Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Sawtooth Traverse

It had been a while since my last "run". I have still been getting outside regularly for mountain bike rides three or four times a week, but they don't quite satisfy like a good multi-hour run/hike/scramble above treeline. With snow settling in, my windows of opportunity were waning. So, last weekend I did my first - and much needed - adventure in a long while.
Typical scene of mountain biking over the last few weeks. I'm trail spoiled.
The Bierstadt-Evans Sawtooth ridge had been on my radar for a long while, but I was reluctant - or unwilling rather - to spend a summer weekend anywhere near Bierstadt. This was mainly because of the absolutely insane crowds. Its a beautiful and easy 14er only 90 minutes from Denver, so on any given weekend there are hundreds, like really - hundreds, of people in search of grabbing an easy 14er. So I had figured I would wait till around now when it was cold, snowy/wet/icy.
Just passed the swamp looking up at the moderate grades up to Mt. Bierstadt (right)
Guanella Pass trailhead might be the highest trailhead in Colorado. I opened the car door, slid one leg outside and proceeded to retreat back into the warmth of the car. Its tights season! I changed into my brand new Pearl-Izumi wind-proof tights which I found for $15 a few weeks back (they retail for $115!) and threw on a hardshell windbreaker. I put on gloves as I set out down the trail into the infamous Scott Gormer Creek swamp. Despite not running in almost a month, it all felt so famliar, like no time had passed at all since crossing the finish line a few weeks ago. The taps of the soles of my feet on frozen mud, the crisp air, the branches reaching out to scratch my arms and legs...its those little things that defines memories.
The Sawtooth's shadow cast onto Argentine Peak (highpoint left...I think)
I got to around 12,800' when I figured I was out of form for running uphill at altitude. I cut the final completely ridiculous and unnecessary switchback up towards the ridge. I was wearing my Merrell Trail Glove 2's, which are my only current pair of running shoes after purging my massive collection of shoes while moving apartments in August. Unfortunately they are (poorly) held together with glue and offered little more warmth than a sock. The sun had yet to peek over the ridge; I had to stop twice and jam my toes into the crease of my knee to get some warmth.
Clear skies, waiting for the sun.
Coming up on the ridge I stopped and basked in the sun for a bit. This had already turned into a very relaxed outing. I found my way up the ridge and sat down gazing South towards the silhouette of Pikes Peak - my now only remaining Front Range 14er. I had the summit to myself for only a few minutes until others began to arrive congregate. I stood up and turned East towards the Sawtooth.
Abyss Lake from somewhere near the summit of Mt Bierstadt
There was a 5 inch coating of powder snow covering the talus down to the traverse. My low-cut, breathable trail-runners gobbled up the snow. There was no point in being conservative with how much snow they took in, so I just bombed the hill sliding on my butt whenever I slipped in the snow. It was sort of terrible in the most fun way possible. The traverse itself I found very thrilling. There was just enough snow to be spicy. The south side was nearly dry, though once crossing over to the Northern ledges, some snowy banks made what is normally just exposed walking, much more fun.
The descent from Bierstadt. I stayed slightly left of the ridge proper to slide down the snowy scree.
I found (like most ridge traverses) that if you wanted class 2, there was some walk-around route, but you could also make it as hard as you wanted. I summited the first gendarme which felt like 4th or low 5th class by my route. I side skirted the second in class 2 to save time. There was exhilarating exposure on the North.
Looking down the North side of the ridge towards Guanella Pass.
 The final ledges proved to be a negotiation with some scrappy snow that was sometimes solid sometimes not. It wasn't bad, just not overly enjoyable given the variable conditions. Although this was the most exposed part, it was easy scrambling and stomping steps in snow.
The final ledges up to the summit of the Sawtooth.
Ledges. Looking Southwest.
Upon gaining the ridge (what is that the third now?) It was significantly farther to Mt. Evans than I had anticipated. I made sure to tag the summit of the Sawtooth and "West Evans" on my way over. "West Evans" proved to be quite fun scrambling. Aside from my shoes being constantly wet and slippery from the snow, there was plenty of boulder hopping and even some slabby scrambling. Moving in the snow was totally un-runnable. The increased downward force gave a 50% chance of post-holing, meaning you looked borderline insane trying to pull your leg out of the snow as your other leg ran away from you. After what felt like a year I finally got to Mt Evans.
Summit of "The Sawtooth" (near), "West Evans" (behind), Mt. Evans is a bit behind "West Evans"
Sun sculpted snow on the summit of "West Evans"
Summit of Mt Evans. From left to right: Mt Bierstadt, West Evans, The Sawooth, Mt Spalding,
I caught up to a couple doing the traverse from Guanella Pass on Evans. We walked back to the Sawtooth together via their route of less "direct-as-possible" and more "reasonable". I figured it was best since I had gotten all the high points on the way there and they were obviously moving way faster though I was sure I was working harder on my route. We split paths at the Sawtooth, I had found a trail on Google Earth on the Northwest slope of a nearby 13er Mt Spalding, which would hopefully grant me easy passage through the marshes back to the car. They were descending the standard gully, which gives you a super fun 2 miles of swamp travel, disgusting.
Getting weird . Mt Spalding behind me. If you're not down with dude capris then leave!
Mt Spalding actually had a trail that came into view every now and then, creeping out from underneath the snow. It wasn't super exciting so after a quick gel, I started the squishy descent down to Scott Gormer Creek. It was already getting swampy, but the Northern slope held a good amount of snow, so there was postholing, glissading, running and so forth. For my route I crossed Scott Gormer quite high up, around 13,000' and side hilled, staying above the willows as long as possible to the North. Eventually I came to cliff band and descended a gully to the descender's right. 
I aimed directly for the slight highpoint before dropping into the swamp. The parking lot is beyond the marsh.
Summit of Mt. Spalding. Mt Evans, West Evans, Sawtooth (slightly out of sight), Bierstadt
I had the waypoint in my GPS, so I mostly followed that, but its easiest to find the trail by staying as North as possible until you are essentially as low as possible in full on swamp, then turn West-Southwest. You' should hit the trail eventually, though its not super obvious. The trail really was a life saver. I wove through swamps on relatively dry ground until about a quarter mile from the parking lot, then it was a grade-A bushwhack through calf deep mud to the car.
The full route, click for readable text. (trailhead out of frame on the bottom).
I was pretty beat! It had been a while and I had pulled an all nighter a few days before getting some homework and studying done. I peeled off my filthy summer sneakers revealing originally white socks, now dark brown. Some "kind" fellow drove by and made some clever joke about my "yoga-pants". Ah, this definitely Mt. Bierstadt, where swag matters more than getting out and enjoying nature. The route ended up being 12 miles, 4,600ft and taking 7 hours. It could certainly be done much, much faster by someone who didn't not care and without snow.

I devoured a bag of trail mix, drove back to Boulder, ate and drank some more than headed up to Chautauqua to take my roommate on a tour of the Flatironette, Spy and Southwest Face. I finished the day with 16 miles, 6,200ft and 9 hours in the hills.

Also, just as a note, if someone ends up reading this and is curious at all about finding the trail through the willows please don't hesitate to ask for the gpx file or more detailed notes.


  1. Good to see you back and running buddy. The Sawtooth looks pretty epic. I don't know how you handle trails with "hundreds" of people traffic. My mountain only gets a few dozen and it drives me crazy lol.

    1. I can't really complain too much about Bierstadt. Trails around the flatirons see over a 100 people everyday, summer weekends you could easily pass 100+ people in just the first mile! Ends up being easier to just scramble the rocks and learn all of the secret routes!

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