Sunday, September 30, 2012

Mt. Elbert, Colorado September 21, 2012

Mt. Elbert, CO (14,433') via South Elbert trail (State High Point #22) September 21, 2012.

Distance: 8.4 miles RT
Elevation gain: 4,218'
Trailhead: US 24 south from Leadville, right on CO-82, travel 4  miles- take another right onto Lake County Road (a highway sign indicates the South Elbert TH). Drive past Lakeview Campground. Lower trailhead will be a half mile further on your left (9,560’). If you park here and walk up you will add 4ish miles and 900’ elevation gain to your hike.  OR Just past the lower trailhead is USFS 125 1-B, a four wheel drive road (note: 2017 reports have indicated this road has gotten very rough, needing a high clearance four wheel drive vehicle). Drive the 2 miles to the upper trailhead (there are many places to pull off and park if the going gets too rough for your vehicle).

Lessons learned: A level 1 trail is hard at an altitude of 12-14,000 feet!
Hiked with Rich, Peggy and my brother Bob (Bob was WAY ahead).  
I learned in February that I’d be in Colorado in September to attend a work-related conference. In the past, I’ve combined visiting state highpoints with work trips and saw this as a perfect opportunity to go for Colorado’s highpoint, Mt. Elbert.
The thought of climbing Mt. Elbert, Colorado’s (home of the Rockies) highest peak was intimidating.  Though still considered summer hiking season, September is late to be climbing a fourteen thousand footer.  Somehow I managed to convince Rich to come with me; we booked flights for the week prior to my conference and reserved an SUV just in case.  I also talked my brother Bobby and his wife Peg into joining us.
Four inches of snow fell on Mt. Elbert the week before our trip. Since it was getting late in the season we brought our Microspikes.  Bob and Peg, who'd planned on driving out from Utah, threw four pair of snowshoes in their car for us.  Just in case. 
We live and work at an altitude of about 81’ so we needed time in CO to acclimate to the higher altitude.  Work schedules allowed us four days to acclimate enough to reach the summit at 14,433’ without too much risk.  We’d fly in to Denver on Tuesday and summit on Saturday. 
As soon as we landed we drove to Vail (8500’) where we explored the town.  We were winded when climbing stairs and walking up Vail’s sidewalks but confident that would subside in a few days.
Vail - cute but quiet this time of year.

We spent the night there, planning to head to Leadville (10,000’+) the next day to continue acclimating. 
Are four days really enough time to acclimate for a trek to a 14k summit?  We weren't sure.  To try to prepare ourselves, we drank unbelievable amounts of water (and consequently spent a lot of time in the bathroom and behind trees).  We also watched what we ate and drank (limited alcohol, caffeine).  Four days was all we had to acclimate and we were determined to hike to the summit of Mt. Elbert on the fifth (Saturday).
We stayed in a private room at the Leadville Hostel.  The hostel is neat, clean, spacious and quiet.  Day 1 there we hiked the North Elbert trail to 11,600’- 2.5 miles up (still in the trees) and hung out for over an hour feeding the gray jays, having lunch and playing with our phones.  The weather was beautiful.  The North Elbert trailhead is nice with bathrooms and lots of parking. This route is very popular and the one most visitors take.  We originally planned to hike to the summit on this trail so I wanted to see what it was like.  Our short hike had us gasping and huffing.

Day 2 we hiked the South Elbert trail, driving the extra 2 miles on the four wheel drive road to the upper trailhead (our rented Kia Sportage did very well).  We had no problem going up and the dips, rocks, holes and stream were easily overtaken without scraping the undercarriage.   

The upper trailhead of South Elbert trail is about 400’ higher in elevation than the North Elbert trailhead; we were at 11,600’ in 1.5 miles, much of that trail offering up some spectacular views.  The distance from trailhead to the summit was shorter and the description of the rest of the trail seemed more appealing than that of the North Elbert trail (where there's a disheartening false summit just before the top).  South Elbert was described as easy to descend in one trip report
South Elbert trailhead.  

Mmmmm, let’s see.  Shorter trail, better description, less elevation gain, no false summit – a no-brainer, South Elbert was it! Everyone was on board and excited for Saturday.

Colorado and Continental Divide trails come in left of the trailhead signs.

Both the North and South Elbert trails begin in tandem with the Colorado trail, a popular 500 mile trail in the state that happens to run concurrent with the Continental Divide trail in this region.
Bob and Peggy drove eight hours east, meeting us in Leadville on Thursday. Bob is an intense hiker and planned to hike up the South Elbert trail to the summit, then down the North Elbert trail to the trailhead,and then back up North (summitting twice) and down South to meet us at the car.  Since the Colorado Trail joins the North and South Elbert trailhead (forming a triangle), Bob could opt to cross over from the North to the South trailheads via a stretch of the Colorado trail should conditions prohibit hiking the mountain a second time.  We hatched our plans for Saturday.
Call it pre-hike enthusiasm, call it group-think - before we knew it we'd decided to hike on Friday instead.  Would we be ready? Hiking Friday shortened our acclimatization plan, removing a badly needed third day of acclimating. But Friday just seemed like a good idea to us.  We weren't going to spend another day hanging around to acclimate (no shortage of fools in the world). 
At dawn - excited for the challenge.

The next day we were up and on the trailhead at 6:50, it was a beautiful day.   Any snow from the week before had melted to a patch here and there (more on the north side) so we left the snowshoes but kept Microspikes in our packs (in case it was icy).
Bob was well ahead of us in no time (in fact we only saw him in the distance after this point).  We crossed the bridge and headed down the South Elbert/Colorado trail. 

Shortly after taking a bit of a dip (which as you know becomes a grueling uphill on the return), the Colorado and South Elbert trails parted ways.
We took a left and immediately went up!
Trail junction (where S.Elbert leaves CT and CD).

Peg says this is the hardest part of the trail, heading up the wide path with its unrelenting incline.  The ground eventually flattens out for a short period; this is where we rested and breathed.  We were winded already, less than a mile into the trip.
Shortly thereafter we started seeing awe inspiring views of the surrounding mountains, and the lake and towns below.  Rich says those views are what kept him going.  Colorado’s fall foliage is spectacular, with its shimmery yellow aspens and dark, rich green tall pines.  
The day was clear and the sky was a wonderful blue (well, a bit of a haze from wildfires in the Northwest crept in).    Soon we were above treeline and trekking on what I call the “tractor road.”
It's not really a tractor road, just deep ruts from many feet.

We were going much slower than our usual pace, stopping to rest - clearly not as acclimated as we should have been. Peg and Bob live at about 7,000’ and Peggy too was huffing and puffing as we ascended to 12,000 and then 13,000 feet.

It was Friday and only a handful of people were on the trail. All but the serious hikers were resting often; we looked like we were on a big conveyor belt, moving and stopping in unison.  One brave mountain biker was bringing his bike up the trail.

I wonder just how many of us live high enough to find climbing to over 14k not an issue. 

The path was wide and though not blazed, easy to follow.  We wound our way around the back of a small bump in the mountain and soon were walking up the slant of the mountain; clearly the longest 4 miles of easy terrain I’ve done. 

The little outcropping of rock (center right) is the small bump 

A few cairns were visible but not many.

It started to warm up. But at 12,000 a bit of wind would swing by so we stayed in long sleeves, taking off and putting on gloves from time to time.  Thunderstorms, a serious threat when hiking this peak, were not predicted.  The day just shined.

Every time I'd be out of breath I’d take a drink of water. It’s not easy to find a private place to lose all that liquid high above treeline.  We had to plan our pee times and take advantage of the odd pile of rocks or shrub.

 Part of the trail went right to the edge of the cirque.  I dared a small peek down.

Long way down!

The summit cones of New Hampshire's northern Presidentials consist of large gray angry rocks requiring hikers to hop their odd angles, desperately trying to find the right place to step and stay upright. Nothing like that was on Mt. Elbert. The trail is primarily soft easy grade, good footing earth with the occasional rock. 

At 13,000’ things changed (we changed). Our heavy breathing wasn’t cutting it. I focused on slowing my pace and filling the depth of my lungs with each breath.  I would stop and breathe, breathe, breathe – deep ones.  And of course I started to get dizzy which wasn't altitude sickness at all but the affects of my deep breathing  - I was hyperventilating!

The views were even more spectacular. Tired and breathless, I forced myself to turn around and look at them; it took my mind off the chore of trying to get enough oxygen from the air to continue to lurch my body upward.  Peg and Rich were also slowing, stopping continually to catch their breaths. 

At 14,000 we became hopeful.  Rich (who was carrying the GPS) said we couldn't ask how high we were anymore, it was annoying but I caught him sneaking peeks at it.  Switchbacks were coming faster now and each time I stopped to rest I could hear and feel my heart pounding out of my chest – so hard and fast that it seemed impossible to slow.  I tried to focus on a rock ahead and move toward it but would have to stop and catch my breath on the way. 

Twelve steps, stop. Twelve steps, stop. Eight steps, stop.  After a while I found a slow step/stop pace that got me up to the overlook about 20 yards from the summit.  And what an overlook it was.

Looking down on the north side.
Snow streaked the steep slabs of rock that continued down into oblivion.  It was exhilarating. 

When I reached the summit I was floored by the views. I was actually looking DOWN at peaks of the Rockies!

Peg and Rich followed and soon we were lunching and taking ours and others’ photos at the top. 

Rich on top of the world (close to the summit).
The summit air was sharp and dry.  No longer out of breath we reclined and socialized, aware that we shouldn't stay on the summit too long.

Fine hiking conditions made for a popular summit.

There were several homemade signs left up there. We opted for this one.

Cell coverage was funny – not a bar for any of us if we faced north, 5 bars for all of us if we turned around and faced south.  Facing south I posted my photo on Facebook; Peg heard from Bob (who was on his way back up to summit a second time via North Elbert trail), Rich took a phone call.

A few more photos later we got our stuff together and headed down.  Breathing was still tight but no longer a problem (we were, after all, descending).   We were elated to have reached the top and feeling confident that we would wiz down, starting making dinner plans.  Above tree line we could see the North Elbert trail on the north ridge and a figure in red heading up to the summit.  It was brother Bob; he waved back at us!

The treeline ahead meant bathroom break!
At the treeline we rested (everyone needed to go to the bathroom after the long trek out in the open). We took our boots off, drank some Gatorade and stripped down to short sleeves. At 12,000’ and close to 2:00 p.m. it was getting warm. 

 About 3:00 we reached our car (that last little uphill wasn't even noticed) and an hour later Bob showed up. He’d hiked trailhead to summit and down of both South and North Elbert trails in about the time it took for us to go up once. Thirsting for draught, we settled for bottled beer and toasted our day at a local restaurant.

It took us 5 hours to hike 4 miles to the summit of Mt. Elbert, an easy trail that would have taken us half the time had the altitude not affected us. No matter, we got what we came for and other than a big headache and sunburn, we are none the worse for wear!