A few months ago, three weeks into my attempt on the Appalachian Trail record, I met up with a lifelong friend and rival in high school track, Bo Peaseley. We had been texting over the previous few days, trying to coordinate a meet up. He was thru-hiking north and I was heading south. I arrived at the shelter late at night and thought he might be headed my way. A few minutes later he rolled in and we caught up for a few minutes before hitting the sack.
So when I got a text from Bo saying he was moving out to Denver and he wanted to climb some 14ers I thought it fitting that despite living in the same city back on the east coast that we run into each other in rural nowhere once again. We talked about climbing Bierstadt, but considered, if we were feeling up for it, the Bierstadt, Sawtooth, Evans combo which included two 14ers and a wicked ridgeline traverse along narrow ledges to connect the two.
We met in Georgetown, Colorado, just down from Mt. Bierstadt at a little after 7am. It was an early morning for my normal late starts but I wanted to give ourselves some breathing room with the shorter days. With my car packed to the ceiling with outdoor gear I made a little cubby for Bo to sit in in the backseat as we carpooled up toward Guanella Pass. The Pass is closed in winters but the road is plowed within two miles of the summer trailhead. So despite being typically one of the easiest 14ers, the route had an extra 4 miles round-trip tacked on from the road walk.
We made it up to the summer trailhead quickly, taking some shortcuts along the way to cut off the switchbacks on the road. By the time we reached tree-line we were burning up and stripping off layers despite the temps hovering around zero. We cruised up Bierstadt and passed nearly everyone who had started before us. Bo had attempted a summit on Mt. Rainier last year but had made it to 12,000 feet before being turned around by bad weather. So I was stoked that he was handling the altitude well. I kept checking in with him, asking how he was doing, knowing that had I ascended 9,000 feet in a matter of a few hours I would be vomiting my guts out with altitude sickness. But his super human adaptability had him tired from the exertion with 60% the oxygen that is at sea level but he didn’t have any signs of altitude sickness.
Standing on the summit we looked down at the Sawtooth Ridge which connects to Mt. Evans. It was early in the day; we had crushed it up Bierstadt. So we talked about continuing on and bagging two summits in one day. The descent down Bierstadt is a beast, practically a wall of boulders and snow fields. I had told him in the days leading up to this hike that there was no need for an ice axe on Bierstadt. I thought there was a chance that we may attempt Evans, but considered it an extremely slim one considering it was Bo’s first 14er, first winter 14er, and the Sawtooth Ridge was extremely gnarly even in the summer.
But there we were, standing at the top of a 50 degree snow field looking straight down into a rocky gully with no axe, no way to stop a fall besides the single trekking pole each of us now carried. I thought better of the quick descent and we shimmied over to the safer but slower boulders off to the right. We removed our snowshoes to plunge step and prevent a catastrophic fall but postholing in the deep snow made for some serious work. We were continually scouting out the ridge ahead of us thinking better of the daunting traverse but still headed in that direction. I knew the route, had studied it for hours in the days leading up to this, constantly reminded by other climbers that it wasn’t as bad as it looked. But with the spire that I knew we’d have to ascend and skirt around towering above us, I couldn’t help but feel like we had made a monumental mistake. I looked behind us at the backside of Bierstadt which we had just descended and realized at this point there was no good option. We scouted out down in the valley an alternate route up Evans. It looked tame but incredibly long and involved losing a large portion of the elevation which we had already worked so hard for.
When we reached the spire we started working our way up and around and realized it really wasn’t as bad as it looked. What had seemed impossible climbing was in reality at its worst a V0 boulder problem, something we’d feel comfortable with even with clunky mountaineering boots on. But at one point, faced with a simple foot switch, the consequences overwhelmed us. A simple slip would mean broken bones at best. But it was easy, so we faced forward, took our gloves off to get a good grip on the rock, and skirted around. And then took a giant breath of relief when we stood on solid ground again.
The rest of the traverse was totally easy but the dire consequences never relented. We crossed short snow fields with 300 foot drops and skirted along cliff edges unbelievably exposed to sheer drops. And in a last effort to scare the bejeezus out of me, the edges got narrower just before we turned a corner and skirted over the lip onto a near flat open plain. I had been stopping on stable spots to take pictures of Bo on the exposed ledges and toward the end he asked if I wanted a picture of me. I told him I’d rather be on stable ground as quickly as possible and he totally understood the sentiment.
It was getting later after some slow moving on the ridge and I asked Bo if he still wanted to attempt the summit of Evans or just descend now. He was getting tired from the most exercise he had done since finishing the AT on August 24 and the low oxygen certainly wasn’t helping either of us. But he figured since we were so close we might as well give it a shot. So we started working our way up the boulders on the slopes of Evans toward the summit.
Evans is a peculiar mountain, similar to Clingman’s Dome and Mt. Washington on the East Coast and Pikes Peak just a short distance away. There’s a road going all the way to the summit with an observatory at the top and a nice little visitor center. But all that was closed this late in the winter and we were the only ones atop the typically bustling mountain peak. Bo was falling behind hard at this point with exhaustion setting in from the altitude. With a windless peak, I sat atop a little boulder that marked the highest point on Evans and waited, then got up to go back and check on him. As soon as I got up to head back down there he was, working his way up, slowly but surely. We caught a quick shot of him on the summit, grabbed a snack and a drink, and retraced our steps back to where we popped off the Sawtooth Ridge. We wouldn’t have to follow all the way back over the summit of Bierstadt. Instead, I planned out descending via a steep gully back to the car. It was the fastest and most realistic route for this loop.
I told Bo of my desire to be off the ridge of Evans and between Bierstadt and Spaulding before dark. I didn’t want to rush and take a misstep, creating a more serious problem, but I didn’t feel comfortable navigating in the dark up on this ridge. So we hurried off Evans and were making great time now that we were descending. Off to our left we slowly watched ourselves descend below the lesser peak of Bierstadt. We had been above 14,000 feet for hours now and I was starting the feel the effects in my exhaustion and with a slight headache. We watched the sun dip below the mountains off to the southwest and enjoyed the alpenglow lighting our way for the next hour.
After having our snowshoes off since the descent down Bierstadt, we put them back on for the deep snow down the gully. We could see the road off in the distance and it was dauntingly far away with an overwhelmingly steep descent ahead of us. In the pits of the gully with high walls on either side of us, the temperatures plummeted and the darkness became a burden. We turned our headlamps on and continued down the steep snowfields strewn with huge boulders. Bo’s legs were fading hard with the pounding of the descent and the weight of lifting heavy mountaineering boots and snowshoes and he opted to glissade (ass sled) down much of the gully. I stayed in front to help break trail but had to stay close to Bo to keep a kicked off rock or piece of ice from picking up too much speed before it hit me. I kept sight of him by paying attention to the brightness of his headlamp and by occasionally turning around. But sometimes I would stray too far ahead and I’d watch snowballs come whizzing past my head, nothing serious, but enough to make me pull back.
The gully kept dragging on as if we were descending an infinite abyss until eventually it leveled out and the stars became visible on either side in lieu of the sheer rock walls. But what awaited us was another seemingly endless stretch of trail. With the effects of altitude and exhaustion setting in, Bo became disoriented and was convinced that the car was off the toward the left. I did everything I could do to convince him that the car was off to the right but without sight of the road it was difficult to show him. He told me later that if we had gone the wrong way he would have stopped and set up camp. I understood the situation he was in. I’ve been utterly convinced I’m going the wrong way before and it’s extremely unsettling, especially when I’m exhausted. But he trusted me and I owe him thanks for that. And fortunately I was able to navigate our way out.
For seemingly endless miles though we walked along a featureless plain of snow. I was spotting off a mountain that I had taken note of earlier in the day but still would’ve much preferred daylight to carry us back. But without that option, Bo trusted me, and I trusted myself and we headed off across the plain. Eventually I recognized we were back on the trail from the morning and we cut hard right back down to a shortcut we had taken off the road. Once we were down on the road we both could finally breathe knowing that it would be just a two mile walk stroll down packed snow back to the car.
A couple hundred yards down the road I looked over at Bo’s feet and said “Did you decide to take your snowshoe off?” asking about his one missing snowshoe. He had been having trouble with his snowshoes falling off when he postholed throughout the day so I figured on the ease of the road he had given up fiddling with them. But he looked down and with a breath of despair turned around and looked back up the road. We both figured it must just be up the road a little ways. It would be easy to not notice it falling off on the solid snow and he wouldn’t have been looking at his feet to watch his step. I told him I could go up and grab it and he could just wait a sec but he wouldn’t have it. We both turned around and began retracing our steps. We scanned the snow with the narrow beams of our headlamps but by the time we were back to the cutoff we still hadn’t seen the snowshoe. Without hesitation we both started marching back up the trail. I followed behind him and we both checked every pit from where we and other hikers had postholed into the deep snow. But no luck. We kept hiking and eventually I stopped to take a break. I was raging hungry and poured half a bag of skittles into my mouth. I looked up and the scanning motion of Bo’s headlamp was already 100 yards ahead of me. I started hiking up to him but within a few seconds heard him shout back something unintelligible over the breeze and distance. I shouted at him asking him if he found it and he shouted back with joy. I was so elated I screamed off toward the snow covered peaks. It was a great ending to a trudge of a day.
We turned around and worked our way back down the road. Bo took his other snowshoe off to keep from having to worry about it too and after a little bit of distracting delusional conversation, we were back at the car. We were so tired it took effort to remember the names of the peaks we had just summited. We stripped off our boots and packs and jumped into the car. We had been wondering how cold it was this late in the night, 13 hours and around 15 miles after we had begun our epic this morning. And with the rumble of the car struggling to a start in the bitter cold, up popped the number -9 on my car thermometer. I’ve been slowly adapting to those brutal lows, but to see this with us having been out there so comfortably was still surprising.
Within minutes, with the car struggling to warm up, now that we knew we were safe, we both were violently shivering and laughing about the crazy day. It was great to be heading back down, even if a little bit scarred from the exhausting ordeal. I dropped Bo off at his car and we both immediately drove over to the Valero to pick up some much needed treats. He went straight for the coffee to carry him on his drive back home and he laughed at my seasonally inappropriate choice of a pint of Ben&Jerry’s ice cream. We parted ways and promised on a tamer but still fun adventure this upcoming weekend. And I must say, despite, or rather because of the craziness of the Bierstadt, Sawtooth, Evans loop, I’m seriously looking forward to it.