Mt Bierstadt is a classic 14er and definitely one of the more popular ones! Sawtooth Ridge, which connects Mt Bierstadt to Mt. Evans is far less popular but just as beautiful. This morning, just like so many morning before, I was reluctant to get out of bed early to hit the trail which can have some serious consequences when hiking 14ers (you’ll hear about those later!). The road up to Bierstadt is in rough condition but it’s well traveled and after one false-trail head, given away by it’s lack of vehicles, I found the correct one, easily identified by the thousands of cars spilling out in the road! The plan was to summit Bierstadt by the easiest way and then traverse Sawtooth Ridge and swing up to Evans before retreating to the car, however with my late start it was already at risk.
Mt Bierstadt on the right and the Sawtooth Ridge to the left
Another view of Bierstadt and Sawtooth
The fearsome Sawtooth with less-fearsome foliage in the foreground
The path up to Bierstadt is undeniably a 4-lane highway and I cruised past a lot of jean-clad people with tiny packs who had already run out of water. I was shaking my head at most of them until I realized that I was one of the few people still going up while the majority were already going down and I was clearly going to break the cardinal rule of hiking in Colorado: Thou Shalt be off the Summit by Noon. Undeterred I carried on and puffed my way to the top of the mountain to see a group with cheesecake! Cheesecake… *sigh* and they weren’t sharing either, those jerks! Car to summit time: 1hr 10min.
The final grunt up Bierstadt
View from the summit, note the darkish clouds…
Me at the summit with Sawtooth in the background
The sky was already darkening and I was a little leary to commit to the ridge and run the risk of a storm whilst traversing… however, I decided to go for it. Starting down the first section was a little tricky and I ran into Bill and Lorna, two defacto Colorado natives who were on their 14th outing of the season. We joined forces and presently were working as a good team, Lorna needed a little coaching so either Bill or myself would lead and the other would take the rear-guard to make sure that everyone made it through. As an aside, it seems like every time I go out to do a solo trip I end up meeting up with someone and hiking with strangers, it’s fantastic! Ironically, it wasn’t until I had dropped off the summit onto the ridge and the crowds had dropped from 100 to 3 that I met kindred souls.
Looking down on Sawtooth, you can see the ridge in the middle and the “ramp” on the middle left
The traverse of Sawtooth is fairly straightforward and is actually really well marked for a poorly traveled Class 3 route so we suffered very little in the way of route finding or scrambling challenges. There were many chances for looking over the edge of the ridge and marveling at the distance back down to the valley floor. The biggest trick is to stay to the East (hikers-right) as you work your way along the ridge and then to cross over to the west (left) near the end and take the obvious angled ramp up and to the left. This is a beautiful Class 3 ridge and one I would definitely do again. To get the right kind of guides and tours you can check my site here to get help.
Bill and Lorna checking the map for the final section
View up the “ramp” part, it’s not as bad as it looks
By the time we got to the ramp-portion the skies were truly sinister and we’d been hearing thunder echoing off the valley for some time already. With a sigh we heaved up and onto a flat expanse of alpine tundra with a great view over to Mt Evans. My first thought was “great, we made it! I’m going to head for Evans” but before I could complete the thought a spear of lightening smote down upon the summit of Evans and the thunder was so loud I actually ducked!
Now, we’ve all experienced thunderstorms and lightening at some point and I know that all the locals have a huge respect/fear of the afternoon storms here, I was about to find out what made them worse than any I’d ever experienced before!
Right, so dark skies all around, sheets of rain falling across the valley, lightening on the forward path and a clear evacuation route ahead of us… the decision wasn’t hard to make! Our descent route was a wide open bowl shape with a cliff to our left and a ridge to our right so the trick now was to move fast and try and stay below the ridge line while not losing so much elevation that we’d have to climb back up the bowl on the other side. There was a large group of people screaming down from the ridge (on our right) and aiming for an alternate descent route which followed a steep, rocky drainage; we briefly considered this as an option but with all the running water there, the imminent storm and lack of shelter we decided to maintain our more conservative descent.
We made it across the bowl and down the other side when the fury finally let loose, my first lesson in Colorado mountain storms was a good one! It started with plummeting temperatures and rain, cold but manageable and we kept moving at an accelerated pace trying to lose as much elevation as safely possible. This would prove to be a good course of action because the next thing was the hail, hard hail falling with such energy it was like being shot with a pellet gun! We stopped and put on our shells to fend off the attack and were blinded by another bolt of lightening followed too-quickly by a crash of thunder so hard you’d swear Zeus and Atlas were fighting over the Earth and pulling it apart!
Bill, who had been quiet for most of the journey so far spoke up and said “that lightening hit the lake over there.” I followed his outstretched hand and saw that the lake in question was directly between us and the parking lot! While I was watching two more bolts crashed down between us and the cars. With a look we decided to sit and wait, let the storm move off. The three of us hunkered down and endured Gatling-gun hail as the temperature dropped some more and the dark clouds swirled and moved around us. The thunder and lightening show was astonishing, at least it would have been if I hadn’t been scared of getting a personal showing! We had lightening all around us and thunder so loud it would have made Thor cringe! Finally it looked as if a window was opening up and we set off again hoofing it down the hill and working towards the spot the storm had vacated as it moved up an adjacent valley. We reached the bottom of that slope, started working our way across the plain again and looked back to our stopping spot in time to see the storm circle back around, in a matter of seconds it was a complete white-out! Another round of hail and rain was accompanied by lights and sounds that were mercifully further off than before.
From here on in it was just a slog down the hill and then finding our way through the dreaded Willows amid pools of seeping water and knee deep mud (trust me, I checked!) Once back at the cars it was obvious that a third round was blowing in and we were just in time to miss it. It’s funny how you can concentrate on a goal, like getting to the car, so much that you start to lose sight of other things, like the fact that your fingers are so cold you can’t really operate them anymore… And it’s funny how these facts make themselves known, stubborn pressure clips on a backpack and needing both hands to turn the ignition key. The Willows were soaked from the rain and cold from the 1.5 cm of hail and each little leaf was like a frozen finger stealing heat from me and in my head-long pursuit of the vehicle I didn’t even realize the full impact of it. Needless to say I was glad to reach the truck and get some heat going!
All in it was a good day (total time 6hrs), I certainly learned a little respect for the ferocity of storms in Colorado and while I didn’t achieve the whole objective I also didn’t get intimate with lightening!