Tuesday, January 17, 2012

FEATURED ROUTE: The Sawtooth (Bietstadt & Evans)

The Sawtooth (Mt. Bierstadt/Mt. Evans)
Length: 10 miles
Elevation Gain: 3,964'
Difficulty: class 3

The Sawtooth is a classic class 3 line in Colorado's Front Range that connects Mt. Bierstadt and Mt Evans. It allows you to do both mountains together. It is a moderately long and challenging climb with fun exposure and generally good rock, and it is very popular and busy in the summertime.

The Sawtooth
The Sawtooth Ridge in the early morning light
The Sawtooth could be done either way, but by far people do this traverse more often going from Bierstadt to Evans. This way most of the difficult climbing is ascending, and at the end of the day you can drop down a loose gully to the north to get back to Guanella Pass.

From Guanella Pass you climb the "West Slopes" route up Mt. Bierstadt to its summit (3.4 miles, 2,400' elevation gain). This trek is short and mostly class 1 with a little class 2 when you get close to the summit. From the summit of Mt. Bierstadt you get an amazing look at the Sawtooth Ridge. Don't fear, it is much easier than it looks. Still, the next portion of the route requires a considerable amount of time, class 3-4 climbing depending on your exact route, and some route-finding skills to avoid wasted time and harder climbing off-route, so if you aren't feeling up to it or the weather looks like it could build, turn around here.
The Sawtooth up close
Looking across the Sawtooth from Mt. Bierstadt
From Mt. Bierstadt's summit, descend down a steep, loose slope to the saddle. Tread carefully and expect to encounter some class 3. As you start to ascend toward the cliffs on the other side, you will encounter the crux section: a long class 3 section with some tricky route finding. Most people will follow the cairns at the crux and traverse slightly east and downhill to bypass a tricky  gendarme, but some people opt to take a more direct approach and tackle the gendarme head-on. This is class 4 to 5.easy depending on what line you take (options abound).
The crux of the Sawtooth Ridge in Colorado
Approaching the crux section of the Sawtooth
After circumnavigating the crux, you cross over the ridgeline and discover (using cairns to guide you) a dirt ramp that is the key to avoiding the large cliffs in front of you. This crucial ramp is fairly narrow and perched on an astounding cliffside. The exposure is tremendous. To make matters worse, the ledge is gravelly and loose. However, if you are steady on your feet and calm in your mind, you shouldn't have too much trouble. It is no harder than class 2 to 2+.

The exposed ledge on the Sawtooth
The beginning of the crucial ledge

  Once across the ledge, you emerge on easier ground in a large boulderfield on the west slopes of Mt. Evans. Thirteener Mt. Spalding (13,842', unranked) is just to your north/northeast. The rest of the route to Mt. Evans is mostly easy (class 2) but deceptively long. At one point you cross the ridgeline to your right and descend onto Evans' south face. If you stay on the ridgeline you can climb some class 2+/3 and climb "West Evans" (14,262') on the way. Unless it is winter, expect a crowd on Mt. Evans summit. It is the only Colorado 14er with a paved road all the way to the summit.

The summit of Mt. Evans
The parking lot near the Mt. Evans summit
The fastest way to descend is to retrace your steps but instead of turning southeast and returning over the Sawtooth, you veer north and follow a steep, loose gully (devious class 2/2+) that deposits you in the basin below the steep cliffs that guard the ridge. There is a beautiful waterfall here and an impressive view of the walls above. The rest of the trek back to the car is a soggy, bushwhack that is deceptively long and remarkably trailess. Add in some unavoidable bogs and a loss/regain of elevation and you are likely to detest this last mile or so. I sure did, especially after what already had been a long, tiring day.

A waterfall
The cliffs and waterfall at the base of the Sawtooth

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