Colorado 14'ers: Bierstadt, Sawtooth, Evans Combo

BIERSTADT, SAWTOOTH, EVANS COMBO

In the world of climbing, peak bagging, and hiking, Colorado has some of the most accessible routes in the country, let alone the world. Throughout the entire state, there are *58 mountains that are 14,000' or higher. Some of these peaks are easier than others, attracting large crowds on weekends; and I mean it. With the likes of Grays and Torreys, as well as Bierstadt and Evans all within an hour and a half or so of Denver, some are more popular than others. When I arrived in Colorado last year, within 24 hours I had done Bierstadt. 

Before I even moved to Colorado just a week ago, I told myself that I would do at least one 14'er every weekend until I can't anymore, so what a better way to start my 14'er conquest than to do Bierstadt again, but this time do the Sawtooth Traverse and Evans all in one go.

ACCORDING TO 14'ERS.COM:

Exposure: 3/6

Class 3 Scramble

Gain: 3,900ft

Length: 10.2 miles

Start: 11,669'

Evans Summit: 14,264'

A few days before I planned on an attempt at the Combo Route, I messaged Reptar on Instagram to see if he was interested in possibly tagging along on the supposed 10.25 mile route that would tag two 14'ers along the way. At first, he seemed to be a bit hesitant when I mentioned that it included a class 3 scramble, but after some consideration, he eventually agreed and we planned to drive together. We hadn't talked about logistics until the Thursday night, and soon enough we had agreed to camp the night before so we could get a good start on the day. 

I left work on Friday at around 3 P.M and headed to REI first. I needed a new pair of shoes since my Timps are pretty much shot at this point and were beginning to give me some foot problems the last few days on trail. I snagged a pair of Tops Athletic MT2's and headed towards Reptar's place to pick him up and head for the mountains. 

Reptar and I had never actually hung out, but when I got to his place, we immediately started talking about trail and it was like I had just met him on a thru hike. The traffic started when we got on the highway and what would normally be just over an hour drive for us turned into nearly a two hour drive. After snaking up and around the switchbacks leading up to Guanella Pass, we finally arrived at the parking lot that would lead us to Bierstadt. We got out as the sun was beginning to set and packed our bags. We would go find a flat spot to sleep at, take some photos of the night sky, or at least we hoped, then crash. Turns out, the Meteor Shower was beginning to kick up and within moments the Milky Way was shining bright as meteors fell from the sky, creating a striking beam of light across the night sky each time. 

My headlight goes dim and I fall asleep.

Our 4:30 alarm sounded right on time, and as life would have it, when we woke, everything was covered in a thick layer of frost. My down quilt; completely soaked and frozen to the feather. My backpack that lay next to me; frozen. Shoes; frozen. We decided to pack up and go get warm in the car before we even thought about starting to hike. Turns out, we were both pretty exhausted and fell back asleep in the car for another hour and a half. I woke up as the sun was beginning to make its way behind the Sawtooth Ridge. I looked in my rear view mirror and I noticed a line of people outside of the toilet. Cars everywhere. People everywhere. Seems about right.

We hurried and got our bags packed again and started the Alpine Meadow walk up towards Bierstadt.

Our start time: 7:00 AM. 

The first mile or so of the hike includes some extremely mellow boardwalks. The switchbacks begin within a half mile, but don't begin to get steep for a little while. The trail is very well maintained, and as I mentioned above, there were people everywhere. We would pass a group while they were breaking, then we would leap frog as Reptar and I stopped to eat and catch our breath. Although I just got off the PCT, I haven't been at 12,000'+ for a few months. Reptar just summited Grays and Torrey's a couple of weeks ago, but he doesn't spend much time at elevation either as he is working quite a bit. Our packs held not much more than a half days worth of food, two liters of water each, and some extra layers in case the weather rolled in. The forecast was calling for sunny blue skies essentially all day, so I wasn't worried too much about the weather. 

14'ers - Bierstadt - Sawtooth - Evans-5.jpg

Switchback after switchback eventually led us to a plateau where we had some of the most surreal lighting on the Sawtooth. We stopped for a bit once again to take photos, and enjoy the hike up. We needed to pace ourselves so we had energy for the ridge and Evans. One more push to the base of the rock scramble would get us in striking distance. We slogged up and eventually passed nearly 75 people as we made our way to the base. Low and behold; another 25 at the base of the summit. Maybe more. At this point, Reptar and I were both pretty perplexed. I did Bierstadt last year on a Saturday and I don't recall this many people being on the mountain, but hey, its just as much theirs as it is mine. 

A sea of people awaited us at the top, and within a few minutes of getting to the top, we were on our way down with a new friend we had just met, Polar. His real name is Mark, but he was in the military and he mentioned that people used to call him that, so thats what I'll refer to him as. He asked if we were doing the Sawtooth and he questioned, "Mind if I tag along with you guys?". "Not at all!", we replied. Another set of eyes is always good to have while route finding, especially on a route you've never been on.

We began the descent towards the Sawtooth from the summit of Mt. Bierstadt at around 11 AM or so, give or take. The first thing we all noticed was the lack of any real trail. Exactly what I expected, but daunting nonetheless. We found our way down the talus field and eventually began to traverse boulders more comfortably with each step. Scree lay below most of the talus, so I stuck to the hopping and continued up, down and around until we got to the first outcropping. All three of us felt very confident up to this point. There isn't any real exposure on the descent towards the saddle, but a lot of the talus is quite unstable. Footing is very important here. We meandered slowly up and down, painstakingly making our way towards the west ridge where the class 3 begins. Polar was leading the route for a bit, but before we all knew it, I was in front and stayed in front for the remainder of the hike. I prefer to jump from boulder to boulder, so I left most of the scree routes up to them. I would rather traverse a few class 3 moves than go down a scree field, so catch me on the boulders. 

Sawtooth from Bierstadt

Sawtooth from Bierstadt

Now mind you, I had the route and the photos saved onto my phone so I could access them even in airplane mode, so I frequently was checking them to make sure we were on route. Each time I rounded a corner, or hopped onto a loose rock, I would relay the outcome back to Reptar and Polar. 

We finally reached the las outcropping. We had two options for a route to get around it and to the West Ridge. Either up and over, which is shorter, or around, which is the longer way. We opted for around just to be sure of the terrain and keep the risk to a minimum. Although it did take longer, it was worth it to know that there wasn't a huge risk of getting cliffed out on the other side of the outcropping. We each successfully navigated the last outcropping and got to the notch where we would begin the Class 3 section of the traverse. Although Reptar is apparently afraid of heights, I didn't see anything that would to elude to the fact up until we got to the West Ridge where the catwalk and scrambles were. Once we finally arrived at the true traverse and the crux, I could see that Reptar was beginning to let the fear get to him. He had been talking about how nervous he was all morning, but to be honest, he was much less afraid of the descent off Bierstadt than I was. Loose talus and scree worry me more than a few class 3 moves, but to each their own. 

Third and Final Outcropping

Third and Final Outcropping

Reptar ascending the talus and scree field

Reptar ascending the talus and scree field

14'ers - Bierstadt - Sawtooth - Evans-9.jpg

I continued to lead the class 3 route. Reptar was behind me, and Polar behind him. The West Side of the Ridge includes a few traverses, some extremely narrow catwalks, and a few actual class 3 moves. From a distance, the Sawtooth looks much more menacing and fear inducing, but when you actually arrive to the ledges, it's fairly stable. I avoided the scree at all costs, causing me and the rest of the group to take the high route on the last traverse. One can either hike under the overhang and up a steep slope of scree, or hike up and above the boulders, and traverse a few ledges which eventually turn to solid ground with plenty of space to feel secure. 

For me, the Class 3 moves were no problem, and since I don't generally have a fear of heights, the traverse wasn't that bad. For Reptar, who is afraid of heights, it was a different story. He powered through each and every obstacle, but I'd be lying if I said he did it with ease. I could tell the exposure was getting to him, especially as he crawled on all fours under rocks and over rocks to avoid going near the ledge. After each catwalk, we would take a break for everyone to catch their bearings. I would constantly yell back to the group with reports on the boulders and sections ahead. We were constantly communicating our moves, which is essential in these types of adventures that include some dangerous terrain. With the possibility of a rockfall, a slide, or any number of other issues going wrong at any point, it was nice to have constant updates, especially when a member of the group is not so keen on exposure. 

Class 3 Scrambling on the Sawtooth

Class 3 Scrambling on the Sawtooth

At last, we reached the notch where we would start our ascent towards Mt. Evans. The route at this point goes from a Class 3, immediately to Class 2 hiking as the ascent begins. It's a fairly steep grade, and with no real trail for a few tenths of a mile, the route throws some more navigating at you. Giant pieces of granite lay across the plateau and in the distance Mt. Evans is waiting. In between the crest of the ridge to the actual summit lay a couple of miles of boulder hopping, rock scrambling, and cairn following. Eventually, you pop over a bump on the ascent and begin to climb slowly towards the top on the outskirts of the mountain.

We began the ascent towards Mt. Evans at around 1:30 P.M from the end of the Sawtooth. We had taken much longer on the Sawtooth than we expected, and at this point, we were behind schedule by quite a bit. We didn't really have anywhere to be, so as long as the weather held up, it could take us all day and we wouldn't really have cared.

The slog up Mt. Evans began and at first we enjoyed the slow ascent towards the actual ridge line, but soon enough, as it always does, the trail got steeper, rockier, and more technical. Although it's only Class 2, the talus makes for some fairly unstable footing. We took a break roughly every quarter mile at this point. Reptar and Polar were feeling the altitude, lack of water and food much more than I was, but I wanted to stick together as a group. We only packed out two liters of water and some snacks, and we were starting to run a bit low on everything. The breaks were beginning to stack up, and by the time we got within striking distance of Mt. Evans, it was getting close to 4 o'clock. We were expecting to be down at the car no later than 5. We summited around 3:30 after getting some water from a couple at the parking lot. 

Looking back towards the ridge line from Mt. Evans.

Looking back towards the ridge line from Mt. Evans.

We enjoyed the summit of Mt. Evans for awhile. After all, it took us a hell of a lot of time to get there. Although there were more tourists on Evans than Bierstadt possibly, it is a helluva view. The ridge descending Evans back towards the plateau is fairly prominent, and with a few extra steps you can get some awesome views from nearly every direction. Reptar and I had packed out a beer each to enjoy on the summit, so we cracked them and cheersed. Although we were done with the ascent of both mountains, the descent was apparently just as tricky and possibly even more dangerous than the ascent. How great!

We ended up pounding our beers and all three of us headed down the ridge and descended Mt. Evans at around 4:00 P.M.

Mountain Goats!

Mountain Goats!

Another one!

Another one!

14'ers.com says that after descending the ridge off of Evans back towards the notch, you head NW into the open area towards a Gulley. We did just that. I eventually ran off down the mountain and made sure that the Gulley I was looking at matched up with the photos on the app. It sure did, but it is MUCH steeper than the photos make it look. I was surmised we had to hike down the gulley in front of me, but before I knew it I was off and the others were right behind me. After all the time I spent avoiding the scree on the Sawtooth, I was rewarded with nothing but it on the descent! Rocks slid, moved, and crumbled beneath me as I made haste of the first section of the descent. It seemed to be about a 1,300' descent in far less than a mile. I could feel the pain in each of my knees as I put more and more pressure on them as the terrain became less stable and even steeper. The trail eventually began to disappear and in place of it was more scree. The gulley just kept going. Boulder after boulder. Loose rock, with more loose rock in front of it. Eventually, we started to make out the parking lot off in the distance. The gulley would spit us out at the opposite side of the meadow as the Bierstadt Trail. This means that once we got to the end of the Gulley, we would have to navigate our way through roughly one mile of thick willow trees. It just so happens that these willow's are right next to a river, which creates plenty of mud pits, or a bog if you will. 

We waded through the willows for what seemed like much longer than a mile.

Reptar and I pushed on ahead and ended up waiting every 10 minutes or so for Polar and our new friend Jacob to catch up. Jacob caught up to us as we were getting ready to enter the Gully, and he had no idea of the route he was taking down. He said he was all too stoked to find other people on the way down, otherwise he was planning on taking the wrong ridge he said. 

The minutes kept ticking, and soon enough, the sun was beginning to set on the horizon. What we thought would be a six to eight hour hike, was turning into a 12 hour day. We weren't expecting the Sawtooth to take so long. We took the entire hike fairly leisurely until we really had to when it came to the Class 3 moves. 

The willows ended and we found ourselves back at the car just around 7:00 P.M, nearly 12 hours after we left the car earlier that morning.

FINAL THOUGHTS ON THE ROUTE:

Although 14'ers.com said that the route was only 10.2 miles, both my GPS tracker and Polar's said it was closer to 13.5-14.0 miles. It definitely was longer than 10.2, I'll tell you that much. I would plan for a long day if you're not acclimated to the altitude or to the terrain. The route is fairly difficult in some sections, but a lot of the Sawtooth is much more daunting from the car than it is when you actually get on it. 

I really enjoyed the route, especially the scrambling and the Sawtooth. Polar and Reptar weren't too big of fans of the route until we actually got done with it, but it was different. The route kept throwing us curveballs from the start to the finish. We had an exorbitant amount of people to wade through on top of Bierstadt. The initial freight of looking down at the Sawtooth. Dealing with the unreal amount of scree and talus on the descent. The Class 3 scramble. The West Ridge and it's exposure. The nonstop, relentless boulders that kept coming on the ascent to Mt. Evans. Mountain goats. The wildly steep descent down the gulley to the willows. This route had everything and I would most certainly do it again. I thought the route was well put together. It thinned out drastically once we descended from Bierstadt, so it was nice to have a more relaxed change of pace rather than the sea of people up top. 

Overall, it was a challenging, but very rewarding hike with some exposure that I felt comfortable with, which made for an epic day. Thanks to Reptar for joining me on the route!

Next up: Gray's and Torreys via Kelso Ridge / Keep an eye out.

Gear Review: Insulated Jackets (Down VS. Synthetic)

Down VS. Synthetic

The never ending debate for thru hikers and backpackers alike is whether synthetic or down is a better option for insulation. Really, I think it depends on the climate and conditions you'll be hiking in, especially when talking about jackets or worn layers. As far as sleeping bags or quilts go, down wins every time, no questions asked.

As far as insulating jackets go, I've tried 3 different pieces over the last 4,500 miles. Three different brands, three different weights, and three different prices. Some swear by synthetic for every application due to its ability to retain heat when wet. Some swear by down due to its warmth to weight ratio. It should always be left up to the user to decide which is best for which condition, but here are some thoughts on the subject based on what I've used and where I used it.

What I've used:

  • Patagonia Down Sweater
  • Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer Down Jacket
  • Montbell UL Thermawrap Parka

Patagonia Down Sweater:

Before I had even set out on my first thru hike, I had picked up a Down Sweater from Patagonia because it looked nice, was Patagonia (I thought that automatically meant it was amazing), and it was fairly inexpensive for a down jacket. I had seen this jacket used plenty of times on my section hikes of the AT. People swore by Patagonia so I picked one up in the Fall of 2015 to test out on a section hike and the weekenders leading up to my attempt at a thru hike. 

I was actually fairly impressed at first with the fit and cut of the jacket. It was comfortable, fit quite nicely, and seemed to be exactly what I needed. It seemed to be of a high quality design and build, and it definitely seemed to be warm, living up to its' 800 fill claim. The jacket compresses into it's own pocket, making it the about the size of a small water bottle allowing easy storage in your pack. It's constructed of 100% recycled ripstop and has a coating of DWR for moisture repellent. 

As far as weight goes, it's a moderately light piece of gear clocking in at 13.2oz. By no means is it a UL option for insulation, but not too heavy either. With Patagonia comes a fairly decent price tag as well. At $229 from their website or REI, it's a moderately expensive piece of gear. 

My first hike with it was a little 20 mile stretch on the AT in Virginia from Catawba to Daleville. I didn't have to bring the jacket out until night when the temperature dropped into the 40's, and when I did I was fairly happy. It immediately struck me as a warm piece of gear. I could feel it trapping heat underneath which was a good sign. I loved the pockets both on the outside and the interior chest pocket which is where I stored my phone when it was cold. For my first night out with the jacket, I was pretty happy.

When I got home from the little overnighter, I not only found that there was a snag in the jacket which was leading to feathers falling out, but I also realized that I wanted a hood. I'm not sure what I was thinking purchasing a warm jacket without a hood, but I immediately realized that it was a mistake on my end. 

I honestly really do enjoy the jacket for what it is, however; I believe there are some both lighter and warmer options out there for the price. If you pick up the jacket, you'll be satisfied with it thats for sure, but keep in mind the lack of hood and the weight! 

Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer:

At this point, the Ghost Whisperer is probably the favorite among thru hikers. Last year on the AT and this year on the CDT I saw more than a handful of people using this jacket. I was one of those people last year on the AT. After I returned the Patagonia Down Sweater to REI, I picked up the Ghost Whisperer on clearance because it was a color scheme from the previous year. 

The sub 8oz Down Jacket had killer reviews and everyone was raving about it online, so as you can imagine I was INCREDIBLY stoked about it. I'll be upfront about it. This jacket is awesome.

It's incredibly warm as it's packed with 800 fill down, it's incredibly compressible as it packs into its own pocket, and let me reiterate, the jacket is SUB 8oz. The price point for the MH Ghost Whisperer Jacket is a whopping $350 from their website, however; you can pick these up quite often on Amazon or REI for much cheaper. Whether it be last years model or a weird color, keep an eye out. 

I set out on the AT with this jacket packed away in my pack when I started my hike back on 3/13/16. For the first few days, the weather was unbelievably warm. I was able to hike in shorts and a t shirt up until Hiawasee when the temperature dropped below freezing and the snow started to fall. My first impressions of the jacket stayed true to the end of the trail. I used the Ghost Whisperer as my primary layer for insulation throughout the entire trail, and as  Spring tried to poke its way through Winter, I got to test it out in some frigid conditions. My first day in North Carolina, the temperature hardly reached above freezing, and as the sun dropped below the horizon, so did the temperature. That night I entered NC, the temp dropped to a freezing 8 degrees allowing me to put every bit of gear and clothes I had to the test. I had multiple base layers on, my Ghost Whisperer, and I was tucked away in my Nemo 20 degree Spoon Bag. To my surprise, I was warmer than I imagined I would be when I looked at the small thermometer I had attached to my pack. (lol). b

The jacket did its job. It kept me warm as could be down to 8 degrees, the furthest I've ever pushed my gear in the cold. For the late spring and summer months it was TOO warm. This thing is incredibly puffy, and the way they designed the cinch cords for the torso, it really traps the heat in quite well. I can vividly remember walking around Hot Springs with it on and feeling like I was going to pass out because of how warm it was. I ended up keeping the jacket in my pack the entire hike. It was completely useless during the summer, but once I started getting back to elevation in Mass and Vermont, eventually leading to NH and Maine, I was stoked that I had it again.

It's a fairly durable jacket. It went through 2,000+ miles of abuse on the AT and only suffered two holes that were spewing down feathers. One of them was caused by a snag on a thorn and the other I wasn't able to identify what caused it. 

This jacket is one of the more popular options for good reason. It's a piece of gear that should last you quite some time if you take care of it. Mountain Hardwear makes some of the best technical pieces on the market, and this jacket isn't any different. 

Montbell UL Thermawrap Parka:

Ah yes, the jacket I've been wearing all this year. On trail, I logged a little over 2,000 miles with this jacket this year on the CDT and Long Trail, and as I write this I'm wearing it as it's a bit chilly in the coffee shop today. 

The UL Thermawrap Parka is the hooded version of their UL Thermawrap which a few of my buddies have. (Neemor and Scooter). This cold layer jacket is stuffed with 40 gram STRETCH Exceloft synthetic insulation, providing plenty of warmth for 3 1/3 seasons IMO. The jacket has recently been redesigned with a better fit, and "strategically placed stretch areas", making for an incredibly comfortable jacket. It has hand pockets on both sides, and a chest pocket with a zipper on the left side making for easy access for your phone or anything that needs to be next to the body for quick access or importance. The price point for the Thermawrap Parka clocks in at $209 straight from Montebell's website. A much lower price than the Ghost Whisperer. 

Thermawrap in the Smokies / Cred: Kylie Torrence  

Thermawrap in the Smokies / Cred: Kylie Torrence  

I used this jacket to add a layer when it got below freezing on the CDT when I slept. I used this jacket as my pillow when it was too hot, but most importantly, I used this jacket to HIKE in. This was my number one concert on the CDT due to the trails volatile weather. I wanted a jacket that I could hike in if need be during a cold spell, cold rain, or even snow. I needed a jacket that could keep its warmth and dry out quickly if it got wet. This is that jacket.

This thing compressed quite small just like most jackets do. It's got all the features that I and most folks want; pockets, hood, warmth, and weight. Speaking of the weight, it clocks in at a low 9.2oz, making it just a bit heavier than the GW, but not by much. I find the warmth to be more than sufficient for most conditions, granted you have base layers beneath it. It's probably the most comfortable jacket I've ever worn, and even after 2,000 miles and then some, I still don't want to take it off. 

As of right now, it has suffered zero damages from the trail, even during some of the bushwhacks. It has lost zero warmth from when I got it, which means I'll be getting at least another season out of this bad boy. Honestly, I love this jacket so much that I'll probably never use anything else, well, except for maybe next year on the PCT. I'll talk about that more in depth at a later point. 

Final Thoughts:

Like I said, I think theres a time and place for everything. If I were to redo the AT, I probably would carry the Thermawrap for its ability to retain heat if it gets wet, which on the AT is a common occurrence. Just like the AT, the CDT brought plenty of interesting weather, and the comfort I felt knowing my warm layer could get wet if it came down to saving my life was more than enough to use it again. 

If you're planning a trip that has very little weather fluctuation, or if its a generally dry or warm climate you're going to, I would suggest bringing a down jacket. It's generally lighter and warmer, and if you don't have to worry about anything getting wet, why carry synthetic?

There are a literal ton of options out there for both synthetic and down, so take your pick really. Montebell makes some INSANE down jackets that I have my eye on. REI has a few of their own options that are comparable, as well as OR, Marmot, and just about every other brand out there. Overall, it's really hard to go wrong on a jacket of any kind, but to let you in on a secret; I pay close attention to weight and performance, as should you!

Take your pick and hit the trails!