AscentI woke up at 6:45am in Boulder and looked at weather reports. Snow, snow, and more snow in the forecast. I thought "ahh, I probably won't be able to summit today, so there's no rush." Back to sleep! ... I woke up again at 8:00am and motivated myself to get going. Even though I wasn't planning to summit Bierstadt due to weather and a late start, I figured it would be good to at least snowshoe around and check out the conditions of the trailhead and the general area.
I arrived at the parking area at about 10am. These days, the road from Georgetown to Guanella Pass isn't plowed all the way in the winter. But it is plowed to an area with a little bit of parking on each side of the road, and you can hike up the road the remaining distance. At this point in the year (and especially this year), there is a lot of snow accumulated. I needed snowshoes for the entire route. It had snowed a bit overnight, and there were only tracks about 1 mile in on this day - beyond that we were breaking trail.
I met a guy named Dan at the trailhead who was also planning to hike casually towards Bierstadt. He headed off as I was getting geared up, so I was able to follow his tracks. Neither of us really planned to make the summit with such a late start.
We were making good time and the snow clouds seemed to be staying at bay in the nearby mountains, so we kept pressing on. As we hiked farther, we met up a few times to share some words about the conditions and press onwards. We agreed that the summit might actually be in our reach, if we kept up the pace and the weather continued to hold off.
We started approaching the final summit ridge at around 2:00pm, and realized at that point that it was definitely within our reach. The clouds were moving in a bit, but we felt confident in our gear and timing, so we pressed on.
We made the Bierstadt summit at about 2:45pm.
After a short break, we headed down and got caught in some fairly heavy snow. Our tracks had already gotten mostly buried by wind, so it was difficult to stay on route. Fortunately the route is pretty straightforward, and as long as you descend directly down the long, open face of Bierstadt, you will be heading generally in the right direction. I also had a couple of GPS waypoints to help steer us in the right direction, but unfortunately I did not set a waypoint at our vehicles.
We strayed a bit and began to get a little bit uncertain about our direction. Quite a bit of time passed as we trekked off through deep drifted snow in what we thought was the general direction of the parking area. We eventually saw the closed portion of the Guanella Pass byway in the distance, which was quite comforting. After hours of trekking through heavy snow (thanks to Dan for breaking the trail!), we finally met up with our old tracks and got down. The total trip time was about 8 hours. Had the weather been good and we been able to stay with our old tracks for the entire descent, I think we could have done it in about 6.5 hours. Not bad for a 14er in the winter!
Lessons LearnedThis was my first 14er in the winter. There are some things I've learned...
1) Get an early start. Travel in the snow is obviously slower and more laborious than travel on dirt and rock, so a 5-hour summer hike can easily take 8-hours in the winter. Plus, you need to account for delays associated with snow storms and/or whiteout conditions. Had we strayed for another hour, it would have been dark.
2) Take frequent and sensible GPS waypoints, the most important being the trailhead and/or your vehicle. You can't rely on your tracks being visible on the way down - snow and wind can cover them in minutes.
3) Be careful of *rapid* altitude change, even if you are in excellent physical condition and frequently spend time in high altitude. Going from Boulder elevation (~5300') to the Bierstadt Summit (14,066') in 5 or 6 hours had a huge effect on me. I was light-headed and began to develop a slight headache and nausea towards the end of the descent.