Sunday, August 8, 2010

Mount Bierstadt and Mount Yale

At the beginning of this summer I set a goal of hiking 8 of Colorado's 14ers. Since June I have hiked 4, and with summer coming to a close I knew in my heart I would really need to step it up if I wanted to reach my goal. I decided that reaching that goal might mean that I would be on a solitary journey and if it came to that so be it. I have every Thursday through Sunday off at work this month so that would give me plenty of days to try and fit in as much hiking as possible. My friend Meghan had emailed me after the Kite Lake camping trip and said her and her husband Neil were attempting Mount Yale the next weekend so I told them to count me in. Knowing I had a free day off during the week however, I started researching which of the 14ers I could hike alone safely so I decided to attempt Mount Bierstadt on Thursday before camping this weekend.

The trail head for Mount Bierstadt begins at the crest of Guanella Pass (elevation 11,669ft) which is about an hour and a half from Denver. As always I went to my go to guide at to see the best trail route and what to expect etc. It's a good thing I did because I read that Guanella Pass was closed from the highway I-70 Georgetown side due to road construction so I had to take 285 to a small town called Grant and head up the pass from there. I ran into someone on the hike on my way down and he said he was getting such a late start because he didn't know the pass was closed from I-70 which cost him precious hours hiking. This is why you always want to do your homework ahead of time!

At the top of the pass was a parking lot which I assumed was the trail head (and turns out I assumed correct) but there were no immediate signs from the pass or in the parking lot indicating I was in the right place. I arrived about 7:15 and the parking lot had about 10 cars in it with some people in the lot with backpacks on that had just arrived; which indicated to me I was probably in the right spot. I set off for the trail head with my dog bebe and a few feet in saw the Park sign indicating the Bierstandt trail. I knew I would be crossing through the meadows which were full of willows and was warned from various websites it would be marshy. However, there were wooden bridges through this damp area and even though there was a stream crossing, I never got too damp or muddy. Waterproof boots, however, are a must have and I'm so glad I spent the extra money on a pair.

The trial was pretty straightforward and since you can see Bierstandt from the parking lot, I knew I couldn't get lost. From Guanella Pass it is approximately a 3 mile hike, with a climb of 2,391 feet. Even though I was hiking solo there were several other people on the trail which was comforting and I stopped for several breaks along the way. On the rocky upper regions of the mountain the route of the trail is marked by a series of cairns. Since I didn't see anyone in front of me to follow, I followed the cairns to the best of my ability but there were quite a few so I wasn't sure which way was the best to ascend to the top. When in doubt, keep going upwards, which is what I did until I finally summited around 10:30am.

(picture Bierstandt on the right with sawtooth in the middle)

Once at the summit I could have continued along the Sawtooth to reach Mount Evans but weather looked like it was moving in so, along with a father and his two kids who were up there, I began to descend. I actually hiked with this family the whole way down and had a great conversation with them. Hiking alone is quite a mind trip especially when you are summiting a 14er because you have to rely on yourself to keep going and not quit. While I enjoyed the beauty and solitude, I was grateful to have someone to keep me company besides my dog on the way back to my car. The total trip took me about 5 hours.

Mount Yale is also rated as a class 2 14er like Bierstandt but in difficulty it's ranked as moderate. It's one of the 9 14ers in the collegiate peaks and has gained popularity as a non-technical 14er (aka no ropes, helmets or other gear or skill needed) and it's often considered a "training" 14er for those who want to hike more difficult ones. Mount Yale is located in the the Sawatch mountain range which is home to 15 fourteeners and 14 centennial thirteeners; no other Colorado mountain range contains as many peaks above 13,800 ft. When hiking this range, there are a few things you can count on, long approaches, plenty of vertical, and endless class 2 hiking. Mount Yale is the eighth highest peak in the Sawatch Range and twenty-first in the state of Colorado.

Since I needed to drive to Buena Vista (about 2.5 hours away) to conquer this hike I decided to meet my friends Meghan and Neil on Friday night for dinner then camping in the Collegiate Peaks wilderness. We planned to get up at about 5:45am and hit the trail, which was near the campground, by 6 but ended up actually starting at 6:30. What can I say it's hard to get out of your sleeping bag when it's cold outside! We took the standard route which started at the Denny Creek Trailhead. The first three miles of the total 4.5 mile (one way) hike are very straightforward and through the wilderness area. There's lots of Aspens and Evergreen's and the Denny Creek runs through the trail which our dogs loved. This was the first 14er I have hiked where you were in the treeline for that long of a period of time which was a nice change. However, this just meant that we had more elevation to gain (4,000) in the long run.

After the treeline ends you reach a ridge and from here it just ascends straight up towards the top of Yale. Even from the base of the treeline you can't see the summit which can get discouraging if you like to have your goal ahead of you to keep motivated.
(picture: the views are starting to get better and better!)

The remainder of the hike from this point out was all loose rock on the trail which made it hard to hike up.

We had to take several breaks from here on out until we finally made it to the saddle at about 11:30am which was at about 13,800feet high. Only 396 more feet until the top! Unfortunately, we had a decision to make. Another group of people were at the saddle with their dogs and they said it was not safe for dogs to climb to the top. In fact, they had actually started up with their three and ended up having to carry them down. Since Meghan and Neil's dog Marley is a Great Pyrenees and weighs over 150lbs (and there's no way I would want to carry bebe down a bunch of loose rock even though she's only 35) we decided we'd have to leave them at the saddle. Marley wouldn't stay tied up so Neil volunteered to stay and let us summit the rest of the mountain. So off Meghan and I went.
(picture: we have to climb up that to get to the summit?!)

The remainder of the climb up to the summit was even more confusing than Bierstandt had been for me and much steeper. Meghan and I ended up going around one side thinking it would be easier and while she made it up and over a few boulders, I had to traverse back around to the front side where I found some people and followed them up to where she was. There weren't a lot of cairns here so it was easy to get "lost." There was a very steep ridge we had to go up and over with drop offs on each side so we spent a lot of time scooting on our butts and focusing on one hand hold at a time. One wrong step or twist of the ankle could have sent either one of us flying down the mountain so we went slow and took our time. We reached the summit at about noon and were very proud of ourselves for all the hard work we put in.

(picture: the ridge we had to climb over on our way to the top as seen from the summit)

On the way down we didn't want to go back over the ridge so we decided to hike down a little and traverse over to the saddle. This ended up being a bad idea because there was lots of loose rock and although we weren't as high in elevation, there was no set trail so there was a lot of guess work, rocks sliding, butt scooting and even my pants ripping. We made our way to the trail below the saddle where Neil met us with the dogs. Since we had been gone about an hour and the weather was moving in we decided to all make our way down together. Although going down usually takes less time, it was slow going until we got to the treeline because of all the loose gravel. When you've been hiking about 6 hours, your legs start to feel a little shaky and we definitely did not want anyone to fall or twist a knee or ankle. We made it back to the car before the rain at about 3pm.

Mount Yale was the most testing mountain and 14er (my lucky number 7!) I've completed to date. I'm learning a lot about myself on these hikes though and just how capable my body is. Even though I was nervous of the heights summiting both Bierstandt and Yale because of the boulder scrambling I had to do, I focused and was able to reach the top. I read somewhere that when you are scared at the task at hand you simply make your world smaller. Instead of looking at the mountain as a whole you have to break it up into pieces...rewarding yourself for each small marker you reach along the way. I set a goal to hike 8 this summer but have already set Evans, Quandary and Sherman on my horizons and hopefully more to come. What I am most thankful for is having friends like Meghan and Neil who are indulging my new obsession with summiting 14ers. Hiking alone may be fun at times, but it's definitely nice to share your passion with others who have the same goal in mind as you do. I look forward to the many challenges the other 14ers will bring me!

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