Mt. Bierstadt Winter Ascent
Distance: 10.12 miles
Elevation gain: 3,308 feet
Date: February 27, 2019
Time: 7 hours 21 minutes
Bathrooms: Clean, flushing toilets in the Georgetown Visitor Center (year-round option); Summer hikers can benefit from toilets at the trailhead.
Climbing Mt. Bierstadt in winter is on par with climbing some of the western highpoints in summer. It requires endurance, appropriate gear, and a positive attitude.
The winter parking lot adds approximately 1.5 miles each way to the journey. Although not very interesting terrain, those three cumulative miles set the stage for a nice warm up and cool down for the crux of the hike. At the end of the snow-covered road is the summer parking lot and your first view of the mountain.
From the trailhead, the slope feels like a flat traverse, but really is a loss of a few hundred feet of vertical gain, a fact we painfully realized on the return.
The biggest challenge in winter is following the path, which sometimes is not discernible. I’d read advice from other climbers to avoid taking shortcuts through the willow fields. But, the day we went, the snow cover hid the trail and we had no choice but to make our own adventure.
Add to the lack of a clear trail from the epic snowfall in Colorado this season, postholing became a very real hurdle in the climb. A few miles in, we switched to snowshoes which helped, but did not entirely prevent us from plunging knee or waist deep into the snow. At one point, my two fellow highpointing climbers, Steve and Dave, simultaneously fell waist-deep on adjacent paths, and struggled for some time to return to the traversable surface.
While perhaps not repeating this scenario in unison, both men unexpectedly dropped deeply multiple times into the snow, adding to the physical demands of the day. Perhaps because I tended to follow one or both of them, I was lucky enough to experience a drop no deeper than mid-calf. Still a jarring surprise, but not in the same league of struggle as the men.
After the willow fields, we replaced the snowshoes with either microspikes or crampons to offer better traction since we were no longer in danger of unexpectedly plunging down into several feet of snow. The climb from this point became rushed as the three of us had a commitment that evening, aiming to be in the car no later than 2:30.
Given the pace we’d need to keep to reach the summit, Dave, who had previously climbed Bierstadt decided to hang back while Steve and I continued at a faster pace than we otherwise would have hiked. Steve monitored our pace with his GPS, balancing each foot of elevation gain with the minutes remaining until our turn around time. Having been at sea level two days prior, the final push demanded some serious digging deep.
At the Summit
The summit was exquisite and worth the effort. The seemingly untouched snow-covered mountains in the distance and a view of the snowy route we’d climbed felt almost magical.
We got lucky with the weather that day too. Prior to climbing, I watched several YouTube videos, many of which appear to showcase climbers in danger of blowing away in the fierce wind. Today was different. We had very little wind and the sun cooperated to make the climb an enjoyable experience.
With only a few minutes to spare at the summit, we spent the time taking in the view we had earned, but declined using the opportunity to refuel or hydrate. After a few quick photos, we had to sprint down the mountain toward our snowshoes.
Following the natural trail was significantly easier on the descent as we rapidly plunge stepped our way in the footsteps of climbers before us. Our new (and proper) path meant that we somehow missed reuniting with my Nalgene, which we’d stowed at one of the cairns on the upper mountain. If anyone collects it (you’ll see a Summit Chicks sticker on it), please let me know.
That small unintended sacrifice aside, we made pretty good time to the snowshoes, shed our microspikes/crampons, reunited with Dave, then retraced our steps through the willow fields. We decided to remove the snowshoes too soon and ended up inadvertently postholing again, so we suited up in the snowshoes a third time until we reached the summer parking lot.
The final few hundred feet of vertical uphill tested us, as Steve and I both thought it was flat terrain on the way in. But, once at the summer lot, it was all downhill and uneventful to the winter lot.
Bierstadt is an enjoyable day hike, great cardio, and an achievable winter 14er. My first winter ascent has inspired me to attempt even more winter climbing as the opportunity presents itself.
In winter, bring snowshoes, microspikes or crampons (I would have preferred crampons to the spikes), trekking poles, sunscreen, and good climbing partners. I also benefited from toe warmers, but was alone in that endeavor.
Special thanks to my two climbing partners – Thank you, Dave, for lending me snowshoes and for leading us through the tough terrain of the willow fields. Your chocolate treats were a huge mental and physical boost to the day – much appreciated.
And, thank you, Steve, for not only lending me hiking poles, but carrying my load of gear. With the extra pounds of gear on me, it’s doubtful I would have been able to make the summit at the needed pace. Your encouragement in the final push to the summit also was key in getting me there.
That evening, and the reason for our rush, we gathered with a group of Colorado highpointers for a private guided tour (led by Dave) at the Colorado Mountain Club’s American Mountaineering Museum. The Highpointers Foundation donated an interactive video display, complete with trivia and fun facts about highpoints and Colorado 14ers. We finished off the night with dinner together – a great way to celebrate a new accomplishment.
If you’re in the mood for pizza post-climb, my go-to is becoming Beau Jo’s in Idaho Springs.