Sept 25, 2020 | By Kyle Zinkula | Illustration by Jubilee Rivera-Hernandez
We rose before the sun on Thursday morning during Block Break. Under the light of a moonless night, Emily Dwyer ’22 and I packed up our sleeping bags, unused tent (it was a moonless night, so of course we had to sleep under the bright stars) and hurried into my car. While waiting for the vehicle to warm and defog, we ate a quick breakfast and got ready for our estimated 11-mile hike for the day. Our route began at the “Mount Bierstadt Trailhead” and then went up, you guessed it, Mount Bierstadt, a 14er (a term used for peaks over 14,000 feet tall). From the summit, we were to go along “The Sawtooth,” the ridge connecting Bierstadt to Mount Evans, it’s 14,265 foot neighbor, and finally back down through a gully connecting The Sawtooth to the main Bierstadt trail about a mile away from the trailhead.
We started hiking at 5 a.m. and marched our way along the approximately four-mile trail to the top of Mount Bierstadt in about two hours. Dwyer, a cross country runner at Colorado College, definitely helped keep the pace up as we climbed in the early morning cold. The sun was rising just before we reached the peak. Above us, the stars slowly dimmed as the sky lightened. All around us we heard pika, among various other rodents and birds, calling out in the short alpine grass and piles of rocks.
Upon reaching the summit, we were nearly immobilized by the frigid cold of the morning. Looking to the northeast, I found myself quite intimidated by the steep sheerness of The Sawtooth. The ridge had earned its terrifying name, and from our vantage point at the summit of Bierstadt I was questioning our ability to climb what is classified as class three climbing (meaning it only required scrambling and no technical climbing or gear). I could not imagine the jagged rock forms to truly be climbable without a harness and rope. Not being able to feel my hands, due to the cold, also brought my ability to climb into question.
However, since it was only seven in the morning and due to Dwyer’s enthusiasm and determination, we began our steep descent along the ridge thinking “we have time to at least try it.” As we crawled along the gravel and snow patches of our climb, we found the trail to be nearly non-existent. Thankfully, a number of cairns – small, human-made piles of rocks that work like bread crumbs to guide hikers when a trail is faint or hard to follow – scattered the ridge. Led by these cairns (I had never been so happy to have wild cairns popping up around me at every turn), we made our way along our ridge.
As Dwyer and I climbed, I continued to remind us that the worst and sketchiest of our climbing was yet to come. Truthfully, I had no specific knowledge that informed me of that being so, but only a nagging suspicion that would be the case; the rocks ahead that we had to scramble only looked steeper and sharper.
Yet, one foot or hand in front of the other, we scurried our way around the steep “teeth” of The Sawtooth and managed to climb to the side of the steepest of the points. From here we hiked along a gravel “trail,” although the term is generous for the path we managed to find, with a steep cliff above on our right and the same steep cliff continuing downward on our left. One misstep and we would tumble hundreds of feet to our death. Despite what was at stake, we both found ourselves loving the hike, the climbing, and the views. It was this point of the day that Dwyer said was her “favorite part of the day” because “we finally emerged over the last steep part of The Sawtooth, and made it up the cliff face on the other side, as we were just sitting there looking out over everything. I was thinking we were crazy to have started but was so happy in that moment that I couldn’t imagine if we didn’t.” We safely made our way off The Sawtooth and onto the ridge leading to Mount Evans.
After about another hour of scrambling, we finally reached our second summit for the day, Mount Evans. At this point, it was 11 a.m. and my roommate was probably just waking up for his first day of block break.
We enjoyed our time at the summit and planned our route back to the Bierstadt trailhead. Unfortunately, this coming portion of our hike was the least planned and mapped out, so all we had was a vague idea of our direction and our good spirits. The latter proved invaluable as we quickly lost the trail intended to lead us down the mountain. With some swift compass work CC Outdoor Education taught me (do some clinics, everyone, they are great!), we managed to locate a gulley in the ridge we were hiking along. This steep, scree-covered (“scree” is a term used to describe very gravelly or rocky trails, especially when descending) trail led us directly downhill.
We took it slow and luckily neither of us lost our footing and fell to our asses. However, the worst of the hike back was not over. Once we reached level ground, after roughly three quarters to a mile of climbing in the gully, we found that much of the trail was horrendously muddy. We quickly lost any hope at keeping our feet clean and dry and instead opted to march through what was essentially a swamp for about two miles. At one point, I sunk knee deep in mud.
Dwyer and I made our way along our now defined, yet mucky, trail until we reached the trailhead at which we began. We had hiked almost 14 miles, climbed several thousand feet, and had been out for approximately nine hours. And yet, despite our exhaustion, mud covered feet (which at this point were only wet from a thorough cleaning in a nearby stream), heavy legs, and sun burned faces, we both agreed that climbing The Sawtooth was some of the best hiking either of us had ever done.
I give this trail a 10/10 and highly recommend hiking it, but it is NOT for the faint of heart. Make sure you are fit, have read the risks, can scramble as well as a mountain goat, and have no fear of heights before you consider braving The Sawtooth!