This year I decided to try again to summit some of the magnificent peaks that Colorado has to offer. The whole slamming my head repeatedly into tree trunks thing wasn’t really working out for me, I guess. This time for a change of pace, I would actually listen to Mary’s recommendations and not attempt the peak with the longest approach as well as the greatest altitude gain, namely Pikes Peak. No, I decided to start slow and easy. And yes, it does mean I had to submit, painfully, to an extended session of groveling and declaration of mea maxima culpa.
After consultation with all the oracles, some Tarot card readings, and a lengthy perusal of 14teeners.com, I decided on Mt. Bierstadt for this year’s first attempt. Mt. Bierstadt is one of the 54 Colorado peaks that exceed fourteen thousand feet (ergo 14teener). The people who try and summit these things have rules though. And one of them is that driving to the top of a peak, or taking the Cog Railway doesn’t count. You have to climb up there. On your own two legs. There’s no specific prohibition against using Sherpas to haul your butt to the top, but Sherpas are few and far between here in Colorado. Mt. Bierstadt looked fine, with a listing as one of the easiest 14teeners to summit. No snow, check. No difficult trails, check. Short (and this is a obscenely relative term) trail to the summit, check. Also, as far as my non-existent German is concerned, Bierstadt translates roughly as Beer Town. Seems like a good omen to me!
The early part of the trail you actually descend for a bit. You wend your way through some willows, which aren’t like the large weeping kinds of willows you find on riverbanks in English novels. These willows are bushes that spread out over the marshy low lying ground below the mountain, though I should note that the term ‘low lying ground’ is awfully relative, as this occurs at an altitude in excess of 11,000 feet. So it’s low-lying-high-altitude-ground. But I digress. A set of duckboards have been installed so that you can spend at least forty percent of your time marching high and dry above the mud and water. Of course this leaves sixty percent of the time picking your way around mud, slime and marshy spots, but that’s just quibbling. I liked the hike through the willows, at least early in the morning. Later on the return it had warmed up enough that the gnats were out in force. Nothing bitey though, so I kept all my blood inside my body, a state of which I’m quite keen.
First ridge climbing out of the willows, was kind of steep, but I forge ahead. Long traverse along a saddle leading up to the second ridge wasn’t all that bad. Not quite as steep as the first ridge, some rocks in the path. Evil rocks, beginning to hate the rocks. Always placed so that they are just in the right location to make me take either a longer or shorter stride than I do normally. I scrambled up the final ridge. I think scramble is the correct term – that means march upwards around thirty or forty feet, pause, gasp for breath, take a sip of water, shake your head in bemusement at your folly at thinking you could climb up this hellish mountain, rinse, repeat, right? Still got the rocks too.
I get on final ridge, and hey, there’s the summit! Well, the real summit is there, just beyond the false summit. People are starting to come down now, all of whom passed me previously. Probably regarding with deep sympathy the pathetic old guy who’s taking longer to get up Mount Bierstadt then people take to fly the Atlantic. Exaggeration? We’ll see. All of these younger and/or healthier folks like to say encouraging things like, “almost there”, “not much farther”, and “there’s no crying in baseball”. This last but isn’t helpful at all. Thanks to all of you nice folks. I should mention though to the people who persisted in saying that the last pitch to the summit was “steeper than it looks”, well, I don’t think so. See I’m the eternal cockeyed optimist, and if I look at a mountain my brain skews it so it looks like a nice little stroll, maybe a few hundred feet of rise over the entire course. So of course, the last part turns out to be a great deal steeper than my now oxygen deprived faculties would have me believe. And it’s covered in boulders. Lots of boulders. Boulder is a term I associate with the town in Northern Colorado where the University of Colorado is located, along with a really very nice bistro where I can get some of the finest moule-frites in the state. I wish I were there now, knocking back a nice bottle of Côtes du Rhône or three. But first, I have to get up over these freaking boulders.
Apparently at this point the trail makers and cairn builders have had some basic disagreements. There are cairns everywhere, and people pointing out that this route over this way is better than that route over there. They all seem pretty much the same when you’re gasping for breath and exhausted. It took me twenty or thirty minutes to do the last 200 or so yards, but eventually I am rewarded with the summit which even to someone mildly hallucinating from oxygen withdrawal, isn’t all that scenic. The views though, while not to die for, are truly amazing.
So time for some celebratory photos. Huzzah! Finish off the Gatorade (gah, nasty stuff), and eat half an apple. No appetite at this point. This will come back to haunt me in the not too distant future. See how I weave in the ominous foreshadowing there?
Descent time, yay! All downhill – this I can handle. I can do downhill standing on my head, which really doesn’t make any sense, but I go for the easy simile whenever I can. But the easy downhill part will have to wait till I get back through the dreaded boulder field, then it’ll be all smooth sailing. Okay, the smooth sailing (again with similes that have no relevance – I’m on a mountain, not a sailboat) will materialize after the final ridge, which is now the first ridge, cause it’s steep. Lot’s steeper than I remember on the way up. Of course, at this point an excess of clean mountain air has started selectively erasing my memories, and the ascent seems like this hazy, dimly remembered thing that happened eons ago. Though with my pace that might not be pure hyperbole.
Okay, pick my way down the somewhat muddy and rocky trail descending the ridge. Ah, new muscles are making their presence felt. What, you thigh muscles were there all this time? What didn’t you say something before now? On the descent I don’t have to pause to get oxygen. We’re past that – now we need to pause to let my thighs rest a little. So it takes longer, considerably longer to get down off the mountain than I hoped. Then again, my hopes were that a helicopter would magically appear and waft me off to the parking area far, far below in a few minutes at best. Sadly, that doesn’t happen.
The saddle area, well looking at it now, it’s steeper than I remember, too. This is apparently going to be a theme, everything’s steeper going down then I remember coming up. Also need to watch where I’m stepping so I don’t trip over a cunning concealed rock sitting right there in the middle of the trail. Finally get down to the first ridge, which is now the last ridge – you have been following all this right? By now people who passed me on the way up the mountain have already gotten back to the trail head, got in their cars, driven to Denver and had a nice meal and then home and are sitting down to their computers to write up a trip report on 14teeners.com. I haven’t quite reached the willows yet. Ah, the willows, not too bad. Duckboards which do not have a lot of rocks sitting on them, waiting to twist an ankle. No rocks at all, as a matter of fact. Duckboards have become my newest, favoritest walking path. I love duckboards. Why couldn’t they have put the duckboards in for the entire trail? And helicopters for the steep sections?
Oh, the last leg, I have to ascend a slight slope back to the trailhead parking lot, where a belated lunch and drinking liquids that taste neither like Gatorade nor plastic impregnated water await. It’s at this point that skipping breakfast, and eating only one energy bar and a half an apple, comes home to roost. I have pretty much completely depleted all of my energy reserves. I’m dead on my feet. Can’t go a step farther. Well, maybe a few more steps. Stop, rest, a few more steps. And so it goes. Finally, I get to the parking lot. Huzzah, though now considerably more subdued then when I summited, and containing therein, a slight but subtle whine.
Some eats and I feel quite a bit better. Then the long drive home and a thunderstorm that rains biblical quantities of hail, water and bedraggled small mammals through the last thirty miles. Well, better now, then while I was on the mountain.
All in all, not the funnest day in the life, but still tremendously worthwhile. Now I’ll just sit and pop some Advil and steel myself for a few days of some serious muscle aches and pains, and moaning and groaning.