| Sufferin’ Sawtooth, Whimsical Willows…
Sufferin’ Sawtooth, Whimsical Willows…
Peak: Mt. Bierstadt
Route: West Face
Approach: Guanella Pass Road, South Side
Date: March 10, 2011
Length: About 18 miles RT
Vertical: About 4500 feet
Ascent Party: Solo.
Sawtooth (left) with connecting ridge to Mt. Bierstadt, March 10, 2011.
This year, Steve Gladbach became the fourth person to summit all 59 Colorado 14ers in calendar winter (Congrats, Steve!) Micah and I were hoping to join his finishing party on Evans, via Bierstadt to the Sawtooth, and on to Evans. Earlier in the season Micah’s Sawtooth attempt barely got their party off Guanella Pass as the first big storm came in, stranding cars and closing the road more than five miles below the pass. But as weather would have it, after the first change in Steve’s plans, Micah could not make it. After weather mandated a second change in plans, neither could I. But all the research and planning was done, so this would be a great way to get two more peaks and pay respects, if belatedly, to Steve’s phenomenal accomplishment.
Another look at the Sawtooth Traverse, with Mt.Spaulding (13,882) at left.
It’s going to be a long day, so to make it a tad more feasible, I take the skis, with hopes to ride the road down from the pass at the end of the day. We’d heard lots of stories about the road this year, and they’re all true. It’s dry to the seven-mile mark, but quickly gets packed after that, with a stuck vehicle at 7.8 miles. I turn around, parking about 7.4 miles in, roughly 5.5 miles below the pass.
This good fellow reminds us that the difference between hiking and digging is often less than 100 yards.
It’s a clear, calm day; perfect for the traverse, but snow on the road will be icy by tonight. After the first major switchback, the road is nearly dry. Carrying the skis gets old; I get impatient. After about a mile of dry pavement, I stash the skis and change out to climbing boots. In retrospect, this turns out to be Mistake Numero Uno.
The road looks pretty dry – but will it stay that way?
After a while, it starts looking like the mountain bike would have made a better approach tool.
Surely there’s some snow around the corner? Uh-huh. I try to tune out thoughts of going back for the skis while avoiding putting on snowshoes. I stubbornly stay in boots to the normal winter closure gait, where floatation becomes mandatory.
At first I thought it was Micah’s Jeep. He actually made it around this car on the way down last January, as the big storm came in.
Beyond the gate, the drifted section is tough even with snowshoes. Any tracks from Sarah’s crew three weeks earlier are long gone. The going is slow. Skis would have been pretty handy, especially for the ride down.
Guanella Pass. Spaulding on the right, Grey Wolf on the left. The planned descent comes off Spalding toward the gulley.
Getting across the Scott Gomer drainage is not as bad as expected. Typically one falls through the willows on an irritatingly irregular basis. But what luck, not today. (Or so I think.)
The Bierstadt Direct looks just fine. Foregoing the swing left to the normal route, I opt for a line straight up the middle, figuring to make up a few minutes on Mistake Numero Uno. However, I’m soon to realize this is not a compensatory calculation. It's Mistake Numero Dos. I painfully remember my mountain math: mistakes at home add; mistakes in the alpine multiply.
Those willows that held up so well on the flats, seem only to be holding up crust about three feet off anything that will stop a sinking snowshoe, up here on the west slopes. Sure, it’s not supposed to work that way. But then, Mom said there’d be winters like this.
Fields of quick-snow.
Must be time for this stubborn old man to get spectacles – all those willows sticking up on the hill made the distant slope look poorly covered – and hence safe. We’re not exactly safe here today – a point well punctuated by the sonic-boom-sized whumpf that goes off just a little below where the above photo was taken. Still – it’s low angle here. Hopefully we’ll be on dry talus before it steepens up a bit.
At times the breakthrough gets quite depressing. You fall in up to your waist, and look up to the dry talus above; it looks so close! But there you are, swimming in a sea of quick-snow, over a hundred yards from land in any direction. OK, this is costing some serious daylight. Already past the denial stage of grief, I begin bargaining: “Mountain gods, please, at least one summit today…” The post-holing continues. But I'm not quite at the acceptance stage yet.
Bierstadt, left; Evans, right.
Somehow the heavily laden vessels at my feet deliver me to the shores of talus and scree, where I seem to have a surprisingly indignant attitude toward my benefactors, stripping them off at the first chance, somehow pleased, in a sick sense, to be carrying them. Now things pick up a little. That’s more like it. But alas, it’s getting late in the day to be thinking about a solo traverse in winter. (Perhaps the mountain gods took all that bargaining seriously?)
(Edit - Looking W/SW to the old Geneva Basin Ski Area. Thanks to Pioletski for the correction. -Jim)
The guy that dragged us through the willows. Where do they get these guides? And when’s lunch, anyway?
Once the willow ordeal is behind, the rest goes smooth. Summit weather is good, though the hour is late. I gaze upon the east side of the Sawtooth Traverse; lots of white, as anticipated. (Fortunately, no willows.)
The Sawtooth Ridge traverse.
There’ve been plenty of times I’m willing to push it in winter, especially solo, knowing it means more hours by headlamp later. Today, I’m just not feeling it. I almost laugh at myself. Come on, Jim, look at that gorgeous ridge! Worst case, if it’s that late, you can hang a left and just head back to the pass. No… it just isn’t doing it for me today. Desire has flown on the wings of a hawk.
I sit and study the Sawtooth. Contentment is not all it’s cracked up to be. But I’m not forcing the issue today. It’s enough to listen; I don’t need to know why. It will be here next winter.
Still, this ridge is gorgeous in its winter coat.
Abyss Lake below Mt. Evans.
Time to relax now. One peak in the bag, fair enough. It will still be dark at the car. I take a leisurely lunch and enjoy the weather and the views before starting back.
Looking across Guanella Pass Road toward the Divide: Argentine, Greys, Wilcox, Torreys, Edwards.
A look back at the Sawtooth…
…And the traverse.
This time, I decide to take the standard route. The post-holing is not as bad on the descent, but still adds a little comedy to my afternoon…
Much firmer on the flat…
It’s getting late, but I calculate being at the car right around last light. The late day sun is gorgeous on this warm afternoon…
Plenty of countertop space for sorting gear.
I’m finally back to the skis, but still have to walk that last mile of dry road. I click in at the switchback. It’s just about dark. The snow is still good; the last three miles melt away as I reach the car right at last light.
Obey all speed zones.
Kind of bummed not to get the Sawtooth, but given the way things have gone the last half of winter, I’m feeling gratitude to get one more winter summit today. Heck the car’s not even stuck. Bonus.
Thanks for reading.