Monday, March 12, 2012
Plan B: Winter Bierstadt
After Saturday's fun and sunny Salida Marathon, I was looking to do get up high Sunday morning. It's almost the end of winter, and I hadn't been up any 14ers, which is a shame in this low snow year.
Since I was already in the Sawatch, something down there made more sense. By Friday, I was leaning heavily towards Antero, as the weather forecast was very favorable, with sunshine, 30-degree temps, and low winds. I didn't bring my skis or any sort of flotation, expecting to stick to running a packed trail. My legs felt fine after the race, so it seemed like a good opportunity.
But as the afternoon wore on, various details piled together that convinced me to scrap that plan. The biggest part was the updated weather forecast: sustained 20-30mph winds, gusts up to 45mph. Ugh. I still drove up toward Mt. Princeton Hot Springs to check things out, and saw the snow still piled up in the trees below the trailhead. Finally, there was a ridge section on the final summit push that had some Class 3 (because the trail was covered in snow) and possibly traversing a short section of snow field. Putting this together, I would have to slog a bit up until treeline (though I did read it was mostly packed), be exposed to the wind for several hours, and have to bring my ice ax with me the entire way for a couple of spots. Frankly, I'd had enough of the wind this year, and when several factors start piling on together (in addition to being fatigued and solo), I began to realize there was a chance of not summiting and not having sufficient fun.
(Note: Later I read that it was a 13-hour day for one guy on Saturday, which had perfect weather. But also, Mt. Princeton via Tigger was perfectly packed and mostly dry on Saturday, meaning the only factor would have been possible wind. That would have been the best option.
So I aborted that plan, and came up with Plan B: Mt. Bierstadt. This is an appropriate emergency backup option because I've considered Bierstadt to be an abortion of a mountain. I've previous called it an "ugly, unspiring, and bulbous mass," and the summer finds it loaded with bucket-listers and tourist gapers, with not a moment for silent reflection between the crowded parking lots and toilets below and the mass above. But it would at least be uncrowded* and relatively safe for a winter ascent, and be closer to home so I could get back in town early in the afternoon instead of late at night. (*Hypocritically, the popularity, even in winter, helps pack down the trail through the willows so that I did not need flotation. Yes, I'm quite aware of this irony, and thankful for the previous hikers).
So I pulled up Guanella Pass and drove to the closure, joining one other parked car, and then slept for the night.
Being Daylight Savings Time, I woke up an hour later, by government decree, yet no more refreshed. Another few cars had assembled, and I saw 2 parties take off, as I leisurely got ready, heating up some water for oatmeal and coffee. Hmmm, it's cloudier than I expected... I met another couple getting ready to head out, and noted their Packer hats, chatting with them briefly about our shared homeland. While I wasn't adorned in any Packer paraphernalia, I did have my blaze orange facemask, which is about as common in Lambeau Field crowds in November as green or gold.
Fittingly, as we headed off, it began to snow.
I jogged lightly up the road, about 2 miles from the Guanella Pass trailhead. This extra credit jog would mean about 10 miles on the day, and put us over 3000 feet of gain total, which is another pleasant reason to head up here in winter.
Near the parking lot, I saw the group of 3 women that headed out about 20 minutes before me on snowshoes, and the solo gentleman who was crossing the willows. I chatted with him briefly before heading onto the trail.
The willows are infamous, and Gerry Roach has a hilarious take on them in his classic 14ers book. Apparently, there's a significant improvement with boardwalks through some of the boggier areas. In the winter, the reality is deep snow and postholing. However, on this day, with more recent traffic than snow, the trail was in prime condition. Stepping off to the side would lead to waist-deep snow, but postholing was otherwise avoidable. The willows weren't a problem at all.
After this flat section, we began more actual climbing, as the trail proper switchbacked upward. The wind was picking up more now, from the southwest, blowing small pellets of snow and stinging my eyes. I had planned on sunglasses combined with balaclava and facemask to be sufficient, but had no excuses for not having brought goggles instead.
Visibility was now getting poor, and I used the occasional posts to spot the trail, but soon enough the trail itself wasn't clear. I've read about mistakes of returning too deep into the drainage, so I occasionally turned around and made out the view as best I could of the descent, knowing that my footsteps would be obscured by the wind. I saw another hiker up above, greeted him briefly, and headed on -- shortly after that, I never saw him again, so I questioned my choice of route.
After climbing for a bit, I saw a party of 2 up ahead. I couldn't tell which direction they were headed, but I headed towards them, and a large cairn behind them, suggesting I was still at least near the route. They were now descending, and I asked how it was up there. "We just went up to the cairn," they said, "and decided to turn around, since we can't see anything." I agreed that it wasn't a bad idea, but kept on, and they told me to be careful.
That made me feel a bit more lonely. The summit itself was nowhere near to be seen, but hey, It's just Bierstadt. I still didn't need my microspikes, but slipped a bit on the snow. On one spot, I feel face first and landed squarely on my water bottle, which jammed against my ribs. I decided to stop at the next large rock, add a later of clothes, and put on the spikes.
The wind was not excessive or gusty -- maybe 20mph sustained -- but consistent and cold enough that 20 seconds of skin exposure would mean another couple of minutes of jamming my hands into my armpits or crotch to warm them up again, just so I could fumble with things like zippers. I eventually got everything in order and headed up into the great white unknown.
Finally, I the terrain was noticeable larger talus, and I recognized the final ridge, with a large windbreak and several large cairns. There's a short section of class 2 here, but it was a bit more fun and motivating to be near the top, while peering over the cornices and dropoffs to the right.
Soon enough, I was on an empty summit:
The views toward the Sawtooth weren't ideal, but in a way looked even more forbidding in the snow:
After warming up my hands from taking pictures, I began heading down, and noticed the views to the west were actually opening up:
I've already seen, and evangelized, the fact that the views in that direction are better from Square Top Mountain, and now I can say with certainty that Square Top is also hands-down a more enjoyable and scenic hike than the Bierstadt standard trail.
But, I've softened a bit on Bierstadt as a whole. The Sawtooth certainly looks like a fun route, and the views in that direction from the summit are an enjoyable treat. Bierstadt can be a fun, light winter-mountaineering trip in the winter, as well as sunrise/sunset/full moon hikes. Or, just chilling out and being leisurely or goofy in the summer, I imagine. It's still a nice area, so I could see coming back for Wilcox/Argentine, Grey Wolf/Spaulding, and other such loops.
Now, as I descended, the weather became markedly improved. The wind nearly stopped, and felt warmer when it did blow. Occasional sun replaced snow, and I could have kept my gloves off the entire time and still been comfortable. What a significant change in conditions in about an hour. I could make out the Packer duo headed up the mountain still -- glad they pressed on toward an even better weather window. We chatted briefly and they asked how the summit was, so I did a discount double-check Aaron Rodgers touchdown move. Then I bounded down the mountain some more in Microspikes, feeling much more alive in the better weather. As I descended, I did notice my ribcage hurt even more than it did before, especially when taking deep breaths or bending or twisting. That could have been more serious, and still hurts today, but seems to be getting better. What a lame injury, and I think I'll store my water bottle in a different place and try not to fall.
Bierstadt. Did I really just type a whole Blog entry on it? I guess I did.