Monday, July 20, 2015

Mt. Bierstadt, The Sawtooth, and Mt. Evans

Route Name: Bierstadt West Slopes to Bierstadt North Ridge to Sawtooth Ridge to Evans West Ridge

Trailhead Elevation: 11,669 ft.
Mt. Bierstadt Elev.: 14,060 ft.
The Sawtooth Elev.: 13,780 ft.
Mt. Evans Elev.: 14,264 ft.
"West Evans" Elev.: 14,256 ft.
Mt. Spalding Elev.: 13,842 ft.

Distance: 11.61 mi. (my GPS)
Elevation Gain: 4400 ft. (my GPS)
Start Time: 5:54am
Bierstadt: 8:07am (8 mins on top)
Sawtooth: 10:24am (1 min on top)
Evans: 11:27am (14 mins on top)
West Evans: 11:58am (6 mins on top)
Spalding: 1:05pm (5 mins on top)
End Time: 3:45pm

Trip Report:

 We were up at 4am today for a 4:15am departure for Guanella Pass. We were leaving from a rental home we were staying in in the Buena Vista area.  I would be operating on about 90 minutes sleep after last night’s late arrival. I flew in from Michigan and arrived at 9:40pm, only then to drive another 3 hours out to Buena Vista. Late night indeed!  Denny (Dad) did all the driving and I slept perhaps a few minutes on the drive over.  We drove US285 over to Grant and then came to Guanella Pass from the south.  Upon arrival at the parking lot there were perhaps 15 cars already.

 We were getting some good sunrise hit on the peaks at our arrival and it was just light enough no headlamps were going to be needed.  It was 5:54am when we started and I was wearing my zip-off pants, short-sleeve tech shirt and a jacket.  The initial hike on the Bierstadt trail and boardwalks went quickly.  This would be a rare day for us that we were genuinely be moving faster than most groups.  We passed about 5 people as we began to ascend the slopes.  Only one person passed us and he appeared to be a trail-runner.  

  The trail was solid up to about 13,000ft where the sheer number of people that hike this mountain seemed to finally take over.  Today’s crowd wasn’t all that large yet, but above 13,000 the trail really braids and widens out because of past crowds.  We continued on with minimal rest and all of us were feeling pretty good even though David and I were still on less than 24 hours acclimatizing (less than 12 for me).  

 As we hit the small saddle at 13,800 just before the summit push on the rocks we ran into a nice young group of 3.  For two of them this was a first 14er.  They looked slightly lost as to how to approach the route through the rocks especially with a snowpatch on the southeastern aspect.  I took the lead and starting pushing us through the rocks and they followed.  Before we knew it it was 8:07am and we had summited.  We were 2hrs and 13 minutes to get to the summit, definitely our quickest of our 3 Bierstadt attempts.

 We spent 8 minutes atop Bierstadt taking in the views and chatting a bit.  We also started scouting out the route heading for the Sawtooth.  We were noticeably the only folks on the summit with helmets hanging from our backpacks.  From what we gathered there were a few other folks talking about going that way but no one looked all that convincing.  As we prepared to descend northeast off Bierstadt for the Sawtooth another single gentleman asked to join us, his name was Grant.  He looked and talked like he knew what he was doing so we offered to let him join us.  He was a previous CFI volunteer and a teacher from Oklahoma.  He would fit in nicely with us helping to routefind at times.

A look up at the snowfield we traversed
descending Bierstadt's north ridge
The initial descent from Bierstadt was much steeper than we expected.  There wasn’t a blatantly obvious trail-like route coming off Bierstadt so we quickly went into route-finding mode.  There is a steep rocky gully that starts about 150 feet north of the summit and we decided this looked like the way to go.  We worked that down about 100 feet and the terrain opened up a bit more.  It appeared the best practice was to stay somewhat close, though not on, the ridge crest.  We made our way on faint trail segments and descending rock down to just below 13,800.  Here we saw sets of steps heading across a snowfield that still remained.  It appeared we either followed the steps to traverse the snow or descend 200-300 feet along the snowfield to go down and around it.  We opted for the snow traverse.  The steps were so clearly cut in we decided not to go for any protection.  The snow was also pretty soft and not overly steep.  

The YouTube video below shows Dad crossing the snow. It had some steepness but we gauged the runout and other factors safe enough for our crossing:

After the snow traverse we were able to work the small talus-like rock along the ridge crest down to the saddle area.  From here the real fun begins.  A gendarme blocked progress and getting over it or around it would offer what we would later find to be the most difficult climbing of the day.  The route photos showed a straight up and over route or a traversing route and the straight up and over route looked do-able so we took it.   It began with an easy mixed ascent of class 2 rock and grass to a class 3 section of rock.  It offered some exposure as it steepened.  It was like a five foot wide cleft in the rocks that we ascended around and up to a ledge from which we ascended a bit higher on the rock and we were over. In the picture just below, the gendarme is front and center in the photo and our ascent route over it is the small shadowy section just right of center. Past this scramble section there was some more traversing of rock and some steep slabs to avoid but this finally put us to a an easy notch that would mark the next section of the hike.

Best photo we took of the Sawtooth ridge. The gendarme we traversed
is front and center, and the trail heads west through a notch on its otherside.
Mt. Evans from the Sawtooth Ridge
At this notch the route crosses over to the west side of the ridge for the first time and begins by following some wide ledges towards the Sawtooth’s west face.  There was some real exposure in here but the initial ledges were plenty wide.  The YouTube video just below offers a good look at what this terrain looks like.

Video credit: David

The exposed finishing traverse on the Sawtooth ridge.
There is an area "around the corner" after the initial ledge
in this photo so there is more to the terrain than seen here.
We rounded another corner into the final traverse area where many of the more classic Sawtooth pictures are taken.  We observed precisely what many of the route descriptions describe: a choice of two routes to get out.  One moves directly below a rock wall through very loose exposed dirt and rock, the other swings around above the rock wall on small ledges.  We opted for the latter.  We moved through the scree-like terrain to get onto the small ledges.  These were perhaps 2 foot wide, much smaller.  At one point as we moved above the rock wall the ledging for the feet narrowed to perhaps a foot wide but never got too difficult.  We made our way up and out of this exposed area, around one more corner and we were out.  The only real class 3 portion of the Sawtooth was the gendarme climb.  There was some real exposure but that was it.  After exiting the the ridge it was quick hop up some talus to the summit of the Sawtooth which we reached at 10:24am.  The Sawtooth ridge had taken us 2 hours and 9 minutes.

The following YouTube video illustrates what the very narrow ledges look like above the rock wall in the exposed finishing area on the Sawtooth Ridge. This area probably holds the greatest exposure on the whole traverse, though none of it is technically difficult.

The "hump" ahead is where the trail to Evans narrows
to a small notch and moves to the south side.
The path over to Evans ridge was much easier.  There was some faint trail segments but it was mostly a mixed tundra and rock hike for almost 6 tenths of a mile plus a couple hundred feet of ascending. The ridge to Evans will begin to narrow up to a small notch which is just shy of 14000ft.  Here there are some cairns and a clear trail starts winding along the south side of Evans west ridge. This trail was relatively easy to follow and was mostly on rock with a few ups and downs.  We kept looking for the point that is known as “West Evans” but it was never immediately evident from below. This trail took us to just before the Evans summit area and then dropped down to the road. We hiked the last 0.10 of a mile of the road to the parking area.  

A look at Bierstadt and the Sawtooth from the hike over to Evans
The trail to Evans on the South side of the ridge
The weather at this point was mostly cloudy with a few darker clouds starting in the area.  It was also increasing in wind.  In the parking lot area we saw a few US Forest Service trucks coming up as well as a man on his bike.  Conveniently, no tourists were up there as the Evans road was closed.  About 3 weeks ago we got word that it was closed because a portion of it had washed out and they were making long-term repairs on it.  This affected our plans to save Evans for last for our 14er Finisher.  We ran into a USGS guy in this area and he told us the road opening was still a few weeks off so this told us we’d made the right choice.

Approaching Evans' summit

We made a quick hike up the switchbacks to the summit and were surprised with the quick cliffs off the north side of Evans.  We spent about 14 minutes on the summit taking it all in.  This was #53 on the 54 list for David and I, #52 for Dad.  

Summit Lake area from the summit of Evans
The summit blocks of Evans.  Not quite as difficult as the infamous summit blocks of Sunlight Peak
A look at the top of the road from Evans' summit
As we scouted the route off the summit we decided to make a go for the “West Evans” summit.  It appeared we could head directly from the summit along the ridge bypassing the touristy switchbacks to the parking lot.  This was indeed the case and was mostly easy passage through the rocks.   As we looked further over to “West Evans” the ridge was bumpy and narrow at points but as we progressed along it turned out to be quite easy to gain “West Evans”.  We did so at 11:58am, only a 17 minute hike from the main Evans summit.

A look back at Evans summit from near the
"West Evans" summit. The ridge was an easy hike.
A look back at Evans summit from near the "West Evans" summit. The ridge was an easy hike.
The Evans summit ridge from Mt. Spalding
Eyeing the descent from the summit of Mt. Spalding.
The high point in center is Mt. Bierstadt.  The exit gully heads off stage right.
We spent a few more minutes on the sub-summit taking some more pictures and then began to head down.  We made mostly a straight bee-line down off West Evans to regain the main trail.  This wasn’t too difficult and we began to make our way out finally.  As we exited the west ridge of Evans and entered the flatter area between the ridge and Spalding, Grant and I decided to make a quick run over to the 13er summit Mt. Spalding.  David and Dad decided to start heading to the exit gully for the descent.  The terrain was simple and straightforward heading over to Spalding and we made the summit at 1:05pm, which was about an hour after having left West Evans.  We spent about 5 minutes on top and then starting making a line for the descent gully.

Loving this view to the west from Mt. Spalding
We found the small creek that starts into the gully and at first I had us on its left side knowing that’s where we would end up.  Upon checking the map, however, I realized that it starts on the right side to descend and we corrected this.  This gully was quite steep as we got into it and so we carefully made our way down.  It was mostly all dirt and some small rock.  Grant and I caught up with Dad and David about halfway down.  As we got lower on the descent we could start to see clear trail down in the meadows below.  At 12,400 the trail traverses across the lower part of the gully and exits onto slopes just south of the small creek.  The trail descends even further until it bottoms out in a meadow at 11,800.  We had heard reports of how muddy and wet the trail was and so were immediately prepared for a mess.  Little did we know, even though we were only about 130 feet above the trailhead we had 2.5 miles of hiking still to get back to the parking lot.

Descending the steep, loose gully

The meadow thankfully was dry but a small creek crossing at the western edge began the “fun”.  Immediately it was a mess of wet mud which we tried to carefully find a way to skirt.  From there the trail was into the infamous willows for almost the rest of the way out.  It skirted along the edge of the hillside and would dry out for small sections and be a mess for others.  The only good thing was there was a trail mostly to follow as opposed to pure bushwhacking.  We had contemplated at one point ascending up higher on the hillside hoping to get out of the wet mess but this would have involved about 300 feet of ascending and bushwhacking through willows with no guarantee of improvement.  

The green wildflower meadow above is the last spot before
the "muck" begins. The bottom right photo shows the willows.

As the trail began its southward turn towards the Bierstadt meadows we did find ourselves bushwhacking some to avoid the wet and even got into the trees a bit.  It was here that the weather finally opened up on us.  We heard thunder a few miles away and the rain began.  We debated staying in the trees for a bit or just gunning it across the final meadows to get out.  We pressed on and finally reached a point where we weren’t sure what was trail anymore and so using the GPS we just made a straight bee-line for the Bierstadt trail following whatever openings we could.  We were a wet mess.  When we finally regained the Bierstadt trail we had a small moment of rejoicing and then made a quick shot back out to the parking.  The rain had lightened up a bit by the time we hit the trailhead but everything on us was drenched by that time.  It was 3:45pm when we finished.

A fitting last photo with a storm approaching as we work through the willows.


I have a track and waypoints from the hike all contained in a KML file that you are welcome to download and use (at your own risk).  

My Tracks 

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