Amy and I have lived in
Colorado now for nearly two months and feel that we've gotten fully
acclimatized. Thus we decided it was time to tackle our first 14er.
The state's got 54 of them or so and it is a peakbaggers dream.
Mt. Bierstadt is supposedly one of the easiest and closest to Boulder
so it seemed like a logical choice. The nearby Mt. Evans is taller
still and the two can be hiked together as a relatively easy day
Excited for our first big mountain, we picked up fellow hiker-person Nathan Smith at 5:45 in the dark, gloomy morning and headed south and west. By first-light we were nearing Georgetown where the Guanella Pass Road starts and the rain was already falling. Things looked grim, but we were determined to persevere. Amy's car is not in the best of health at any time even on level highway. The Guanella Pass Road was not much to its liking being steep and 'damaged'. The pavement gave way to dirt after about 5 miles and the going became somewhat worse. This would be no problem for a car with a fully-functional suspension and more than a few inches of ground clearance.
With great relief, we arrived at Guanella Pass and parked at the ample trailhead. It was gorgeous. The rain was very light now and the clouds appeared to be lifting. Huge mountain slopes (or at least the lower portions of them) bulked on all sides and whisps of cloud floated picturesquely through the air. To the east stretched a broad valley full of willows and a small lake. We saddled up and set off. The time was 8am and we were scarsely alone. Bierstadt is a very popular mountain and probably two dozen cars graced the trailhead. We could see at least that many people on their way up into the clouds. On a clear day, this place must be mobbed!
The Gerry Roach 14ers book gives ample warning about the Bierstadt willows but I was pleased to see them peacefully coexisting with a broad, muddy trail. We hiked gradually downhill for half a mile, crossed the creek on a set of large boulders and started up. After another half mile or so, the willows had given up and the going became steeper. The trail, however, was still good and switchbacked back and forth across the slope. The low clouds prevented much vision up the slopes of the mountain and we had no real idea how much farther we had to go. At length we reached the top of the steeper slope and were greeted by a broad swath of tundra stretching up into the clouds above.
The light rain had picked up a bit and was beginning to look suspiciously solid. The temperature had definitely dropped as well. In the next mile or so, we hiked up gradual trail steadily and easily gaining elevation. There was no longer any doubt on the snow/rain question and the flakes were coming down in 1-inch clumps at a 45-degree angle. The ground on either side of the muddy path was quickly becoming white and visibility was dropping. We were still warm and content, but conditions were definitely worsening. Downward-bound hikers looked pretty grim and reported that the ridgeline near the summit had an inch and a half on the ground already and near-zero visibility. The trail began to transition from mud to rounded boulders and I became concerned about footing. Ptarmigans flew past and could be seen scuttling around on the rocks near the trail. They, at least, were having no trouble up here.
There's no shame in turning back in weather like this, I though to myself. But it would be nice to have some definite point to gauge our partial success. Another hiker mentioned that the large cairn yonder was the 13,000' mark and we decided that this was a nicely tangible accomplishment and turn-around marker. It was a high-point for both Amy and I and gives us something to work towards next time.
We paused at the cairn for some food and rest and realized how cold it actually was. It was easily below freezing but our upward work had kept us oblivious to this fact! With one pair of gloves between us, we were rapidly getting dangerously cold hands. I ceded the gloves (they were mine, after all) to Amy and headed down. The soft, sticky snow made it an easy walk down and we made good time. In a few hundred yards, my hands had become very red and painful and gripping my hiking poles was an unpleasant option. I stowed the poles and discovered, to my horror, I had pretty much lost all manual dexterity. Even unclipping a fastex buckle was nigh-impossible! Very scary stuff. Gloves and hats are now standard hiking equipment in my book.
But we made it down without incident. Once back on the steep, lower slopes, the snow was lessened and the temperatures conciderably warmer. We made it back through the willows and back to the car by noon and were well-glad of it. Everything was sopping wet and it took a good bit of car heater to warm our chilled fingers enough to untie our boots. Amy had used the gloves on the way down and was in much better shape. We made her drive.
All in all, a good hike. Though we didn't achieve our goals, we showed more discretion than typical (for us) and have lived to hike another day. I look forward to seeing Bierstadt in better weather and making it beyond that cairn at 13,000'.
The Wilderness Journal