Mount Bierstadt is on many lists, blogs, & books, mostly citing that it is "easy" and "accessible" to climb. Arguably a great "First 14er" (for those unaware, Colorado has 54 peaks whose summits sit above 14,000 ft.). Hiking one tends to be on many bucket lists, so my girlfriend, Rachel and I set out early one Saturday morning to test our lungs and legs (we are “lowlanders” from NY, having just moved to Denver 2 months ago).
After some delay we finally arrived around 10am at 11,670ft (not a recommended start time for any hike where you are exposed, let alone a 14er). Regardless we assessed the day and weather (clear blue skies for miles around), and ventured out, planning to bail at any point if needed.
If I have learned anything in the years I have spent in the mountains (mostly in the Adirondacks/Whites), preparation and humility can save your day and even your life. With that in mind we hit the trail around 10:20.
The first mile is a gentle stroll through meadows, wetlands, and around a small pond. Having just re-watched The Lord of the Rings trilogy the past week, it reminded us of the horse kingdom of Rohan. In the spring time, however, those fields are lush places to see wildflowers. Half a mile in, there’s a small stream crossing before continuing on raised boardwalks to the ascending switchbacks.
1.5 miles in, the ascent begins. Now I cannot help but compare hiking in Colorado to the northeast. For those unfamiliar to northeast hiking, most trail creators simply found point A (the trailhead) and point B (the summit) and drew a (relatively) straight line (ouch). Switchbacks are rare back east, but here, what a relief!
Climbing, we could see the summit the entire way (from the trailhead actually) yet few steps seemed to get us closer. We ascended one hillside only to turn and ascend another, the looming trail ridge just seemed to taunt us, but the views kept us occupied. We reflected on whether we preferred eastern hiking (often in the trees until the summit) to the lack of trees here, the verdict was out.
Up and up, passing tons of descending hikers who had clearly not gotten delayed and hit the trail early, our bursts of hiking got shorter. We switched to a game of “get to the next rock” then take a break. While neither of us felt headachy we certainly were feeling tired and breathing hard.
After hitting a what felt like a crawl pace we crested the trail ridge (13,700ftish) to the summit and were relieved to find a relatively flat walk until the final push.
The skies were still blue and the view was magnificent. Tagging the summit (14,065ft), we took a 15-minute break and then made our way back down.
During our break the group behind us reached the summit short 1 member of their party. We had passed them on the final push and their one friend seemed to be doing poorly. They had told him to start heading down as they summited and then meet him again.
For those unaware at 14,000ft oxygen is just 61% of what it is at sea level, a noticeable difference for anyone, lowlander or Denverite.
As we descended, bounding from rock to rock reveling in being done with the up, we happened upon the other party’s friend (Derek, not his real name) seated on a rock looking worse than we had seen him before. We checked in with him, “not well” he muttered. We offered him some applesauce and water, figuring he needed some energy and offered to walk with him a bit (his friends were just then starting to descend).
Walking 200ft, he sat down, nauseous. Resting, he took off his gloves to open food and immediately realized he had lost his wedding ring, further up the mountain. A quiet whimper of AMS pain and heartache, he became understandably upset. Rachel and I looked at each other and without a word dropped pack and headed back up the trail to look for his ring.
Suffice to say the despite enlisting other hikers, and finally his friends as they descended, after 35 minutes of searching I was starting to feel very headachy and made my way back to my dropped pack, Rachel followed suit, no luck with the ring. After resting, we headed down. Derek had continued to descend slowly, but in little haste we caught up with him. Clearly in pain, we asked if he wanted company and he readily accepted.
Rachel and I continued to be our goofy selves on the trek down, hoping to alleviate some of his pain with company, at one point Rach dropped some of her candy corn on the trail, in a bold "I regret nothing" she promptly ate them all! It is her favorite candy after all!
I have to imagine what it might feel like to be in pain and feel alone, in a situation in which you really need to be your own help. I’d imagine there is some comfort in company at least. I would say that was all we hoped to provide but as we continued down the mountain Derek’s condition seemed to get worse and the search for the ring continued the entire way down the mountain.
At least once I was close enough behind Derek to catch him as he stumbled and nearly collapsed. At another point in trying to administer ibuprofen and have him sniff an alcohol wipe (a technique recommended to Rachel when she was in the hospital a few weeks back with a stomach bug, allegedly it is harmless but helps nausea), he began vomiting and crying on the side of the trail. Suffice to say in our opinion he was truly in the thralls of AMS and needed to get down. While his friends carried his pack, we slowly made our way down the mountain still very much enjoying the view.
At 5:30pm, almost 4.5 hours after setting out from the summit, heads pounding from the extra exertion and stress on the descent, we finally reached the car. By this point in time my head was hurting to the point (not unexpected for anyone) that I passed the keys to Rachel who was feeling fine and we closed the car door on an amazing yet unexpected adventure.
1) Hiking a 14er is very different from a 4,000 foot peak back East, adjust your pace accordingly.
2) AMS can strike at any time, be conservative, the mountain will always be there.
3) No matter how much water you drink (I downed 4 Liters), above 14K your body reacts differently.
4) Tackle some lower hikers before a 14er, it might save your day and others.
5) Hiking is a community endeavor, don’t forget to offer help, sometimes your goals aren’t what matters.
6) Hike Safe, Hike Smart.
For anyone who happens to read this and hike Mt. Bierstadt, keep an eye out for a white gold wedding band. If you happen to find it let me know!
Please respect the places you find on The Outbound.
Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph.