Submitted By: Kristen Grace, Board Member & Wilderness Ambassador in Denver
When two women set out to climb a mountain, they don’t let anything stop them.
They aren’t afraid to wake up at 4am. They don’t let fierce winds or freezing temperatures scare them off. And they definitely don’t turn back when the summit is in sight.
Even if they probably should.
Climbing Mt. Bierstadt – 14,065′ (Georgetown, Colorado)
When we set out to climb Mt. Bierstadt, it was late September and the Denver highs were still in the 70s and 80s. Packing a heavy coat for hiking seemed excessive. We thought to bring hats and gloves, and to layer up just in case, but even that seemed like overkill.
Mt. Bierstadt was the first 14er I climbed after moving to Colorado in Summer 2016 and it taught me an important lesson: never underestimate mountain weather.
Because mountain weather is fickle and no matter how warm it is in Denver, in the mountains it’s always cooler and a sunny day can change to powerful storms in minutes.
We hit the road around 4am so that we could arrive, stretch and start our climb just in time for sunrise.
The base of Mt. Bierstadt is only about an hour and half drive from Denver, making it one of most accessible 14ers in the state. It’s also a good choice if you’re looking for a quick and challenging day hike since the out and back is only a few hours.
The first part of our hike took us through a flat valley. It was deceptively pleasant and made starting out in the dark totally worth it. We watched the sun light up the snow-covered mountains with shades of pink and gold. This view alone was worth the trip.
But once we started to climb, we realized something was wrong: it was windy. Really windy.
And windy means cold.
The part of this hike that people neglect to share is that you are completely exposed to the elements once you reach a certain point in the trail. That means there is no shelter from the wind, especially when you get closer to the rocky summit.
As we climbed, I questioned both our sanity and safety.
I couldn’t feel my toes, my face was completely exposed and it was really cold.
This should have been enough to make us turn back… but we were on a mission.
The summit was 20ft in front of us. How could we quit?
I learned later that my hiking buddy, Chi, had been shouting for us to turn back, that it was too cold and the wind was too strong to keep going.
But I couldn’t hear her over the sound of the wind whipping around us. So as I continued to push on, she begrudging followed.
Not being able to communicate was another reason we should have turned back. If only I’d known.
But miraculously, we reached the top.
We pulled out our signs and snapped a few pictures. “Click, click, okay, let’s go!” My mouth was too frozen to smile.
The pictures we managed to take showed a clear, wide open view of the Rockies that only the top of a 14er can provide. I just wish I’d been able to actually enjoy it!
Then a strong gust of wind threw me into a rock, nearly tossing me off the mountain. With the threat of death feeling very real, we raced back down. Mission accomplished — we were ready for the hike to be over.
On the way down, the weather improved. It was actually warm enough to enjoy the view!
As we passed groups of people headed to the top, we noticed that many were even less prepared than we were. We saw hikers in shorts and tank tops. We saw sandals!
I was already feeling bad enough about misjudging the intensity of this hike, but I admit, seeing others more foolish than me attempt the climb made me feel just a tiny bit better.
We tried to warn our fellow hikers that they were in for a shock at the top, but most brushed us off. It was beautiful and warm at the bottom! How could it be cold at the top? A rookie mistake.
In the end, we made it. All our fingers and toes intact.
But this experience changed the way I prepare for serious hikes.
First, I always check the forecast before heading out. I want to know if there is ANY chance of rain, wind or snow. When you’re over 10,000ft in elevation, it matters.
Second, I pack for every possibility, even if most things stay in the car. Extra clothes, raincoats, snacks, hand warmers, etc. You never know what you might need.
Third, I never underestimate the intensity of the climb. Just because you’re in shape doesn’t mean the elevation won’t affect you. When you’re at high elevation, you need to be aware of how you’re feeling and when it’s time to call it quits.
Finally, I’ve made peace with turning back. Finishing the Mt. Bierstadt climb was stupid. It was dangerously cold and windy, and we were not prepared. While I’m proud of us for pushing ourselves, it was a huge risk and we got lucky. When faced with a similar situation, I’ll never put my goals ahead of my safety again.
But at least it was beautiful!