Finding Strength on Sawtooth Ridge

This last weekend I encountered my first Class 3 climb, summiting both Bierstadt and Evans via the Sawtooth ridge. It was a long but thrilling adventure, one that spanned 10 hours and pretty much every emotional reaction throughout the day.

I have to start this story before our 4 AM wake up time, because a little bit of context is needed here. Colorado is quite famous for its 50-something (depending who you ask) 14ers, 14,000 foot mountains. Many people strive to summit every single one of these peaks, a daunting task as many are long and difficult. When I first moved here, this list seemed a natural goal but over time I’ve been drawn to other less popular challenges. It’s not that the mountains don’t intrigue me, or that I shy away from “hard” mountains. In reality, I’m most interested in the more difficult summits (think Long’s Peak but not Sherman). Alternately, my boyfriend practically avoids 14ers because he finds them to be too crowded.

I do have a couple big 14er-related goals this summer, since I have started rock climbing. This weekend, I was feeling that 14er itch, and with Ben out of town on Sunday, I saw an opportunity to do a nice little warm up before I try to do anything too crazy. Since I wanted to stay close to Denver, I was having some difficulty finding a good challenge. That’s when I remembered the Sawtooth ridge. While both Bierstadt and Evans are considered “easier” 14ers, the daunting ridge between them is an exposed beauty with Class 3 difficulty. Though I have never done a Class 3 before, many of my 14er goals are Class 3 or 4 so I assumed this was a good chance to get some experience. However, as we packed our bags and set our alarms, I started to get nervous and irritable. In a moment of doubt, I looked up the mountain (Dragontail Peak) my cousin had died on five years earlier – Class 3.* What was I thinking?

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The start of our hike.

We started our hike a little after 6 AM, making it up Bierstadt in about 2 hours with no trouble at all. For the record, I loved Beirstadt. Say what you will about the “easier” 14ers and crowds of people… it was just a fun hike! We paused for a moment to take a couple pictures and check our route beta, but not long enough for second thoughts, before dropping down toward the Sawtooth. (View pictured below.) I was grateful to see two guys dropping down behind us, knowing there were other people on this journey with us made me feel a touch less crazy.

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The view from Bierstadt.

As it turns out, 97% of the Sawtooth was a breeze. You’ll hear this from everyone who has done the hike, but the pictures look way worse than it actually is. You may get some dramatic leftward views, but the hike itself keeps to the right of the ridge for a majority of the time, passing over the left only at the very end. By the time we reached the crux of the hike, I was as calm as could be. The crux itself was maybe 50 feet across and very exposed scree. We focused on moving carefully and securely across this section, while chatting about House of Cards to keep from getting too scared of the situation. As we topped out on the other side of the ridge we were elated! I was so proud and empowered to have completed the most challenging point of this hike so calmly. A few tears of joy and excitement were shared, and we headed toward Evans with adrenaline pumping.

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Looking back at the crux.

We were so confident and enthusiastic as we headed toward Evans, we made a crucial error and lost the route, electing to keep to the ridge as we approached the peak. This mistake forced us to continue some Class 3 scrambling all the way to the peak of Evans, when we had assumed this would be an easy part of our hike. Looking back, it wasn’t that big of a deal, but the disconnect and discomfort from the scramble had exhausted both of us. As we eyed the Evans tourists jealously (you can drive to the top of Evans), we contemplated just hitch-hiking back to our car. In the end, I miserably accepted we’d have to complete our hike, and we headed back the way we came… this time finding the much lower and very well-cairned trail.

Unsurprisingly, the correct trail was easy enough to follow, and we quickly traversed over back to where we were required to drop into a gully and head for the car. At this point, we were back to positive spirits, as the views around us were stunning. Even as we struggled to find the proper trail, and encountered some frisky mountain goats, we were pleased we hadn’t given up at the summit of Evans. But even as we could see the glinting sun off of the parked cars in the distance, we weren’t done yet. This hike had one more surprise left for us. A freaking swamp.

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Dropping into the gully and heading toward the car.

Forget every trial we had encountered up to this point. The exposure, the altitude, the scrambling… this SWAMP was by and far the worst part of this hike. Eventually, we completely lost the trail. With soaking feet and one twisted ankle (not mine) we gave up and headed in a straight line for the car… marching through the swamp, a river, and thick bushes until we finally saw the Bierstadt trail and let out a cheer of relief. We peeled off our wet boots and socks back at the car, and were surprised to see this 10-11 mile hike had taken us a full 10 hours to complete, twice as long as we had expected.

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I’m really thankful I did this hike with my roommate. She was calm when I was stressed, surefooted in the sketchy areas, and determined when I was not-so-subtly suggesting we give up on Evans. I think we were a good pair… When we hit the swamp at the very end we both just laughed our way through the frustration.

It was a good day.

Why hike Sawtooth? It is so fun. I am already looking forward to doing it again. (Though not anytime soon, and I’m considering skipping Evans.) Additionally, it is a good introduction to Class 3 hiking… which is required for some of the more famous 14ers like Long’s Peak or the Maroon Bells.

*Disclaimer: I mentioned this point because I truly hit that level of nerves the night before this hike, and I’m proud that I conquered this mental challenge. Class 3 hikes are not inherently deadly and I would have turned around if I had ever felt my life was at risk. Knowing how to assess risk is so important to this level of hiking, and we were careful and conscious of this the entire time.

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