Introduction: Another long work week behind me, I was hungry for some elevation. Summit Post member bc44caesar posted that he was interested in doing the Sawtooth traverse. Since that was one of my goals for this year, I figured a winter ascent would be all the more exciting, so I signed on. As plans changed throughout the week, it ended up being myself and Scott Patterson, whom I needed to meet up with anyway, because I had an ice axe of his from a previous trip.
When I got to the trailhead, or I should say the Guanella Pass road closure, the night before the climb, Scott was not there, but instead another Summit Post member, Brandon. I found out he was also planning to do the Sawtooth the following morning. Scott arrived shorty thereafter, we got our plans set, and the three of us slept in our respective vehicles for the few hours of night we had left.
Mount Bierstadt: 0330: Had I even slept? I sat up in my half-awake stupor and realized I was in the back of my cold jeep. We had some mountains to climb! I woke up the others and the three of us groggily got our gear together to go. Though there was a road closure sign, we drove around it and followed the road the remaining 1.7 mile to the trailhead. We were glad we drove that section, too, because we had enough mileage ahead of us for this long day!
At 0425 we started walking through the darkness, on a solid trail for the first couple hundred yards. It did not take long, however, for us to stray from the solidity of the trail into the incapacitating sea of willows. In the darkness, with just the aid of our headlamps, we could only see what was right ahead of us. Getting off the trail so early, we had a long trek ahead through the mostly-invisible willows.
The wind was annoying, but it kept me motivated to move, even though we were post-holing most of the first couple of hours. We could see the west ridge of Mount Bierstadt in the darkness, and we slowly crept up on it as the sun began to rise. In the distance, we heard a pack of coyotes howling, and we stopped to admire the early-morning scenery of Square Top Mountain and its surroundings.
Now again on a recently-blazed trail, Brandon and I made good time getting up to the northwestern slopes of Mount Bierstadt. Scott fell behind quickly, as he was not feeling well on this particular day. As we continued up the talus-strewn slopes, the wind picked up considerably, and I kept moving to stay warm.
At 0817, Brandon and I reached the summit of Mount Bierstadt. Despite the willow-bashing, this felt like one of the most effortless ascents of any peak I had climbed thus far in Colorado. The summit register had some two dozen names from the previous Saturday, and this is obviously a popular destination, even in winter.
After sitting on the summit for about 20 minutes, now in surprisingly calm air, Brandon and I continued down the north slope. Even though he was not feeling well, Scott arrived at the summit shortly thereafter, at least bagging one peak on this fine day. He decided to descend after reaching the summit of Mount Bierstadt, which is probably a good idea, considering it took Brandon and me the rest of the daylight hours to complete our climb and descent.
Sawtooth Ridge: The drop to the Sawtooth was long and snowy, but at least we no longer had the annoyance of the wind. We encountered some difficult fourth class rock and ice, with considerable exposure, as we traversed up and down, trying our best to follow the cairns wherever we could find them. There was also one set of weathered footprints in the snow, but they were only sporadically visible.
Eventually we made it to the small notch, where the traverse crosses from the east side to the west side of the ridge. There were some fierce winds here. I stopped to strap on my crampons for the upcoming ledge, as Brandon continued around the corner to investigate.
The following ledge was not as difficult as I had been led to believe. Though exposed and icy at places, it was wider than I had expected and my crampons did their job perfectly. Still, the cliffs dropping off below were breath-taking, and I was having a blast!
Before climbing the final ramp, which we had been previewing for quite some time, Brandon decided he would put his crampons on as well. He led the way up the ramp of scree and snow, but this too wasn’t quite as difficult as we had expected. It was a fun climb up a ledge system along a vertical cliff dropping off hundreds of feet below, but it was not technical by any means. The crux for us had been some of the rock climbing on the east side of the traverse, prior to crossing over to the ledge system.
Mount Evans: After coming around the bend and finding ourselves on the broad western slopes of Mount Evans, we stopped for a short break. The Sawtooth behind us, we still had more than a mile to the summit of Mount Evans, and during that mile the elevation would begin to slow both of us down considerably.
Though we met two other guys on the summit, upon our arrival at 1308, no one else had signed the register since December! Mount Evans is obviously not as popular a winter destination as Mount Bierstadt. Even as we started our descent, however, two more people came up by us to reach the summit.
The weather had turned out beautifully, despite a high wind warning and the knowledge of an incoming storm. The sun remained warm and bright as Brandon and I started back down the west ridge. There was surprisingly little snow on this ridge, due to being wind-swept I am sure, and it made for easy talus-hopping on the way up and on the way down.
We continued all the way down to where the gentle westward slopes drop off onto cliffs. Here, as we looked back over our shoulders at the Sawtooth, we turned north and followed the top of the cliffs to our freedom: the continuation of the west ridge. It was a straightforward downhill walk from there to the basin, interrupted only by some photo ops and an encounter with about a dozen mountain goats. Though curious creatures, they didn’t stick around long enough for a good photograph.
The next couple hours consisted of a daunting slog through a large, wide-open flat. Above timberline, we had nothing between us and our vehicles but snow, snow, more snow, and some willows. Sink up to your waist, sigh, pull yourself up with your opposite knee, stand on top of the snow for a step or two, suddenly sink up to your waist again, and repeat process. It just never seemed to end.
Eventually, we did make it to the hard-packed Mount Bierstadt trail, which was marked by tall wooden posts, and very evident in the waning daylight. Too bad it had not been so obvious twelve hours earlier, when we had been bashing our way through the willows in the dark. Oh well, now we had easy-going the rest of our way out, so we couldn’t complain.
1806: The sun had already dropped behind Square Top Mountain as we arrived at the trailhead, but Mount Bierstadt and the Sawtooth remained illuminated by the sunset, a fitting end to our 14-hour day. Clouds were beginning to filter in and a snowstorm was close behind, but I had other things on my mind: food, a hot shower, and warm bed. What more could a man want?!