We figured Mount Elbert would be an uneventful but enjoyable hike. After our climbs on El Pico de Orizaba in January, Langley and Whitney in June and Rainier and Hood in July, Elbert in August promised to be a nice easy walk-up with some altitude. Perfect.
We left our Denver hotel at 3:23 am for the drive to Leadville and the San Isabel National Forest. A little bit of a late start, but nothing to worry about since the weather was looking great. The drive up Interstate 70 West and then Highway 91 went without a problem, and even gave us an opportunity to stop for early morning McGriddles and coffee at Mickey Ds. Arriving in the little town of Leadville, we stopped at a convenience store and asked for directions to Mount Elbert. The clerk was a recent area transplant and not able to help, so we jumped back in the truck and headed on up the road. Soon we stumbled upon Colorado Highway 24 which ultimately lead us to Colorado 300, the Halfmoon Campground, and Mount Elbert Trailhead. 6:40 am and time to climb!
My wife Jody fixed us some of our traditional peanut butter and honey cinnamon bagels while I finished with the packs and checked out the trailhead. There were only two other vehicles in the parking lot and one couple heading out before us, so it seemed like we might even be able to enjoy a bit of quiet. Very nice.
At 7:10am, we headed out, using our light summit packs and poles. After our previous climbs and heavy packs, the light loads made us feel a little spoiled. The trail seemed well maintained-- I couldn’t help but smile at the small glow sticks hung as blazes from tree branches. They must give the trail quite a magical touch after sunset. And the spruce tree forest looked healthy and clean. Even the small streams we crossed were clear and flowing freely. All in all, a very pleasant walk in the woods up a gradual sloping path.
As we hiked above tree line, the first false summit came into view. The trail here steepened rapidly, with loose gravely sand and dark, angular boulders. No switchbacks, just straight ahead and up. I had read reports of the false summits on Elbert, so I wasn’t surprised or disappointed when we spotted the second false summit in the distance. I was reminded, however, of a trip report on Summitpost.org that pointed out just how big of a mountain Mount Elbert is and how the false summits drive that point home. Very true.
Dark clouds were gathering in the distance beyond the true summit and swirls of mist were beginning to mask the ravines off to our right. The wind had picked up and the temperature had dropped several degrees in the last hour. Where did our good weather go? Then I noticed a few white specks on the shoulders of Jody’s red coat and was a little surprised when I realized they were tiny balls of snow. Snow?
We were beginning to feel the altitude a bit, starting to hike a little sluggishly, and breathe a little harder. I noticed, too, that if I looked down and then back up too fast I experienced a few seconds of dizziness. When she returned from a bathroom break, I suggested we have a snack and drink some water. The dried mangoes and Fig Newtons she pulled out of the depths of her pack had a fast and welcome effect. The dizziness disappeared, the breathing leveled out, and our pace became strong and steady.
The second false summit proved to be less of a challenge and more of a gradual hike than the first. But while we were doing pretty well, some of our fellow climbers were not. A group of three Indian college students was struggling. The young woman in the group was not dressed appropriately and the cold and difficulty of the climb made it hard for her to make good progress. One of the guys stayed with her, while the other generally kept pace with us. A couple of other guys were hiking ahead of us with two dogs in tow. One of the dogs was having a great time, but the other was really hurting. Every few seconds, he would stop and whine, looking up at his owner with the most pitiful eyes.
A climber who passed us earlier had turned around and was headed down rather quickly. He told us he had seen some lightning hit nearby Mount Massive, but encouraged us to keep going. As this guy sped down the trail, however, the snow pellets began turning into ice. Okay, so now it was getting a little concerning. But the worst of the weather still seemed to be in the distance and we were only a few minutes from the summit. We also had the reassurance of carrying weather gear and extra clothes in our packs, so we pressed on.
12:05pm, on the summit of Mount Elbert! The crowd on the summit was interesting. There was a typical newbie guided group of five or six middle-age guys with packs and all the gear you think you’ve just got to have when you look through the outdoor catalogues for the first or second time. A couple of teenagers having an exciting adventure in every stitch of cotton clothes their mothers could put on them. A few experienced hikers scattered here and there, doing their best to ignore everyone else and enjoy a few minutes at the top. And a married couple in thin nylon running shorts and sneakers who we asked to take our picture. He seemed to be pretty much enjoying himself, apparently oblivious to the clouds swirling around us, the chilling wind, and the ice falling at our feet. She had a very concerned look on her face and, with good reason, seemed eager to leave.
After the shorts and sneakers duo left the summit, we were recruited for photo duty by the guys in the guided group. While their guides cast nervous glances at the sky, the guys formed up for their summit shot. Jody and I juggled several cameras, happy to take multiple shots to document what was (judging by their smiles and backslapping) obviously a big day for them. After I snapped the last photo, one of the men laughed and then announced that he was feeling some static electricity. The guides grimly suggested that they grab their packs and head out. As we turned to do our own share of heading out, Jody felt a shock come up through her feet. Immediately afterward, my toes got their own wake up call. We could feel the charge burning our scalps as the electricity coursed through our bodies and exited the tops of our heads. And we could even hear the crinkling, crackling, popping sound of the static charge. Lightning was striking Mount Elbert and we were in a serious situation.
Serious or not, my sense of humor can be a little warped in any situation. With electricity frying my brain and extraneous body parts, I was suddenly reminded of all the cartoons featuring daffy animals and other characters lit up by lightning bolts. So not wanting to miss an opportunity, I grabbed my hiking poles (which had been under my left arm) with my right hand and touched the top of my head with my left hand, creating a closed loop circuit of sorts. As you might expect, this hurt tremendously, but I couldn’t help laughing at my predicament and how stupid I must have looked at that given moment. (You can imagine that my wife must really love me) Do not try this at home, or anywhere else for that matter. It was 12:25 and past time to leave.
We were in danger. The temperature was falling rapidly, ice was covering the ground, the winds were up and clouds were rolling in, and lightning was striking the mountain. Though we moved efficiently, we didn’t push our pace out of fear of slipping and breaking an ankle. We passed a couple of groups, including the Indian students and a family of three, who had huddled together among the boulders to get out of the wind and hail. They reminded me of a father, son, and foreign exchange student who got caught in a similar storm on Mount Madison in New Hampshire. The father became so cold he hunkered down among the rocks on the summit while his son and the student descended to an Appalachian Mountain Club hut for help. The father died from hypothermia before the hut crew could return. With this in mind, I felt it was critical to get off the exposed, rocky flanks of Elbert and below tree line as quickly as possible. We kept moving.
By the time we got back to the highest false summit, my hands were numb. I had gloves, but didn’t want to stop to get them out of my pack. Seconds mattered. I breathed into my hands occasionally, but it actually made it worse since the melting ice and the warmth of my breath made them wet and colder. They still worked. We kept moving. As I figured, they started thawing out as we came off the lower false summit. But JEEZ, they hurt! We kept moving.
Below the final false summit, we caught up to a solo hiker slowly making his way down the trail. He seemed particularly overweight and out-of-shape, and was using a long wooden staff to steady himself. Even from a distance, I could tell he was sweating profusely though he was wearing only shorts and a cotton t-shirt. After a couple of unsteady steps, he suddenly fell on his back and began to roll over on his side. He tried to right himself but in the attempt came very close to rolling off the side of the trail and down the steep rocky slope. I yelled at him to stay still until we got there. I was praying he wasn’t having a heart attack.
Once we got down to the hiker, we talked to him a bit and checked him out to make sure he wasn’t injured. Though he seemed shaken up, he was laughing very jovially and hadn’t suffered any harm other than a scrape or two and a sore bottom. He told us his legs had just gone out from under him and he was going to rest for a second and recover from the quick descent off Elbert. So, knowing that other climbers would soon be along, we continued on to the trailhead.
Below tree line, we felt we could afford to stop for a minute and catch our breath. With no small measure of relief, we packed away our jackets and broke out the water bottles. It was only then that we realized we hadn’t eaten our bagels. No wonder we were hungry! To tie us over, we had a couple of snacks but otherwise decided to wait until we got back to Leadville to eat a good meal.
By 3:05pm we were back at the trailhead parking lot. Several groups of climbers were lounging around, talking about the storm and our collective good luck. It had turned out to be great adventure and we knew we had been very fortunate. Elbert would be a constant reminder of the very thin line between a good weather walk-up and a storm-driven disaster.