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.


  1. Water bottle to the rib cage = ouch. Been there, done that and suffered with bruised ribs for weeks after. You look like a Halloween axe murdered on the summit there. Scary shiat.

  2. Weeks? Crap. I read that timeframe online but was hoping it wasn't true, would you say that your running was affected? Mostly apprehensive about speed/breathing, I'll know more when I get out today but wondering about tomorrow AMs workout. It feels a little better today though after sleeping, if it keeps progressing at this rate I don't think St. Patty's would be affected.

  3. So I guess it's the lack of a bloody axe that separates the mere sports fan or 14er hiker from the psychotic?

    Antero is a long haul even in the summer jogging up a dry road, so I would say you made the right choice. I got pummeled by wind up there last year, so there's no way I'd go up there on a windy day again!

  4. Thanks Jeff, just took a look at your (and Tony's, via the link) Antero report. Sounded like you both hit an unpleasant wind in the summer, but it would be more enjoyable then, even with motorized traffic, than what I was prepared for yesterday. I have a mental checklist of risk factors (where risk can be as little as "not reaching the summit", which is still unpleasant enough), and it seems like the sum exceeded what could have been accomplished in <5-6 hours. (A report from Saturday, including skis and perfect weather, was ~13 hours). In other words, I was looking for a last bit of winter mountaineering -- without winter mountaineering. Cheap, I know.

    I left my ice ax in the car when I switched to Bierstadt, but I could imagine falling on it and getting it bloody; hence, a bloody axe *still* wouldn't preclude psychosis!

    Anyway, after looking at the summer reports: bring on the summer!

  5. Running affected? Yes, but not halted. Just really unpleasant and lingering. Not to be the bringer of doom, but it can take or day or two to really kick in.

  6. I agree...Squaretop is a great option. I've had its summit to myself when the Bierstadt lot is jammed. And, it's just a few feet shy of 14K, as I recall. Amazing what the magic 14 number does for a mountain.

    And, I can attest, the boardwalks help a lot. I slogged one summer through knee deep mud to help build and re-build some of them. Had to get a Forest Service permit to use battery operated drills, as I recall.

  7. I recall you saying that you were going to stay in the area to enjoy te nice weather - guess that didn't work out as planned!

    I can validate what Nick said about the water bottle to the ribs. It can take a few weeks to get over...

    Solid run at Salida, and always great chatting with you postrace!

  8. Thanks guys on the injury info. Dang it.
    NMP, definitely a solid race yourself (since I can't say it on your blog)! I was focused on Hardrock training yesterday: 14k feet without full use of lungs, and I hit my target on the ridge despite not seeing the trail or much more than 30-40 yards ahead for about an hour. It'll pay off in July...

    Jim, thanks for the work on the boardwalk! I hadn't thought about the usage of mechanical advantage for trail construction/maintenance, when it's not allowed for transportation. I can only imagine the mud though: there were a few small but avoidable patches on Square Top in spring a few years ago, with much less traffic.