Mt. Bierstadt
14,060 Feet (Ranked 38th in CO)

Trailhead: Guanella Pass Campground (11,037 Feet)

Class 2

March 13th, 2009
9.93 Miles Roundtrip
Elevation Gained: Approximately 3,200 Feet
Solo

 

 

If There’s a Willow, There’s a Way

 

 

Mt. Bierstadt is renowned for being one of the easiest-to-climb fourteeners in Colorado. Its high trailhead and well-developed trail contribute to the ease of climbing this mountain. Being the second-closest fourteener to Denver undoubtedly increases traffic on Mt. Bierstadt. The standard route on the west slopes is virtually avalanche-free, so it was quite a popular winter climb until the state stopped plowing the Guanella Pass Road. Snow plows only go as far as the Guanella Pass Campground now, which adds approximately four miles to the roundtrip. This is a deal breaker for many people.

 

Snowfall in the Front Range has been below average this year, and spring-like weather has many hikers itching to hit the fourteeners. I had climbed Mt. Bierstadt as a summer hike, but I had never attempted it in calendar winter. Conditions were never likely to be better – sparse snow cover, mild temperatures, and minimal wind.

 

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GPS Track of my route on Mt. Bierstadt

 

The Guanella Pass Road was in pretty good shape all the way to the Guanella Pass Campground. A plow berm blocked the road a couple hundred yards beyond the campground. I recognized 14ers.com member Derek’s truck at the trailhead, so I parked behind him. He was there to attempt Mt. Evans by the Gomer Gully route.

 

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Parking at the plow berm on Guanella Pass Road

 

Snowshoers, skiers, boarders, and snowmobilers had packed the snow, so I kept my snowshoes on my pack while I was on the road.

 

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Snow on the Guanella Pass Road

 

I hadn’t gone far up the road when I got my first view of Mt. Bierstadt. Its gentle slopes were anything but imposing.

 

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View of Mt. Bierstadt from the Guanella Pass Road

 

Hikers had established routes to cut the switchbacks in the road. I didn’t realize how much distance they saved until I skipped the shortcuts on the way back. It was well worth the effort to take these steep but quick shortcuts.

 

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Shortcut between switchbacks on the Guanella Pass Road

 

I hopped the guardrail on the third switchback and headed towards the willows. I followed Derek’s track that he had made earlier in the morning. His track headed due east toward Gomer Gully, so I had to veer off to the south to reach Bierstadt’s standard route.

 

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Track from the road to the willows below Mt. Bierstadt

 

I tried to avoid willows whenever it was possible, because the snow was not very well consolidated around the branches. Short willow branches sticking out of the snow indicated an enormous potential for postholing if I stepped anywhere near them. I looked for grass sticking up out of the snow to find the shallowest parts. I followed the shore of a shallow pond so I could have the advantage of traveling on solid ice. I worked towards a short stretch of trail that I saw in the distance.

 

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A small dose of the famous Mt. Bierstadt willows

 

The willow flats seemed to stretch on endlessly. The willows were sapping my strength, and I had hardly started to ascend the mountain. The worst part was yet to come.

 

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Sun rising above the Sawtooth

 

I thought that my troubles were over when I reached the trail, but the real work had just begun. It was nice to have some guidance to point me in the right direction.

 

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Exposed trail on the standard route

 

The snow got deeper as I started up the slope, and the trail disappeared beneath the snow. I had some days-old tracks to follow, but they split off in several directions. I had to make several judgment calls to stay on a reasonable route. I resisted putting my snowshoes on, and wasted way too much energy postholing in my boots. The snow was more than dense enough to support my weight when I finally decided to put my snowshoes on. Occasional lessons like this remind me how hardheaded I can be.

 

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Deep snow in the willows

 

I eventually resolved my issues with the willows and deep snow. I removed my snowshoes at about 12,000 feet, and didn’t have to put them on again until I was on my way back down. The trail was relatively easy to follow above 12,000 feet, and I could make out faint tracks in the snow when the trail’s location was not obvious.

 

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Trail up the side of Mt. Bierstadt’s west slopes

 

The snow was not very deep on the upper slopes, but there were a few sections of exceptionally slick wind slab. Conditions actually seemed better at 12,500 feet than they did a thousand feet lower.

 

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Farther up the west slopes

 

There were some good views of the Sawtooth along the way. The route to Mt. Evans across the Sawtooth has always appealed to me, but I can never seem to find the time to attempt it.

 

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The Sawtooth with a skim of snow

 

The trail had long since disappeared, and the tracks in the snow disappeared for longer and longer stretches. The best route eventually became clear to me, so I didn’t have to rely on the tracks to stay on course.

 

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Faint tracks high on the route

 

Talus dominated the landscape above about 13,700 feet. Traction was much better on the rock than it was on the snow, but the steepness and the altitude slowed me down considerably.

 

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Mostly talus and light snow above this point

 

I finally reached the shoulder on Mt. Bierstadt’s southwest side. Two large cairns marked the start of the route up the side of the summit cone. The true summit was not visible from the bottom of the summit cone, but it was not far beyond the false horizon.

 

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Cairns just below the summit cone (image taken on the return trip)

 

There were numerous small cairns on the summit cone. Rockhopping on the large talus blocks was infinitely more fun than postholing in the willows.

 

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Cairn marking the route on the summit cone

 

I’ve had better views from the summits of fourteeners, but this one was not too shabby. I peered down into the Abyss on the northeast side, with Mt. Evans on the other side. Not many fourteeners are this close to each other. The jagged peaks of the Continental Divide were on the northwest side. A host of 12ers and 13ers ringed the mountain on the southeast side. There are plenty of good times to be had in the surrounding Mt. Evans Wilderness.

 

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Summit shot with Mt. Evans in the background. The USGS benchmark is on the rock just behind the backpack.

 

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Looking towards Squaretop Mountain, Mt. Wilcox, Argentine Peak, Mt. Edwards, Grays Peak, Torreys Peak, et al.

 

This was one of the few fourteener summits that I have had all to myself. As much as I enjoy hanging out on summits, I didn’t linger for long because my fingers and toes were getting uncomfortably cold in this exposed situation. I noticed several tiny specks working their way up the slopes as I headed down. The first two “specks” that I encountered were 14ers.com members Mountain Hiker and Mountain Hikerette, whom I had met at the winter gathering on Mt. Silverheels last year. I enjoyed a short chat with them before we went off in different directions.

 

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Looking back at Mt. Bierstadt and the Sawtooth from a point just below the Guanella Pass Road

 

I kept my snowshoes on in the willows and avoided much of the postholing on the way back. The route back to the road was long and slightly uphill, and exhaustion was starting to set in. A 10-mile hike in full winter gear is no picnic for me, even on an easier peak.

 

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Nice view of Mt. Bierstadt from the Guanella Pass Road

 

I decided to avoid the shortcuts on the switchbacks on the way back down. Adding mileage to the end of the hike was a bad call on my part, but at least the snow conditions on the road were good. There were quite a few people at the trailhead when I returned, probably there to hike up to Naylor Lake or Silver Dollar Lake.

 

It was thoroughly satisfying to get in a fourteener ascent in the waning days of winter. We’ve been fortunate to have mild weather in the last couple of weeks of winter. Without the bluebird weather conditions, this ascent probably would not have been possible. However, the endorphin buzz had scarcely faded before I realized that the summer fourteener season is a long, long way away. The weather is bound to get worse before it gets better.   

 

 

 

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