Last weekend, Mark and I got a big group of friends to go all the way down into the Sawatch range near Leadville, CO to climb the tallest peak in the state: Mt. Elbert. (You can find the full gallery of images here: http://colocalders.com/photos) The hike was only about 9 miles round trip, and only class I, but with an elevation gain of 4,428ft and much of the last 2 miles being above 11,000ft, it was a long, hard haul.
We left early on Friday afternoon, and secured an excellent, large campsite at the Elbert Creek NF campground. We would end up with 11 people in our group, 7 tents and 4 cars on the site, and we were all right across the street from the trailhead. Even though we drove through some rain and clouds on the way to the site, it was dry during the evening and night. Due to camping at 10,000ft, some of the people in the group had a little trouble sleeping, and one person swore he heard a bear in the middle of the night. Mark and I were happy and comfy all the way until the alarm went off at 5am the next morning.
We hit the trail just before dawn, at around 5:45am. There were already quite a few cars in the parking lot, and Liv got into a barking match with about 4 other dogs. The first two miles of trail are pretty steep, and intensely “up”. There is very little “down”. At around 8am, we hit tree line, and already we could see clouds heading into our area.
We continued hiking up the trail, listening for thunder or signs of increasing convection. Thick, low, stratiform clouds are often cold and annoying but rarely as dangerous as the afternoon monsoonal storms that blow through Colorado. We had heard from many sources that, per the usual, strong storms were forcast for the afternoon, so we wanted to make it back to treeline by 12pm.
By 12,000ft (8:45am) we were fully engulfed in the cloud. This was disappointing for everybody in the group. The best part of hiking the 14ers in Colorado is always the incredible view. In our case last weekend, there was absolutely no view. Of course, Mark and I didn’t break out the GPS to see what our altitude was, we figured we’d just be able to see the top as we got closer. However, Mt. Elbert is known for it’s three false summits. We’d hike through the cloud, see the shape of a tall ridge above us… that must be the summit! Hike up there quickly… and see the shape of another tall ridge above us. Three times this happend. As I stood on the third false summit looking at another dim outline of a ridge in the cloud above me, I really wanted to just turn back.
But Liv and Mark both wanted to go on, and, whaddya know!?, that last ridge was the summit ridge. At 10:24am on Saturday, August 5, Mark, Liv, many of our friends, and I stood on top of the highest point in Colorado. Too bad about that view.
I was really proud to be up there. The clouds had freaked me out. I had been really scared for much of the last 1,500ft of climbing because the thick white blanket around us was so disorienting. I was worried about lightening and poor visibility. But none of those were real threats, and I pushed my fear aside and summited! Mark was exhausted. We had set a hard pace in thin air, and he just wanted to sit down and take a nap.
But we had 2 miles and well over 2,000ft of descending to get back to treeline, and that was going to be tricky to make in an hour and half. So we took some pictures and headed home. On the way down the mountain, of course, we popped out of the bottom of the clouds before we even reached 13,500ft. We found out later that two of our friends who summited about 30 minutes after us got a view from the top! Lucky.
The trip back down was surprisingly painful. Even with my trekking pole and light backpack, my knees and hips were killing me after only 30 minutes of hiking. We still had to stop fairly frequently on the way down to let our joints recuperate. Boy, getting old sucks. Even Liv was walking far slower on the way down than she had been on the way up.
In the last .25 miles, we heard a roll of thunder and a few raindrops started splattering down. We dug deep and jogged back to the campground, making it to the cover of the dining tarp the instant it started pouring rain. Perfect timing. Unfortunatley, the rain didn’t seem to be letting up, and after an hour or so, everybody decided to pack up and head home. Camping in the rain is no fun. We cleaned everything up and drove back to Fort Collins that night.
Great weekend, awesome hike, amazing accomplishement, and good company!!