I am a visual learner – I need to experience things before I really feel comfortable doing it again. If someone shows me how to do something, I am pretty capable of repeating it.
Of course, sometimes I have to be thrown into the deep end. And a lot of those times, I feel pretty rotten because of how badly I do. The only real comfort is that when I do it again, I know what to expect.
I have a feeling that mountain hiking is going to be a lot like that.
I’m not saying that I had a terrible time hiking up Mt. Bierstadt in the middle of March in the snow. But now, I know what to expect, what to pack, and how I’m going to feel after 11 hours of hiking.
There was a lot of “experience” going on for me that day. I’m here to tell you all about it!
Pre-hike drive playlist: The King is Dead by the Decemberists, Fleet Foxes by Fleet Foxes.
I have a group of friends around the area who are quite the adventurers. Not extreme, but they hike, climb, ski, showshoe, and do all sorts of outdoorsy-type stuff. This time, they had organized a winter hike up to the summit of Mt. Bierstadt. And I decided to try it with them.
Usually, a hike up Mt. Bierstadt is a nice little daytrip. In the summer, the mountain is crawling with hikers. Of course, it isn’t summer right now, so the mountain was pretty much empty. Our group saw one lady coming down in the morning, had two more hikers pass us near the top, and then saw one more guy in the afternoon. That was it.
The weather forecast wasn’t too appealing for the casual hiker, either. They forecasted rain for much of the area, but in the higher elevation there was bound to be snow.
My group gathered in Georgetown, about an hour west of Denver on I-70. The mountains really start to pick up around Georgetown – nearby is Mt. Evans, one of the fourteeners you can see from Denver, and a popular tourist location.
We piled into three vehicles and headed up to the trailhead of Bierstadt. Well, almost to the trailhead. About two miles from the trailhead, they stopped plowing, and hikers need to walk up the rest of the way.
Georgetown to parking playlist: Cracked Rear View by Hootie and the Blowfish
It was here where I observed what my fellow hikers wore and brought. Snow pants and rain pants, Camelbaks and backpacks, snowshoes and microspikes. Layers and layers and layers of clothing, too. I felt mostly prepared, with my layers and Yaktrax and Camelbak and hand/feet warmers, but I had a feeling I still may not have everything I need.
We started up in good spirits, and in about 10 minutes it started to snow. It was pretty clear from the clouds and the snow that we were going to be experiencing that for much of the hike.
The road went up by switchbacks, and we cut out a bit by climbing through the trees. It was pretty steep, but eventually we found the road again. We took our first break here, and I put my feet warmers in my shoes and my hand warmers in my mittens. Someone gave me a body warmer, and I put that on my t-shirt. When you shake these bags, they heat up, and as longs as they continue to shake, they can stay warm for hours. I have to say, I wasn’t cold at all through the entire hike. My fingers stayed warm and I could always feel my toes. Experience tip #1: bring hand/feet/body wamers.
We made it to the trailhead, where there was the one pit toilet station available for the day. They didn’t have anything on the mountain, so the best you can do is find an empty area and squat. I’ve been to China, so this wasn’t a problem. You just had to make sure to go with the wind. Experience tip #2: bring toilet paper. Apologies for being crass.
There were four main parts of the trail: the Willows, the switchbacks, the tundra, and the rocks. The Willows actually starts out in a descent (more on that later). We found the trail with poles that stuck up out of the ground, since there was snow. You wouldn’t think about that when hiking in the summertime. Up past the tree line, you look for cairns, which are rocks stacked up on top of each other. It made the hiking a little more of an adventure, looking for a pole or a cairn nearby. Experience tip #3: look for piles of rocks or a pole to stay on the trail.
I didn’t use an iPod during my hike, deciding to focus on the quiet of nature. But that didn’t mean I didn’t have songs stuck in my head to keep me going.
Internal playlist: “World on Fire” by The Royal Concept
We had to say goodbye to a few friends who had engagements elsewhere, so the final count was six that would try to make it up to the top.
We often stopped to catch a breath and take a drink. A few times we stopped to eat something. This was one of the dumb things I did: I only brought Cliff bars and a couple of my great no-bake cookies. Some of the others had sandwiches, chocolate bars, trail mix, crackers, and fruit. By the end I had no desire to eat my food, and that made me more tired and more cranky. Experience tip #4: bring lots of types of food and EAT IT to keep up your energy.
“Safe and Sound” by Capital Cities
I had inquired before taking the hike as to how much water I should bring. I heard two liters, and my Camelbak bladder (yes, it’s called a bladder) held two liters. To be on the safe side, I also packed two other water bottles, in case I ran out. Then I drank lots of water the night before, drank water before we started, and made sure to rehydrate when I got home. That last one was REALLY important.
So you’re thinking, “Hey! You did something right!” Well, you’d be kind of right. The problem was that I drank my Camelbak water first…and drained the whole thing by the time I got to the top. I mentioned it to my group, and someone said that the Camelbak is insulated to prevent freezing, but the water inside the tube may have frozen. I checked when I got home, and it hadn’t frozen – I had drank every single drop!
“When Can I See You Again?” by Owl City
The big problem was my water bottles. Since they were outside the pack, and it was below freezing, the water froze! I had to borrow water from friends on the way down. Experience tip #5: drink water bottle water first, then Camelbak water.
In order to keep going up, I developed a few techniques/steps to keep going. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but now it just seems pretty silly. But I digress.
“Babel” by Mumford & Sons
The first step is the Penguin. As I got into the steeper territory, I pointed my toes outward, which helped me avoid too much incline in my feet. I also used the Hermit, where I hunched over and put the weight of my Camelbak directly on my back and took tiny steps up. I looked ridiculous, but it worked for short amounts of time.
The best move, though, was coming down the mountain. Since it would obviously be easier going down the tundra section than going up it, we spent a lot of time, well, sliding down the snow. It would have been a great chance to use a sled or skis if I’d had them. It ended up being a lot of jumping and slipping down as much as I could without toppling over.
“Madness” by Muse (how appropriate.)
A huge factor was the weather. When we started, the clouds covered all the mountains. We could see a good distance, but it didn’t look like much. The snow fell for pretty much the entire ascent. The higher we got, the more the wind picked up, too. There was about a 20 minute span as we neared the rock portion of the hike where we considered turning around, because the wind, snow, cold, and clouds were making the trip a little less desirable. Several people said, “If someone wants to turn around, that’s fine, just say the word and we’ll head down.” But no one said anything.
We were rewarded a while later, when we caught glimpses of the sun…and the clouds broke. Suddenly we saw mountains behind us! The area we had started at was a valley completely surrounded by the mountains. The view was incredible. It was that extra bit of adrenaline that we needed to keep moving upwards. God made sure that the curtain was pulled back at just the right time.
“Gangnam Style” by Psy
Unfortunately, by the time we conquered the large rock portion of the climb (in the summer you would avoid putting your feet on the rocks; in the winter you avoid putting your feet in the snow), the clouds had covered Bierstadt, the snow had picked up, and you couldn’t see a thing. It didn’t matter, though. I had five people that served as witnesses that I made it to the top of that mountain. Yes, in pictures it doesn’t look like much, but it’s all about depth perception. Once we got up there, we realized it was quite the fourteener to conquer.
The curtain was once again opened as we were heading down, and this time the sun completely appeared under a beautiful blue sky. I believe that the red on my face was from the sun reflecting off the snow, and not from windburn. We ended up stopping halfway down, plopping ourselves in the snow, and having a “meal.” I even had a victory beer. Experience tip #6: don’t drink beer. At least, not until AFTER the hike is over. It will give you a stomachache. It won’t feel great inside your system, either.
“Harbour Lights” by A Silent Film
For much of the hike I had been in decent spirits. Even when I kept losing my Yaktrax in the snow (eventually losing both of them completely), needing to use the bathroom, and frustrated with the snow and clouds, I kept talking. But after our “meal,” I started not feeling the best. Yes, the beer was one of the factors, but there were others. My water was slushy in the water bottle. My hand warmers kept my hands warm, but my mittens had frozen. My nose kept running. And that snowfall that had taken place while we were at the top had laid down an inch of fresh, fluffy snow in the switchback/Willows area. That was the worst. Some in the group broke out their snowshoes, but I didn’t have anything. Instead, I kept finding the fresh snow and falling knee-deep in it. If I was lucky, I stepped on the already-packed-down snow. But most of the time I was not. And that made me really tired and cranky.
I tried to keep it to myself, but I didn’t do a very great job. But my hiking buddies, bless their hearts, tried to keep spirits high. Whether it was talking to me or talking to others, they kept up a good conversation. They kept up the encouragement, and urging us on with “We’re almost there!” and more stuff like that. I wish I had tried harder to be more positive in this point, but once we reached the Willows, it really felt like we were never going to get back to the trailhead. I wasn't the best hiking buddy that I could have been. Sorry, hiking buddies.
“Kill Your Heroes” by AWOLNATION
Remember how I said at the beginning of the hike that the Willows actually started downhill? Well, after 9 hours of hiking, the Willows portion was now an uphill climb. And at this point, I really, really didn’t want to do any uphill climbing. I really could not remember how long we had hiked in the Willows, and because of the fresh snow, I could barely remember the trail. Our leader kept taking us to the poles, but I just wanted to see some sort of light at the end of the metaphorical tunnel.
Finally, finally, we got to the blessed outhouse. That pit toilet meant that we just had to follow the road downhill, and we’d be at the car. Yes, there was snow we’d have to slog through, but just getting out of the Willows made me feel a lot better. We didn’t take that steep shortcut like we had in the morning, but followed the road down.
“Galvanize” by The Chemical Brothers
Just before darkness fell, we got back to the car. After 11 hours of cold, wind, and snow, it was wonderful to get back into a car with heat. And when I got back to my vehicle, I could finally revel in the fact that I had just gone up and down a mountain!
I highly doubt I’ll try another winter fourteener – especially since Bierstadt is probably the “easiest” winter fourteener in Colorado. But the idea of hiking on dirt paths is incredibly appealing. Anything has to be easier than keeping yourself from sinking in the snow!
Did this experience convince me to try again? I think I have one more fourteener inside of me. I am curious to see how a summer fourteener is different. And hopefully, thanks to the experiences I had during this fourteener, I will be more ready and more prepared mentally and physically for what I will be facing!