FOR THE PAST few weeks (well, months) I’ve been meaning to share an update on the status of my books, on a whole bunch of outdoor adventures, on life, and most of all on two exciting new book projects that I’ve been working on… but I haven’t quite managed to get to it – as the paucity of recent blogs all-too clearly demonstrates.
So, sorry! I hope you’ll forgive me for this long void of silence?
To be honest, I find it a struggle to get down to blogging when there are hills to walk, and a family life to be lived, and when I’m trying to focus on other writing projects. But for now, I thought I could at least share the following few words and photos from a recent day out in the hills.
On Saturday March 11 I joined a good friend, Mike, to wander up a local fourteen-thousand foot mountain here in Colorado. The peak, Mount Bierstadt, is one I’ve summited more times than I can now easily recall. The plan this time was to summit the hill, then traverse Bierstadt’s narrow Sawtooth Ridge. This ridge is a fun ‘hands-on’ scramble in summer, offering a smattering of exposed stretches where one really wouldn’t want to slip. But in winter, it becomes a touch more serious – moderate mountaineering. In anticipation of this, we packed a rope, harnesses, helmets, crampons and two rucksacks full of optimism – albeit optimism tempered by a smattering of doubt.
Why doubt? Well, the forecast was less than ideal…
Many weeks earlier, my friend had set aside two days when he and I could attempt the outing. The first option had been the first Sunday in March, but the forecast for that day had called for damaging 75mph winds – prompting us to postpone. Unfortunately, for the second option the forecast wasn’t much better: heavy overnight snow then winds rising to 60mph. Still, Mike had the day free and so we thought we’d at least take a look.
We set out early on Saturday morning, heading up the snow-covered Guanella Pass road from the winter trailhead. I started out on ski, and my friend on snowshoes, with both of us planning to ski this stretch at the day’s end. Once we reached Guanella Pass I swapped skis for snowshoes and we set out across the infamous willow flats. Ten or so inches of fresh snow had fallen overnight, and in a brisk wind the flats had a definite Arctic feel. Or, maybe, Alaskan. Light snow was falling, but a hint of sunlight pushing through the overhead murk was promising.
At first, as we followed the well-tramped snow trail into the willows, it felt like ‘so far so good…’
Mike heading ‘into the wild’.
Once out in the willow-flats, the wind began picking up. Blowing from behind – from the west – it was bearable, although it threatened to make the return leg ‘less than’ fun. This was a route that is usually well travelled, and even on this day the packed snow trail was occasionally visible. There were even a few signs that others were ahead of us. But there were also long stretches of deep, unmarked, recently drifted snow. Our snowshoes were soon exceedingly helpful. Someone ahead of us was booting it – travelling without skis or snowshoes – and from the looks of their postholes they were having a torrid time, sinking knee- and thigh-deep.
After a while, we paused for a snack in the shelter of a large snowdrift (above), cowering from the strengthening wind, imagining how much worse it was going to be above.
Beyond the willows, the long trudge up the mountain began, first on snowshoes, then just on foot. We caught up with a pair of younger hikers – the people responsible for the postholes – and for the next hour or so traded trail-breaking with them. They told us that the three miles from trailhead to treeline had taken them almost three hours. We saw them for the last time at about 13,000-feet … hunkered down among rocks in billowing snow, from where we guess (and hope) they turned back. We weren’t to see them again.
We also saw another team of two, already heading down. “Turned back at 12,500 feet,” one of them said simply. “Winds.”
As we climbed, the clouds that had been forecast to linger all day rolled aside and the snowfall ceased. But, up here on open ground, the wind truly picked up, and it was soon rushing with some haste across the slopes, carrying with it an impressive volume of spindrift. Crossing a mixture of soft drifts and hard-packed neve, battling the wind, feeling the altitude, we trudged on, one laborious step at a time. Bierstadt is one of the easiest of Colorado’s 14ers. It is familiar to so many people, climbed with minimal effort by the entire world on Sunday mornings in summer, but on this day it felt far harder than usual, far bigger, and far more remote than it is. In these conditions, it felt spectacularly real.
Staring up at the Sawtooth Ridge, we could see that its western side didn’t appear to hold excessive snow, despite recent storms and the extra ten inches that had fallen overnight. But we could also see fearsome clouds of spindrift streaming across it. The reality of traversing the ridge had become unlikely, but we’d still take a peek from the summit. There was no need to make a decision just yet.
We continued on up Bierstadt’s easy-angled slopes… but progress was far from easy. The above photo doesn’t really reveal the true brutality of the wind, or the impact it had on effort. It doesn’t reveal the draining effect of the snow underfoot, or the altitude. My friend looked strong and remained wonderfully enthusiastic, but I was struggling, moving incredibly slowly, truly sucking on empty air. In these conditions I felt decades older than I am, and Bierstadt felt like a different mountain from its benign summer self.
Mount Bierstadt is a peak I’ve literally run up – many times. In summer, in years gone by, I’ve completed the standard up and down round-trip from Guanella Pass in 90 minutes. I’ve managed the full winter trip in under three and half hours. But such feats were impossible on this day. Spectacular thought the location was, progress was a true slog in every sense of the word.
This photo hints at conditions during the frequent strong gusts. It wasn’t just the pummeling feel of the wind, of the air ‘turned solid’ effect of it, or the painfully-numbing sting of the spindrift, or the relentless motion of it whipping past, but also the continuous sound of it: the jet-engine roar. The mountains are full of music, but the music on this day was relentless punk rock with the volume dialed to twelve, a full on thrashing of heavy metal guitars and wailing, screaming voices pushed to their breaking point. By the summit, I had a pounding headache, and it wasn’t only due to the altitude.
The summit all but disappeared during the strongest gusts. I don’t know what my friend was thinking at this moment, but I can make a guess. Perhaps: “It’s that way… I think…” or: “We must be absolutely nuts…”
Or it may just have been: “Stop taking photos. “We’ve gotta keep moving…”
Despite the less-than ideal conditions, we were determined to reach the summit, and we didn’t doubt we would. We pushed on, but we didn’t do it lightly. We’d had a conversation beforehand about turning back should either of us feel the need, and the six or so decades of outdoor travel we share between us informed every step we took. We knew our abilities well, had sufficient gear, including emergency gear, and we were well aware, for instance, of the care needed; that every step had to be deliberately and thoughtfully taken. A turned ankle, up here, on a day like this, would be extremely serious.
To be clear, Bierstadt really isn’t the steepest and most serious mountain in Colorado. Far from it. But on this day it certainly looked and felt serious and steep!
Time seemed to slow over the final thousand or so feet – altered if not downright stopped by the raging wind and altitude. But we made the summit eventually, arriving at 12:30… five and a half hours after setting out. So slow!
Incredibly, just beyond the summit, we found a relatively sheltered spot where the wind only came in mild gusts. It seemed like a miracle – a gift from the mountain gods for pushing on. For a few minutes, we took a much-needed break, finally able to find some ‘type one’ pleasure in the location, not the ‘type two’ pleasure we’d been ‘enjoying’ thus far.
The view down the Sawtooth Ridge (falling away in the above photo to the right) was enough to convince us that today clearly wasn’t the day for it! To be honest, our minds had already been made up long before reaching the summit. We’d been moving too slowly. The hour was already too late. And our energy-levels were already too depleted. A winter traverse would have to wait for another time… for far less brutal conditions.
Spindrift, screaming east from the summits and the rolling tundra above Hell’s Hole.
Approaching the summit, we passed these two fellow idiots also braving the winds. I snapped several shots as they approached the top, and later wished I’d asked the pair for contact details so that I could send them the shots!
I didn’t do this at the time because I had little confidence that any of my photos were going to come out. The wind was so severe I could barely see what I was shooting. My eyes were filled with tears, caused by the cold and spindrift. I could barely see through the viewfinder, wasn’t certain I was even holding the camera still while battling the wind, and I was snapping the pictures in a rush, desperately trying to keep my fingers warm. I’m genuinely shocked that any of these images came out!
(Happily, I found the pair through sharing the photos on social media. Facebook does have it’s uses!)
The spindrift plume streaming from the summit was impressive. It was equally amazing that the sheltered spot we’d found wasn’t full of spindrift itself. It still seemed like a miracle. The topography didn’t fully explain it. Everywhere else on the mountain was either suffering the full force of the wind or lost within clouds of wind-blown snow.
In the rare calm air, we were able to spend far longer on top than we’d expected. (We’d imagined touching it, than dashing back down seconds later!) This summit view is eastward along Bierstadt’s east ridge, across the Abyss drainage, and on to Epaulet Mountain and Rosalie Peak.
North, the view stretched over the Sawtooth, the shoulder of Mount Spalding, Gray Wolf Mountain, and onward up the Front Range.
West, the fantastic panorama reached across Guanella Pass to Square Top Mountain and beyond.
Close up of Square Top. The blurring of spindrift and the clouds added to the scenic drama.
Grays Peak and Torreys Peak, temporarily appearing through drifting clouds.
Eventually the descent began, into the wind, and it was truly horrible – arguably even more uncomfortable than the way up! Exposed facial skin began freezing in moments. The photos really don’t reveal the unpleasantness of the conditions or the thuggish brutality of the wind. The plume of spindrift merely hints at it.
Rime ice on summit rocks. It was slightly easier to snap photos standing with the wind directly at my back!
A detail of the rocks and ice.
I grabbed this photo, looking down the ridge, to try to capture the wildness of the location and the moment…
A crop of the previous photo does a slightly better job of portraying how being here felt. The gray blurring of this image isn’t mist. It is all spindrift flying east on the screaming wind. Heading down into this was ROUGH!
Carefully heading down.
A final photo of our two companions. They had skis stashed lower down, and later, we got to watch them sweeping by, before passing them once again back in the flats. The hand that the closest figure is holding against his head to shield it from spindrift says a lot!
And yet, despite the many physical discomforts, there was still immense pleasure from being present in such a place on such a day – experiencing such awe-inspiring wildness. It was valuable for its own sake, for touching the senses, for stirring the emotions, and valuable for the perspective it gave. Home, much later, felt like a different and better place!
The final photo I took shows Mike heading downhill into the wind, still taking great care over every single step.
The wind only continued to increase during the descent. By the time we reached the short return climb back to Guanella Pass we could barely even look ahead thanks to its blast and the maelstrom of blown snow. In the willows, we’d wandered off trail several times, sinking deep even on snowshoes. It became a bit of a death march, gruelling beyond words. “I’ve never had icicles on my eyebrows before,” my friend said. His strained expression said even more!
Further photos of the conditions would have been spectacular… but I was done with photography, too wind-blasted to care, too-weary to bother, my fifty-two year old body and spirit pushed too close to its limit.
Eventually, we regained the stashed skis. Mike put on his downhill skis, I swapped snowshoes for my Nordic skis, then we both got the hell out of it.
But what an outing we’d had. We hadn’t even stepped onto the ridge we’d come for, but we’d enjoyed a worthy and memorable adventure none-the-less. It was a journey to treasure… especially now that it was done!