Peak(s):  Mt. Bierstadt  -  14,060 feet
Date Posted:  07/24/2011
Date Climbed:   07/22/2011
Author:  jfrenzen
 Sawtooth for novices  

There are lots of reports on the Sawtooth, but I hope to give this report for those that are of our same climbing ability. A day filled with successes and was a true adventure.

Due to some scheduling issues, we couldn't head up the night before for camping or nearby lodging. We live along the Front Range and woke up at 2am for an early start. After a few stops for meeting points, our group of 5 guys reached the Guanella Pass trailhead at 5:30am via Grant. Embarrassingly enough....we had a little trouble locating the Bierstadt trail because there was an "upper" parking lot and a "lower" parking lot. It was dark and not the typical trailhead marker near the lots. The lot you want to use is paved lot on the east side of the road with bathrooms. The trailhead is next to the bathrooms.

Our group was all in relatively decent shape...some better than others. I was lucky enough to get to do this with my two a 14er virgin and the other from out of state Minnesota. It was still dark but the sun was beginning to peak out.
The only real trailhead marker we found....about 30 yards from lot.

We made quick work of the meadows/boardwalk crossing Scott Gomer Creek. The ascent up Bierstadt wasn't hard, but it was enough to get our heart rates up and the need for some frequent breaks. The trail is well worn and there isn't anything tricky about Bierstadt, as well reported on this site. With that said, for novices it is also not "easy" or anything to take lightly. My brother from Minnesota was dealing with a headache, obviously a sign of altitude acclimatization. Give it a healthy respect and you'll breeze right up it.
Bierstadt trail, with Sawtooth in background

Bierstadt trail with trailhead/parking lot in background, to left of the distant lake.

On Bierstadt we felt good and enjoyed some breakfast. Our group was of the "slower" variety, as it took us 2:45 to summit....we had hoped to be on a 2 hour pace at this point. For this reason we only took about 15 minutes on top of Bierstadt. Staring at the Sawtooth, we were anxious to be on our way.
Bierstadt summit

The descent from Bierstadt is along some fairly solid boulders, but it is steep. We had a near accident during this descent when one of our guys stepped on a loose boulder...causing it to shift and rotate a bit. He lost his footing and the boulder repositioned "nearly" on top of his lower leg. He was momentarily trapped, but was thankfully able to pull his leg out on his own. This was a wake-up call for everyone. This was NOT the case of him getting cocky or not paying attention. It was a case of just stepping on the wrong rock at the wrong time in the wrong place. Had it pinched his leg more or been a few inches in either direction.....we would have been in trouble. These are all very real problems.

Another of our big troubles along the descent from Bierstadt was finding the "best" place to cross the still present snowfield. We did have one ice axe with us, but we were not all prepared for a wide snow traverse. As you look at this photo, it is somewhat deceptive as to the width of this snow field. With the death of a climber in this very area earlier this year, we were not going to risk crossing in a place that was too wide...which is the case the higher up you are. There was a place further down to step across some boulders without touching snow. It still left us in a good position to continue the traverse without having to regain too much ground.

The 1 millionth photo from this position

Another challenging issue along the traverse was finding enough cairns. While they are present, at times we wondered if we had the most direct/easiest way across. We knew were we had to go, so it wasn't a huge issue, but it did make for a few minor backtracks so we could avoid some class 4 spots. The gendarme was just as described. You can go straight up and over, or veer to the right. We felt more comfortable going around to the right, which was marked very well with cairns. This spot is class 3, and important to focus and keep good holds...a mistake going up the gendarme would be bad.

The cross over to the west side of Sawtooth is just behind the gendarme. The pucker factor stepped way up for most of our group here. This was because we were looking at the ledge/ramp from this perspective. It looks really loose (it is) and really steep. While steep enough to is very doable. The one thing that kept going through my mind is the fact that everything I've read says it's not as bad as it looks once you get to the ledge.

Looks very steep and very loose.

Bad situation #2.....while on the first part of the Sawtooth ledge, my brother's leg cramped severely. He had started to feel it on the traverse, and having played enough sports in our lives....we knew that hydration was the issue. However, he had hydrated well the day before in prep for this and had consumed 1+ liter of water to this point in the day. We tried to massage and stretch it out and it would get better for a step or two and then cramp back up. We had time on our side because no sign of we waited a bit. He was essentially frozen in one of the more nerve-racking sections of the climb. Not good. We split up the contents of his pack among the group and came up with a plan to "assist" him up the remainder of the ramp. It was a bad feeling, but a good lesson in teamwork and working together.

We were passed in this section by some gazelles essentially running the Sawtooth and we were impressed. (We also noticed they carried essentially no gear and discussed the value of "going light" versus "going prepared".) It's obvious that there are so many different skill levels and comfort levels among all of us. Once past the Sawtooth, we again rested on the welcomed flat area. We had a difficult decision to make at this point....we had planned to do Evans as well and were excited with the notion of getting 2 peaks in one day. My brother's leg was simply not getting better and although able to walk, it was very slow going. We had enough people in our group to split up....but we just didn't feel right in not "finishing together". This was a group effort from the beginning, and we didn't want to leave anybody behind. We made the very tough decision to head back down. While tough, it was the RIGHT decision. It had taken us 3 hours to cross Sawtooth and we were getting close to afternoon "issues". I knew that part of gaining experience of climbing is having to face disappointments....but also making good decisions. I feel like we all gained experience.

The gully to descend is the very FIRST gully after the Sawtooth. I knew this, but a group of 2 hikers passing us insisted that they needed to go over to the next gully. They no doubt had a much longer trip back than us...and ours was long enough. The gully is steep and loose, just as described. A small creek in the gully gave us the chance to replenish our water supply with a filter system. This was good because our cramping partner had consumed a lot of our water trying to rehydrate. (He ended up drinking an amazing 7 liters of water trying to make this happen.)

The gully.

It took us awhile getting down the gully, but we weren't rushing it. We were blessed to have no signs of any storms, and we were just trying to enjoy ourselves. The basin at the bottom of the gully was beautiful...complete with fields of Columbines, a nice waterfall, and fantastic views of Sawtooth.

The basin.

Then came the seems everyone has had a different perspective of the marshes/willows. There was a trail, but following this trail still lead through 6 inches of water in spots. It was IMPOSSIBLE to stay dry, and at one point one of our guys sunk up to his knees in mud/water. We had prepared for this by bringing some "throw down" shoes in our pack. We just tromped right through the marshes and made it fun by not caring. We loved the different terrain and the fact that this was a fitting end to a tough day. The cool down/clean-up in Scott Gomer Creek was refreshing. One guy even took a full body dunk. It felt great to get back to the car.....beers and food.

Always a GREAT feeling.

While the day was a "half fail", because we didn't reach our goal of didn't feel that way at all. The entire trip took us 9 hours 55 minutes, which was obviously much longer than we had anticipated....but we didn't know half of what we would encounter. I consider it a huge success that we stuck together, made it back, and managed to enjoy ourselves greatly along the way. Although the Sawtooth is very manageable, I want to encourage everyone to remember that ANYTHING can happen and be prepared to make it work.

Thanks boys for a great day. I won't soon forget it.

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):

 Comments or Questions
Jim Davies

the ”right” gulley
07/24/2011 21:02
If that other group was going over the ridge to the Spalding-Gray Wolf drainage, then they probably wound up with drier feet than you at the end of the day.


Oh yeah?
07/25/2011 05:00
Were you that other group?


Snow crossing
07/25/2011 15:24
I did this route back last Wednesday and definitely was rather nervous crossing the snow without an axe. Luckily, there were some kicked in steps. Glad you found safe passage!


07/26/2011 03:51

Thanks for doing a great job on the trip report. Fun day for sure. I wonder if we would have shaved some time crossing the snow and staying high on the Sawtooth? Not that I felt good about five guys crossing a snow field with one ice axe.

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