Ah Mount Elbert. This rotund peak has the unique honor of being not only the highest peak in Colorado, but also the highest peak in the entire Rocky Mountains. For six weeks I had been in the hopelessly flat areas of France, and though I had had a fabulous time, I had been deprived of climbing, and even seeing the mountains, for nearly two months (oh horror). As soon as I stepped of the plane, I called Greg my faithful climbing partner, and we set up this climb for my second day back (which proved to be a big mistake).
We set out early from Denver and were hiking the by 7:00 AM. This was to be my fourth fourteener, but only Greg and Dane’s first, which meant that I would be the most experienced one, and therefore the one in charge. The first mistake of the trip occurred when Greg had already finished his lunch before we even started hiking. Well we set off without too much delay and in a little more than an hour had climbed the nearly two thousand to tree line at just under twelve thousand feet. At this point we were able to see how much mountain we still had above us, and the site scared us a bit. At this point you start to appreciate Elbert as the monarch that it really is, as another climber that we met on the trail remarked to us, “There’s no top, the mountain just keeps on going forever.” We were also starting to get slightly worried by the weather, although what reassured us was that it had been gray all over all day, and that it wasn’t just one isolated thunderstorm.
We took a quick break at tree line, the soak in the view that was unfortunately diminished by the low clouds. We finally continued our slow plod up the northeast ridge of the mountain eventually reaching the first false summit, a small plateau at 12,800 ft. Ahead of us we could see the crux of the climb, which isn’t anything technical but just a steep trail that goes 600 ft. up a gnarly talus slope to another false summit. We stashed some of our excess gear and started up the trail, eventually topping out on milder slopes. At this point we were just below 14,000 ft. but still had five hundred of climbing to go. And that’s the problem with the higher fourteeners. On most fourteeners, you reach 14,000 ft. and nearly to the top, but on this one, we had over four hundred feet to climb above 14,000 ft. We plodded up the milder slopes to a third false summit that was still a hundred yards north of the actual true summit. It was frustrating to get this high to learn we still weren’t there but we scrambled up the final summit ridge, eager to attain the long awaited summit.
We finally reached the summit at 12:30 nearly five hours after we had first set off. It was on the summit that I finally realized the effect that the high altitude was having on me after six weeks of near sea level. It felt so good to finally be on the summit, and we hunkered down in the shelter to sign the register and chow down. I busted out my sandwiches and offered Greg one of my goos as the only sustenance he’d gotten all day.
On the summit we met another climber who invited us to smoke a bowl with him, telling us that he had accomplished what he had was there to do. Apparently this guy was set on toking up on the summit of every fourteener, and I haven’t checked but I think, he may be the first on do so. We politely declined and watched him walk off the summit as we were laughing to ourselves and wondering about who far down he’d make if he was high.
Unfortunately, because of the low cloud cover, we were only able to catch an occasional glimpse of the surrounding peaks. We did get an occasional good view of La Plata Peak to the south, and the huge looming hulk of Mount Massive to the north. We didn’t linger long on the summit, because I was starting to grow noxious from the altitude, it was cold, an the weather was still a major concern.
We headed down, an nearly unrelenting pace all the way to timberline, pausing only momentarily to collect our stuff that we had stashed. We paused momentarily at treeline to catch our breaths, but the sky started getting very dark and we could hear distant thunder and so we started sprinting down the trail. The sky eventually cleared and the thunder disappeared making the final mile back to the car a much more relaxed and stress-free one, a great ending to a great day.