Mt Bierstadt Summit Attempt, 14,061′ 13 Apr 1994

Objective: A winter ascent of Mt Bierstadt.

I woke up with a start at 0400, something was bothering me–I didn’t know if it was the wind screaming against the front of my house, the archaic “hook and ladder” lacing system on the Sherpa Snow claw snowshoes I was going to be using that day, or the fact that I still hadn’t finished my taxes that were due in two days.

We had been wanting to make a winter climb of a 14’er and had been talking about Mt Bierstadt as a good candidate. The weather looked like it would be pretty good for a try on Wed 13 Apr 94, so we made arrangements to take the day off from work and enjoy Colorado.

I rolled out of bed at 0430, showered, loaded my gear in my truck, and headed out. It was sunny, relatively warm, and quite windy. I picked up Bob (my climbing partner) at his house at 0545, and we picked up Tom (a friend of Bob’s) in Monument a little after 0600. We decided on the south approach to Guanella Pass out of Grant on US 285. We pulled into the parking area of Guanella Pass at 0815, and enjoyed the fantastic view of Mt Bierstadt and the Sawtooth Ridge from 11,669′. Then we got out of the truck…

The wind was blowing a fair gale, picking up snow and pelting our hands and faces. We quickly put on our snowshoes and gear and headed over a ridge toward Bierstadt to get down out of the wind. It was a little after 0830. The snow was firm during the early going and we soon warmed up as we crossed the valley to the base of the mountain. The area was absolutely beautiful, and we had it all to ourselves–the only sign of human activity was two sets of backcountry ski tracks made within the last day. As we crossed the bottom of the valley, the snow made a very audible “WHUMP” that definitely got our attention. There really was no avalanche danger in that location, it was just a large section of snow settling, but that sound will get your heart pumping. The going got harder as we got into the snow-buried willows, and we started to sink in two or three feet regardless of the snowshoes. We had picked out a rock outcropping at the base of a ridge where the snow stopped for the most part, and we worked to the east toward that. When we got there, we rested and snacked, cached our snowshoes, and hiked to the west up the ridge toward the summit.

The ridge was grassy snow pack to start, and mostly a rock and snow scramble as we gained altitude. The wind, which was at our backs as we climbed, got stronger and stronger as we got closer to 14,000′.

At times the gusts were strong enough to blow us off our feet as we scrambled the rocks. The view as we climbed was spectacular; the snow blowing off Squaretop Mountain was something to see. We stopped once to crouch behind some large rocks and get out of the wind. As we continued, Bob and Tom were climbing faster than I was, and moved out to a few hundred yards ahead, eventually disappearing behind a ridge above me. I reached a large flat area where I could see the summit, and found those guys behind a large rock. The wind was screaming. Crouching behind the rocks we yelled at each other to discuss the wind and the steepness of the final climb to the summit. Due to the severity of the wind gusts and the apparent discomfort of one of us to continue, a decision–albeit not a unanimous one–was made to descend. Our altimeter read 13,870′, 270′ short of the summit.

We made a rapid descent to the rocks where our snowshoes were cached–amazing how much easier it is going down a 14’er. After a short rest and some food, we began the trek back to where my truck was parked. The sun had softened the snow and we sunk in pretty deep a couple of times, with the snowshoes making it even harder to get out of waist-deep snow. The wind was still blowing hard across the valley, and it seemed very unfair that we had to snowshoe uphill to get back to the parking area–we were pretty beat! We got back to the truck between 1430 and 1445.

All in all it was a great day. We didn’t see a single person the entire time we were out. The lacing system on the Sherpa Snow claws actually worked pretty well. The 2 and 1/2 hour drive back to C-Springs was uneventful–we did see some large critters (bighorn sheep or young mountain goats?) as we approached Grant.

Author: Craig Girard