Angi and I had only summited on one of four of our winter attempts. One was thwarted by poor weather, which we half expected, and the other two by routefinding difficulties and deep snow. Since we had been to Elbert the week prior, we felt our current knowledge of the snow conditions and route would help us reach the summit.
As it turned out, we were quite happy to be on the same route only one week later. We arrived at the trailhead without the difficulties of the previous week, and parked just past the campground at a turnout on the left side of the road, known as Sure Pretty Overlook.
After out quick, three hour drive from Boulder, we headed off up the trail at 2pm. The road had melted out quite a bit, and we made quick progress without snowshoes up to the 4x4 parking. It was quite warm, perhaps about 45 degrees, and the snow was very soft, but was beginning to freeze on the steeper, shaded east facing slopes above the summer trailhead. We continued up the trail with the aid of our snowshoes.
We passed some other climbers who said the snow conditions on the upper portions of the route were quite good, and reminded us to 'keep right', as there was a false trail leading into the valley. This was great news to us, because we had become lost in the deep windblown drifts the week before, and surely, one of the false trails was our attempt from the previous week.
We continued on past our prior campsite, as we were feeling very good. In fact, we had only been going for just over an hour at this point, and had reached 10,800'. When we crested the rise, at about 11,000', we saw where we had made our mistake, and there was a clear fork in the trail. There is a cut through the trees which heads westerly(wrong way), and the true trail veers to the right, through the aspen trees, and gains the ridgeline.
After about half an hour beyond this point, we seemed to be nearing treeline, at 11,500', and found a grep place to pitch out tent. (in fact, we were still about a half mile from the last of the trees) A small stand of aspen trees to the north of the trail was already beautifully dug out. I opted to put the tents big door facing east, so we could take in the view. The downside was we had to sleep with our heads on the small end of the tent.
As the sun was setting, we heard some climbers coming down the trail, and I poked my head out for a quick chat, and got some more info from a climber who had had quite an adventure. Of course, by no small surprise, he was a fellow summitpost member. I'll leave the storytelling up to him since I found his trip report a few days ago. He smartly suggested to us that we need not bring our snowshoes beyond this point to the summit.
The incredible sunrise we awoke to made the strange tent placement well worth the trouble, as it was the most sublime thing I have ever seen. There was a good layer of clouds below us, so close below in fact, that trees a few hundred feet away were sometimes engulfed in the fog. In our hour cooking breakfast and preparing to leave the tent was witnessed an amazing progression as the sun rose and quickly burnt off the thin cloud layer below.
Not wishing to repeat one of our mistakes from the previous trip, we left the tent at 6am. With a storm forecast for the afternoon, and 3000' of vertical remaining to the summit, we were not in a position to waste daylight. We headed up the well beaten path which was very hard sun crusted snow. Although here was a good sun crust on the untouched snow, it was pretty deep. When we finally broke treeline, we were greeted by a brisk wind and views of the vast expanse that is Colorado's highest peak.
After a little over an hour of somewhat easy hiking over mixed hard snow and tundra, we found ourselves at a small saddle at 12,500'. We were making good time, and the weather was quite bearable. We were wearing our windbreakers with a few under layers. The temperature was not very cold (~20F) and the wind was steady, but bearable.
The summit seemed very close, but I know we had a bit to go, and we continued on. We crested the ridge at 13,200' quickly, and saw the broad eastern should of Mt. Elbert in front of us. The slope was moderately steep (~35 degrees) so we followed what we could of the trail's switchbacks, and ascended mostly on rock. This section was followed by many small false summits, but my altimeter and South Elbert told me how far we had to go.
I let Angi ascend the final snowfield ahead of me so I could snap her photo. I had a good chuckle when I saw this photo from almost the same spot, taken the day before. I thought I had three photos remaining, so we could each have a summit shot. At the top of this pitch, she admitted there was a bit remaining, but not very much. We had lost the trail at this point, and simply ascended directly up the eastern ridge. The trail heads southwest toward the Elbert-South Elbert saddle.
In a few minutes, we were on the top of Colorado, in winter. We had not seen any other climbers, and happily embraced on the cold, windy summit. We quickly headed to the highest point to snap some photos, when we realized I had been confused and we only had one remaining. Angi kindly to a photo of me.
It was very cold on the summit, but after our four hour ascent, we stayed all we could stand, which was about an hour. We enjoyed some hot cocoa from the thermos I recently purchased. All I can say is WOW! It is very nice to have some piping hot drink when it is so unbearably cold on a summit. It is certainly worth the weight. We left the summit at 11am.
We saw a few other climbers on the descent, including a very disappointed skier, since there was very little continuous snow above timberline. We sped down since there was a hope of free food at my Mom's house in Boulder if we could make it home by dinner time. We were at the tent by 1pm, and had raced back to the car by 2:45. We were back in Boulder for dinner by 6pm, exhausted and pleased with ourselves. This trip also served as a training trip for our bigger, more involved trip to Blanca Peak for Spring Break 2004.
GPS map data available here
See more trip reports, my homepage, etc at http://www.cunap.com/~hardingr