Mt. Bierstadt in Winter: Ten Lessons

27 Feb 2005 - by Rolf Asphaug

My neighbor buddy Rod and I decided to try a winter trip to this popular Front Range fourteener. Rod had never climbed a fourteener in winter and was really interested in doing so. The recent story about a CMC instructor who'd been lost on the peak for two days caused us to be a little more cautious. When two others we'd invited along couldn't make the trip, Rod and I almost canceled our plans, but instead we decided to go up to Guanella Pass and see how the day was looking. If the weather seemed okay and other parties were on the peak, we decided we'd probably go ahead; otherwise wed just bop around the flats on our snowshoes.

LESSON ONE: Realize that the pull of a summit is almost irresistible the closer you are to it. Once we got to Guanella Pass, we would probably have gone for the summit unless there truly were whiteout conditions from the very start. Had there been no other parties and a whiteout on the way down, this could have been a far more 'interesting' day. Given the fact that Rod had only been up a handful of fourteeners before, all in summer, it would have been much safer for us to have had one or two more people with us. No doubt some people reading this will consider us risky for having started out in the first place.

Conditions were clear with no wind and we started out from the Pass about 8 am up a well-established, compacted trail through the snow. When the trail reached the Scott Gomer Creek flats, an established snow trail veered northward (to ascend Mt. Evans). I started looking for signs of the normal Bierstadt trail that instead would continue east, but just then a party of three showed up and convinced us that there was an easier route up Bierstadt, avoiding the worst of the willows, by heading north a little ways and then southeast. We followed them, but it turned out they were merely guessing and there was in fact no established trail. We had a good hour or two of very strenuous trailbreaking through deep snow and willows before we finally joined up with the main trail again. (The extreme difficulty of breaking trail through these snowy willows reinforced the wisdom of that lost hiker in staying put for two days.)

LESSON TWO: Don't take assurances by other parties as gospel truth. Ask questions. Remember all those off-route cairns you see everywhere on peaks? They were also made by people who were sure they knew the best way. I had been on Bierstadt numerous times before, including snowshoeing in May, and I should have stuck with my plan and looked a little harder for the 'right' trail. It was there for me to find, if only I hadn't been persuaded otherwise by people I didn't know who were very confident - and very wrong.

After our willow-bashing ordeal, Rod noted that his t-shirt was sopping wet. I didn't realize until much later that he was wearing a cotton t-shirt. It never dried and probably caused him to feel much colder later in the day.

LESSON THREE: When traveling with someone newer to the backcountry, remind and re-remind them of basic gear rules, such as avoiding cotton undergarments. Do a gear check before the trip - at home, if possible. Rod had heeded my advice about having warm clothes, including a balaclava and heavy gloves, but he hadn't worn a synthetic t-shirt because he simply didn't own one. I could easily have lent him one of my own had we discussed this before we left home. This problem likely led to others higher on the mountain.

We continued snowshoeing up the much easier trail, reaching the 'headwall,' as the steeper portion of Bierstadt between 12,000 and 12,200 feet is sometimes rather melodramatically called, and then moving onto the broad west slopes between 12,200 and 13,000 feet. This slope can be a snowshoer's or skier's dream in the right conditions. Beyond about 13,000 feet the terrain got rockier and steeper. The weather was getting worse, with stiff winds, overcast conditions and some snow showers, but it didn't cause me much concern. I really enjoyed having my GPS unit, where I'd programmed in a route from a handy little book that lists waypoints for Colorado fourteeners. However, about now I began to realize that my GPS would have been even handier had I also marked the waypoints of our ACTUAL route along the way, since the winter route can vary somewhat from the standard one. This would have provided even more comfort level and assurance of a quick downclimb in case of a total whiteout.

LESSON FOUR: If you are using a GPS receiver and your actual route may vary from preplotted waypoints, be sure to leave 'e-breadcrumbs' along the way - especially if there is the possibility of a whiteout!

We reached the summit ridge and began picking our way over talus to the top. I tried to walk between rocks with my snowshoes, so that our trail back down would be easier to follow in case of a whiteout. On the way back down, I was amazed at how quickly our tracks had become obscured - even with relatively moderate winds and with no snowfall.

LESSON FIVE: It never hurts to try to leave a visible trail in snow, but never depend on finding it. We didn't, and I'm glad we didn't.

I had checked occasionally to see how Rod was doing, and he seemed fine. However, about 200 vertical feet below the summit, Rod stopped following me and ducked behind a boulder. I saw a bare hand for a bit as he was fumbling with something. He resumed climbing but seemed a little slower. He told me he'd had to take a "Number 2" pit stop. It turns out that Rod had started feeling nauseous and had a 'bad case,' but he didn't want to stop our climb. A little ways further on, another party of two heading down from the summit passed by, and one of them warned us that Rod's left nostril was white (he hadn't covered his nose with his balaclava). I hadn't noticed that.

LESSON SIX: Don't forget to check on your companions regularly, especially in cold weather or rough conditions. I had read many times about the importance of checking climbing partners for frostnip in cold weather, but had forgotten to do so in this case.

We continued moving along slowly, scrambling over rocks and passing Beirstadt's false summit, until at 2 pm we were no more than 15 vertical feet and 50 feet walking distance from the true summit. At that point I saw that Rod had stopped, and I asked him how he was doing. He said he wasn't feeling good. I asked him if he wanted to go on, pointing out how close the true summit was, and he said no. I realized then that given his drive to make this summit, he must be feeling pretty awful indeed to want to stop so close to the top! I gave him some of my water since it was more accessible, and we immediately started to head down. I checked on him about every two minutes as we picked our way down the rocks, and Rod was close to unresponsive: Several times he stood passively, looking doggone miserable, while I put my insulated water hose to his mouth and adjusted his balaclava and goggles. I became a little concerned, and considered shouting, whistling, or hitting my ski poles together to seek help from the other party of two who were still close enough to hear us. I decided against it both because Rod appeared to rally and because the going down got easier: we could now easily and rapidly snowshoe down snowfields that had been too soft to afford our snowshoes purchase on the way up.

LESSON SEVEN: This was when it really hit me: My friend Rod and I were alone on top of a fourteener in the middle of winter, and one of us was really hurting. Given that the temperature back at our car at 4 pm was only 16 degrees, it seems likely that the temperature at the summit at 2 pm was close to or below zero, not even counting the considerable wind chill from the strong winds we were encountering. I didn't feel we were ever in true danger, but we definitely had a diminishing margin for safety. Throw one or two more problems into the mix - a sprained ankle, a broken binding, the onset of whiteout conditions, or Rod getting even worse - and we would have had an epic struggle even with the two other climbers nearby. At all times on the way up I had kept "checking in" with myself and kept asking whether I felt comfortable with the decision to summit, but in retrospect I may have been cutting things too close.

Predictably, as we descended Rod began to improve. He didn't have a headache, just nausea and weakness. He believed that rather than experiencing true altitude sickness, he may have been just physically and emotionally exhausted. He mentioned that he hadn't wanted to go the final few feet because he thought it looked dangerous. By then he had seen the sharper dropoffs on the southeast slopes of Bierstadt. To me, even though I'm afraid of heights, they didn't even register as a concern, but to a relative newcomer like Rod they undoubtedly seemed ominous. He also didn't realize - because I hadn't thought to tell him - that we would not need to downclimb all those rocks we had so laboriously climbed up in our snowshoes.

LESSON EIGHT: Always try to look at challenges from the perspective of everyone in your hiking party. A simple scramble to a more experienced hiker may seem hair-raising to a novice. Explain obstacles and how you intend to avoid or mitigate them. In this case, Rod's anxiety about the terrain no doubt added to his overall distress.

As we descended to the broad slopes, the sun came out, the wind died down, and we took a nice break to eat some food and relax. Rod noted that his t-shirt was still wet. I realized that instead of altitude sickness, Rod very likely had been developing hypothermia. His hands and feet were reasonably OK because he was using chemical warmers as well as thick gloves. But overall, his core may have been having problems with the cold. Add to that the increasing stress levels and fatigue, and Rod may well have been at the early stages of hypothermia while at the summit.

LESSON NINE: Cold weather, wet clothes, altitude sickness, fatigue and fear can work individually or in concert to sap the strength of, or even incapacitate, a hiker. Be aware that just because one element may seem relatively minor ('He's only a little bit cold'), it can magnify other problems.

As we were relaxing, Rod noticed that the sky to the south of us had turned ominously dark: a full-fledged snowstorm seemed to be brewing. We rustled ourselves up and continued downhill to the flats. Luckily the wind blew the stormclouds away from us, and the rest of the return trip to the car was long and tiring but uneventful. Because visibility was good, we were able to follow established tracks through the nasty willows. Every time we varied even slightly from the established tracks, our poles or snowshoes plunged deep into unconsolidated snow on top of willows.

LESSON TEN: Don't let your guard down towards the end of a challenging trip. Had the snowstorm hit us on the far side of the flats from our vehicle, we would still have been far from safety with a still-weakened hiker, and we might have had a great deal of trouble picking our way through the willows in a whiteout.

I was very happy to summit (because I do consider it a summit in all but the technical record-keeping sense)a fourteener in true winter for the first time in over 15 years. This was my 7th time up Bierstadt, and by far the most memorable. I was very impressed with the stamina and grit of my buddy Rod (whom I nicknamed 'Beck' in honor of his frostnipped nose). I hope that others will profit from some of the lessons we learned the hard way.

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