Mt Bierstadt | Elevation 14,060

Look closely and you can see the headlamp of an early climber

It was a cold one.

I could probably end this post right there and it would sum it up fairly accurately. Earlier in the year, in the comfort of a warm Spring day, this hike sounded like an excellent idea. I was really excited about the prospect of a possible Winter hike, I think my exact words were that I was looking forward to getting some cold weather hiking experience in preparation for Mt Rainier. On October 18th, 2019 – a group from the Center hiked Mt Bierstadt via the West Slopes. (Difficulty – Class 2). Route was 7.0 miles round trip. Summit elevation was 14,060 and elevation gain was 2,850 feet from the trailhead.

In preparation.

Brad & Stephanie did an amazing job as always of sending out a pack list of what we should bring for the conditions and keeping us updated about what kind of weather we should anticipate. Extra layers, gloves and hand warmers were on the list!

Shari, Anita, Bekka & I drove out on Friday and arrived at our AirBNB in Georgetown in time to unpack, grab dinner down the road and get settled at a decent hour for an early wake up time. We prepped all of our backpacks, I realized that I forgot the closure to my water bladder. Thankfully always prepared Anita had an extra one on hand. I find this hilarious because Anita is the most prepared traveler I have ever been on trips with. I am probably the least prepared traveler, I bring the basics (or ridiculous things) – so maybe we balance each other out? On the way out to Colorado my sister called and told me that my brother-in-law was considering hiking with us in the morning. Before I went to bed he called me to break the news that he looked at the weather forecast and would not be joining us on the hike. To be completely honest, it was fine. I was disappointed and may have rolled my eyes because I thought he might be overreacting a touch. He got the last laugh 😉

The morning of.

Shari got a head start on Saturday morning and Brad picked her up around 4 or 4:30 am. We rolled out of bed around 4:15 am and picked up Todd down the road at their hotel on our way up to the trailhead. The drive up was dark and windy. One thing we all became keenly aware of is that the temperature gauge on my vehicle was drastically lowering as we went up in elevation. When we arrived at the trailhead, the parking lot was about 1/4 full. I got out of the car and was immediately struck by a frigid wind and my heart just sank. It became evident that this was going to be a very physically uncomfortable hike. On my way to the bathroom house to finish putting on layers out of the wind, someone made the comment “who’s idea was this” and I just awkwardly laughed. It was a joint effort.

We began the hike before the sun came up but only needed to wear our headlamps for about 30 minutes. The first portion of the hike was a gradual and pretty easy up. It was cold, you’re going to get tired of me saying that but the bitter wind was seeping into my bones.

We realized early on that our water bladders were dead weight. The water in the tube and mouthpiece froze and were useless. I think that everyone had another bottle in their packs but not having direct access to water was super disappointing.

By the time we started the steeper ascent, I realized that my feet were getting colder by the minute and it was starting to cause me concern. In an attempt to keep my pack really light, I made the not-so-smart move of not bringing my hand warmers. I heard the forecast and figured that 20 degrees would warm up really quickly when the sun came out. The problem was, we were in shade for a lengthy portion of our hike and the wind was just brutal. I kept willing to the sun to come over the ridge and it just wouldn’t. At one point I voiced my concern about cold feet to Bekka and she ran ahead to Anita. Anita had a pair of feet warmers, I stripped my boots and socks off and within 20 minutes felt the sweet sweet heat warming my toes. I will make a note here that was really irresponsible of me to unwittingly rely on someone else to take care of a basic need, I was extremely thankful for Anita but had she needed those warmers, it really wasn’t fair to her that I took them. Every hike I learn a lesson whether it be big or small. This one was a pretty big lesson, I will never again save weight by leaving behind something that could save me from having frozen limbs – especially if the weather conditions have a strong potential to be inclement.

About the same time, my fingers started feeling an intense pain. I had removed my gloves to put the feet warmers in and I just couldn’t get them to warm back up. After the hike was over, I realized that the pain was actually my hands warming back up – they had gotten extremely cold and were essentially “unfreezing”. That’s a terrifying thought.

As we were climbing the second to last steep ridge, people we had seen along the hike and climbers in our group began to turn back. I was starting to question if this was even a sensible thing to try to accomplish and for the first time wondered if it was even safe. The cold and wind kept us pretty isolated, there wasn’t the typical conversation along the way and we weren’t going to pause to discuss whether we should turn back or not – so we each just kept trekking along and eventually got to the top.

I was so excited when I saw the top that I almost wanted to cry! I had a giddy happiness to be at the top, but my hands were on fire and I didn’t even want to sit down because I was shivering uncontrollably. We spent about 15 minutes at the top, took some pictures and then headed down. A climber on his way up noticed that my boot was untied and I had to admit that I knew but my fingers were too stiff to tie it myself. He reached down to tie it for me, I will never forget that act of kindness.

The descent.

The sun was out and actually beginning to feel a little warm on the way down. After we got off the rocks – it was time just to be done. We ran for at least half of the way down (something that I would strongly regret later because I still couldn’t feel my feet). At some point we were able to start shedding clothes layers and take in the scenery.

My takeaway.

I have very strongly voiced that once I have hiked a 14er, I will never repeat it. Mt Bierstadt is my exception apparently, because I would love to try this one again on a warmer day. The area was beautiful and the hike itself seemed pretty straight forward. It’s possible that I was so fixated on being cold and uncomfortable that the hike didn’t seem “that hard”? Regardless, if given the chance I would give this peak another go.

Should we have continued on? That I honestly couldn’t tell you. I always have a moment on every hike I’ve done where I wanted to give up, yet I continued on. That feeling was very strong and repetitive on this climb, whether it was because I literally couldn’t feel my face or my feet, or because I was in actually physical danger – I don’t have an answer. My gut tells me it probably wasn’t the smartest thing we’ve ever done to continue on but it’s done and in the past and we learned a lot from the experience. There were plenty of people on the mountain so it wasn’t like we were in the middle of the wilderness without access to food and water so our actual danger was pretty low but frostbite would have been unfortunate.

Back to running down the mountain. I did serious damage to my nail beds because I couldn’t feel my feet due to the cold and didn’t realize I was in pain. I couldn’t sleep with sheets on my feet for one week after because my big toe was in screaming pain. I eventually ended up losing both big toe nails in January 2020.

What an awesome crew of people, I truly enjoyed another adventure with them!

Written by Rebekah Baier