| Mount Elbert (NE ridge) again, 17 years later
This trip report begins 17 years ago, in late August 1995, when I was 17 years old. Before reporting to school for my freshman year at Auburn University, the AU swim team, of which I was a part, spent 5 days in Colorado Springs at the Olympic Training Center to do some altitude training. A Louisville, Kentucky, resident, I had been to Colorado Springs annually for the previously five years, but had never done any hiking. One morning, the coaching staff woke us up at 3 AM and told us to dress warm and bring lots of water. We boarded a couple vans and arrived at the trailhead for Mount Elbert around 6 AM. I am sure that none of us knew anything about Mount Elbert, but, wearing sweat pants and carrying backpacks, we started the hike nonetheless. Most of us reached the summit in 5 hours or so, complaining all the way, and gladly, though out of breath, returned to our vans, safely but sorely, within another 2 and half or 3 hours. It was another week before I learned that Mount Elbert was the highest in Colorado and the second highest – behind California’s Mount Whitney – in the lower 49 states.
Reflecting on that experience – something done numerous times since my college swimming career ended in 1999 – I always consider hiking Mount Elbert as among the most difficult things – if not tops on that list – I had ever done. Even for an elite athlete, it was a physical challenge, effectively eight hours of non-stop hiking at significantly higher altitude than the 450-feet-above-sea-level Louisville, Kentucky; but more so, it was a mental challenge. When would there be a resting place? When would the tree line end? Am I safe from wildlife here? Are you kidding? That’s not the real summit? What? There’s another false summit too? Even on the way down, I think I’m going to fall! It was a spiritual experience; I believe in a Creator God, who reveals His eternal power and divine nature through creation – the sheer mass of a mountain is flat out impressive! You hear about mountaintop experiences from people who have enjoyed certain successes. Well, this had been both literally and in that sense, a mountaintop experience to remember. That’s why I’ve been unable to forget it over the past 17 years, despite having not returned to Coloarado, having a family, and starting a career far from the field of athletics.
In the past year, I’ve enjoyed a couple of audio books (John Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, and Ghosts of Everest: The Search for Mallory and Irvine, by Jochen Hemmleb, Larry A. Johnson, and Eric R. Simonson) that inspired me to return to the Colorado Rockies and revisit the highest of them, Mount Elbert. I thought to myself, “I’m not going to climb Everest, but I might be able to hike Elbert.” So last week, I did just that.
It began with a 1300-mile drive that ended 70 miles prematurely with a busted fuel pump just outside of Salida, Colorado, en route to Gunnison, where my wife’s sister lives. She and her daughter were our family’s hostesses for the week. My Suburban was towed to a helpful mechanic near Salida (Automotrix Exotix), and I saw Mount Aetna glaring down. The next day, we went up to Crested Butte and enjoyed Lake Irwin, then followed that up with a lazy day at the Gunnison Whitewater Park. I would make my ascent of Mount Elbert on Wednesday, August 8.
My son woke up at 2 AM that morning, unable to see anything, because our room was dark. I had my alarm set for 3 AM, but decided to go ahead and get up; I wasn’t sleeping well anyway, filled with nervous energy. The drive from Gunnison toward Leadville – in my niece’s Subaru Outback – was 120 miles, and between the hours of 2:45-5 AM, there weren’t many cars on the roads. The stars were out, and I caught mountain shadows in the distance, passing Aetna, Mount Antero, and the Collegiate Peaks (Princeton, Yale, and Harvard). I learned before coming out to Colorado that there are a couple different trails leading up to Mount Elbert, but I wanted to revisit the same trail I had taken at the halfway point of my life (the most common Northeast Ridge route). So I pulled onto Halfmoon Road just southwest of Leadville, and the excitement grew when it turned into gravel and passed several campsites. At 5:10 AM, after avoiding a few minor potholes, I parked in the obvious lot for Elbert’s trailhead and noticed Mount Massive’s trailhead just a few miles further down (maybe next year?).
Just when I thought I was the only one around, I noticed a group of 8 or 10 hikers heading for the trail with flashlights. I didn’t bring a flashlight, so I waited until there was enough light to see at least 20 feet in front of me. After a bite to eat, I could wait no longer and, after setting my “runkeeper” iphone app to a GPS hiking activity, I began the hike at 5:40 AM.
There was an unmarked but fairly obvious (though less so in the dark) left turn over some running water within the first two minutes of the hike, and then shortly after that, there was the creek crossing that I remembered well. I must admit to nearly stepping off the logs into the shallow, rushing water, but I’m certainly glad I didn’t. Be careful here, as I think the hike would be less enjoyable with a soaked shoe… Overall, the first 20 minutes served as a great warm-up, with a pretty steady diet of steep inclines, and the view from the first hilltop thereafter was quite serene
First Hill. The next 10 minutes, coming to the split in the trail where the sign to Mount Elbert points right, was a tease. Hiking down the other side of that first hill and through a flat portion of the forest made me think this was going to be easy. But the rest of forested section (another 45 minutes) of the hike was steep. As the sky slowly lightened the surrounding forest, I didn’t see another person during that time, but the 42-degree air, large female elk, scurrying chipmunks, and falling pinecones kept me alert. I moved quickly (at least from my perspective) through the trees, reaching the tree line, with 2 brief water stops along the way, only 75 minutes from the start of the hike.
At the tree line
Tree Line, I caught up to 3 of the hikers that had started with flashlights. Passing them with welcoming words, I moved up the mountainside toward the first false summit. Just over 2 hours into the hike, passing another portion of that original hiking group, I had reached 13,000 feet, a good place to rest for a moment, grab a snack and some water, and take a couple pictures
Elevation Check 1. Thirty minutes later, I was at 13,500 feet
Elevation Check 2, and thinking less than a thousand to go! But that last thousand feet of elevation gain was tough! When I left the grassy area and came to the section that was all rocks, the trail seemed to disintegrate, or at best meander off into 10 or more different, narrower paths through the rocky ascent. I quickly found myself carefully climbing rocks instead of casually hiking trails, and I constantly looked around for the correct path. Eventually, I saw the trail through the rocks, which had actually gone around the steepest part of the mountain, and I made my way across the rocks to return to that trail. There were a lot of marmots up there as well!
Marmot near the top Surpassing the steepest and most difficult part of the hike, a lone hiker passed me on his way down. He was the first to the top that day, and he let me know that I had about 20 minutes left in my ascent. The remaining amount was less difficult but still challenging due to shortness of breath and burning leg muscles, but I knew I would accomplish the task I had set out to do. I reached the summit at 9:00 AM, only 3 hours and 20 minutes after beginning; I had expected 4 and a half or 5 hours, so I was very pleased with my efforts. At the top, there were 2 more guys that took my picture
Summit 1 and headed down shortly after I arrived. I made a phone call from the top – I had excellent reception (Verizon) for voice, texting, and data everywhere en route, except for while in the forest. The only challenges there were the fairly aggressive wind, shaky leg muscles, and general state of fatigue (though excitement of reaching the top cancelled that out).
I stayed at the top for about 20-25 minutes, enjoying the views (neighboring Mount Massive, which lives up to its name, had some snow, but there was none anywhere else that I could see). I had some water and a bite to eat, tossed some rocks from the steepest side of Elbert’s summit, collected a few more rocks as souvenirs, took a couple pictures
Summit 2 (where my iphone altitude app showed me at 14,448 feet, though Elbert is reported to be 14,433 feet – I’m not 15 feet tall!)
Panorama and videos, and started my decent. A group of 3 hikers arrived just before I left, and I took their picture as well. I took several videos on the way down (I will try to post them on YouTube soon), and I was surprised (but I guess I shouldn’t have been) to see so many people making their way up. I probably passed 50-60 people between the first false summit and tree line. The youngest were a 10-year-old boy and 12-year-old girl, trekking with their dad. I wonder if they made it? They seemed in good spirits, but, responding to their inquiry about the nearness of the top, I acknowledged that they had a long way to go. I badly wanted to bring my oldest 2 children – ages 9 and 8 respectively – along, but I am certain they would not have made it at the rate I was traveling; I’m not sure they could have done it at all, and definitely not without complaining.
Descending the mountain was much more difficult than I had remembered. Each step had to be carefully made to avoid loose rocks and avoid a tumble. I slipped on occasion, but never fell. Even in the forest, the descent had to be made cautiously to avoid tripping on tree roots or rocks, or to keep balance. I passed another 20 people while descending through the trees. Those folks were going to have a tough time making it to the top by early afternoon. On the way up, the forest flew by, but coming down, it seemed to last forever. I was growing more and more fatigued until a couple runners came charging through on the trail. They were flying down the hillside! How were they not falling? Seeing them motivated me to continue steadily down. When I passed the 2 guys who were at the top when I got there, I also began to hear the faint sound of rushing water, encouraging me that the end was near. I exited the forest into the parking lot just before noon, finishing the descent in 2 hours 15 minutes.
There was a lady investigating the trailhead signage, wondering if she and her family should try to hike Elbert or Massive. I offered my perspective, that Elbert is considered to be easy, and it is the tallest. But I told her that it was my only experience, and any trek with an elevation gain of nearly 5000 feet and a round trip of nearly 10 miles and 6 hours or more is still going to be very difficult. I removed my windbreaker, socks, and shoes and rested in the car while checking my runkeeper iphone app. It said the ascent was 5.35 miles and the descent was 4.57 miles. Obviously, the GPS got confused somewhere on the way up, as the actual one-way trip is closer to the 4.57 mile figure. On the drive away, I parked on the side of US 24 just south of Leadville and snapped one more photo of the prominent peak of Mount Elbert
US24. After meeting up with the family at the Mount Princeton Hot Springs, we got our car back in Salida and then spent the last day of our trip near the Blue Mesa Reservoir, including a 4-mile family hike at Dillon Pinnacles. The 1300-mile drive back was smooth, and each of our family members had a great time in Colorado. But the draw to the mountaintop has not left me, and I look forward to a return visit to Elbert, or Massive, or one of the other 14ers next summer.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):