Peak(s):  Mt. Bierstadt  -  14,060 feet
Date Posted:  07/23/2012
Date Climbed:   07/16/2012
Author:  Hillhog

 Bierstadt - Sawtooth -Evans, back by the willows  

For a while now I had mentally prepared for the Sawtooth traverse between Bierstadt and Evans to be the scariest moment of the day, or at least the most exciting. I had to go through that "Class 3", that exposure and then would be done with my first 14ers. Mission accomplished. Victory. Well, while the traverse surely was exhilarating, the day kept a final humbling surprise in store that reminded me that you can be so close yet so far, almost there but not quite yet.

Beginner's alert: this is primarily intended for the beginners, just like me. I'm talking here like I'd do to my brother and my kids on their way to discover Colorado's front range, test their fortitude in a new natural environment and/or simply enjoy the scenery.

Starting at the Guanella pass TH, the objectives of the day were:
1) see the sun rise on Bierstadt, that means summiting by 5:45.
2) traverse the Sawtooth.
3) reach Evans.
4) come back by a northern variation of the direct route avoiding the swampy willows of Scott Gomer Creek.

First of all: find the TH. Not so obvious when it's pitch black 3am and you've not recognized the TH area the day before! Landing late on Saturday from New York, I had spent the whole Sunday stopping in Denver to pick up the essentials (gas canisters, water and dehydrated food), setting up camp at the Guanella Pass CG and relax...

Inside the 2-person tent. Perfect for one.

Wake up at 2am in the cold air (about 7C), quick breakfast of Miso-couscous porridge for salt and long lasting carb energy and after a bit of wandering it's finally 3:20am when I figure that the TH starts at the outhouse on the East (left) parking when you're driving south up to Guanella pass from Georgetown.

Now I'm ready, set, and going full East on the wooden planks of the elevated path. This very civilized trail is going through thick bushes of willows on both sides. I am immediately amazed by the clarity of the Milky Way, an impossible sight anywhere near the Big Apple. I can see the dark and tranquil shape of the mountain in front of me against the brighter galaxy, and even the 3 shark fins of the Sawtooth. But I can absolutely not say whether it's close or far away as the darkness deprives vision of the third dimension. Only the map which I have studied quite thoroughly told me it's almost 3 miles to the top.

The trail is empty and I enjoy making good progress. After a while, I can feel the effect of altitude kicking in (heavier breathing, speedy heartbeat) and decide to pace myself with more frequent short stops. For the first hour at moderate speed I take a5 minutes break every 25 minutes, then - for the second hour at deliberately slower pace, every 15 minutes, drinking each time from the bottle with my special mix of electrolyte and Alka Seltzer to prevent possible headache.

Just above the Sawtooth, the Pleiades, then Venus (maybe Mercury in between) and finally a crescent moon rise in perfect alignment. Past the tree line (bush line really), a chilly wind is picking up and I add a layer to avoid the sweat from feeling cold. Just before the second junction on the left (a more direct couloir up to Bierstadt), two young guys catch up with me. Those guys are flying up the trail, better park on the side! It's about 5:30 when I finally reach the top. The "slow and steady" strategy worked and the effort is overall well managed for a first time. That is not to say that I'm not breathing hard to recover...

Gabriel (left) and Alex (right) on Bierstadt

On the summit I finally meet Alex, TX and Gabriel, CO who starts brewing a delicious Turkish coffee, for which I'm happy to contribute one of my 3 Bic lighters - yeah, redundancy is good. Follows a very civilized coffee conversation with a hot cup of brew passing around. It's now really cold and we're putting up all our available layers and gloves. Thanks to those guys for this improvised kindness which adds inner warmth to the sun rays on our content faces.

Happy for a first 14er !

As the sun reveals the Sawtooth, I'm wondering if I did not chew more than I can swallow. Definitely looks "class K" in my book (means steep and exposed). I candidly ask if they mind that I tag along for a while and I'm glad to see confirmed my first good impressions of the lads who answer that the more, the merrier. We decide to wait for the sun to provide sufficient light and we head back down the north ridge. I note cairns on the left side of slope and Gabriel leads that section.

heading down and North on the Sawtooth

There are a couple of stops and backtracking to avoid larger vertical spires ("gendarmes" , that is "men of arm" in French) that we manage by passing to the right of them to the Notch, which provides a fantastic view of the West panorama (where the TH begins).

The Notch (one of 2 or 3)

On our right (the East) the bean shaped Abyss Lake.

Abyss lake, East of the Sawtooth

I look like a dork with my helmet but I promised my wife. Period...

Passing on the West side of the Sawtooth

At the end of the saddle we need to cross over from the East side to the West to climb up the ridge to Evans's plateau. The void is impressive - maybe 300 feet. We take our time to find the route and enjoy the view. Me, I'm happy to focus on the foot steps and hand holds!

Looking back at Bierstadt

one of the Sawtooth' gendarmes

The world finally becomes horizontal again and we follow the ridge East to Evans, with Mt Spalding to the North.

the prairie

More scrambling on the crest leads to false summits. Evans' top is still at least a mile away to the South-East, and we finish by following the trail to Evans' summit by the parking lot where white sheep await for solid (or liquid) handouts from the tourists. It's 9:30am. We congratulate each other on an adventure well executed. Gabriel now brews tea!

On Evans' summit

I propose that we split since little white puffy clouds are growing with heat condensation and become thicker and darker. I proposed them to consider the route supposed to avoid the willows' marshy terrain and Gabriel and Alex zoom out of here. My first blisters keep me at a quiet pace. I come back to the prairie between the Sawtooth, on the South Evan's East ridge and Mt Spalding to the North.

The first part of the comeback plan is to follow the slow slope heading to the north-west. Then, instead of turning West into the first gully, the idea is to continue across the next ridge (Spalding East ridge), drop down its deep north face into the river at the bottom, which I cross boulder-hopping. Then I continue West at about the same elevation.

getting down to the river to cross

This leads to a small lake surrounded on its east edge by large willow growth mixed with huge boulders that detached from a red face cliff. Very uneasy terrain. The forester's trail that I so badly want by now is on the other, grassy side. Yeeha! I reach it by going under the cliff's overhang where the willows do not grow.

the pond with the forester's trail on right

By the pond, on the largest boulder looking at Bierstadt

The trail is faint but readable. It goes back to the south-West through meadows and pine groves - some trees have fallen across the trail. Just in case, I sing an old French song quite loudly: "sur le pont d'Avignon, on y danse on y danse, sur le pont d'Avignon, on y danse tous en rond!". Knowing only this refrain, I improvise a bunch of new ones with lots of other bridges and other circular activities. No bear in sight.

looking back at Bierstadt (right), Sawtooth and Spalding (left)

I'm getting tied and ran out of fluid when I reached that trail. I estimate no more than 2 miles to the main starting trail and another half mile to parking lot, so I should be good. I was carrying 2.5 liters and am very unhappy with myself for this flagrant failure of a vital resource management. And I don't even have a mean to purify the clear water trickling from the prairie above or the river's nor the lake's !

The last portion of the trail enters into the willows and I can see some people heading back to the parking lot that I can now clearly see half a mile away.

THe forester's trail entering the willows

Now as I struggle to follow the trail into the dense bush, I make another mistake by going around another pond touching the main trail to the west (right) rather than to the South (left). Another mistake I blame on tiredness. Still I make sure to make myself conspicuous by singing louder, because my visibility is reduced to less than 3 feet. And guess who's here, 25 yards away?...


So... this big guy is between me and my car. I'm asking him - politely but firmly - to move away and let me follow the trail. Well, one trail at least; there are dozens now crisscrossing each other. Moose trails... After looking at me straight in the eyes for 2 minutes, he obliges by trotting away. The sound of one ton of muscle going though the bush so easily is impressive.

Young healthy bull Moose at home

I decide to go straight ahed and bushwack my way up to the parking. I arm myself with a huge stick. Trampling the willow bush is an exhausting effort and I work to keep cool. I stumble upon a small muddy pond with beautiful huge moose tracks - so I disturbed this guy drinking at his usual watering hole it seems... Given my precarious situation, I'm just happy that's not a cow with a calf like I had seen in the Tetons.

After 10 hours out, I reach the parking lot at 13:20, spent, happy and also pissed at myself for a couple of errors, biggest of which was underestimating the fluids necessary, then getting lost on the final leg of the forester's trail.
Anyway, I snap last picture of Bierstadt as a few droplets of water fall on the windshield and I head to Georgetown for a serious hamburger.


Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):

 Comments or Questions

07/24/2012 13:30
Way to go man in nailing your first 14ers! Didn't you know that Moose in the USA are attracted to French songs??? We'll have to get a few more before the end of the year!


07/25/2012 19:37
A most excellent trip report. Thanks for taking the time to share!

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