Mount Bierstadt (14,060 feet) and
Mount Evans (14,264 feet)
Via the Guanella Pass Trailhead and the Sawtooth Ridge
July 22, 2004
Scott and I arrived at the Denver International Airport around 11pm. Scott is my marathon running partner. This trip is to be Scott’s inaugural fourteener trip. We picked up the rental SUV, stopped for some groceries and eventually made it to the Guanella Pass Trailhead around 2 am in the morning. Our plan was to get going by 6 am. We pitched our tents under the clearest sky - with more stars - than either of us had ever seen.
Both of us slept pretty rough. This was probably a combination of excitement and the affects of sleeping at 11,000 feet. My strategy has always been to sleep at altitude as much as possible during my fourteener trips. We woke up around 5 am. Scott was amazed at how long it took us to gather our gear, eat and hit the trail. We did hit the trail at 6 am, as planned.
The trip up Bierstadt went very well. I told Scott all about how the CFI built the decking. Last time I was at Bierstadt the ground below the decking was dry. The ground was not dry today. It was very swampy, and I was glad for the decking. Scott and I both started out very strong. Early on we passed this family with a Mom, Dad and 3 little boys. These kids must have been between 4 and 6 years of age; very young for fourteener hiking. Scott and I were impressed.
We were both strong as we finally left the valley and started up the slopes of Bierstadt. I slowly started to pull away from Scott at about ½ way up the slopes of Bierstadt. Man, I could not believe how well Scott was doing for his first time at altitude. We left the dirt trails of Bierstadt for the boulder hopping at the top. At this point, I barely lost sight of Scott behind me. I made the summit in around 1 hour and 50 minutes. I only had to wait 10 minutes for Scott.
When he got to the top, Scott mentioned how hard it was to find the route through the boulders. I said, “what route?” Scott also mentioned how much fun the final boulder climb was. This guy was taking to this stuff like a mountain goat.
We stayed at the summit for about 30 minutes, then headed towards the Sawtooth. I was still trying to convince Scott that he could do the Sawtooth. I was even more convinced now that he had performed so well at altitude. I had taken some Advil for a mild altitude headache, but Scott didn’t even need that.
The rock slopes down from Bierstadt were a lot steeper than I would have expected from Bierstadt. We stayed on the East side of the ridge for most of the route. It was mostly boulder hopping until about the ½ way point. Then, we missed the route several times, and had to do some mild class 3 to get back on track. Scott did great on the class 3 stuff also. At about ¾ of the way across the ridge, Scott decided that he’d had enough. This was a total shock to me. I thought that he was doing great, and didn’t understand why he would turn back. His reasons were two fold: One, the sky was starting to cloud up a little bit. Two, I think that he was finally getting tired from the class 3 climbing. Personally, I wasn’t worried about the clouds. I’ve seen much worse. I knew that I could at least make it through the Sawtooth and to the summit of Evans before anything built up.
So, Scotty started heading back towards Bierstadt. Meanwhile, I continued up the ridge, and to my surprise, I was at the crux of the ridge within the next 5 minutes. Just before the crux, the trail crosses from the East side of the ridge to the West side. The crux isn’t really a solid class 3 or class 4 rock move. Instead, the crux is a very exposed, very loose slope climb. When I first saw the crux, I though, “No way man!” But, as I got closer and closer, it started to look easy. I scrambled to the top of the slope without any troubles. This crux is just one of those places where you don’t want to take a tumble. Otherwise, it’s not too bad.
After I passed the crux, I cleared the top of the ridge and started towards Evans summit. I called Scott on the radio, and told him that I cleared the top and it was pretty easy. Meanwhile, Scott had decided that the boulder climb back up Bierstadt was too hard, and he started down into the valley; toward Abyss Lake. Part of Scott’s problems with the boulders on Bierstadt was the fact that it had started to hail lightly and it was slippery. Scott asked what he should do. I told him that he should either try to find another route up the South face of Evans, or he should follow the trail to the Evans road and then make a decision. I said, “ just follow the map to the road.” He said, “I can’t read my map, it’s all wet.” I still can’t understand how he destroyed the map so early into the trip.
I continued to follow the Evans ridge towards the summit. Meanwhile, I was following Scott’s progress down towards the lake. I pointed out a few steep gulleys that I thought he could take to the summit. He mentioned that he saw a couple horsemen down by the lake, and was going to go talk with them. That was the last time that I heard from Scott on the radio.
At about that time, I met up with another pair of strong hikers who were following the same route as myself. Their names were Jeff and Tim, and they were brothers. We all reached the summit of Evans about the same time. Of course, the gamut of auto-hikers were on the summit also. I made the summit of Evans (across the Sawtooth) in about 2.5 hours. After about 5 minutes on the summit, I started to hear a soft crackly sound. I paused to listen, because the clouds were starting to look a bit nasty, and the hail was picking up. As I paused to listen, a young, long haired, blond girl next to me said that her hair was full of static and starting to stand up on end. I looked quickly to verify, then started to bolt down the summit. As I took off, I told everybody, that this storm was electrical, and that they needed to get down FAST. We all started down the trail, but the fastest down to the shelters was definitely myself, Jeff and Tim. We recognized the risk. I took shelter at the bathrooms. Not the best place to stay, but definitely better than out in the open. Meanwhile, most of the auto-hikers had retreated to their vehicles to wait out the storm. Well, the storm did not get better. In fact, it got much worse. Before I knew it, a ½ inch of hail or more had fallen.
I had still not heard from Scott. By this time it had been almost an hour since I last heard from him on the radio. I was getting quite worried about him, especially with the weather being so bad. I had visions of Scott curled up in the fetal position down by the lake, getting pelted by hail; approaching hypothermia.
After about 30 minutes of hanging out under the eves of the crapper, the hikers that I met earlier (Tim and Jeff) came by. They had been trying to get shelter in the summit house or the observatory, but both were locked. I guess that my first option was the best option. About 10 minutes later, a Ranger came up to talk to us. He told us that they were seriously thinking about closing the summit road, and that we should consider hitching a ride down from the summit. This was a tough call for all of us, as we had all started at the Guanella TH, and that was a LONG way from the Evans road.
It was a tough decision, but all three of us decided to start asking for rides. Lucky for us, the very first car that we walked up to (an Outback station wagon with three people), was able to fit us in and give us a ride. We were so grateful for these very kind people. As we were going down the road in the Outback, the road was really slippery. About half way to Summit Lake, it started to clear up. At this point, I asked it they could pull over (at the end of the switchback) so that I could try to reach Scott again on the radio. I had tried to reach him almost non-stop since we lost contact. No luck this time either.
We got back in the car. Meanwhile, during the ride down, Jeff, Tim and I had gotten a look the map. We decided that the weather had cleared significantly and we asked to be dropped off at the Summit Lake TH. From this point we would cross Mount Spalding and return the Guanella TH. I considered continuing with the folks in the Outback down to the bottom, just in case Scott made it to the road. But, I decided that it would be better if I could get to the vehicle and start making phone calls. I left my name, Scott’s name and my phone number with the folks in the Outback, and they were going to leave the information with the Rangers at the base of the Evans road. The ride down to the Summit Lake TH was about 40 minutes.
As Tim, Jeff and I started across the parking lot towards Spalding, a Ranger pulled up in a pickup truck. I told him that I was looking for somebody. I left my name and information with the Ranger also. After I gave the Ranger the information, we took off again towards Spalding. The weather had cleared significantly, but it looked like it could turn again at any moment. It was obvious that Spalding had not gotten the hail that the summit of Evans had gotten. The trail up Spalding was pretty clear. As we got closer to the actual summit, the thunder started back up. At this point we decided not to hit the peak. It just didn’t seem like a good idea to be on the high point in the area. We continued to circumnavigate the summit at about 300 feet below the peak. The weather eventually cleared. Whew! As we got around the summit, we never did find a strong trail down on the far side. Regardless, we worked our way down into the valley, and into the willows and the swamp. We worked our way across the willows and the swamp, following a very light trail. I swore that I would never take this route again. Yuk!
We reached the Guanella TH parking lot in around 2 hours 15 minutes. I still wasn’t sure what to do. Inside I was hoping that Scott had somehow made it across Bierstadt and back to the car. Now, I was really worried. I was planning to drive towards the Evans road, when a solitary horseman came riding into the parking lot. On a whim, I asked him if he had been down by the lake and had seen any hikers. He said that he had. I described Scott and he said that it sounded about right. He mentioned that the hiker was from Ohio. Bingo!!! I asked him where he was. He said that he was about ½ hour back on the trail which circumnavigates the base of Bierstadt. Man, what a relief.. About 45 minutes later, Scott and two other hikers came strolling into the parking lot.
It turns out that Scott had run into a group of Game Wardens who were counting sheep. They had told him that it wasn’t a good idea to attempt the South face of Evans with the weather coming in. They were right! And, he decided to follow them back to their camp, helped them pack up, then followed them back to the parking lot.
Well, what happened to the $&^*#$^& radio? Scott was embarrassed to admit that he dropped MY radio between some boulders and could not retrieve it. . We must have a better plan next time.
On our way down from the Guanella Pass, we made a phone call to the Ranger station to let them know that the three hikers made it back to the Guanella TH and that we had also found my missing partner. What an exciting first fourteener for Scott…
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