A Day on the Sawtooth
The day after a relatively easy stroll up Grays and Torreys Peaks, we made it to the trailhead for Mt. Bierstadt high on Guanella Pass feeling tired but invigorated. Guanella Pass is a beautiful area, and the trailhead is at a lofty 11,669'. The mountains around us were socked-in by rolling tumbles of fog, and the air was crisp. The famous shape of the Sawtooth (the augural moniker for the connecting ridge between Mt. Bierstadt and Mt. Evans for those of you that don’t know) loomed through the haze, as menacing and terrible as its namesake.
The initial hike up Bierstadt was easy and relatively short. A few climbers were spread out above us, and a long line of cars/people were amassing behind. In less than three hours we achieved our first summit for the day. I quietly celebrated my twentieth fourteener.
The Sawtooth is a renowned traverse between two popular Front Range peaks. It was also the first class III route of our summer. We found some loose class III terrain almost immediately upon departing the summit.
After descending the first steep, loose gully descending from Bierstadt, we scrambled along the beginning of the Sawtooth. The view of the upcoming ridge was breathtaking from here. We had to be cautious with each step not to slip or stumble or loosen rocks onto each other. Near the ridge's low point we had to traverse across an exposed face, pressing ourselves against a cliff and tiptoeing across a tiny ledge above a tall drop. At the bottom of the Tooth, we approached the crux section (the part we'd read so much about) of our day: a tall series of broken cliffs and ledges with extended class III climbing and class IV variations.
The next half-hour was exemplary of the great joys of semi-technical climbing. We had to tediously investigate our route, searching for breaks in the mountain's defenses. We had to plan ahead to avoid stranding ourselves on dead-end ledges. We had to focus on hands, feet, and rock to assure that all were working together in harmony. This type of climbing was a far cry from the numb ascents of solid trails that had dominated much of our fourteener experience in the Sawatch Range earlier in the summer.
Once past the exposed ledge we were on the west ridge of Mt. Evans, and we convinced ourselves that we had little more than a simple stroll to the summit. This stroll, however, turned out to be hotter, longer, and more tedious than anticipated. It took the better portion of an hour to accomplish.
A few photos from this section of the climb:
At long last we crested the final ridge, and the view of Mt. Evans' summit opened before us. To our surprise we were greeted by the chaos of a bustling endpoint of a busy bike race. Standing abreast of the finish line was one of the race's officials, encouraging the riders with proclamations such as: "You can do it! Only a few more feet" or "You're almost there!" Her encouragement, we took the liberty of assuming, was actually meant for us.
The summit of Mt. Evans is like a different world compared to the rest of the mountain. It is, in fact, an anomaly in a sea of quiet, amazing Colorado mountaintops. A paved road achieves it. It is festooned with an observatory and summit house. It is so well equipped, in fact, that I was able to empty my bladder in the relative luxury of a stone-wall outhouse.
After lounging in the rocks for nearly an hour watching streams of bikes careening up and down the mountain, we turned our backs on Mt. Evans' summit and began the long descent.
During this downclimb, however, what had been one our most-enjoyable days of the summer took a sour turn.
The descent route (we didn't have to return over the Sawtooth) took us down a gully that was a bowling alley of loose rubble and scree. We had to descend to a point lower than the trailhead and engage in the infamous Bierstadt willows (a muddy slog through bug-infested marshes and clawing, scratching brush). To complicate matters, the afternoon thunderstorms arrived on schedule, and we spent the last mile pelted by rain and hail while trying to follow a soggy an often non-existent trail. Lightning crashed all around us, and when we finally reached the car our hair stood straight from the tops of our heads.
Back at camp, foolishly thinking the worst was behind us, we were dismayed to discover four inches of hail piled against our tent and our sleeping bags resting in a pool of water several inches deep.