Mt Bierstadt

1 Jun 2003 - by Rolf Asphaug

This trip was a lesson in changing weather conditions. We started our trip in shorts and t-shirts, but were stopped from reaching the summit by a blizzard that had even the experienced climbers in our group rather worried for a while.

My pictures don't begin to depict the weather at its worst.

Two weeks ago I summitted Mt. Bierstadt after snowshoeing over deep drifts of snow. The willows were almost totally covered, and a 10-foot wall of snow blocked the road to Guanella Pass about a mile from the pass itself. On Sunday 6.1.03 I led a CMC trip to Mt. Bierstadt, but this time the road to the pass was totally clear, and the willows were completely free of snow. It's amazing what a few days of warm weather can do to the snow -- and it's understandable why all the snowmelt is now threatening to inundate parts of Georgetown.

We had a great group of very capable and pleasant hikers. Among others, Dave was a Wilderness Trekking School instructor and CMC trip leader; Dorothea had climbed Bierstadt about a dozen times before and had climbed about 250 of Colorado's highest peaks; and everyone else was well equipped and ranging from reasonably fit (I count myself in that category) to superbly conditioned.

We started hiking at 7:20 am, and as usual I wished we'd gotten an earlier start. Clouds were developing even before we reached Scott Gomer Creek. The road, parking lot (upper and lower), and trail were virtually free of snow. The trail was extremely muddy in places.

The creek had much more water than usual. Some of our party of ten did a balancing act using a 4-inch-wide log over a deep but narrow part of the creek, while others of us preferred to take off our boots and socks and wade across.

After the creek we simply followed the usual trail with no complications until we reached approximately 12,000 feet. At that point it became clear that while most in our party had the same natural pace, one person was slower and had recently traveled to Colorado from sea level -- making it possible if not likely that she would not be able to summit this day, especially given the weather conditions. Because we had several experienced CMC-certified trip leaders in our group, and because it was apparent that reaching the summit was less "important" to some of our group than others, I elected to ask the group if they wanted to split into a faster and slower group. All agreed, and we split into a group of 6 (faster) and 4 (slower).

Note: I would only consider doing this on a trip with a relatively easy route, with reliable participants and leaders, with general concurrence, and with very clear instructions on when to meet up and what to do in an emergency. It's also important to make it clear that there will be no further "splitting of the split." Also, I would not want to have fewer than 4 people in each group. As will become clear, even with all these precautions I later wondered whether I'd made the best choice. I was with the slower group - I wanted to make sure that I'd be there if our slower participant had altitude problems.

At about 13,000 feet the clouds that had been steadily building really socked us in, creating a near-whiteout. At about this point the upper group, led by Dave, waited for the lower group to catch up. Dave knew that the lower group had two GPS units, and he wanted to borrow one just in case. A smart move, as things turned out.

After the groups split up again, it began to snow. Hard. In fact, it was an out-and-out blizzard, obscuring the trail, driving horizontally, and covering everything in snow. We could see nothing except a few dark rocks above and below us. Our group of four continued upward, hoping for a break in the weather, until 13,450 feet, at which point we decided to pack it in. We hadn't yet reached the "saddle" of sorts that led to the summit ridge.

I had been relying on my Suunto wrist altimeter/compass, and was intending to follow back bearings to make sure that we were going down in about the right direction. To my dismay I realized that the compass was totally worthless - regardless of which way I turned, the reading remained roughly the same. It wasn't that big a deal - there were no cliffs or other dangerous terrain anywhere around. But it was an eye-opener. One of our group had a regular compass available and I used that instead (my own backup compass was buried at the bottom of my pack - I'll remember to keep it more handy in the future). I've now heard that Suunto compasses need to be recalibrated from time to time.

We were getting very cold, and because we couldn't find the trail we were post-holing in deep patches of snow from time to time. I was thinking that if this kept up for the rest of the day, this could be a real epic - who'd have thought that gentle Bierstadt would be the location for "a trip for the books"? We had on every bit of clothing, but, lulled by the forecasted warm weather, only one of us (not me) had goggles, and with the snow blasting in our faces as we headed downwards we all wished we had them. We were all very cold.

Now I Now I was worried about the upper group. How far had they gotten? Were they doing okay? Would we meet up with them again? This was one of those situations where, if anyone slipped and badly sprained an ankle or broke a limb, a very serious situation could suddenly be at hand due to the weather.

Thankfully, there was a break in the weather and we could see more of the route below. Then, looking up, we could barely see our six companions scrambling as fast as they could down the slopes. When Dorothea came close I said, "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?"

It turns out that the upper group hadn't summitted either -- they were driven back by estimated 50-60 mph sustained wind about 300 feet from the top. Like my group, they were very cold, and the winds had been so strong that they could barely hear each other.

Naturally, as soon as we'd gotten down the peak a ways, to about 12,500 feet, the weather cleared up again, and we looked longingly up at Bierstadt. But there continued to be clouds all around, and no one suggested we turn around and try again.

The rest of the trip back was uneventful. Several experienced hikers in our group felt that this was one of the worst weather episodes they'd experienced, in terms of rapid change from warmth to a blizzard, and I certainly agreed. In the evening I got a call from a solo hiker who had joined up with our top group and expressed appreciation for being able to go with them for a while - she felt she could have been in serious trouble had she not linked up with them.

This trip was a reminder to: (1) ALWAYS take along enough gear to survive a blizzard, even in the summer, including goggles. (2) Never take any high peak for granted, not even a gentle mountain like Bierstadt. (3) Think about all the "worst case scenarios" before making decisions along the way. (4) Plot and enter important GPS waypoints in advance, if possible. I didn't use my GPS because it was too cold and miserable for me to slow down to enter more waypoints. (There's a new book out that gives critical GPS waypoints for Colorado 14ers; I believe it's published by Prius Press?)

I don't mean to overdramatize this day. It was a typical day on a fourteener: Good weather, bad weather, good weather.

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