Path of the Month: the Sawtooth, the perfect introduction to Class 3 climbing in Colorado | MyWindsorNow.com

Path of the Month: the Sawtooth, the perfect introduction to Class 3 climbing in Colorado

Despite its frigidity, the summit of Mt. Bierstadt was unsurprisingly lively at 6 a.m., even for a Saturday morning. At least 20 people joined me and Joey Heiserman, my roommate and climbing partner, while we waited for the sun to come up.

We had a bigger goal in mind, and we needed the sun to light our way.

Finally, the sun peeked over the top of Mt. Evans. The world glowed burnt orange. And for the first time that day, we could see our objective looming below us: the Sawtooth ridge.

The ridge would be my first Class 3 route, which means I'd have to use my hands and feet to climb. The ridge is not a hike, like the trip up Bierstadt, which is gentle enough to do by headlamps. The Sawtooth is a huge, jagged ridge that connects the north ridge of Bierstadt to the west ridge of Evans. We'd hiked seven 14ers, and we wanted an introduction to what the harder ones are like: The Sawtooth seemed like the perfect introduction to Class 3.

“The terrain eases the further right you go, but you’ll eventually have to climb back up every inch you go down.”

The route descends down Bierstadt's steep north ridge and then crosses to the other side of the ridge, traverses the steep, loose, narrow ledges on the Sawtooth's face before climbing up and depositing you on Evans' west ridge.

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We started down Bierstadt, hopping down large boulder after large boulder, at first bearing to our right, away from the ridge crest and toward Abyss Lake valley. The crest — on your left — holds the most direct, but hardest, line to the Sawtooth. The terrain eases the further right you go, but you'll eventually have to climb back up every inch you go down.

With that in mind, Joey and I instead made a beeline for the ridge crest. This was the right choice. The bouldering up there is a blast, and we made great time on our direct line. The first two gendarmes — Joey gave up trying to pronounce the French word describing a rock pinnacle that occupies or blocks a ridge and started calling them "Ganondorfs" — are easy to skirt around.

The third is a monster. It's the crux of the route. You have to reach the top to switch over to the other side of the ridge and traverse the Sawtooth's ledges. There are two ways to do this: The easier way takes you far down to your right, around the bottom and up a gentle grassy gully to the top; the other way is to just climb it.

If you're comfortable with it, I highly recommend the latter. Joey and I watched as a group of three climbers ahead of us scale the gendarme using a wide crack near the ridge crest and decided to follow their line.

The large boulders of the gendarme are solid and stable and full of good holds. We zoomed three-quarters of the way up the crack, about 50 feet, then exited onto a ledge. From there, it was another 50-plus feet to the top of the gendarme.

This stretch held some trickier moves. For one, I came to the top of a boulder on my hands and knees with the corner of another boulder between me and the next ledge. I had no idea how to proceed. This move was a wonderful puzzle. I felt no fear because the only way was forward.

So I scooted my legs until I was sitting upright, grabbed the corner of the boulder, pushed off with my left leg and reached for the ledge with my right while using my hands to swing around the corner. I touched down on the ledge and hopped over a few more boulders to the top of the gendarme. It was exhilarating.

Then the route switches over to the other side of the ridge. The ledges on the Sawtooth's face look deadly from a distance, but they're not nearly as bad when you're on them.

Still, only a stretch of dirt the width of a sidewalk separates you from a 300-foot fall. After the ledges, we ascended a scree slope to the top of the Sawtooth. It's loose and slants toward that precipitous drop-off, but if you stay high, near the Sawtooth's face, you should be fine.

Atop the Sawtooth is a grassy plain filled with wildflowers, boulders and mountain goats. From there, you should be able to see Evans' west ridge trail straight ahead. Cross the plain and get on the route, then simply follow it along past Evans' rocky false summits until you come to top, where you'll be joined by people who drove to the summit.

We made it by 10 a.m., six hours after leaving the trailhead.

This is where you can keep yourself out of a world of misery. If possible, have someone pick you up from the top of Evans and drive you back to the trailhead.

If you don't have anyone, take Evans' west ridge route back to where you joined it from the Sawtooth. Instead of downclimbing the Sawtooth — that would be foolish— bear to the right of it, across those grassy plains. Eventually, those gentle slopes will give way to a long, rocky gully. It's steep in sections but never unmanageable. Most of the time, a creek is flowing down the middle. Stay to the right of it.

About halfway down the gully, Joey and I encountered someone climbing up it. He warned us about what was ahead: miles of bushwhacking through marshes, reeds and willows, through mud two feet deep, mostly without a trail, until you reconnect with the main Bierstadt trail for the last mile back to the trailhead.

I asked him if he had any advice. He said "no" and laughed at us.

We continued down the gully, and a small path that led us into the willows then turned to muck. I took one step and sank into mud almost to my knee. Joey got his shoe stuck and spent a few expletive-filled minutes fishing it out.

At this point you're not following a trail as much as the path of least resistance. Eventually we emerged into a clearing in the willows. Our boots sunk into flooded grass. Joey wondered aloud if we were getting close to the Bierstadt trail. I squinted at group of tents barely visible in the distance. That was the Bierstadt trail.

We trudged forward, back into the willows and mud. The sun was at its mid-afternoon hottest. I ran out of water just as we reached the tents. Exhaustion finally set in over the last mile. My legs were heavy, my head ached and I could feel nausea building in my stomach, but the end was in sight.

As exhilarating as the Sawtooth part of the route was — and it was the most fun I've ever had on a mountain — the descent was as miserable. We got back to the car after 3 p.m., the descent having taken almost as long as the trip up.

I collapsed against the side of my car and threw up.

It was still worth it.

The Sawtooth

» What: A challenging but exhilarating Class 3 ridge scramble that’s the perfect way to introduce yourself to harder climbing

» Where: Near Georgetown, 55 miles west of Denver

» Length: 10.5 miles

» Directions from Greeley: Take U.S. 85 south to Interstate-76 West; take I-76 to I-70 West; take exit 228 for Georgetown; turn right on Rose St.; when Rose St. dead-ends, turn left onto Guanella Pass Road, and follow Guanella Pass Road to the trailhead.

» Fee: None

» For more information: https://www.14ers.com/route.php?route=bier4&peak=Mt.+Bierstadt

Our times

» Left trailhead: 4 a.m.

» Summited Bierstadt: 6 a.m.

» Left Bierstadt: 7 a.m.

» Completed Sawtooth: 9 a.m.

» Summited Evans: 10 a.m.

» Back to trailhead: 3 p.m.

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