A Beautiful Start
I hit the alarm at 4:45 AM, and drag myself into the shower. Today, my friend Brennan and I would be attempting the Bierstadt to Evans Traverse via the Sawtooth. We'd been excited about it all week, yet I felt a bit run-down after a later than desired night. I grabbed a Pop Tart as I left the house, and started driving toward the Morrison exit parking lots at 5:30.
I met my friend Brennan there, and the two of us made our way west on I-70 to Georgetown. It was obvious that we were both excited about the trip today, although I was still feeling a bit under the weather. I was hoping that would change when the endorphins started kicking in on the trail.
The sun was just above the Sawtooth when we caught our first glimpse of it. I had been up Guanella Pass a year prior, and remember being stricken by the unique profile of the ridge back then. Since then, even after countless betas and image photos, I was still surprised at how rugged it appeared.
After waiting what seemed like a small eternity at a choke point in the Guanella Pass road construction, we arrived at the Trailhead at 7:30. I loaded on my large backpacking pack, and turned on my GPS. I usually used a larger backpack with more weight to help me train my legs on less strenuous mountains, and Brennan asked me when the training would stop as we began to hike into the willows. It seemed to him that the Sawtooth traverse wouldn't qualify as easy. It was a simple yet very valid answer, although I didn't really have too much to say. Regardless, he was probably right, and I should have left the extra weight at home this day.
We started up the slopes of Bierstadt, and quickly gained the ridge in front of the Sawtooth
, where it basked in the morning light. At this point, my endorphins had kicked in full force, and the run-down, slightly nauseous feeling had dissipated. We continued up the slopes at a slow, yet deliberate pace, slowly advancing beyond the ranks of people that would stop every few minutes for a breather. Brennan and I chatted the whole way up the west slopes. We had done Quandary just a couple of weeks prior, and that trail, although only class 1, seemed to be more demanding physically than what we were walking on now. Regardless, the mountain wasn't fazing us like we thought it would, and that encouragement continued to push us to the top of the mountain.
After crossing a small snowfield, we began rock-hopping the short distance to the summit. We reached the summit in a little over two hours, and settled on the north side to overlook the Sawtooth
We sat on the summit with some other hikers, and began asking us questions about our route. We pointed out our basic battle plan as best we could (Neither of us had done it before), and a small group of people gathered together to hear of our aspirations. I'd really never experienced that feeling before, and it was the first time of the day that I felt like we may be doing something the average person would not do. After laughing with some new friends and checking Roach's book one more time, we began our descent toward the lower ridge around 10:00.
Crossing the Sawtooth
The north side descent of Bierstadt was pretty slow going. Brennan had been having knee troubles recently, and so he was extra careful to nurse it on the way down. We had been keeping our eyes on some clouds mounting to the north; they seemed harmless enough now, but we all know how fast that can change in Colorado. As we descended, we saw some cairns holding fairly close to the ridgeline of the Sawtooth. It didn't seem the correct way to go to me, but about that time, we saw three guys snaking their way from the west side of the ridge. Brennan asked if we should stay closer to the ridge and not lose as much elevation, and I shrugged and decided to talk with these guys about the route.
It turns out, they were not on the path, and upon meeting the troubles on the west ridge, they decided to retreat to Bierstadt. I wished them a safe trip, and continued. After a continued descent down the slope, and after falling through the snow, nearly twisting my leg, we dropped down to around 13,200, which was just below a steep, distinct, V-like notch cut out of the ridge. A massive gendarme
loomed just to the south of this point. Unfortunately, around this time, I began to contract altitude sickness. My head began to swim and feel woozy, and I prayed it'd subside - I wasn't quite sure how much exposure existed on the west face of the traverse, and I was a bit less than thrilled to attempt it on shaky feet. I opted to sit in the saddle and eat, just to get my strength back up to fight the sickness. We sat literally on the edge of the cliff, and I snapped a shot
of the near vertical rock below. Still keeping an eye on the weather, and knowing my condition might slow us down, we asked some guys that were passing us how it looked. He had a barometer, and said that pressure was keeping steady, and it didn't look like a problem. I was relieved; I didn't want to attempt ascending the sandy, loose crux in a torrential downpour.
After finishing half a sandwich and some Gatorade, we began to skirt the east side of the gendarme. There are many cairns at this point, and moving around the east side for the most part is pretty smooth sailing. There were a couple of places where you have about forty feet of exposure, but I remember thinking nothing of it. Granted, I was fairly out of it by this point; I was literally thinking of simply placing one foot in front of the other, and I was feeling too badly to be thinking about anything else. After we cleared the east side, and began to climb upward again, I had to rest. Although the climbing was fun, it was getting worse, and I was trying to do everything I could to keep it together for the final push. We waited another five minutes. Brennan later made a comment that he knew I was feeling bad, because we sat there the whole time, and I didn't say a word. Wanting to keep moving forward, we continued up the slope, following cairns and making our way to the west ridge.
Whenever we crossed over to the west ridge, something amazing happened. Adrenaline began to fuel my body, and all feelings of altitude sickness had been wiped away in an astonishingly small period of time. We were on a trail only a few feet wide in places, with a massive dropoff to our left. Despite the thin trail in places, I never really felt too concerned with the exposure. I felt safe, and the trail was solid. There was one point where a boulder juts out slightly over the trail that pushed me a bit closer to the cliffside at one point than I would have preferred (I really began to hate the bulky pack I was carrying), but overall, it was a fun and pleasant stroll toward the crux
of the climb; a sandy and steep slope that hugs the side of the massive cliffs.
I angled upward forty or so yards from the base of the crux, and made a traverse across a scree filled gully that washed over the side of the cliffs. As we started the climb upward, the dirt was unpleasant, but careful, light stepping ensured your feet could grip for the most part. Halfway up the crux, I began to look back, and was completely enamored with what I saw. I was somewhat surprised the exposure didn't bother me; some places, I was mere feet
from a cliff edge on questionable ground, yet any twinge of fear that entered was quickly and easily pushed out.
This was Brennan's first real exposure climb, and he handled it amazingly well. Outside of not wanting to look back as he was climbing the dirt slope, it didn't seem to faze his movements in the least, and I was definitely impressed! As I was gawking at the scenery, he passed me long enough to snap a shot
of me nearing the top of the crux. As we both climbed up to stable ground once again, we let out a victory yell and celebrated over the completed Sawtooth Traverse. I never get tired of that sense of accomplishment! It was an amazing climb through some wonderfully rugged scenery, and I recommend it to anyone willing to hike to it.
Race Against Time
Our victory cries were short-lived. In our climbing, the Sawtooth prevented our view to the north. The north now stirred with dark clouds, and the tell-tale streaks of rain falling into the northern valley, some forty miles away. We were wanting to continue on to Evans to begin with, but this new information caused us to rethink our strategy. Do we descend the Sawtooth gully back to the car and try to race the storm that way? Or do we push to Evans, and wait it out in the visitor's center? Evans was much closer, and we were confident we could make it to that point before the storm hit. As we were contemplating our future, a man named Dan caught up with us. We decided to attempt Evans and we talked for a few minutes with the new arrival as we crossed the tundra toward Evans' West Ridge. Skirting the south side of the ridge, we were unable once again to see the northern progress on the summer shower approaching, but it did afford us another great shot of the Sawtooth from the east
. In an effort to beat the storm, we continued on the ridge, even though I was starving. I really wanted to sit down and have a bite to eat, but being that we were on unknown terrain, we weren't sure how long it'd take to get to the top of Evans, or how fast the storm would blow in. As time progressed, my stomach began to eat itself raw, and my energy began to plummet.
For the longest time, we traversed under numerous false summits, above 14,000 feet. As we trudged ever nearer to the summit, we passed the barometer guys as they were coming back from Evans. They said a traverse back to Guanella Pass shouldn't be affected from the north storm, but it was clouds to the west that were building that we should worry about. The barometer apparently had stayed steady, despite all the atmospheric changes about. We thanked them, I had a few bitter bites from Brennan's Powerbar for an extra burst of energy, and we continued.
Finally, we saw the visitor's center in sight. Brennan attempted to encourage me by saying to go to the visitor's center for some food, but I was already bound and determined to summit Evans first. I started up the switchbacks to the final summit, many times not bothering to stay on the trail, but to cut straight up. The summit was bittersweet; we'd accomplished the traverse, but I was feeling too sick to enjoy it. A tourist took this picture
of us shortly before I scrambled down the mountain, straight toward the visitor's center. Brennan walked with the other man, exchanging a small conversation in the process:
"Your friend doesn't look too happy."
"No...no he's not."
When I arrived to the visitor's center, the grave miscalculation came into view - the visitor center had no roof. The building had blown up in the seventies, and it was now just walls. It provided little to no protection from the approaching storm. I sat in there, gingerly eating the rest of my sandwich as Brennan talked with a park ranger outside. He came back in, and told me there was really no other shelter nearby, save for the bathrooms.
I finished eating, still feeling horrible, and the cloud began to settle overhead. I then experienced a feeling that I'd never felt before: fingers of electricity running through my scalp, charging the follicles of my hair. Brennan grew wide eyed when it began to stand up on end, and we knew it was time to find shelter fast. The tourists were all leaving as if there was a fire drill. Brennan didn't want to stand too close to me for fear of the lightning arcing if it hit me.
We didn't know how well the bathrooms would protect us - it just had a large metal roof, and that appeared to be it. As I began to contemplate how dreadfully unlucky we had become, a kind-faced woman with glasses offered to let us wait in their car. We very happily took them up on the offer. Her husband was a graying man with a mustache, and he asked us as we got in where we'd come from. We told him our route, to which he replied, "That's pretty crazy, but probably not as crazy as my driving!" We laughed, and told him that we just need to wait out the storm is all, but he insisted on taking us back to our car. "Sir," I explained, "our car is on the other side of these mountains on Guanella Pass Road. It'll be a forty-five minute drive just to get over there."
"I've always wanted to go down Guanella Pass Road!" he exclaimed to his wife. And without us really getting a chance to reply, we started down Evans Road. We weren't going to complain all that much.
The next forty minutes turned out to be a great experience. I was amazed at how kind these people were to drive us so far out of their way, and we were thankful to not have to traverse through wet rock and rain, like our fellow climber Dan was doing. We talked about our philosophy of hiking, and some great books to get started on exploring more of Colorado's back country. As we arrived at our car, the coupled made mention that our passion for what we did touched their hearts, and they wanted to start exploring what was out there in the same way. We were so glad to be able to bring something like that to someone else.
We exchanged warm handshakes, and expressed our unrelenting thankfulness for helping out of a bad situation. Where things could have turned for the worst, these folks effectively saved our hides.
We snapped a few more pics of the ridge
. The ominous coloring did a good job of summing up the end of our trip. As we left the Trailhead, Brennan and I were absolutely supercharged over what had happened, and how things turned out the way I did. All the unplanned troubles outstanding, it was still one of the best hikes I've done, and it makes for an adventurous and memorable tale.
Things I learned on the hike:
- Eat regularly; keeping energy up is more important than making good time.
- The Visitor's Center on Mount Evans has exploded.
- Start earlier in the day to do longer, class 3 traverses.
That's my long and drawn out trip report on our Sawtooth Traverse. Thanks for reading!
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