The last time I descended Mount Bierstadt in the dark, I was wearing jeans and tennis shoes, which were soaking wet after I slipped and fell in a patch of slushy snow. I hadn't even reached the summit. That was my first bid at a fourteener.
Many summits later and volumes better-prepared, I returned to Bierstadt with some colleagues to settle unfinished business. This time we summited. I had an eye for the sawtooth, but one party member's recent fear of heights forced us to abort.
17 January 2010
A familiar sight
We're descending in the dark again. I've been told this is a given in winter, but 12 hours on the mountain pretty much guarantees it.
Earlier in the week, I breached the idea of a winter traverse of the sawtooth, whose towering buttresses and terminally sheer drops had beckoned me ever since I was torn away from it in September. The suggestion was well-received by Jeff and Dan, and we agreed on Sunday for the attempt. Forecasts indicated partial cloud cover, mild temperatures, calm winds.
We had decided to try for Bierstadt's north face gully, a variation of the west slopes route. From the summit we'd drop down to enjoy some class-3 scrambling on the sawtooth, hike over to the summit of Evans, and return via the gully just north of the sawtooth.
I spent the rest of the week anticipating our hike. Sunday couldn't arrive soon enough.
A relatively late start saw us leave Denver shortly before 6 am, and we pulled up to the gate two hours later. It was overcast and cold. No matter, we were prepared. We shouldered our packs and set off down the road at 8:10.
The road was blown clear except for some thin packed drifts, and we covered the 1.6 miles to the summer trailhead in 40 minutes. Here we caught our first glimpse of Mount Bierstadt, or where it would have been if not all obscured by clouds and falling snow above 12000'. We didn't hike all the way up but instead took a rabbit-trail "shortcut" through the willows for some early morning post-holing.
Our first glimpse
Wallowing in the willows
Back on the trail it was easy going to no one's surprise. We joined the caravan of eight others hiking up and leap-frogged to 13000', where we veered off the winding trail to connect with the north face gully. As we crossed the talus the snow grew deeper. Dan seemed to be enjoying his new-found skill breaking trail, so I didn't offer to lead.
Looking back across the valley
Veering off the trail
The sawtooth viewed from the trail
Jeff crossing the talus
Approaching the gully
The gully proved to be a good choice. The last 150' offered a fun class-3 scramble and a chance to exercise different muscles. Though shorter, I can't comment on whether this route is faster; when we reached the summit it was nearly 1 pm, and all the other groups had either already summited or turned back.
Looking west from the summit
At first it was gloomy on the summit, consumed by soupy, snow-laden fog, but eventually the clouds broke, revealing some fleeting spectacular views before we were again engulfed by dimness.
Looking northeast to Mount Evans
This leg of our journey had taken much longer than expected (well over four hours), but we all were prepared to return in the dark, so we agreed to continue. After 40 minutes on the summit doing whatever it is that keeps me dreaming about the mountains--maybe it's just soaking in the interminable silence--we began our descent to the sawtooth.
Beginning the descent
The steep talus field
Until now I had been sure to maintain line-of-sight between Dan and Jeff so we could communicate; but the descent was incredibly steep and, unlike the oft-traveled path on the west slopes, the talus was buried in deep and unconsolidated snow, demanding attention to avoid stepping into a crack between boulders or sliding helter-skelter down the slope. So I quit looking back.
In just over an hour we reached the lowest point of the sawtooth, over 700' below the summit of Mount Bierstadt. Dan turned around and looked up.
I peered back, following the line we'd made in the deep powder as it zig-zagged back up the slope. Against the stark whiteness I could just make out a tiny silhouette amongst some boulders several hundred feet above our position. !@#$.
Ten minutes passed. We shouted but he didn't hear.
"Is he in trouble?" Dan sounded concerned.
I stood motionless, staring intently at the figure in the distance. He seemed to be sitting and fidgeting with something. Maybe one of his gaiters had come loose... or maybe his leg had gotten wedged in a crack. Ten more minutes passed as I stared, and still he remained in one spot.
Dan shouted again, louder this time. "JEEEEEEFFFFFFFFFF...!" His voice echoed back from the jagged rocks towering over the slope.
"Yo!" came the reply. He was ok. I was lashing myself mentally for having gotten careless. The breakdown in communication had doomed our plans. Both Dan and I independently arrived at the same conclusion: It was now 2:45... this was taking too long... we'd underestimated the difficulty of navigating the sawtooth in winter. Given the conditions it's a wonder Dan hadn't twisted his ankle breaking trail.
"I think we're gonna have to go back up" I said.
"I think so too"
Dan shouted three times indicating our change in course, and after receiving what sounded like an affirmative reply, we started post-holing back up the slope. Briefly we considered the snowshoes, but the snow was so poor they'd have only added to the misery. Looking at the summit 700' above we understood why this is a one-way trip.
After wasting much energy floundering on the slope, we decided to scramble onto the rocks and climb straight up the backbone of the ridge. This was decidedly easier, and with some effort we started to gain (or regain) elevation. Soon Jeff, who had been following our tracks down the incline, appeared nearby and joined us on the ridge. As it turned out he too was alarmed by the sketchiness of the talus and had been installing crampons.
Now reunited, we felt better and began to enjoy the climb and the exposure offered by the sheer drop to our right. The route was mostly scrambling interspersed with some class-4 climbing which would have been downright stupid without ice axes. I gained a new respect for this tool; jamming the shaft on cracks or hooking the pick on corners provided solid leverage for climbing over the steep sections.
Jeff navigates a tricky spot
Looking back down the ridge
We had been on the mountain for eight hours and despite the recent upturn (no pun intended) our climb became an exercise in perseverance. We all expressed our exhaustion with hundreds of vertical feet to gain before we could descend. On and on I pushed my sore body up over the rocks until it took all my concentration to lift each leg for the next move.
At long last we reached the top of the gully we'd ascended earlier, just as the dusky colors faded out of the sky. The clouds had been receding gradually and now peeled away to reveal the starry expanse in celebration of our resolve. It had taken three hours to climb the 700' back to the summit; but it would be smooth sailing from here. We made final gear adjustments and at 5:40 departed the summit of Mount Bierstadt a second time.
We moved quickly, but it still took almost three hours to reach the Jeep. I'd never been more relieved to see its taillights reflecting the cold beam of our headlamps as then, sorer than I've ever been and quite ready for a nap.
As we drove home I dreamed about returning to the sawtooth.