The IdeaIn 2005 I decided to try out my new sleeping bag/bivy combo by trying to climb Mt Elbert solo on what happened to be New Year’s Eve. After waking up the next morning to enough fresh snow to cover my previous tracks, I decided the smart thing to do was turn back from my tree line bivouac site. Thinking back I realized it would be neat to be the first of the year to ascend Colorado’s highest… but with a partner and better planning.
Fast forward 1 year; Joe and I arrive at the South Mt. Elbert trailhead at 10:30 and are greeted by a monstrous UniMog with tires big enough to park nearly anywhere. It soon leaves and we realize we are likely the only ones on the mountain.
I just learned to ski a month ago so I’d be traveling on my new randonee setup, and Joe on Tele gear. An hour of easy skinning later we are ready for some grub. Conditions seem good and the trail is well covered. Soon we start the switchbacks to gain the ridge. This gets interesting sometimes because our heavy packs and the steep trail are too much for our ski skins to grip, and we end up sliding backwards occasionally. Unfortunately it would get even worse near the summit.
We finally reach tree line around 3:00 and decide on a campsite at 11,800’.
At CampAfter reaching camp I dig out a place for my new Hilleberg Jannu tent while Joe starts cooking. It takes an hour just melt enough snow for some hot cider, and it takes me an hour just to get our tent up and gear inside. Everything takes forever when you’re wearing huge jackets and clunky ski boots. By the time we eat dinner it’s already dark and our thermometer reads 0°F, but we are prepared and decide to kill some time taking pictures with the full moon. 8:00pm and we decide to crawl inside and play some cards but we can’t remember any games besides war, which is about the dumbest game invented.
We delayed trying to sleep as long as possible since we wouldn’t see the sun for nearly 15 hours. Apparently I was too good at this because I only slept for about an hour the entire night. We were plenty warm and comfortable but I just couldn’t get any shut-eye. Luckily I had the iPod to help pass time. About 6:00am I woke up Joe, who was surprised to learn that the inside of our tent and bags were completely covered in frost and it was mildly snowing inside the tent. Joe’s camera got so cold it that all his pictures seem to be taken in Sepia.
I’ve had good luck with my simmerlite stove but the needle valve decided to freeze or clog up and we couldn’t get much more then a hot drink in the morning. It took us 2 hours to finally warm up our boot liners and be on our way, and without the hot meal we were hoping for.
The ascentThe summit was visible almost the entire way but as usual it never seemed to get any closer. We had to remove our skis and walk through 2 sections of talus, which proved to be quite difficult in ski boots. Almost all the snow was very hard and windblown, with a few wind pillows thrown in. I knew it would be tough to descend because you can’t visually tell the difference between the “ice” and the “powder”. The windblown snow has a habit of catching your skis a bit if your not careful. I passed a small memorial at about 12,500’. The final headwall was steep and icy and I occasionally had to sidestep to since my skins didn’t have enough grip. Joe’s fatter skis didn’t seem to have this problem.
I finally reach 14,440’ after 3.5 hours and promptly search for the register but it was buried. Joe is right behind me and success is ours, the first party of 2007.
This is our first time on the summit and we are both in the 20’s on the Colorado 14’ers list.
The descentThe patterns in the snow proved difficult for me as a newbie skier, but Joe had it dialed on Tele. One of my crashes in particular left with a ski dangling by a leash and several tense minutes spent trying to balance on the icy slope and click into my binding. Fortunately the route is not steep enough to avalanche and the ski edges are enough to self arrest. A slightly different descent route allowed us to ski all but a 50’ section of rock. Near camp the snow thins out and transitions to powder. Multiple collisions with rocks and breakable crust make it treacherous until we are back in the trees where the powder is DEEP!
We pack up camp and head back down but with the skinny trail and big packs we decide skiing off piste is mildly easier and more fun. If anyone knows how to ski down these trails in control I’d like to know how you do it. The next hour is spent doing massive snow plows and random swerves off the trail to keep our speed in check. The fun is endless though.
It turns out we never saw anyone else during the entire trip. The weather was cold without even the slightest breeze. Even the summit was completely still, not the norm for a Colorado winter summit.