Mt. Bierstadt, “West Evans”, and Mt. Evans (Front Range) – Combo Approach via Sawtooth Traverse (Class 3)
- Attempted 8/5/15
- 10.25 miles round trip
- 7.5 hrs RT
- Easy 14ers (Class 2) – Moderate Traverse (Class 3)
- +3,900′ net elevation gain
- Sunblock (at that elevation, you’ll feel the sun)
- Tech shell (you will want a shell to protect you from the wind)
- Nanopuff jacket (always layer when attempting a 14er)
- Headlamp (you’ll have to be starting this hike earlier than most 14ers)
- Light gloves (for climbing and warmth)
- Hiking poles (save the knees!)
- Lunch and lots of snacks
- Lots of water!
Since Mt. Bierstadt is reached quickly from Arvada (just over 1hr drive to its Guanella Pass TH), we decided to leave at 5a. Starting at about 6:30a was fine since we now had some light in the sky (not much though, since you take the West slopes approach up Bierstadt from Guanella Pass). I won’t harp on Mt. Bierstadt too much since I’ve done it before, but it took us 1.5-1.75 hours, beating any part of the crowds heading up Bierstadt. We took a quick summit photo before proceeding onto the Sawtooth: Having seen the weather forecast, we were anxious to get across quickly. While we didn’t see any incoming weather that had us worried, I was anxious to get in a summit of Mt. Evans to bag that peak and knock it off my list.
The sawtooth took us about 1.25-1.5 hrs to cross; however, we weren’t doing the standard route across. The standard route actually has you dip down right on the sawtooth so you are on the eastern side of the ridge – almost in the basin by the lake. But we stayed right along the ridge of the sawtooth. The majority of the ridge is difficult class 2 to easy class 3 stuff; but occasionally you can find some short class 4 variations that require some technical climbing. If you are going to stay high on the ridge (which was super fun, I highly suggest staying high if you are comfortable with mild exposure) I would definitely recommend a helmet. I didn’t bring mine, per suggestion, which would be fine if we took the standard route on the sawtooth. If you want to do the ridge of the sawtooth, it can be a difficult class 2 to maybe an easy class 3 the whole way; the standard route would range from maybe a class 2 to difficult class 2.
It should be noted that if you want to do the sawtooth but are too afraid of the exposure as seen above (which looks a ton worse than it actually is while you hike it), you can climb up a few scree fields to reach the same point as the end of the sawtooth basically. That scree field won’t exceed a difficult class 2 by any means.
Like I said, the hike across the class 3 section of the sawtooth with the exposure looks atrocious from a distance, but is actually quite tame when hiking across it. I wasn’t ever worried about falling off at this section.
Once you are over the exposed section of the sawtooth, it is like the flatlands for quite awhile. I would estimate a class 1 until you begin ascending up “West Evans” (an unofficial 14er) if you choose to. If you stay on the main trail, which will bypass West Evans and go directly to Mt. Evans remaining a class 1 for most of the way, sometimes a class 2. If you choose to go up to West Evans, you’ll be facing more like difficult class 2 scrambling to get to the top – a class 3 if you choose harder routes up at parts (but still mostly a difficult class 2). I would highly recommend bagging West Evans, even though it is an unofficial peak. It is prettier than Mt. Evans, far less crowded (we were by ourselves nearly the whole 45 mins we were up there) and it is a better approach.
If peak bagging isn’t your game, I would bail at West Evans and return to Guanella Pass. However, it only took me about 25 minutes RT to go over to Mt. Evans, take a summit photo and pano photo, and then return back to West Evans. During that time, Sarah and Kevin slept at West Evans since it was rather flat (but still a bit exposed). The walk over to Evans (I went down to the standard trail) was boring, flat, and uneventful. Getting to Mt. Evans wasn’t pretty either with all the people who drove to the top flooding the summit. Truth be told, the summit at West Evans was much, much prettier than Mt. Evans’ summit was.
Getting from Guanella Pass TH to Mt. Evans took me about 4.75-5 hours with breaks, so that’s a pretty long hike. The return trip is really quite painless, for awhile, since you don’t gain nor lose much elevation. Hike back almost to the sawtooth and then stay right (North) – it’ll feel like you are hiking to nowhere, there aren’t any landmarks in this direction. While we failed to find the trail until we dropped into the gully, apparently it exists in the tundra above the gully. There are two gullies you can take to get down into the “willows” – one is steep and quicker since it is closer to the sawtooth, the other is shallower but further away and makes for a longer round trip. We opted for the steeper one and it was kind of nasty. If you have bad knees, I might avoid this section. You lost almost 2,000 ft in less than a mile, loose rock and dirt everywhere, and not many stable rocks to balance on. We found hiking poles to be the only salvation in descending this section safely. My friends assured me that Mt. Columbia’s approach was worse, but not by much. This is definitely the worst descent I have had to date, byt I don’t know if going back down the sawtooth is worse than what we did. The trip length might be the same, but going down the sawtooth’s loose-ish scree with that exposure probably isn’t worth it.
The descent will get progressively more shallow as you descend. The top is definitely the worst.
Once you get down the gully you think, “great, now the hard part must be done with!” And while the more technical part may be over with, the more frustrating willows remain. The stories are all true: They are muddy, wet, and the branches WILL scrape up your arm relentlessly. Hiking poles are a must to help you negotiate around some of the mud puddles, one which consumed Sarah’s leg up to her knee! We all took a dunk somewhere, leaving a wet and muddy shoe for the remaining hike. The willows are about 2 miles long and there are muddy spots around every turn, but the worst probably being towards the start of the willows. It is easy to get separated from your group if you hike too far ahead since you can’t see over a majority of the willows. We found staying high in the willows was best, get as high as you can as quick as you can! We made the mistake of staying low at the start and we wound up getting a bit wet. Once we stayed high we were truly bushwacking, but I would take that over having to walk around the deep muddy stuff for 2 miles. I held my hiking poles just in front of my face to protect me and just took a bunch of branches to my arms (no shirt of jacket can protect you here!). The willows have a mind of their own. They want you to get lost. They want you to sink into the mud. They want to consume you – sanity and body. There are a million trails you can take through the willows, but stay high and you’ll be drier – they all lead to the main Bierstadt trail eventually. You reach the willows at about 7.5 miles into the hike and have nearly 3 miles remaining, but the last 0.75 miles are on the main trail.
Overall, the sawtooth was super fun and there is no other way to summit Bierstadt, West Evans, and Mt. Evans together! Would I do it again? Maybe, but probably just the sawtooth and then bail. But the willows, oh man I just can’t stress how sucky those were. With this knowledge, I would probably go down the sawtooth and back down Bierstadt. The only downer to that would be that you would gain about 500-600 feet when ascending the sawtooth to take Bierstadt’s summit – the last thing I want ot do is go uphill after several miles of hiking, but it may beat the willows! Be prepared on the sawtooth, check the weather from Bierstadt’s summit to make sure you have adequate time to make it across. Once you begin the sawtooth, checking the weather to the West is a bit harder plus you don’t want it to be wet on the Sawtooth (wind wasn’t an issue, we had 20mph winds on Bierstadt’s summit but no issues the exposure of the sawtooth with wind – it is all behind the mountain). Avoid rain on the sawtooth, as the last thing you want with exposure are slippery rocks!
In addition, Mt. Bierstadt (alone) is one of the 14ers I recommend people to attempt for their first one for several reasons:
- You can see the weather coming in hours in advance. This means you can recognize a storm and decide if it is safe to continue hiking or begin your descent depending what you see coming from the West. Not many 14ers offer this perk.
- No off roading required – just drive up Guanella Pass (paved) and park in the parking lot.
- Class 1 all the way up until you reach about 13,900′ then the final pitch is class 2.
- The trail is impossible to get lost on, it is VERY well established. Even at the class 2 pitch, it isn’t hard to figure out where to go. When in doubt, there will surely be other hikers on this mountain, even on a weekday.
- 6.5 miles RT is rather short.
- About 2,800 ft of gain, which is again pretty tame.
- Close to denver, about an hour drive. If waking up at 2a to go drive out to a 14er doesn’t jive well with you, you may wake up at 4:30a or so for this hike and probably still beat the afternoon storms. Only the front range 14ers offer this.