Climbing Mt. Bierstadt
To celebrate my daughter Brittany’s graduation from Clemson University in 2015, we decided to take a trip to Colorado in June, 2015. One of the amazing things about Colorado is that you can find such extensive wilderness, complete with fourteeners so close to Denver. We decided to spend the first few days in quaint Georgetown, Colorado. When we originally planned on making the trip, I had hoped that we might be able to hike Mt. Bierstadt together, but the folks at the Department of Tourism in Georgetown told me that would not be possible due to a late June snowstorm.
Access to Mt. Bierstadt is via Guanella Pass–a high mountain pass in the Rocky Mountains of central Colorado. The pass is located in southwestern Clear Creek County, in the Front Range, west of Denver and south of Georgetown. Sure enough the conditions atop Guenella Pass made that trek impossible in June. So, Mt. Bierstadt would have to wait.
But, I vowed to go back by myself two months later in August with the hope that the snow would be melted and I’d be able to climb Mt. Bierstadt after all. This is the story of that hike.
A delayed flight from Philadelphia to Denver had me arriving in Georgetown much later that I had hoped. In fact, until I got to my rented condo, it was almost 3 AM. I managed to get some sleep and planned to take it easy the following day since my experience is that your body needs to get used to the altitude before attempting any high elevation hikes. Georgetown is high enough at 8,530 feet when you are a guy that lives at 39 feet elevation in the Philadelphia area (I looked it up). I remember having a slight headache in June from the altitude just walking around Georgetown.
This was the first time I would have attempted to climb a Colorado fourteener, but not the first time I’d climbed a mountain over 14,000 feet. Between my junior and senior year in college, I had worked at Sequoia National Park in California and on my days off we climbed many high altitude mountains including difficult climbs like Mt. Sawtooth and less difficult ones such as Mt. Whitney, which at 14,495 feet is the highest in the lower 48 states. There was just one major difference between those California hikes and now: I was 20-years-old then and now it was 35 years later.
I had done some training prior to making the trip to Colorado. That was mostly hitting the treadmill and the Stairmaster at the gym. I also spent some time walking the 5.6 mile rail trail in my town while carrying my backpack and I spent some time walking up the hill in the township park behind myself. I played softball two nights per week. For the most part, however, I am a typical weekend athlete just trying to eek out a day or two of exercise during the busy work week.
When it comes to the 54 fourteeners in Colorado, Mt. Bierstadt is one of the easier ones. If you are in reasonably good shape, you’ll make it. If I had to guess, I’d estimate that two-thirds of the people that attempt it, make it to the summit. That being said, if you are overweight and rarely exercise, it’s probably not going to be easy for you. During my trip, I passed a lot of guys that were in their 20’s that were obviously not in the best condition. So, while it may be easy, it’s all relative. It’s best to say that it’s easy for a fourteener.
The roads to the trail heads in Colorado are far better than those in the California peaks that I had climbed before. So, you can essentially start a lot higher than you would in California. In fact, there are some fourteeners in Colorado that you can drive to such as Pikes Peak and Mt. Davis. At Pikes Peak, you only have a 30 foot incline to summit. Mt. Bierstadt, fortunately, is not one in which you can drive almost to the top.
It is perfectly safe to summit Mt. Bierstadt by yourself in the busy summer months. If you turn an ankle, there’s going to be help quickly available. There’s a lot of people hiking Mt. Bierstadt in the summer, especially on the weekends. You’ll enjoy it more if you can do it on a weekday instead. Not all of those hiking Mt. Bierstadt are of the two legged variety. There are plenty of very happy dogs on the trail to Mt. Bierstadt. For a dog, living in Colorado has got to be the best possible place to be.
The parking lot is busy atop Guenella Pass. Get there early in the morning or the parking lot will fill up and you’ll have to park on the roadside. Not all of the people hiking will be attempting to reach the Mt. Bierstadt summit, but most of them will be. You’ll start off at the trail head at the Mt. Evans Wilderness.
The first mile after leaving the trail head is actually quite easy. You are mostly walking through brush. The trail is well maintained. In some areas, it is very muddy so the park rangers have laid wood down so it makes things much easier. The trail is well marked so there is no way that you could ever get lost.
Since I didn’t have a complete night of sleep, I really only planned on hiking the first mile as a bit of a warmup and then I’d spend another night sleeping in Georgetown and attempt the full summit the next day. But, after I got a mile into it, I felt good, my legs were strong, and I just decided to go for it. It’s not the textbook way to do things, but I was excited so I just went for it on day despite only being in Colorado for about 12 hours.
It was the first time that I have ever used the GoPro that I got for Christmas. I was worried that I didn’t know what I was doing, but I will share some of those GoPro videos with you in this article. So, if you are wondering whether you can hike Mt. Bierstadt, you can get a good feel for how much a 55-year-old guy was puffing along the way.
There’s a very pretty stream along the way and it marks the end of the easier part of the hike. From this point on, you’ll start to feel the burn and the elevation increase. The green brush will turn to brown, the wind will pick up, and you’ll notice a temperature drop.
At higher elevations, it is best to take smaller steps so your body has more time to assimilate to the higher altitude. Turning in to the wind and opening your mouth allows for you to take in more oxygen which is clearly less readily available at the higher altitude.
Near the summit, the trail fades away and you are now faced with bouldering the final 500 feet to the summit of Mt. Bierstadt. This is the hardest part of the climb, but at this point, your adrenaline is flowing so you won’t have any trouble with it. There’s no set route that you’ll take. You’ll jump from rock to rock and soon you’ll be at the summit of Mt. Bierstadt.
At the summit, there are several signs that people have left. There will surely be plenty of people hanging out at the summit to take your pictures. Most will stop to have lunch there. There is the National Geological Survey marker which proves that you were there. Stop and stay awhile. You put in a lot of effort to get there.
The trip down is surely a lot easier than the trip up. That being said, your knees will take a bit more of a pounding on the way down. Younger people won’t even notice that, but you’ll likely feel it a little. Remember proper hiking etiquette requires that hikers going uphill have the right of way. So, step aside and allow them to stay in the zone and not have to break stride for those going the easy way downhill. Often, an uphill hiker will use the trail meeting as a good reason to take a much needed rest and allow you to pass, but that is up to the hiker going uphill to decide.
If you are interested in climbing a fourteener in Colorado, Mt. Bierstadt is a good one to start with unless you like solitary hiking. One thing is for sure. After you do it, you’ll want to conquer many more fourteeners.