Route Name: West Slopes from Naylor Lakes Parking
Trailhead Elevation: 10,867 ft.
Summit Elevation: 14,060 ft.
Distance: 10.38 mi.
Elevation Gain: 3,431 ft.
Start Time: 11:31am
Summit Time: 3:43pm (10 minutes on top)
End Time: 7:47pm
Its not often, and for good reasons, that one gets to about 10 in the morning and then finally decides today is the day to do a 14er climb. That’s where we found ourselves as we decided on Mt. Bierstadt. On our trip out to Colorado we had originally worked on plans to do Pikes Peak via Barr Camp as we had done in 2014. We always left the option open to change plans and because of the weather possibilities that were headed the way of the Front Range we did change. Pikes was due to get 2-4 inches the night before we would be heading to the summit and we decided that was more difficulty than we wanted. That was especially true this year given we had already done the Pikes climb just 3 years prior. We began investigating Bierstadt from the Naylor Lakes parking on the Guanella Pass road. Recent conditions reports listed the upper parts of the mountain and the approaches in good shape. Even with the possibility we figured 2-4 inches of snow on Bierstadt would be manageable still. That is, until we decided at 10am this very morning to just go for it before the storm would hit.
|Walking up the road, this is just after we rejoined the |
road by cutting the first switchback
We had just dropped off my mother and my 3 boys at the airport so they could head home. Our plan was to head back to the hotel, take our time packing up, and then perhaps snowshoe a bit planning to hit Bierstadt the next day. We considered our options today however, about just going for the summit a little later than a typical day. On the plus side, we could get up on mostly all compacted snow and avoid the fresh stuff. We would also save on driving as Georgetown would be on the way for today’s drive anyways and a short hit from Denver. We could also find ourselves with option vacation options open to us the following day if we could summit this day. We figured with the majority of Bierstadt above treeline and relatively wide open and straightforward even descending in the dark would be on the safer end of things. The whole portion within treeline was along the road and easy to follow. We also considered that we knew the route well and felt comfortable navigating it under most any circumstances … more on that later. On the downside of our plans, we knew the weather conditions were forecast to deterioriate. By 2pm there was a slight chance of snow, by 6pm snow was likely. By our estimation we would be well into the descent by 6pm and this felt like a reasonable risk/difficulty. So we decided to go for it.
We made our quickest packup and checkout from the hotel ever and headed out on I70 for Denver. We hit a quick gas station stop for Gatorade and a few trail snacks. I saw a package of chocolate covered pretzels. Let me tell you, this may be the newest, best trail food there was, particularly in winter when the chocolate won’t melt. We got to the parking at 11:20am and were surprised to find at least a dozen cars. Turns out this is a popular dayhike spot for folks to hike up to Guanella Pass either on foot or by snowmobile. We were on the trail by 11:30am.
|Getting close to the top of the road|
While hiking up the road we found all the snow very compacted from heavy of foot traffic and snowmobile traffic. Just over a half mile up the road we hit the first major switchback where we noticed consistent tracks leaving the road heading into the trees. It was immediately apparent to us that these tracks in the snow were cutting the switchback. It made good sense to us so we followed. It wasn’t a straight shot up the hill to cut the switchback but rather headed on a more slight angle up the hill to regain the road. It worked out well for us and saved about a quarter mile of road walking.
|First good views of the Sawtooth and Bierstadt|
At the upper switchback we saw tracks cutting it as well so we decided to go for it again. This time it didn’t work out quite as well. The tracks we attempted to follow ended up not just shortcutting the switchback but seemed to make a beeline for the Bierstadt trail out in the midst of the Scott Gomer willows. Unfortunately in the midst of this trek the treks were windblown out and we had a few minor postholings in the willows. We eventually were able to make a track close to the trailhead and found more compacted and firm footprints once more.
|I like the mix of wind-blown snow formations and the dark clouds|
|Beautiful views as the ascent continues|
|You can see one of the posts in this picture that we used for navigation|
|Clouds opened up for some pretty views of Grays and Torreys in the distance|
It was about 3:15p when I hit the saddle just below the summit area of Bierstadt. This may have been the windiest area of the mountain. Up to this point the winds would pick up at times and then die out completely. We encountered two more climbers here and they confirmed even at the summit the winds would come and go. They said the man in yellow was a Navy SEAL looking to ski the back side of Bierstadt and then hike back up and out the standard route. Wow!
On the saddle looking around 360 at the summit area
The final summit push had a few more snow patches which we carefully avoided as they sat on the east side of the ridge and we didn’t wish to risk finding a cornice. We picked our way up through the rock and finally reached the summit at 3:42pm. The man in yellow had just left on his skis so we had a rare moment when the summit of Mt. Bierstadt was all ours. I snapped a 360 photo to capture the moment and gave thanks that the winds were modest and the weather was holding for the moment. We were on target timewise and if the weather held well enough we could be most of the way out before any trouble might find us.
|summit shot looking to the west|
|Summit shot looking towards Mt. Evans|
We left the summit of Bierstadt just before 4pm. Dad didn’t spend any time on top and so he got himself a head start. I spent time on top taking pictures and trying to text with the ladies back home. I quickly decided to put on microspikes during the descent as there was enough snow amongst the rocks it made sense. There were a few small and crusted snow patches in the approach to the summit and this made descending them a cinch as the spikes gripped like rubber.
|On the descent, the clouds are darkening to the SW|
We made it together back to the saddle and decided to do our best effort to follow the summer route on the descent and avoid the more difficult scrambling and making our own trail through the rocks. We made our way across the flat top of the ridge to a rather large cairn, I did a GPS check and found that this was where the trail began its descent and we were on our way.
Soon we found this was a good move to stick to the summer route. The trail was snow compacted and we found wind-blown tracks from previous parties. When the trail was obscured by too much snow we used what cairns we could see to navigate us forward until the trail became evident once more. With spikes on through here the descent was almost easier than during summer when you’re fighting loose gravel and dirt. There were two or three snow patches we traversed that really obscured the trail badly and made navigation a challenge. Tracks on them had mostly disappeared because of wind. I would do GPS checks every so often to see where it would seem we should go.
|Our destination is straight ahead, with a lot of snow and darkness between us.|
360 shot on the descent, I wanted to capture the increasingly dark clouds to the southwest
|Clouds engulfing the Sawtooth and Bierstadt|
|I love the way the clouds look here.|
|Visibility beginning to decrease with the falling snow around us|
|Getting dark out, you can see one of the posts out ahead of us|
|Visibility would still get much worse than this|
We walked through the lower parking lots and for the most part that was easy to follow and then could see road signs that had to be from the Guanella Pass road. We felt pretty good about things finally. The snow was still falling and blowing around and we were even surprised how well it had covered tracks in the road. At least 3 inches had fallen. We could just barely see the remains of old vehicle tracks and coupled with the road signage and their reflectors we were able to follow the road well.
About halfway down the road we heard voices out in the trees. We could quite hear what they were saying. We also saw a backpack with two trekking poles standing up in the snow. We were curious if there was a group in there camping. Finally, at about 7:50p we made it to the vehicles in the winter parking closure. We were surprised to still find about 7 cars there. Ours had at least 3 inches of fresh snow on it. We snapped pictures of one another as we were caked with snow in a number of areas.