| Luck of the Draw
Leading up to this past weekend, I feel like I planned to hike about half of the fourteeners before landing on my actual choice – completely by chance.
First it was a Kit Carson / Challenger, freeze-your-butt off extravaganza, then a trek up San Luis, an adventure up Antero, a leg-burner up Holy Cross… you get the idea.
Having had most of the plans fall through for a myriad of reasons and feeling (perhaps under the influence) at 1:30 AM Saturday morning that I would not be complete if I did not get on a mountain of some sort later in the morning, I set my alarm for 5:45 and hoped that I would wake up.
I thankfully did wake up, and threw whatever I thought I would need in my pack with a couple nalgenes of water and ran out to the car – now at 6:15.
Driving to the mountains in sleet / hail / snow with low-ish visibility didn’t bode well for a climb, but I justified the trip by thinking I’d feel better even if all I got to do was a lap around Loveland pass in the car.
I always text a few people to let them know where I’ll be hiking, and I felt bad for them this morning. A sample of my texts:
6:42 AM – Looks ugly. Driving to Guanella Pass.
6:54 AM – Blue skies – gonna go make friends on Torreys
7:02 AM – Chng mind – Square Top Mtn A, Guanella Pass
I at least got the trailhead right. As I pulled up around 7:30, a sheriff vehicle was blocking the entrance. I spoke with him for a few moments and learned that a hiker had gone missing on Bierstadt the day before, and that SAR teams were out looking for him.
As an aside, reading stories of people lost, injured, or worse on 14ers but never having experienced (thankfully) any of the sort in my hikes, I have wondered how I would react in such a situation. I always hoped that if I could ever do anything to help, I would. Granted, this time was on an the easy slopes of a well-traveled mountain, and in all likelihood the only thing I could contribute without getting in the way was an extra pair of eyes, but the knowledge that I could at least try to help was important to me – my plans switched again. Good morning Bierstadt!
Bierstadt in the morning.
It was a nice, cool morning on the way through the willows and up to the shoulder. Nothing was too icy (except the rocks in the creek crossing – step carefully!) and I made my way to the shoulder quickly and without the need of traction. Along the way, I heard one of the search and rescue teams moving through the willows. I couldn’t hear their words, but I recognized laughter and hoped that this meant good news.
A look West.
Then the breeze hit. I was well equipped for cold with a beanie and several layers covering my torso, arms, and legs, but mittens would have been welcome! My hands and uncovered cheeks, and nose were freezing! I quickly improvised putting my thicker (crappy $15 gloves) over my thinner running gloves and tied a bandana around my face. Problem solved.
The trail was intermittent snow and dirt and continued up to the ridge without any need for traction. The snow was almost entirely powder and never deeper than a few inches – soft and grippy!
If you look closely, you can see the clouds below us in the distance. Cool sight!
I passed a few groups of experienced hikers taking friends up their first 14er (good work guys and gals!) and made it to the summit a bit before 10 where I could hide from the wind.
I had seen no sign of the missing hiker, and once again, I prayed he would be okay. The rest from the wind was nice, but I couldn’t imagine spending the night up there!
I tried and failed to take a few self, summit photos and got some help from a group that arrived right behind me.
For your entertainment:
Self Summit Portrait fail.
Thank you Team Bierstadt!
Ready to face the wind again, I donned by bandana – Old West Convict Style – and began my trek down.
Snow was sparse on the ridge
It was after I descended the summit pitch that I learned a very valuable lesson: Breath is very humid. Breathing into a cotton bandana in sub-20 degree temps with a 25 + mile per hour wind creates a fascinating phenomenon: a Frozen Bandana.
I ripped off the bandana, tucked it in my pocket hoping it would melt, and descended as fast as I could hoping for relief from the wind. Thankfully, the relief came, and I was able to not be too miserable on the way down.
Zoomed in view of Grays and Torreys
I passed a few more groups coming up as I descended, including one that informed me that SAR had found the missing hiker alive! From what I understand, he spent the night in Jeans on the South side of Bierstadt. Not sure how he ended up there, but I was incredibly relieved that the hiker had been found and was alive and well.
It’s also worth pointing out that, on a beautiful Saturday, there were maybe 12 people on Bierstadt that I hiked by including SAR. It is such a different experience to climb it now as opposed to the middle of the summer (when I first climbed it). Definitely worth a morning if you can get up there now!
Shortly after learning the good news of the hiker’s safe recovery, I discovered that hiking up snow is significantly less slippery than hiking down it – especially if it has melted and refrozen in spots. After falling like a complete fool twice, I put on my microspikes and was reminded why they are the best invention known to man (at least when it comes to times like these).
It was so cold that my Nalgene iced over!
I got back to the car around 11:45 and drove back into the dreary mists of Denver, my need to be in the mountains cured, and I couldn’t help but reflect on how good we’ve got it out here. To be blessed with beautiful mountains on our doorstep, less than an hour and a half from home… it doesn’t get much better than this.
Bierstadt from just below the top of Guanella Pass.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):