I climbed my seventh and eighth 14ers today — giving me six in a three-day period — but when I think back on this hike, they will be but a footnote. The highlight, the main event, was climbing the ridge between Bierstadt and Sawtooth.
After a long but fairly mellow 3.5-mile ascent up Bierstadt (14,060 ft) from Guanella Pass, I readied myself mentally for the challenge. After a brief snack and some pictures on top of Bierstadt, I began the descent down toward the saddle between the peaks, following the cairned route to the east of the highest part of the ridge. The first half hour of the hike was simply a difficult descent down rocks, sand and scree. If I slipped, I wouldn’t have fallen hundreds of feet. Down to my right lay beautiful, sparkling Abyss Lake. It looked more appetizing than the ‘tooth. I tried not to let my mind wander.
As I neared the saddle, I gradually made my way to the west and the top of the ridge. Before me stood a huge gendarme — or tall steeple of rocks. Following the directions, I found the skinny path that sloped around the gendarme to my right. I then reached the based of a gully, where I began my steepest climbing of the route. Utilizing handholds and carefully plotting each step, I made my way up toward the ridge, then hooked another right, following cairns, before finally emerging on the sawtooth.
It was time for the ledges.
I sat down for a minute, ate a couple bites of my sunbutter sandwich and slurped some water. I needed energy and renewed focus on the ledges. Then I stood up, and hugging the right side of the two-foot-wide path, slowly made my way above the sawtooth and underneath the towering rocks above me to the northeast.
How dangerous was this? Well, I really would have had to slip in the wrong direction or take a really bad step. But if either had happened, there’s a decent chance I would have fallen hundreds of feet. I’ve been on some exposed ledges before, but this was the narrowest, most nerve-racking yet.
After maybe 50 yards, the path widened out, but didn’t become sturdier. What I worried about most were the sand and loose rocks. It’s easy to walk on rock slabs or packed-down dirt. This, though, was the kind of stuff you could easily slip on.
And this is when I made my navigational gaffe. Ahead of me lay a fairly steep dirt and loose rock ledge. I thought it might be the route, but I couldn’t locate a cairn on it. On the other hand, looking to my right — to the southeast and up from the sawtooth — I saw a cairn and mistakingly thought that was the trail. I scrambled and climbed my way up some 30 feet and then slowly walked along a ledge above the ledges I had just navigated. I thought I was getting somewhere.
At that moment, two other hikers — clearly more experienced on Class 3 terrain — came around the corner on the ledges. I watched as they navigated the loose rock and dirt with ease and started up the wide ledge that I had bypassed because of the lack of cairns.
Crap!, I thought.
To be honest, the Sawtooth to that moment had been difficult, but not beyond my expectations. I had handled the climbing and the ledges without a problem or complete confidence in myself. Going down from my wayward climb was the scariest part of an hour and 45 minutes since departing Bierstadt’s safe summit. For a minute, I found myself stuck on a ledge topped with loose rocks, wondering how I would get down from it and over to where I should have been all along.
But as I’d done all hike — and have become much better at with each solo trek I attempt — I reasessed, found a better route, and just a minute later was easily climbing up the correct ledge, reaching the easy talus rocks, and then gaining the summit.
I was exhausted. Delirious. Thirsty. I am usually good at navigating, but had made a could-have-been costly mental error (the route description had clearly said to “continue north toward the top of the ledge,” yet I had somehow gone east then south!).
From there, the hike over rocks along Evans’ west ridge was anticlimatic. It was far from easy rock-hopping, but after Sawtooth, I felt stronger taking on this Class 2 ridge scrambling.
The hike back to Guanella Pass from the summit of Evans was long and difficult. After retracing my route just east of Sawtooth, I cut off to the northwest and descended through a large field of grass and boulders until I reached the top of a gully that would take me down to the north of the Bierstadt trail I went up in the morning.
The reason for this route? There was no way I was taking on Sawtooth again!
The gully was steep, and it required careful footing, but there was an established trail. At its base, I was in a bog, and on one step, my right boot was fully submerged in mud. Nice! But I was able to stay on the trail, for the most part, through willows and more mud, and eventually connected with the Bierstadt Trail, as the route said would happen.
After soaking my feet in the creek — at less than 12,000 feet, it wasn’t nearly as cold as my experience at about 12,200 feet the day before and I was able to keep the feet in for over a minute — I returned to the parking lot after 8 hours.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):