Colorado Hut-to-Hut Adventure – Day 9 – 9/16/12 –Mount Elbert - 9 Miles
Our time in Glenwood Springs was so short that I believe I blinked and missed a lot. A very early morning departure after too few hours of sleep and we were traveling eastward again, this time to put the cherry on top of our Colorado Sunday (get it?) – summiting Mount Elbert. The popular North Mount Elbert Trail is 9 miles roundtrip and I wanted as much time as possible for the journey. At 14,440 feet, the second highest peak in the lower 48 states, most people have never heard of Mount Elbert. Colorado has 53 mountains over 14,000 feet high, and names like Pike’s Peak (14,114) and Longs Peak (14,255) are more famous. But Mount Elbert was right in front of us, so here we go.
Jeff gave us the details of his experience climbing this mountain: trail more than half above tree line, not dangerous, not technical, some rock scrambling but no narrow edges from which to plummet (I beg to differ with this post-hike), “it gets really steep near the top,” and he did it without acclimatizing and was very slow. Well, I now had 8 days of acclimation so I would be … very slow. It was the 4,500 feet of ascent in 4.5 miles that sobered me up. But I can do this.
Jeff’s trailhead for Mount Massive was a half-mile from ours. Although he had more miles to complete his summit, he is pretty fast when he hikes solo and I knew he would be back at the parking lot before me. Cathy and I were quickly ready to hit the trail so we started off, knowing that Mike would catch up to us soon enough.
The first part of the hike is on the CDT and was surprisingly gentle. At 1.4 miles the CDT continues straight and a right turn put us on the summit trail. Soon after, Cathy was ready to pull ahead so we made a plan to meet up every hour. When the trail got steeper I realized this was a mistake because Cathy would be spending a lot of time waiting for me. Sure enough, I was 10 minutes behind her for the first stop, so we made a plan to meet one more time in another hour and see how far apart we were. After that we would adjust or abandon plans and every hiker for him/herself. Cathy started off again and I waited for Mike (10 minutes behind me).
Here comes Mike (1)
At the tree line Mike wanted to stop for lunch. I had very little appetite but ate a small snack. I left Mike enjoying his hoagie, knowing he would catch up to me easily, and began my snail’s pace up the deceptive mountain.
That doesn’t look too hard, does it?
Jeff’s view of the Mount Elbert trail from his trail to Mount Massive
A brilliant blue sky, a few interesting clouds rolling through, a cold but comfortable temperature, a very light breeze, lots of people (after all, it was a Sunday) and very little oxygen: almost perfect conditions for peakbagging a 14-er, right? And yes, there are elementary school age children and their dogs on the trail. I can do this.
One step at a time, don’t forget to look around once in a while, admire the scenery, look at the pretty rocks. Every step was earned. Are those people or ants above me? It was impossible to guess distance according to my pace, but it looked like I was nearing the summit sooner than I had expected. So I asked a guy descending, and he smiled kindly and said I was less than half the distance, that I was looking at the first of several false summits. (False summit: the peak in front of you that appears to be the top of the world but is in fact obscuring the huge mountain behind it.)
Another fellow who was hiking down stopped and asked if my name was Sharon? A message from Cathy: it was too cold for her to stop and she was continuing to the top.
The trail curved up and around the shoulder of the false summit to the western side of the mountain where a blustery wind was howling, and the temperature dropped significantly. I was expending a lot of energy but my hands quickly grew numb from the cold. The thought of turning around crossed my mind – more than once.
I began a prayer mantra: God, please walk with me. Not “get me to the top” or “keep me safe,” just “walk with me.”
Another step, another, and I chatted with nearly every person that passed me descending. Everyone was very encouraging. One fellow was sitting in a sunny spot back on the eastern side, out of the wind. His wife had gone on ahead but he had called it quits and was patiently waiting for her. This gave me incentive to keep going, because I was going to get farther than at least one person.
Looking over at Mount Massive - I don’t see Jeff
Traces of snow began to appear in the rock pile
After the second false summit I reached a dangerously steep section. Now, steep is steep until you reach something really steep, i.e. everything is relative. What looks annoyingly steep becomes insignificant to what is ridiculously steep, and that’s what this was. As I was hesitating, a very nice woman on her way down stopped to give me encouragement, saying that, yes, this was crazy dangerous but it was the very worst part and that it would improve in a couple hundred yards. I can do this.
Another view from Jeff’s part of the world (the back side of Mount Elbert from where we were hiking)
Here comes Mike (2)
About 20 minutes before I reached the top, Cathy passed me on her way back down – just too cold to hang out for a long time. The final 100 yards felt euphoric, the elevation eased up, I could see people, and I DID IT!!
Mike and I took many photos of each other, from every perspec- tive, but it’s hard to make it look like anything but standing on a rocky trail. The vastness of the open space is just so difficult to convey in two dimensions. The day was so clear, we could see Pike’s Peak about 100 miles away.
A more interesting background
Behind me is La Plata, at 14,336 feet
My ascent took 4.5 hours and it was mid- afternoon when we started back down. Now that I wasn’t working so hard, I put my long pants back on and another jacket layer. My fingers were tingling for most of the downward trek, not so much from the cold as probably I was dehydrated.
There goes Mike (3)
I leap- frogged with a 4th grade girl and her dad going downhill – we passed each other over and over. They had a very long day and she looked very tired, but she was still smiling. I told her she was certainly the only girl in her class who had climbed the second highest mountain in the country with her dad. So nice to see a father spending time outside with his daughter.
At the tree line Mike and I caught up with each other again. As we were resting we talked about an older man that we had both passed who was noticeably limping and making extremely slow progress. Mike had talked with him briefly and the man had a sore toe and a bad knee. It was getting late, so we waited for the fellow to see if he wanted assistance or just companionship the rest of the way. He assured us that he was slow but okay, that he had water and a flashlight as well as a head lamp, i.e. he was well prepared. This was not his first hike. In fact, although it was his first 14-er, it was his 40th state high point!
The last mile was a gentle roll downhill to Cathy and Jeff waiting for us in the parking lot. A successful day for everyone! What else to do but have a fabulous Mexican meal to celebrate? The Grill Bar & Cafe in Leadville fit the bill with great margaritas, too.
After dinner, we parted ways with Mike and his van, and the rest of us drove a couple of hours east towards Denver to crash before our flight home the next day. This was the weather the day we left Colorado. What next?
“He left yesterday behind him
You might say he was born again
You might say he found the key
To every door”
~ John Denver