottom of a bottle. Despite his internal assertions to the contrary, there's nothing wrong with him at all. I hope someday he comes to believe that.
The following summer I started climbing with Ray: we did did Elbert and Massive. In 2007 Garrett joined us. That was six months after I married the woman who lives in my heart, Eryka. She's a constant part of the story of these climbs. It's for myself that I go into the mountains, but it's for and to her that I come home.
In fact, by this summer of 2010 I had over 30 summits including repeats, and I'd completed almost all the category 1 and category 2 classic routes. I called both Garrett and Ray to see what they thought about including a 3 in this year's schedule. Garrett said he thought it would be "good experience," and Ray only wanted to know if we'd need a rope. I felt pretty committed at that point, and the sawtooth would haunt my thoughts, including waking me up at night, for the next two months. Almost every day in that time I reviewed either the pictures of the route on 14ers.com, the route description, or a trip report. That fact alone tells you a great deal about my personality; if you knew nothing else about me, you'd know alot.
So it was that our alarms went off at four A.M. in our campsite just below Guanella pass. We had all packed our alpine packs the night before (Garrett and I each took four liters of fluid which turned out to be more than either of us needed by one). I took the smaller of the two first aid kits I normally use to cut down on weight, but I did load in my instep crampons to make absolutely sure we wouldn't need them. My food for the day was four clif bars and a bag of the hand-made trail mix I had put together in Albuquerque. That trail mix tastes fantastic at 6,400'. At 14,000' it's salty chalk. I still haven't found anything that tastes good at altitude, and have begun to believe I simply never will.
We started from the new (to me) trailhead by the bathrooms at 5:20 A.M. which was quite a bit later than I had been hoping for, but we were all obviously focused, and the weather was demonstratably fair. We took the trail to Bierstadt's summit much more slowly than we normally would have to conserve energy. Garrett and I had determined to finish one of our liters of water by the time we got there, and we did which surely helped with our hydration. It also increased the number of pit-stops we made on the trail.
I remembered the snow field just below Bierstadt's summit, and had been looking forward to it. The first of our pictures is from that point in the climb. I think this is the best picture we've ever gotten of Garrett.
Once on the summit, you can see the entirety of the sawtooth. I think it's mandatory to include this picture in every trail report on this traverse. Here's our offering.
We made it by 8:15 and after passing another climber who was descending, we had the summit to ourselves. I had already done all the thinking a person can conceivably do about this route so I simply put on my helmet, crossed my arms, and waited. Garrett wanted to see the route once more before we left, and the pictures from 14ers.com convinced him that yes, in fact, the ledges were passable. As is always the case on mountains, and in so many other circumstances as well, I'll never guess what might have been going through Ray's head at this time.
After this short rest and clif bars all around we simply did it, we started. And that's when it struck: I realized we were having fun.
I had heard the descent from Bierstadt described as "loose-ish." Perhaps because I was expecting it, I didn't find it to be so. Here are the two shots I mentioned earlier of me descending. They convey rather well my memory of what it was like to be there.
Garrett snapped this picture of Ray near the saddle. More than a head shot ever could, I think it displays his personality.
And for a while, Garrett decided just to sit. The Japanese call this zazen, and being proudly a good yoga teacher and a bad uncle, I love this picture.
After the descent to the saddle, you cross two towers on their east sides before crossing over to the ledges on the west side of the sawtooth. I had spent the most time studying this part of the route as it was said to be the hardest bit on the website. It's rather difficult to capture in pictures what it's like to climb in this area; I had gotten the impression that we'd be climbing up the towers, crossing over their tops, and then descending slightly on the far sides. Actually, it wasn't much like that. It's more like you're climbing over continuous ribs of rock. While you can clearly see from the west that the towers rise to two distinct prows, it didn't seem so while I climbed over them on the east. It seemed more like five, but they were lower and easier than I had expected. As far as the difficulty of the climbing itself, I found myself commonly bringing my left foot up to the same ledge that my left hand was on, while holding on higher with my right. The rock was very stable, and I never once feared a fall. As I mentioned, it was quite alot of fun.
I actually laughed to myself when we finished with the last of the tower section, because I had memorized the look of the gully that's used to cross to west side of the ridge. I really, really didn't want to miss it. Sure enough, it was the fair twin of its photos.
From here, I knew that the ledges were simply a matter of putting one foot in front of the other. I had "practiced" for this section earlier in the summer by repeatedly walking around the edge of the roof of the building in which I work. I'd make sure that at least a half inch of each foot was off the edge, and then force myself to look down while I walked. But in the end, I never used whatever skills I might have gained from this exercise. As it turns out, "don't look down" actually works. I have no idea what it's like to peer down the sheer cliffs under the ledges, or to gaze out from there toward Guanella pass. I simply looked at the wall on my right side, held on to the wall at my right side, and walked across the ledge as though it were a sidewalk. That was it, no drama.
There's a definative end to the ledges which you can see in the pictures on the website: it's a large, flat boulder which lies at the very bottom of the ramp which serves as the exit not only from the ledges but indeed from the entire catogory 3 section of the traverse. It was deemed, almost without thinking, to be too dangerous for us to climb the ramp together. This is the one place where the dirt and gravel really are very loose. Ray climbed it first while Garrett and I waited at the boulder, then Garrett ascended. Once it was my turn, I chose a line which allowed me solid handholds at the wall to accompany every step. Only once could this have turned out badly, when I pulled a plate-sized rock about a quarter inch out of its birth in the dirt. My footing was solid at the time, though, and I didn't even get a shot of adreneline.
I didn't know they took these pictures of me until I picked up the camera back in Albuquerque. I'm glad they did though, and I think this is a good view of what it's like to climb the ramp.
And after the ramp, just as quick as you started, it's over. We took off our helmets and had clif bars. I could tell you I sat and thought about "what we had just accomplished," but luckily I didn't. I just enjoyed enjoyed being on the side of a mountain with my friends.
It's a walk from the sawtooth to the summit of Mt. Evans, that's true. But as I reflected at the time, I did it all on "sawtooth bliss." We had some more food on that mountain's summit, and unlike some other trail reports I've read, not one person asked us why we walked instead of driving. This is how we looked when we were there.
We reached the summit of Evans at 11:15, which is one reason I'm so happy we got the perfect weather day that we did. From there you retrace your steps to the sawtooth and then follow Bill Middlebrook's very accurate advice and "wander" west to a gully which leads down on the north side of the sawtooth to the waiting swamp below. There was some discussion among us about the likeliest place for the start of this gully, I was decidedly wrong in my view that it would be on the right. It's on climbers' left while descending. The gully itself is a little bit loose and a tiny bit steep, but nothing above category 2. In fact, we talked about it after finishing the route and decided that the classic (and currently illegal) descent from Bross is probably sketchier.
Here's the gully where we entered it:
Much has been said about the crossing of the swamp willows after this long day, and I have nothing to add to it here. Well, I had something to add at the time. But only Garrett heard it, and you'll have to ask him what it was.
Our perfect weather day held as long as we needed it to, but even at that it started to cloud up while we were in the swamp. We reached my jeep at the pass at 2:45 that afternoon: just in time for me to see a few hailstones fall on my vest.
So we've done it. I've done it. There's no heroism in a story like this. For the love of God, it's only recreation. But still, there's something in the mountains that scares me very deeply. I was able to climb *with* that thing on the sawtooth, to contain it, and to truly enjoy myself. And I know also that this was a very easy introduction to cat 3 climbing: we didn't have to cross the ridge a second time, and the route finding was hand-fed to us. But I've done easier mountains (Columbia) in worse ways (with no confidence), and I'm proud of the way I brought it on this traverse.
I know I won't stop going to the mountains, because that would be letting the fear drive, and I won't live like that. Yes, I know there'll be another cat. 3 in my future. No, I don't know which one it will be.
I just hope I have the same weather.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):