Elevation: 11,669-14,060 ft
Elevation gain: 2,850 ft
Critters: Big Horn Sheep, peak baggers galore
Mt. Bierstadt is one of Colorado's 53 14ers. Technically it is one of the easiest and the views of lush Guanella Pass make it doubly appealing. There was a time when slogging across the willow infested valley before beginning the climb used to be a soggy mess. Now, with the addition of a boardwalk, this part of the hike is a walk in the park.
Things get serious after the willows when the trail climbs up to a broad shoulder. The views from this place make it a worthy destination in itself for those interested in a shorter hike. It still has some elevation gain to provide sufficient bragging rights and a wide area for picnicking and people watching. You can hold up Olympic score cards measuring lung capacity as folks crest over the shoulder. You'll see everything from small children to trail runners using Beirstadt to train for the Leadville 100. When no one is looking, do your best Julie Andrews imitation and twirl around. At high altitude motion sickness takes on a whole new meaning.
The more able bodied will want to continue up the trail which rises steeply into the distance. It is rocky but the use of poles quickly adds needed stability. Stop as often as necessary and tell everyone you need a view break. Turn around, face down trail, suck wind, and admire the increasingly expansive views of Guanella Pass. I found that I was able to zip up the trail with no quad burn whatsoever but that the inevitable effects of high altitude did have me breathing heavily. Perhaps I should have slowed down a bit because near the upper ridge the trail started getting a bit blurry. We wouldn't want it to be TOO easy, now would we.
Hikers get a nice break on the upper ridge which is flat but full of scree. Take your time crossing. A twisted ankle at this point would make getting down a challenge. The final cone of scree is a jumble and hikers just find their way from rock to rock with little coherence.
We were lucky and the weather was beautiful. We stayed on the summit for over an hour just gawking at the rolling green hills below us. I have been chased off of Guanella so many times by lightening that I have developed a neurotic paranoia about the place but this day there was barely a wisp of a cloud. I still eyed them carefully because Guanella is notorious for brewing storms at explosive rates.
From the summit, Mt. Evans feels like it is within spitting distance and you can see all the tourists who drove up to that summit. "Look Vern there are mountain climbers over there!" With more time and a car shuttle, you can cross the sawtooth that connects the two peaks and bag two in one day. I have several friends who have done this and say it is easier than it looks and well worth doing.
So, for those of you who have never climbed a 14er, give Mt. Bierstadt a try. It is an easy walk up but will require you to have gotten off the couch in the last year. Some scrambling is required in the scree field so bring your gloves as well. Do it like I did and take the day off of work to avoid the crowds and meditate on why we love living in Colorado.