This was technically not a winter ascent, but was under winter conditions. It was my first 14er under such conditions, and it ended up being a bit harder than it should have been because of a few mistakes. But still a great experience. Sorry, not many pictures – I’ll include more on future climbs.
My friend Maria and I got a somewhat late start. We were undecided on our hike for the day, and decided to head for Guanella pass and decide when we got there. We took the southern approach, and parked at the road closure just south of Duck Lake. We started about 10:30. Sunny and not too cold – probably about 40 degrees.
The first part of the hike was an easy climb up the road to the pass, about 1 1/2 miles to the pass on packed snow. When we got to the pass we were feeling great. With Bierstadt looming before us, we decided to go for it. We had tried Bierstadt in January, but turned back at 13,000 feet because of a late start and high winds.
The first part of the trail is somewhat down hill towards the Willows. Still packed snow, so we didn’t put our snowshoes on. As we started through the willows, we passed some people on the way back who had already summitted. They warned us of some high winds.
We kept going through the willows, occasionally post holing. Why we delayed putting on our snow shoes I have no idea. That was our first mistake, unless you count the late start as a mistake. After the trail started ascending, we put our snow shoes on. Much better. As we approached the shoulder we encountered a stretch of bare ground and took the snow shoes off. We reached the shoulder, and put our microspikes on.
The trail from that point starts out fairly moderate,but steepens quickly. There was way too much snow on the ground to see the actual trail. We followed the tracks of the people who had already summitted. Unfortunately, they took an overly direct/steep line which would get us in minor trouble later. For now, we started trudging up the steep slope, pretty much on a direct line for the summit. Still snow on the ground; packed, but even with microspikes, it slowed us down. This was the first part of the hike that felt hard. The wind was also stronger, though not as bad as it had been in January.
Eventually we got into a boulder field below the summit. If we had planned better, we would have avoided this. One of the popular web sites which describes winter ascents of Bierstadt specifically warns against getting too far to the left & in to the boulders on the ascent. We did end up veering to the right, but too little too late. It wasn’t dangerous, it just required extra energy that we didn’t have at that point.
Finally we hit the summit ridge. It was easier from that point – all we needed to do was avoid the cornice on the south side. Plunging through a cornice to our deaths would have put a damper on the day.
Finally we summitted. It was worth it – we could see forever. And it’s only this time of year that one has the summit of a 14er to one’s selves. Joy. Maria on the summit:
After refueling and taking in the view we looked at the time. 4:20 – yikes!!! It was colder too, below freezing (our water tubes froze – next time, we won’t just rely on the Camelbacks) We headed down the mountain. Much faster, even though I was dragging a bit (didn’t bring enough food, and probably didn’t hydrate enough). We took a better line down the mountain, avoiding the boulder field. We still hit a pretty steep section, but we were able to glissade part way down.
Before hitting the willows, we finished our food – that helped me a lot. Some post holing (me, not Maria) through the willows despite using our snowshoes – the sun had made the snow a lot softer. Post holing can be a real energy suck. Then uphill to the pass, and finally an easy hike down the road to our car, though we were exhausted by that point.
We got to the car just after 8 pm. A LONG day on the mountain. Wonderful experience, with some lessons learned for next time. The BIG lesson – climbing a 14er in the winter (or very early spring) is a lot harder than during the summer!