June 24, 2007 - Sawtooth via West Ridge from Guanella Pass
Trent and I traversed the Sawtooth in June of 1999 and now, as G and I prepared for a Bolivia trip, it seemed like the ideal way to get 8 miles of training accomplished. Of course, the price to be paid was a hike with the masses up the West Ridge of Mt. Bierstadt. We arrived at the trail head at 8 a.m. and were surprised at the number of cars and the mass of humanity making their way to the summit of Bierstadt. I could also see that we were the only ones carrying a climbing helmet and an ice axe on our packs. I also doubt that any of the others had a pair of crampons in their packs.
We made the ascent to the summit in 2 hours flat with nary a stop en route. We tortoises passed the plethora of hares en route and after a brief stop on the top, we dropped off the back side to start the crossing of the Sawtooth Ridge. The Sawtooth is a classic ridge crossing and depending upon the weather and one's experience, I'd say it is a good route. My first crossing was when I had about eight or ten 14ers under my belt and I had no problem with it at that time. It was an instruction in route finding, however, and proved refresh that lesson eight years later.
The route drops off the back side of Bierstadt's summit and descends down through large talus on a rather steep slope. There was a fair bit of loose but there is a strong set of trail segments so there is not much of an opportunity in the early part of the crossing to mess up on the navigation front. I guess one can stick high on the ridge, but I took the trail downward and so long as one does not drop to an elevation lower than the first and lowest notch in the ridge, there is little opportunity to climb back up to complete the route. We also took the lower route as the upper snowfield was really soft and I wanted no part of post holing though the waist deep facets.
The route took us down to the notch in the ridge and then we continued to traverse along the back side (not visible from Guanella Pass) of the ridge, staying on a cairned route that seemed familiar from years ago. The route traverses past another notch and though tempting, this second opportunity to gain the front face will not provide a path to the far side. We traversed a shallow snowfield and then took our cue to climb to the crest of the ridge, having crossed some steep class 3 ground to ge there. Now were at the proper cross over.
The route then took to the front of the ridge and after stopping for a shot of Goo, we traversed along path that traverses across the face and then leads up a scree and talus covered slope to join the flank of Mt. Spalding/Evans. I remembered the exposure to be more than it was on my second crossing, but I think that is just a case of having a few more years of experience under my belt. No doubt, a good slip here will likely be your last, but my second crossing was without trepidation. (read my disclaimer!) We climbed to the exit of the route and chatted with two other fellows about to cross from the opposite direction. They had axes in hand, crampons in their packs and asked of the conditions.
From the exit of the route, we chose to traverse the flank of Spalding, skipping the obvious cleft that provides the first exit from the higher flanks. instead, I wanted to work my way to the second gully where I knew there was a trail of sorts through he willows guarding our route to the truck. We held our elevations, traversed across and then dropped down to join the strong trail we both knew was there. And of course, we managed to lose that trail for the last 1/4 mile of willows, also an expected outcome.
Our traverse of the Sawtooth, starting from Guanella, crossing the Bierstadt summit and then descending down Spalding took just a few minutes under six hours, skipping the effort to make a detour to the summit of Mt. Evans.