Mount Bierstadt (14,060 feet) — A Review for Hikers with Joint Disease, Joint Replacements, or Neuromuscular Deficiencies — and an Anecdote about How to Not Be Dangerously Stupid on a Fourteener

© 2012 Peter Free


18 October 2012


View from summit of Mount Bierstadt, Colorado, taken 16 October 2012.

View from the summit of Mount Bierstadt, Colorado, taken 16 October 2012.



Picture of altocumulus standing lenticular clouds, near Mount Bierstadt, Colorado, on 16 October 2012.

Altocumulus standing lenticular clouds, showing high altitude wind velocity, near Mount Bierstadt on 16 October 2012.


Two parts to this review


(1) An overview recommending Mount Bierstadt as perhaps the “easiest” fourteen thousand foot Colorado peak for people with arthritis and related ailments.


(2) An anecdote about how I foolishly got myself into unpleasant difficulty on it.



Part 1 — this review of the west slope “standard” trail up Mount Bierstadt is for people with joint disease and/or mild neurological problems


You can gauge the relevance of this review to you by reading an overview of my mild physical impairments, here.  Notice that I have had to give up non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), due to hypersensitivities.


People with joint disease similar to mine, but who can treat it with medication, will be able to go much longer distances than I do, way faster, with significantly less difficulty.



Bierstadt was the easiest of the nine (easy to moderate) 14ers that I have done this year — primarily because the footing is better


The eight other fourteeners that I am referring to include:






Shavano (click here for my cardiac anecdote)


Pikes Peak (via its much shorter Crags route)



The 7-mile Bierstadt route begins at the east parking lot trailhead at the top of Guanella Pass.




There is also a parking area uphill and west of the Guannela Pass road.  Both parking lots are paved and quite large by fourteener standards.


The sign for the Bierstadt (standard) trail is hidden behind the earth rise at the south end of the parking lot.  But you can see the trail itself passing in front of the outhouses there.


Most of the trail is very well maintained.  The Forest Service has built an extensive series of wooden walkways across the boggy portion of the lower part of the route.  I was impressed, being more accustomed to tolerating soaked shoes on terrain like this.


The only challenge for me lay in crossing the creek that runs through the lowest portion of the route.  Even at low water time (mid-October), the trail crosses at a point where it is not possible (for short people) to step from stone to stone, without jumping.  Which is something that I no longer can do.


However, if you look left (north) at this point, you will see a large pink boulder on the west bank very roughly 30 to 40 meters downstream.  If you walk toward it, you will see that the stones across the stream are closer together.


At this crossing point, one has the option of using the large boulder itself as a starting point, or looking to its right (facing the stream) and seeing an even safer route provided by two much smaller rocks near the west bank.


As the trail climbs toward the summit, it does not exhibit the same loose rock cover that I found difficult (due to my problems with balance) on Mounts Democrat, Cameron, and Sherman.  Those peaks are shorter hikes than Bierstadt — and generally rated as easier for that reason — but for arthritic hikers, who have problems with balance, they are less pleasant.


On the day I walked the mountain, remnants of snow and ice covered much of its upper portion.  These were slippery, even below freezing.  However, I found these slippery conditions less challenging, given my experience on snow and ice, than the unstable and sliding rocks that I had encountered on Mount Sherman.


Bierstadt’s summit is a typical 14er boulder clump.  But unlike the others, it is easier to see where the hiking route goes.  The people who built the stone cairns that mark much of the summit route seem to have ensured that people coming uphill could see them.  Until you have experienced the annoyance of poorly located cairns on other mountains, you may not feel the kind of appreciation that I did for their efforts.


As a result of the trail makers’ care, I inadvertently deviated only twice near the top, and only for very short distances.  However, with the snow, ice, wind and cold of the day I hiked this route, these short deviations got my arthritic self into spots of “more than I bargained for” trouble.




In addition to the neuromuscular and balance problems that I have documented elsewhere, I often have to use an arm or two to move a leg to where it needs to go.  That means that I have to use my butt to maintain three points of contact (with rock) in scrambling and climbing situations.


Even so simple a thing as squatting becomes  challenging, when my arthritis flares.  As it always does on these hikes.  Once squatting or sitting, it is extremely difficult to get to my feet again.  This sort of decrepitude makes boulder scrambling especially difficult.



A route-finding tip — if the clambering seems to be more difficult than it should be, you are off the trail


Near the top of Bierstadt, hiking through the boulder pile, the trail skirts the lower portion of the summit by going around its west side.  If you take the direct route up the fall line (meaning the route that goes straight uphill) you will be off the trail.


If you find yourself doing more boulder scrambling than hiking, look to the west for signs of the route you intended to take.



Caveat — Bierstadt is an especially crowded fourteener


The peak’s location near the Denver metropolitan area makes it attractive.  Because the drive to it is served by Interstate 70 and seasonally maintained Guanella Pass road, it is especially popular.


For photographs of an apparently representative summer crowd, see “April’s” route review and photographs, here (at


Even on 16 October, after two light snows and in strong winds, I still counted about 15 people on the mountain.


This is not a summit for hermits.  I wouldn’t even consider doing it at mid-week, during the summer.  Weekends would be awful.



Part 2 — an anecdote about how I got myself into unpleasantness on Bierstadt, due to a combination of aged decrepitude and stupidity


Despite Bierstadt’s mellowness, I managed to turn my hike into a bout of unpleasantness that had safety implications.


I include the tale because it illustrates how easily even experienced wilderness travelers can make a series of small mistakes that quickly accumulate to bite them.


The take-away lesson in this is that aging lessens our physical reserves and impacts our ability to cope with routine challenges.


Though most any able bodied person, and her baby sister, can hike the easier fourteeners, these mountains can kill you — if you are being careless, or they’re in the mood.



A summary of what happened to me


I had a mild gut virus the day I did this hike.  I was not able to eat, due to nausea, or drink.  The latter because of the laughable difficulty I had managing my squishy water bottle in the shrieking wind.


At the summit, I had to scramble along on all fours in places to keep from being blown off the mountain.  Even with that caution, the wind blew my arthritically teetering self down a few times.


The combination of wind and cool temperatures eventually made my hands, feet, and face numb — even though I had prepared for the conditions with gloves and warm clothing.  This chronic problem is due to pre-existing nerve and vascular damage from repeated episodes of frost-bite, when I was young.


As a result, I found that I could not manipulate much with my hands.  Even working the shutter button on my camera proved to be trying.


My right foot, especially, lost its feel for the terrain.  And my mouth stopped working well enough to speak clearly.  The whole lower part of my face became a numb block of immobile tissue.


The gale was fierce enough, even coming down, that I couldn’t use my trekking poles in places.  The wind caught their oval shafts and blew them sideways too much to be useful.  Even when the wind lessened, I still had to angle the up-wind pole about 20 to 25 degrees into it, so as to keep that pole from blowing across my legs and tripping me.


To set all this off, half-way back down from the summit, I “bonked.”  Meaning that I hit the physiological “wall” that distance athletes experience, when they have run out of fuel.


As a result of dehydration and a lack of energy, I felt as if an athletic baby could have crawled faster than I was stepping by the time I got back to my car.


Safety implications


I have enough trouble with poor balance (due to the neural complications of my arthritis) that hiking on uneven ground and boulder scrambling are significantly more challenging than those activities are for able people.  Dehydrated and out of energy, I was asking for trouble.  And losing the ability to use my hands was not at all smart.



Small errors accumulate


Starting sick was not a good idea.  But I rationalized that bit of stupidity by estimating that the day I did the hike was likely to be the last day (that I could take advantage of), without heavy snow cover or significant cold this year.


And, though I knew that it was going to be windy (based on weather reports for significantly lower elevations), I optimistically underestimated the wind’s ferocity on the summit.


Absent the complications of arthritis, this would not have become a significant problem.  But with the challenges that I already have in keeping myself from falling, my underestimation of wind conditions was just dumb.  When I lost the summit trail a couple of times, I got myself into more difficulty trying to boulder scramble.




There are a couple of spots on the summit where getting blown eastward off the mountain is going to have you sailing down some not too far from vertical descents.


For people with a respect for heights, these short segments of the route, if attempted under “blow me away” conditions, are a little intimidating.


Perhaps dumbest was my failure to drink.  Nausea was just bad enough to make the thought unappealing.  And the wind was so strong and cold, that I kept hoping for a more sheltered place to haul the water bottle out.  None such showed up.


Eventually, half way down the mountain, I tried taking water from the soft-sided bottle.  But the buffeting gale knocked me down, from a squatting  position, and literally almost blew the container out of my hand.


Then, trying to suck the water, I managed to start choking.  So, I unintelligently gave up on the water taking experiment. 


Last, I underestimated my vulnerability to bonking under what seemed to me to be a relatively mild endurance effort.  Evidently, I was guilty of using the physiological abilities of my youth to overestimate the reserves I had with age.



The moral? — Bierstadt is a great mountain, but don’t be dumb on it


Even experienced wilderness travelers can occasionally be careless, without recognizing their brainlessness soon enough to remedy the situation.


I suppose the moral is to consider the possibility of air-headedness before beginning the hike.  Not during and afterward.


Whether I can live up to this piece of self-advice remains to be seen.  In me, being over the hill and occasionally incautious (read “stupid”) seem to go together.