Earlier in the week, Carly and I had discussed another “training” hike for a fourteener, like our Carpenter’s Peak hike back on the Fourth of July, but as I was looking for a good one, Carly said “why don’t we just do the fourteener?” I was a bit surprised because she’s been the one that has been hesitant to do it, but after making sure she was serious, our plans changed like that.
Through a little bit of research, I have found that Mt. Bierstadt seems to be the consensus for easiest first fourteener, so that had been our first target for some time now. I looked at pictures and descriptions of the trail, and felt confident that, if we took it slow, we would be able to make it.
We made sure to hydrate the day before, and packed our reservoirs full of water, knowing that we would probably need it all. We also made tortilla wrap turkey sandwiches, and brought some of our favorite everything pretzels. We were ready.
The drive is about an hour and a half from where we are in Centennial, and we knew that we needed to get there early to avoid the notorious Colorado afternoon thunderstorms and to avoid the crowds that we were warned would be there if we got there too late. We left our house at 5:30am, which was a little later than we would’ve liked, and arrived at the parking lot along Guanella Pass at about 7:00am.
The drive up was easy, and you really didn’t feel like you were climbing to 12,000ft, for the most part. The parking lot was completely full (it’s not very large), but there was plenty of parking along the street, so we just took the first spot we saw and pulled behind another car. Looking up at Mt. Bierstadt, it seemed a lot more daunting than it ever had on Google Earth, but it was finally time to tackle our first fourteener.
The hike actually starts off going downhill, which isn’t exactly the way I expected to start the climb up a mountain, and takes you by a serene mountain pond. A couple reviews we read mentioned that they saw a few moose taking baths in the pond early in the morning, but they weren’t there today. There has been significant rainfall around here lately, and the stream that we had to cross was a little bit higher than it probably normally is. It was a bit tricky to get across, and Carly got her sock wet in the stream, but we made it across fairly unscathed.
After about a half a mile or maybe slightly more, we actually started going uphill, but it wasn’t difficult at first. It starts out fairly gently sloping, but that gives way to the switchbacks before too long. The elevation starts to become apparent when the steepness increases. Our breathing started becoming harder and harder every time we’d complete another section, but we both felt like we were plenty prepared for this.
On our way, fairly high up the mountain (I’d guess maybe 13,000 ft), we finally ran into the moose! There were two of them, but we didn’t get too close because there was quite a crowd behind them. They led us on the trail up the mountain for a little while before veering off and galloping majestically off on their own. We watched them go as far as we could before they finally disappeared from sight. That was definitely a highlight of the hike and an unforgettable moment.
After a couple of miles, it started to become clearer to us that maybe we should have trained slightly more for this before starting. It was a really steep climb, and every step and every breath became harder. We stopped more frequently, which was necessary to catch our breath, so we didn’t risk getting altitude sickness and cutting our trek short. We stopped and ate our sandwiches on a rock along the trail about 3 miles in, before the final big push up towards the summit.
Feeling a little rejuvenated from our lunch, we got up and started climbing once again. Our legs were burning and there were a few times where we asked ourselves if we wanted to keep going up. Full disclosure, I am terrified of heights, and that was starting to become an issue for me above 13,000 feet, especially with wobbly legs. Thankfully, there weren’t too many spots that tested my nerves, but it certainly was starting to come into my mind.
We reached a flatter, plateau with some snow left before a very steep, very rocky stretch to the summit. It felt like it was only probably a couple hundred more feet up from this point. This was the last place on the hike that I felt like I was safe and on solid ground, and where I wasn’t feeling vertigo from the heights/elevation.
There was a very steep drop off on the backside of the mountain, so we decided to climb towards the summit on the frontside where we had come from. This last stretch was a “scramble” in the truest sense of the word. It was up to you to pick the path that you felt comfortable with, and you just had to go for it. We made it though, we climbed up over 14,000ft!!
We seized the incredible opportunity to take some pictures and videos while we were in the clouds, literally on top of a mountain. The feeling of being above all the other surrounding mountains is a surreal feeling, and one I’m sure didn’t help my vertigo, but I also can’t discount the incredible feeling of being up that high. As terrified as I was, it was an exhilarating feeling that adrenaline rush, and that amazing feeling is something that I think could eventually overtake my fear on these types of hikes.
While I think we could have spent hours sitting on top of the world, the dark clouds were gathering fast, and we knew it was a long ways down from there. As difficult as the uphill climb was, the descent back down the mountain was not any easier.
It was reminiscent of our Carpenter’s Peak hike, where we thought the hard part was over, but our legs were shot from the climb. Breathing was no longer an issue, as we were descending it became easier and easier, but the toll it took on our knees was immense. The other issue fresh in our minds the whole way down was the fact that we really had to pee, but there were no trees or bushes to hide behind to go, so we held it and we kept hiking faster.
I made a comment at the beginning of our trip that it was going to be a good feeling when we saw the bottom again, crossing the stream the other way and passing by the mountain lake again, and I was not wrong. It felt so good to finally be close to the parking lot again. Since the hike had started downhill at the beginning of our day, we had one final push uphill back to our car. I was physically exhausted, but being that close to the car gave us the motivation we needed to get up the hill and complete our hike.
We survived our first fourteener!! While I would never let anyone describe it as easy, the reward at the top was absolutely worth the effort to make the climb. I’ll be looking forward to our next fourteener, and recapturing that heart-pounding sensation of truly being on top of a mountain and being on top of the world.
(I forgot to stop my tracker before we started driving after getting down, but you can compare to the one at the beginning of the post. It took us about 3 hours moving)