Mt. Bierstadt: Simple, Right?
(Guanella Pass TH to Bierstadt Summit.)

1 Jun 2003 - by Russell Harding

My girlfriend Angi and I left Boulder at 6 am. It was a bit overcast in Boulder, with partly cloudy skies and a forcast high of 75. As soon as we crested Guanella Pass, the clouds had cleared to the west, and it looked like we were in for a great hike. It was pretty warm at the trailhead when we arrived at 7:45, I'd say about 45 degrees. Although we had a lot of warm clothes packed, it seemed like it would only be extra weight to haul up to the summit.

About 50 yards down the well marked trail the mud began. There was a lot of water around, and the boardwalks were only covering about 5% of the standing water. When we reached Scott Gomer creek, it was swollen and filled right up to the grassy bank. After an exciting crossing of a 3" diameter log, we continued up the trail through muddy willows. As we began up the foot of Bierstadt, the trail became snowy and icy in spots, but nothing good hiking boots couldn't handle.

As we left the willows, the trail became quite steep. After cresting the ridge, we could really see what a differnce the 400 vertical feet made in the view. Also, we noted the peaks to the west had become obscured by clouds, a bit of an ominous sign.

By 10am we had reached 13,000 feet and the summit had just become obscured by clouds. The temperature had cooled somewhat from the trailhead, but no more than could be expected by the elvation gain. The broad western face of Bierstadt had some large patches of consolidated snow which had to be negotiated. None was steep or icy and no extra gear was required. As we neared the last push up to the summit at 13,900 feet, I saw the first snowflake.

Our view from the summit was clearly ruined by the clouds, but the snow was light and winds were calm so we continued up the last section. The last bit of Bierstadt is steep and rocky with little dirt. This is a bit of a boulder scramble, so it is rated Class 2. With the snow falling, the rocks were a bit wet. After a moderate climb we reached the summit. We stayed on the rocks, but there was a good snow route along the edge of the southern part of the ridge.

After a short, cold lunch at the summit, we began to head down. As we left our protected lunch spot, we realized the weather had deteriorated significantly. The rocks were now covered in about 1/2" of snow and ice. We opted to take the snow route down from the summit along the precipice of Bierstadt's southeastern face. Fortunately, we carried ice axes and were happy to have them while decending the steep snowfield. By the time we had reached the saddle at 13,900', the snow was falling heavily and there were very strong winds. Visibility had dropped to only 20 feet. Needless to say, we were in a blizzard.

The temperature dropped to around 10 degrees and the wind was still blowing. Angi's glasses had gone from foggy, to water droplets, and now to ice. After a few hundred feed of negotiating the rocky decent, she opted to simply remove them. At this point, I was a bit concerned because our progress was quite slow and It had become very cold. With no visual landmarks, I used my compass to make sure we were decending the route we had ascended on.

After about an hour of slowly trudging through snowfields and snow covered rocks while shielding our eyes from the harsh blowing snow, I caught a glimpse of the sawtooth to the east. Within another half an hour, the snow had stopped and the cloud cover had broken. We were amazed to see the landscape around us had completely changed. All the peaks within view were now covered in about 3" of new snow.

We decended through the fresh snow and copious new mud. There were two other climbers on the summit with us, and a large group which had been turned around by the weather. Although the weather had cleared, another group was turned around merely by the narrative of a climber from the large group.

We finally arrived back at the trailhead at 1pm, about five hours after our departure. Overall, the trip was a success. It certianly reminded me you can never have too much gear, and be sure to pay close attention to weather changes.

The larger group of climbers I mentioned above ... read to get their side of the story.

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