Kim Fenske hikes Bierstadt and talks mountain weather
Story and photos by Kim Fenske
When the forecast is for unstable weather, hiking into a remote base camp and planning an ascent of a mountain with severe grades on unmarked slopes or exposed ledges is not a reasonable plan. It’s difficult enough to predict lightning storms in summer when summit strikes threaten. Sudden snowstorm can create white-outs in high winds on high altitude ascents and create slippery conditions for boulder scrambles.
During the spring and summer of 2011, the first four deaths on Fourteeners involved snow conditions. None of the mountains where these death happened are considered easy or moderate ascents on standard hike routes.
Torreys Peak killed a skier who triggered an avalanche in a snowstorm so severe that rescuers were unable to reach the scene by helicopter. A woman slipped down a snow-covered chute during an ascent of Mount Princeton in the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness Area. On nearby Missouri Mountain, a father and daughter who were experienced hikers fell from the ridge near the standard approach and were found several days after they were killed. By contrast, the eleven climbers killed in 2010 near a Fourteener summit were on the most difficult sixteen of the fifty-four peaks and often on non-standard routes.
I have hiked in snowstorms and rain on Fourteeners during every month of the year. On Mount Harvard, I hunkered-down with a flock of ptarmigan against a rock outcropping during a blinding snowstorm in August a few years ago. I crossed the boulder field on Mount of the Holy Cross after a light rain with lightning striking the ridge on the west side of Cross Creek.
The path was lit by lightning strikes north of Antero while I descended from the summit. A heavy lightning storm hit the afternoon I reached the summit of Pikes Peak. Last year, I reached the summit of Tabeguache Peak at noon under a cloudless sky in July. When a single puffball approached from the northeast, I predicted that a storm would pass northwest of the summit, which is where those who joined me at the top of the mountain watched lightning strike. However, snow swirled around the summit of Tabeguache Peak. When I reached down to gather my daypack, I received a static discharge from the rocks and all those surrounding me tossed hiking poles onto the ground, crouched, and scrambled down the boulder face as fast as possible to reach the trail down on adjacent Mount Shavano.
Last October, I was turned-back from San Luis Peak after twenty miles of driving up dusty dirt roads only to meet a snowstorm that turned a Forest Service road into a mud slurry.
Weather forecasts often alter plans to ascend a Fourteener. With up to a foot of snow predicted this week, I abandoned my plan to hike up the purported worst high-clearance road in Colorado to sleep at the base of Ellingwood Point, Blanca Peak, and Little Bear Peak west of Alamosa. Instead, I decided to take a late afternoon drive out of Georgetown up Guanella Pass to sprint up Mount Bierstadt before the cold front arrived from the southwest.
Mount Bierstadt, named after a painter who visited Guanella Pass in 1863, is located beside Mount Evans, which lies immediately east of the summit. Construction and paving on the road from Georgetown to Grant over Guanella Pass has been completed during the past season. Therefore, the drive south from Georgetown to the trailhead at the top of Guanella Pass is smooth and takes only a half-hour.
From the trailhead parking area, at about 11,500 feet, a boardwalk has improved the path across a dense willow field and a rock crossing of Scott Gomer Creek to the base of Bierstadt. East of the willows, the trail gently ascends on switchbacks and heads south across the tundra above 12,000 feet. The trail is clear and direct to the rock field that leads to the upper ridge heading east to the summit. The entire ascent is a bit less than four miles, about three hours, ending with a bit of an easy boulder scramble on the last hundred vertical climb to 14,060 feet at the summit.
East of the summit, Mount Evans is clearly visible a few miles away. South of Mount Bierstadt, the flat plain of Park County spreads to the horizon. In the West, the pointed tops of Grays and Torreys rise beyond the wide valley and form the Continental Divide. Mount Bierstadt is a pleasant and popular summit that provides a nice break between more rigorous ascents.
Kim Fenske is a former wilderness ranger, firefighter who has hiked thousands of miles in the Colorado mountains. He has served on the board of directors of Friends of the Eagles Nest Wilderness Area.
Fenske has authored several hiking books filled with hundreds of photographs of Colorado wildlife, wildflowers, and scenery. His books are enjoyed by thousands of outdoor enthusiasts. His current electronic book titles are published on Amazon for Kindle, as well as Barnes and Noble for Nook. Search for these titles: “Greatest Hikes in Central Colorado,” “Holy Cross Wilderness Area,” and “Eagles Nest Wilderness Area.”
More stories by Kim Fenske:
- A Colorado classic: Longs Peak
- Explore Whitney Peak in the Holy Cross Wilderness
- Colorado: Climb San Luis Peak with Kim Fenske
- Morning photo: The Deer Creek trail, a Summit crossroads
- Travel: Explore Colorado’s spectacular Gore Creek trail
- Colorado: Explore Pikes Peak with Kim Fenske
- A hike to Windom Peak, Sunlight Peak, and Mount Eolus
- Colorado: A fall hike on Castle Peak
Filed under: avalanches, climate and weather, Colorado, hiking, recreation, Snow and weather Tagged: | backcountry, Colorado, Colorado weather, Guanella Pass, hiking, Mount Bierstadt, Mount Shavano, Tabeguache Peak