Mt. Bierstadt is a great first winter 14er ascent. Located less than 80 minutes from downtown Denver, it can be done in a day trip from most Front Range cities. Keep in mind that the winter route is about 1.5 miles longer each way because of the road closure – plan to approach from the North (from I-70), and park at the bottom of the final switchbacks in the winter parking lot. You’re looking at a 10.5 mile day, with approximately 3,300 feet of elevation gain. To ensure you’re back to your car by dark, I recommend a dawn starting time (especially if you are new to this!). Here’s my guide for climbing Mt Bierstadt in winter!
Before You Go: Take the Time to Prepare!
There’s a lot you need to do before you even start to pack. Reading this article is a great start, but it should not be the end of your research. Visit 14ers.com to review their route info and photos. Buy and review a hard copy topographical map until you have it memorized. Review the ten essentials for winter 14ers and make sure you have it all ready to go. Write up your plans, and leave them with someone dependable back home. Double check the weather forecast and avalanche condition report for the area. If you don’t take time to prepare, you severely reduce your chances for a safe, successful summit before you even leave home.
For specific gear recommendations, you likely do not need crampons for this route. Microspikes and snowshoes are both highly recommended. While trekking poles are helpful, an ice axe is probably overkill.
Part 1: The Road to the Trailhead
Your first obstacle is unique to winter climbs: Hiking up the snow-covered road to reach the summer trailhead. You also have a few options. Start out heading up the road, until you reach the first hard right turn. You should take the cutoff route here to avoid the next section of road, which passes beneath significant avy terrain (there are usually tracks going up the road, but ignore them!). The route meanders through the woods, with a few steep sections, before connecting up with the road above.
Continue up the road until you reach another hard right turn. Here you have a choice. The formal route continues following the road up the switchbacks until it meets the parking lot and trailhead. However, you will drop down several hundred feet after leaving the trailhead. To avoid this unnecessary elevation gain, many people head directly into the willows at this Hard Right to meet up with the main trail (see the map below). It avoids elevation but you will need to navigate deep snow, buried willows, and a confusing route. If you’re new, I advise you to follow the road (I once got lost here for 2 hours – not fun!).
Part 2: Navigating the Willows in Winter
The Willows section, directly following where the two trail sections meet back up, is actually the hardest part of climbing Mt Bierstadt in the winter. During summer there’s an easy to follow path through the bottom of the creek. However in winter, all traces of the trail are buried beneath snow. If you are able to follow the trail left by others, try to do so.
Take your time during this section, and if you think you are off-route, backtrack and try to get back. Trying to forge your own path in the deep snow will lead to post-holing, depleting your energy for the climb ahead. Few who do so end up summiting successfully. Be wary of tracks leading off from the trench – they are often dead ends.
Part 3: Up the West Slopes
As you climb higher up above the creek below, you’ll be aiming for a ramp that allows you to climb up onto the Western Slopes of Mt. Bierstadt (See the below picture). Usually this section is scoured by the wind, so you’ll be able to stash your snowshoes here. Find a spot not obvious from the trail, but easy to recognize on your way down. Continue up the Western Slopes – you’ve made it over halfway up the peak!
During this section of the trail, it’s possible to create shortcuts, depending on snow cover. If things are wind scoured, stay on the trail as much as possible to limit damage to the alpine environment. However, where there is adequate snow cover, and if you have the right traction, you can cut off sections of switchbacks to take a more direct line to the top. Aim for a section of trail above you, and keep going. Avalanche risk on the West slopes is extremely low – but it isn’t non-existent. Make sure you check avy conditions and forecasts before you go.
Part 4: The Final Summit Scramble
After what may feel like hours, you’ll reach the summit ridge. On my first attempt at climbing Mt Bierstadt in winter, I turned around here amid deteriorating conditions. It’s a good place to stop and decide whether to continue to the top. There is usually a well developed cornice here, rising above Abyss Lake below you. Enjoy the view, but make sure you stay at least 6-8 feet back away from the edge, as a cornice is unsupported and can break far from the edge.
Turn to your left to face the final scramble to the summit. This section is the least predictable in terms of snow conditions, as it depends on wind and snowfall conditions. It may be bare rock, in which case you can take off your traction, but it could also be a mess of snow, ice and rock intermixed. In that context, microspike or even crampons make sense. An ice axe is usually unnecessary given the large amount of rocks. Look for cairns to help guide your route, aiming upward toward the summit. After 30 minutes or so, you should suddenly come across the summit – what a glorious sight to behold!
Climbing Mt Bierstadt in Winter: You can do it!
Climbing Mt Bierstadt in winter isn’t easy, but with the right gear and preparation, anyone can do it! Take time to plan your route, gather your winter ten essentials, and you’ll be ready to go. I also recommend going with someone who’s been on the route before, or hiking the trail in the summer to be better acquainted. Get out there now and try climbing Mt Bierstadt in winter!