When we decided to head to Colorado to visit Ben and Allison, I knew I wanted to attempt a 14,000 summit. The highest I had ever hiked before was to 12,000. Luckily, Ben was up for it too. We decided to wait a few days after arriving so I could acclimate to the altitude and get a few workouts in and short hikes in with the family. He had me running at 6,000 feet a few hours after we arrived!
We had looked through 14ers.com to decide on which ones were close enough and interesting enough to attempt. At first we looked at Grays and Torreys but I heard that was really busy and fairly tame. We also looked at Longs but that was a bit far away.
We decided on Bierstadt (14,060′), even though Ben had just done it recently, because if I found it easy enough to get to the top there, we could keep going along the Sawtooth Ridge and make it to Mt. Evans (14,264′), and bag two 14ers in one hike.
The definitive route guide for this hike is here, so I suggest going there for a more detailed description of the route. The site 14ers.com has excellent photos with the routes marked on them. I wish we had taken some of the photos with us as it would have helped us make better decisions on which routes to follow.
We got a bit later start from the house than we wanted, and then were held up by construction on the road from Georgetown to Guanella Pass. (Yes, I know the light is green in the picture, but it was red for at least five minutes and changed to green right after we had yelled down to some construction workers about it!).
This is a view from the parking lot of Mt. Bierstadt on the right, and the Sawtooth ridge on the left. Evans is not visible here, but is behind the Sawtooth.
The hike starts off through a flat land that is fairly marshy, so they’ve built a board walk. Here is me on a rock in the middle of a stream crossing, with Bierstadt and Sawtooth in the background:
Near the top of Bierstadt, we were passed by this madman — no shirt, no water, no food. Most everyone else had on hats, gloves, and at least an outer shell! We ended up talking to to him for a bit when he was coming down, and he has climbed all 54 14ers in CO and has over 300 14er ascents! He just does it for fun — not training as an ultra runner or anything like that.
Bierstadt looks like a huge pile of rocks at the top — and it is. You can’t see the people in this downsized image, but they are tiny — so there is still a ways to go to the top from here!
And here we are on top — what a view!
Top of Mt. Bierstadt
If you watched the video, you heard that we still weren’t sure if we were going to go on. Physically I felt fine — no tiredness from the climb and no feeling effects of altitude yet, so that was not the problem . The problem was that the climb down from Bierstadt and then the Sawtooth Ridge looked a bit difficult from where we were. But once we started down, to “scout it,” we eventually reached a point of no return! Photos never do justice to the steepness, but this is me climbing down from Bierstadt towards Sawtooth, and there is Ben way up high. He chose a higher route than I did.
Here is a shot of the Sawtooth ridgeline… We eneded up going down pretty low by the three snow patches, before climbing back up through the notch to the far side. There were two people coming down behind us that we could see took the ridge line as the route an 14ers said to do. There were lots of cairns showing both routes, so you just need to make a decision and go with it. I think the way down was fairly fast for us, and then the climb up was not too bad, so I don’t know if it makes that much difference.
We saw a ton of wildlife on this hike — ealges, marmuts, chipmunks, a mountain goat, beavers, etc. Here are a couple shots:
Once we climbed up through the notch to the backside of Sawtooth, it got a little hairy. I was slightly dizzy from the altitude, and it started to snow and get windy. Plus, the path up the backside is a lot of scree, and the space between the rock wall on your right and the 1000 foot drop on your left can be as small as a few feet! (Well, I don’t know for sure if it is 1000′ down, but it sure looks like a long ways, and after a 100 feet or so, it doesn’t really matter!) I should note that the folks we talked to and the 14ers web page all say the pictures make this section look worse than it is, and that is probably the case. While anyone with a fear of heights should not do this section, it never seemed that bad. I was mostly worried about my dizzyness and the snow!
Here is Ben at one point where the drop is just in front of him.
Once you round the sawtooth, you head up the tundra to find the trail going to Evans. I don’t have any photos from there as I was pretty hurting altitude wise at that time, and there really wasn’t much to see anyway. (Well, there are of course beautiful views all around, but not really different from what we had already seen.)
Top of Mt. Evans
While on top of Evans, the two hikers that had come behind us on Sawtooth came up. Turns out it was two women, and they had a car close by. I was sorely tempted to hike down with them and get a ride back towards our car, but I gave myself some time to sit and eat, and then decided we could make it back on foot. The snow had stopped and the weather had cleared, though mountain weather can change fast, we felt pretty sure we could make it back to the car without any problems.
One note is that there is a road to the top of Mt. Evans, so there are a lot of folks up there that drove. I normally am not crazy about such places, but in this case, there are only two out of 54 14ers that have roads to the top, so that is not too bad.
On the way back we came across a mountain goat — he wouldn’t let us get too close:
We came down the tundra and followed the water to the gully, where the route told us there was a class 2 scramble down. This section was fairly steep and has a ton of scree, so each of us had a few slides and falls. One thing that is funny here is that when we started the hike and were looking at the possible return paths the 14ers.com route was describing, I pointed at one and said no way, too steep. Turns out that was the one we came down! At the bottom there was a gorgeous waterfall, and a lady had solo hiked in and set up camp down there. She was off in the distance a bit so we didn’t disturb her — but what an awesome place to camp.
As we went further down, we came across beaver dams and even saw a beaver come out. The picture on the left has a beaver floating in the water (you have to look closely).
Just below the beaver dams, there is no set trail — it is willows and a lot of muck, and many self made paths trying to find ways around the muck. This section took us much longer than we thought. There were some sections where the willows were very thick and/or over our heads, and some of the muck was pretty deep.
We finally made it back to the car, where my altitude headache really started to make itself known!
There was an older man waiting for another hiker to come down, and he asked if we had seen him. We had in fact met him when we were on our way towards Mt. Evans and he was heading towards Sawtooth and Bierstadt in the opposite direction that we had come. We guessed it would have taken him longer to get to the parking lot at Guenalla Pass than it did us — at least we hope so! We had to leave before we ever found out.
We drove down and met Allison, Kelly, and all the kids in Idaho Springs and ate pizza at BeaoJo’s.
All in all, a great hike. I don’t know that I would do it again — mainly because there are so many other 14ers in CO that I would like to do and not that the Sawtooth section was that crazy. While it was a bit hairier than any hike I have done in the past – including the Grandfather Mountain Trail and even the class 2 scramble and 400 meter cable run on Half Dome, it wasn’t that bad. Definitely some class 3 in there, though, but mostly class 2.