24 August 2009

Mount Bierstadt

Late autumn sunset on the Sawtooth and Mount Bierstadt

21 July 2002

We spent the night on Guanella Pass at the base of Bierstadt on Friday. It was an experiment to see if I would experience altitude sickness while climbing the mountain after spending a night at 9,000 some-odd feet.

I reached the peak Saturday morning, without headaches, without lightheadedness, without nausea. I finally learned out how to hike a 14er without getting sick!

I’d never had altitude sickness before in my life until this year. I tried biking up Mount Evans back in May, but was forced to turn back with full-blown symptoms. In June, I made my first attempt to climb Evans on foot, and although the wind held me back, my second bout with altitude sickness made me temporarily wary of 14ers. Then my daughter and I climbed Evans together, and although my headache that day was mild, I did suffer minor effects yet again.

After successfully climbing Evans with my daughter, the two of us watched “Kilimanjaro” at the Imax theater. The hikers in the film spent a night at each significant altitude change to adapt to the thinner air before proceeding. The hike in miles isn’t a week‑long distance, but the rise of the mountain goes through every temperate zone from desert to tundra. The hikers took their time to prevent the very same side effects I’d experienced on Evans, a mountain I’d driven up countless times and had underestimated because of the ease of the vehicular ascent.

I realized after watching “Kilimanjaro” I had spent the night at the base of Longs before I climbed it, unprepared as I was at the time. I spent the night at the base of Elbert before I climbed it. I thought I was an expert. I couldn’t understand why I was getting sick on an easy mountain after I’d climbed a pretty tough mountain. After all the biking I’ve done. After all the hiking I’ve done. After all the running I’ve done.

I was going from Mile High Denver to 14,000 foot levels each time I tried Evans, instead of starting from a thinner-air elevation. Tourists get altitude sickness in Denver. Sports teams sometimes suffer the effects of altitude in Denver.

This teacher had to teach herself, and Bierstadt was her classroom.

I woke at 5:30, hoping to shoot a sunrise over the Sawtooth, an impressive jagged saddle between Evans and Bierstadt. But Evans, Spaulding and the Sawtooth are so tall, the sun didn’t peek over them until after 9 a.m. when we were halfway up Bierstadt. The sky got lighter and lighter after 6 a.m., when I woke my daughter to begin the hike, but the ground stayed in shadows, and all the lush green stayed frosted until the sun began melting the overnight moisture hours later.

Mist had settled on the lake and streams as we began our hike. Wildflowers were peeking out from beneath all the willows, but we couldn’t see the true color until our descent.

Every once in a while, I’d stop to take a photo of wildflowers in front of the dramatic silhouetted skyline of the Sawtooth. I’d take off my pack and dart across the tundra effortlessly. Then I’d be plodding again as soon as I put the pack back on. I realized one of the reasons climbing is so hard for me is because I always carry way too much stuff.

Once we reached the saddle, the trail did become fun, like Evans, and for the first time ever, I enjoyed exposure on all sides. I wasn’t shy of heights, snapping photos down deep crevasses, or even posing for photos against stark drop-offs.

My daughter shot a couple of photos of me, but then she petered out and took a rest atop a boulder. I didn’t know if she’d make it down the mountain! Then another hiker called out that he was sharing M&Ms, and she sprang to life. Anything for chocolate! (I’d brought grapes and nectarines.)

After a few minutes, she had her fill of chocolate and was ready to head down the mountain. She stopped to pet every dog along the way. Coming back down the mountain brought a new array of wildflowers I hadn’t noticed on the way up because of the deep mountain shadows. This peak literally was covered with flowers I’d never seen. I will be busy learning the names of all the flowers for the next few days!

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