December 13, 2016

Mount Bierstadt and the Sharktooth

By Sjboatwright In 53-14 Colorado, On the Trail

Now, there’s no such thing as an “easy” 14er, but Bierstadt is supposed to be the easiest.  By all means, the mountain is pretty simple to ascend.  The trail is nothing more than a bunch of lazy class 1 switchbacks.  With beautiful views of Grays and Torreys and lush forest at lower elevation, the climb is enough to inspire the first-time climber to scale the other 52 mountains.

If you’d like to add a much greater element of struggle to your trek, as we stupidly did, you can take on Mount Evans via the Sharktooth.  The Sharktooth is steep, narrow and potentially deadly if you wander too far off-trail.  If you follow the cairns though, you should be right as rain (foreshadowing).  The tooth requires class 3 scrambles and no fear of heights.  If you meet these standards, it’s a freaking blast!  I loved this climb more than any other in Colorado so far…until the thunder rolled in.

The most nerve racking portion of the climb is one of the Rockies’ many “Narrows”.  The Narrows on the Sharktooth, like the one on Long’s Peak in my opinion, was not that terribly narrow.  Unlike Long’s though the trail turns into extremely loose pea gravel that slipped beneath your feet and give you the sensation of sliding off the mountain.  I moved my feet as quickly as I could and dug my hands into the gravel like a high altitude bear walk.

The joy of being done with the tooth did not last long though.  The thunder that had been rumbling all day was getting closer and closer.  Despite how beat we all were, we started a fairly fast paced sprint when it became obvious we were trapped.  Do we push it to Mt Evans and take refuge in the summit shelters?  Or do we start descending as fast as our feet can fly?  We took the decent option and booked it down the gully as quickly as we could…we didn’t make it.

When the thunder got too close for comfort we took refuge beneath a rock face, but it provided minimal cover at 13,000 feet of elevation.  The rain started gently, then turned into a downpour.  With the sky weeping and clouds growling, it actually wasn’t too terrible, then came the hail.  The hail was so intense I placed my pack above my head to avoid being blasted in the skull by a quarter sized piece of ice.  Lighting began to strike less than a quarter mile ahead of us.  One member of our group began to cry, and I sent a quick “I love you” text to my fiance, just in case.  My wet hands were being pelted so badly I lost complete feeling in them and began to contemplate working my way down the gully while the storm was still pounding.  When it finally passed we were relieved, but soaked and freezing.

The gully suddenly looked like a late spring snow had come through the area, making the trail slick and challenging.  We hopped down the gully without a care though, searching for warmth at lower elevations.  By the time we finally reached the bottom, the sun decided to show its stubborn face.  Relief led to incredible frustration, as we moved through the infamous Willows.  The willows are, well, willows.  They are mostly 5-9 feet tall and completely cover the trail.  To make matters worse, the leaves, still holding water from the downpour, dumped dozens of gallons of water on us as we continued our march.  Every so often one of us would step onto a soft spot, driving our legs into knee deep mud and slush.

Calm after the storm

I. Was. Miserable.

I’ve never been happy so make it back to a trailhead before.  We felt obligated to take a quick photo to signify we made it, but wow did it feel like we were defeated.  We vowed to be more vigilant of storms and the time of day we’re hiking for now on.  Soaked to the bone and starving, we stopped at a Dollar General and got completely new wardrobe for $10.  We looked fantastic.

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