Sunday, February 19, 2017

Mt. Bierstadt Winter Ascent

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

Trip Report:

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
I was wearing my Mountain Hardwear winter pants for bottoms (no long underwear), on top I wore two long-sleeve tech shirts along with my gore-tex jacket.  I packed a fleece layer and an extra pair of socks as backups.  I had my heavy winter gloves along but never wore them, I ended up wearing lighter liner gloves for most of the hike.  I also wore my Cubs knit hat most of the way for warmth on the top of the head.  

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
We were able to follow footprint tracks through most of the willows and it seemed to mostly follow the summer trail.  We occasional saw posts sticking up out of the snow which helped some with navigation here (and would be extremely helpful later in the dark).   As we began to ascend the main headwall around 12,000 the trail became very straightforward as you could see it on like a shelf.  From that point onward the trail was actually in an almost summer-like state until we began to near the upper slopes.

Beautiful views as the ascent continues
Early in the afternoon the weather was holding up well.  The clouds were moving and we’d have moments of sunshine and moments where the cloud deck would fill up a bit.  The temps were comfortable in the low-to-mid 30’s.  As we continued to ascend we were setting our hopes to be on the summit by 3:30p or 4p at the least.  Our working pace made that look pretty realistic.  This would also mean our descent might bring us out by 7:30 or 8 meaning at least an hour or more in the dark.

You can see one of the posts in this picture that we used for navigation
When we reached near 13,000 we finally encountered thicker snow on the upper slopes.  It was in here we encountered a larger snowpatch and began to lose the trail again.  We couldn’t follow the footprints and we would find out later we missed a big turn in the trail.  Where the trail swung out wide to the south we started to basically head straight up the slope.  Occasional looks at the GPS confirmed that we were off but we decided to just keep pushing upwards as we could tell we were keeping the distance to the summit at a minimum.  We encountered a gentleman in a yellow jacket in here carrying up skis and he was making an even more direct beeline to the summit area than we were.   The going involved attempts to go from rock to rock to avoid the thick snow which would occasional posthole you knee deep or more.  The constant routefinding through the maze of large rock made this slow going. 

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.
At around 13,000 ft we rejoined our ascent track and from that spot onward the trail was very easily to follow and mixture of summer dirt and the occasional bits of snow.  We made good time through here until we hit the corner where the trail leaves the upper slopes and descends the lower headwall.  Through that area we encountered our coldest temps at around 22 degrees.  The wind was off and on and some flurries began to come down on us.

360 shot on the descent, I wanted to capture the increasingly dark clouds to the southwest

Clouds engulfing the Sawtooth and Bierstadt
It was about 5:30p when the snow picked up and our visibility began to decrease.   Rather than seeing for miles we were probably only seeing for a half mile and we had snowflakes blowing into our face.  We descended from the headwall without much trouble but as we began to enter into the willows the trail began to be very difficult to follow.  The new falling snow coupled with the increasing darkness made following what tracks were previously there almost impossible.  This made our navigation purely by trying to make a heading towards where we thought the parking lot was on the horizon.  We also knew there were posts out there which we had used to guide ourselves on the ascent but at first we couldn’t even spot them.  One of the mistakes I began to feel early on is I didn’t know exactly where on the horizon the parking lot and Guanella Pass were to be found.  I had a general idea to be sure, but to navigate to a more precise spot and not waste time and distance was hard.  The increasing darkness would eventually make this a moot point as then we couldn’t even see the horizon at all.

I love the way the clouds look here.
As we continued we were eventually able to find one of the posts we had seen on the ascent and used it two find the next 3 out ahead of us as well.  This got us to within about ¾ of a mile to the trailhead.  This was also when things got really dark.  It was about 6:45p when we finally turned on the headlamps.  At this time we saw the Navy SEAL in the yellow jacket with his headlamp off in the distance but he never approached us.  We wondered if he was making a line north of us trying to shortcut to the road.  We were thankful in here that we brought the extra batteries for the headlamps as we knew if the head lamps went out, or if my GPS would fail, we would have some big trouble on our hands.  We certainly wouldn’t have wanted to bivouac out there.

Visibility beginning to decrease with the falling snow around us
Navigation began to be an incredible challenge, more than we would have first thought.  The snow was still falling and with the darkness we could only see perhaps 30 feet in front of us with no markers on the horizon ahead of us.  The headlamp would illumine the falling snowflakes making visibility horrible.  I tried to pick headings towards the parking lots but found us veering off to the north. I over corrected at that point and had us moving due south for a few minutes.  I got us on track again for 2/10 of a mile until I suddenly and unknowingly veered south again.  All the while we were making the occasional posthole into the willows through the crust of snow.  On that front we had to be ultimately thankful that we were postholing on every step.  We had memories of 2 years ago on our descent from Mt. Yale when we would posthole up to our waist in powdery snow in the trees.  Here, the postholing was minimal but still held our attention. 

Getting dark out, you can see one of the posts out ahead of us
As the minutes dragged onward some frustration set in at the difficulty of navigation and progress. I knew I should have brought my compass along, but it was sitting at home broken.  It wasn’t feasible to keep the phone out every second as the falling snow would make the screen wet and unusable.  To have a compass in hand would have helped us be more consistent in holding to our heading.  I also noticed the GPS tracks on my S7 Edge phone were acting funny.   I would later find out that when I had put my phone into Power Saving Mode it only allowed my app BackCountry Navigator to get GPS readings when I had the phone unlocked and screen on.  I was also fighting the falling snow and increasingly wet fingers as I would check the GPS every few minutes.  

Visibility would still get much worse than this
It was just after 7p when we finally found the parking lots, and even then we had uncertainties.  We could feel the hard pavement below our feet but we weren’t sure at first exactly where we had ended up.  Was it the lower parking lots? The road?  The upper parking lots?  We started to turn northward and in a few minutes could see the bathrooms in the lower parking lot, which were about 80% buried.  Finally we had a pretty good grasp on things.  We had fully realized how potentially dangerous a predicament we were in with the darkness and the fresh snow.  If the GPS had failed our navigational abilities would have been out the window.  I scolded myself in those moments as well for making the rookie mistake of not bringing my compass.  It would have helped us in keeping better bearings towards where we wanted to go, not to mention helping us be certain of what direction we were looking.  

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.


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).  

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