Mt Bierstadt
(Guanella Pass)

10 May 2003 - by Kevin Craig

Despite the generally crappy conditions in town overnight, Dan B. and I decided to have a go at a short training hike so headed out to Georgetown with hopes of getting close to Guanella Pass. Heading up the hill, we found what we were hoping for: the weather got better the farther west we went - classic upslope/inversion weather. By the time we got the our starting point, it was snowing only lightly and the skies were partly sunny.

To end the suspense, you can get within about 1 mile of Guanella Pass from the Georgetown side, probably with a 2WD car (snow tires and front wheel drive would be a good idea). The road is well plowed to the power station after which there are big "ROAD CLOSED" signs. Some helpful soul moved these aside and some other samaritan blasted on through the snow bank created by the snowplows. Despite their protestations to the contrary, Clear Creek Co. has definitely been plowing past this point since the blizzard (lying schmucks). There was only an inch or so of new snow on the road on the way in, and most was melted out (to the dirt road) on our way down. Of interest, there were a couple of obvious slide paths across the road. For those interested, I definitely recommend getting up there for a look. It's very scary how little a slope it takes to produce a fairly destructive slide. Any trees that were across the road have been removed.

The plowed section of road ends abruptly at a switchback at 11,200 where the snow on the road suddenly becomes 4-5' deep. To clear it out, they'll definitely need to get in there with a front-end loader or rotary plow or some such. There's enough plowed out area for parking probably 6 or 8 vehicles if everyone is considerate.

We strapped on our snowshoes and headed up the bank at about 7:45 or so. There were plenty of low clouds and snow squalls hugging the surrounding peaks so I deemed there was a decent chance of being whited out at some point, so I fired up the GPS and started a new track. We walked up the road to the next switchback then struck out cross-country since everything was snow-covered and doing so saved some needless climbing (check your map, with snow, there's a cool way to get straight to the big lake from here with very little elevation gain.

So far, the day had been surprisingly calm which was a relief because it was pretty cool with high humidity. Once onto Scott Gomer Flats, we stuck out for the left-leading ramp that is the steepest part of the summer route. There was 2-3 inches of fresh soft snow on top of a very hard layer. We later found that the bonding between them was not terrific (nothing serious, just some little sluffs etc.) Nonetheless we would periodically encounter pockets of soft snow which made us glad we had our snowshoes on.

Starting up the ramp, we found pretty decent snow conditions so headed straight up the steep slopes to the right at the top of the ramp rather than contouring like the summer trail does (I hate side-hilling in snowshoes!). Once we had the peak in sight again, we headed straight for where the summit ridge rises from the shoulder and were able to stay on snow the whole way.

From about 12,700' on, the wind steadily increased until we had to take a break and put on insulating layers, winter gloves/mitts and goggles. By the time we reached the summit ridge, conditions had become truly fierce and we both started worrying about our fingers. Staying well back from the corniced ridge, we made our way toward the summit over steep snow steps that had just enough soft snow over crust to make them very slippery and difficult.

We finally reached the summit just about 3 hours after setting out - we had been on about a 2.5 hour pace, but the summit ridge really slowed us down. Fortunately, as is frequently the case on this peak, we were able to drop a short way over the east side where the wind was almost totally absent. We sat and had some lunch enjoying the views of the surrounding snow-bound peaks.

After lunch, we bundled back up and dove back into the wind. On the way down, we discovered that the wind had picked up on the entire mountain while we were up high (our entire track had been erased, even down low) and diminished as soon was we dropped down from the shoulder again (Mom Nature making sure we got our tough guy training in?)

For the first half of the descent, the light was very flat which made walking a bit of a challenge as it was hard to tell if the snow ahead of you was flat, sloping, hardpack or soft powder. Later things got better as the sun peaked out from behind the clouds and warmed things up a lot.

Though we never really needed it, I periodically checked the GPS on the way down and we re-traced our now-erased ascent path almost perfectly (despite using mostly dead-reckoning).

Arriving back at the flats, we stripped some layers and headed back for the truck. We stopped a few times to take in the quiet and solitude. This is the only time I've *ever* been on Bierstadt "alone" despite some very late climbs in the summer. We didn't see another human all day.

On the way back to the road, we found that what might have been a fox or some similar animal (tracks were too wind-blown, but definitely smaller than a dog) had checked out and used our track near treeline. Once on the road we saw that a skier had also used part of our track - we were breaking trail for everyone today it seemed from the road to the trail. Back at the truck by about 1PM, we packed up and headed home after some Subway subs in Gtown. All in all a great day of mountain solitude.

Rolf adds, one week later:

My good friend Michael and I were planning merely to scout the bottom part of the route in preparation for a Colorado Mountain Club hike I'm leading June 1st, but the day was so great that we got Energized and kept going and going and going...

For now, conditions appear to be the same as those reported by Kevin and Dan last weekend. The road is still closed at the same location, with big drifts that will definitely need a front-end loader or similar equipment to bust through. However, the route across the snow a little ways up the road is wonderful. I suppose it adds a mile each way, but then again you can still hike right across the tops of the willows, thereby maybe reducing distance.

A trail of sorts has developed across the snow, running to the north of the big pond. For now at least, you can cross the stream on snow.

Snowshoes or skis are absolutely recommended; we saw two hikers floundering even though they'd gotten an early start. Once the snow started warming up, we seemed to avoid breaking through as much by sticking to the trail where the snow was already compacted. We also saw two skiers with AT gear having a terrific time -- making me wish I'd taken my tele skis instead of snowshoes.

I also recommend an early start to avoid afternoon melting; we didn't start hiking until 8:30 and set a quite slow pace, reaching the summit at noon, but were fortunate to have cloud cover most of the day.

The Colorado Mountain Club-provided summit register appears to be in good shape for now, with plenty of blank pages. It'll probably fill up fast later in the summer, so if you're a CMC member and planning to visit Bierstadt later on, please contact the CMC Office at 303-279-3080 ext. 2 to get a replacement register.

To file a trip report, please fill in the Report Entry form or contact the webmaster.