Mt. Elbert - Box Creek Couloirs
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|Difficulty:||Difficult Class 2, Moderate Snow|
Ski: Advanced, D6 / R3 / III
|Trailhead:||South Mt. Elbert|
|Total Gain:||4,150 feet|
|RT Length:||8.5 miles (starting at the end of the 4WD road)|
12.5 miles (starting at the paved TH)
|USGS Quad.:||Mount Elbert|
|County Sheriff:||Lake: 719-486-1249
|National Forest:||San Isabel|
From U.S. 24 south of Leadville, take Colorado 82 west toward Twin Lakes. Drive about 4 miles and turn right onto the 24 road. Drive 1.2 miles up a hill to the main trailhead parking area (paved) on the left. This is the lower trailhead and 2WD vehicles should park here. Continue 50 feet past the lower TH and turn left on Forest Service road 125.1B (4WD). From here it's 1.8 miles to the upper trailhead. Walk or drive up the 4WD road to reach the start of the trail.
Along the 4WD road there are many pull-offs and some camping spots. Near 0.5 mile there's a rough patch on the road but most 4WD vehicles should be able to get past it. Near 1.5 miles there's a very rough patch that will stop most vehicles. If you can't drive past this point, there's parking down the road a bit. Continue to the end of the road to find parking throughout the trees and the start of the trail.
In winter and spring, it's unlikely that you will be able to drive up the entire 4WD road to reach the upper South Elbert trailhead. Park where you can and walk up to upper trailhead. Cross a small creek on a foot bridge (Photo #1) and follow the Colorado / Continental Divide trail through thick brush. Continue through an Aspen forest for 1/4 mile to a trail junction in the forest. If you continue straight, you will stay on the Colorado Trail heading north towards the North Mount Elbert and Mount Massive trailheads. Turn left onto the South Mount Elbert trail and hike up through the forest. After a few steep pitches through the trees, cross a flat area near 11,000' (Photo #2) before turning right and climbing up to the crest of the lower east ridge. Near 11,400', the forest opens up a bit and there are some small meadows - Photo #3. If you can't find the snow-covered trail, simply continue northwest along the east ridge - Photo #4.
At 11,700', the trail levels out before climbing about 3/4 mile up and across the hillside towards Elbert's East Ridge - Photo #5. Reach the crest of the east ridge at 12,400' - this is the point where you will split from the east ridge route (South Elbert Trail) and head towards Box Creek - Photo #6. Taken from higher on the east ridge, Photo #7 andPhoto #8 provide a preview of the Box Creek Couloirs, but they are not visible from 12,400' on the ridge.
Hike north over the ridge and then contour left (northwest and then west) into the Box Creek cirque. Continue over 1/2 a mile and 300' of elevation gain to reach a large flat area in upper Box Creek - Photo #9. From here, you have a full view of the couloirs that lead to the summit and it's a good time to study the slope ahead. The easiest line, but not always the safest, is to climb directly up the center of the slope - Photo #10 and Photo #11. That's the option that will be described here. Hike over to the base of the couloirs and begin your climb - Photo #12. Taken at 13,000', Photo #13 and Photo #14 provide a good look at the terrain with sufficient snow coverage. Between 13,000' and 13,400', this slope averages just under 35 degrees in steepness - Photo #15. Above 13,500', the slope angle approaches 38 degrees (Photo #16) but quickly eases above 13,600' - Photo #17 and Photo #18. Angle left (southwest, Photo #19) to reach a broad snow field near 13,900' - Photo #20.
You are now above the Box Creek Couloirs, but some hiking still remains. Photo #21 is a great view of the remaining route to the summit. Continue southwest to reach the top - Photo #22 and Photo #23.
Upper Box Creek gets an early and direct sun-hit. Start early.
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