Going into this summer I had the goal of climbing 5 Colorado 14ers. I felt this was a modest goal since my wife was due to deliver our 4th child at the end of July or early August, smack dab in the middle of prime 14er season. (What were we thinking back in November?!?)
After climbing Crestone Peak at the end of August with my climbing partner, Alan, I had reached my goal (Belford, Oxford, Princeton, Huron and Crestone) and was ready for something "easy." Alan was unable to climb Labor Day weekend, so I knew that I would be by my lonesome, which is never really the case on most Colorado 14ers at this time of year. I looked down the long list of what I had yet to climb and Mt. Elbert jumped out at me. Alan had climbed it many years ago, so I thought this would be a good one to tackle without him.
I left Colorado Springs at 5 a.m. I love the early morning drive to the Sawatch Range from the Springs. By the time you hit Lake George just below Wilkerson Pass the sun is starting to shine on the peaks in front of you. Rising over the pass and looking down into South Park is always beautiful. Finally, after winding through Rt 24/285 above Buena Vista you are hit with the spectacular view of Mt. Princeton as it rises abruptly from and towers over the Arkansas River Valley making it one of the prettiest Colorado 14ers in my opinion. I will never get used to this drive.
I got to the Mt. Elbert Trailhead for the northeast ridge and hit the trail just after 8 a.m. It was already packed and I realized that there were be no such thing as solitude on this hill today. Still, it was a beautiful morning. I felt odd hiking by myself. Normally, Alan would be right there and I would have a good friend to talk to. I realized that the only 14ers I had climbed by myself were Bierstadt and Pikes. Though I missed the company of the "Old Bull" it was nice to be alone ... with what seemed like hundreds of other Elbert aspirants. I have gained the reputation as a jackrabbit on a climb like this. I like to move, so long as I don't shoot my wad too early in the day. This morning was no different. It was 9 miles round trip and I wanted to push myself. I made good progress the first hour and did 2.5 miles according to my GPS. I reached the Elbert Northeast ridge trail split with the Colorado Trail quickly and headed towards treeline, passing many hikers and what seemed like a Labrador Retriever convention. Once above treeline the ridge came into view along with the first of at least two false summits. Mt. Massive towered to the north with its summit in the clouds. Twin Lakes came into view to the southeast. The higher I went the full breath of the Sawatch and so many other ranges started to hit me. I knew that Elbert would not disappoint. Around 13,000 ft. the trail started to steepen, but seemed like a walk in the park after the Red Couloir on Crestone Peak 2 weeks earlier. I started to encounter a ton of hikers at this point and was amazed at what a melting pot you could experience on a peak like this. I met impatient jackrabbits like me and then slow methodical hikers who were learning to take in the beauty around them better than I was. I realized that I needed to slow down and suck this all up. There was no race. After cresting the first false summit I could see that I still had at least another half mile to go. The trail was excellent all the way, but Elbert was still high and I could see the difference between it and say, a peak like Huron. You feel its size long before you reach its summit. Finally, the top came into view and I could see that it was covered with countless bipeds like me. It seemed as though more than half of them had tongue wagging giddy quadrupeds (aka Labs) in tow. I had been on 14er summits with crowds, but Elbert seemed more festive than most. I touched the top of Colorado and sat down for lunch, pictures of surrounding peaks and the obligatory cell phone call home. I had the pleasure of sharing the summit with a group of married couples, all in their 50s and 60s, from Iowa. They were an impressive unit. You could tell they had planned in advance and were decked out with the latest and greatest gear. REI loves people like this! They had GPSs and the most gucci Motorola walkie-talkie system I have seen. They were scattered over the east ridge and communicated with each other and their "base camp." They were a hoot, but it was good to see that they were climbing safely.
The top of Colorado is a special place. I believe Elbert is the second highest in the lower 48, next to Whitney in California. It was my new altitude record after Rainer the previous summer. The views were incredible. I started to tick off the Sawatch that I had climbed, but most of all I was impressed with the view of La Plata Peak. This is one beautiful mountain. I can't wait to climb it next year and do it's famous Ellingwood Ridge with Alan. You can't get a better view of it than what you get from the top of Elbert.
I started to head down. The clouds were low and some of them very dark, a good sign of the unpredictable Colorado weather at this time of the year. It should not surprise me, but I was amazed at how many people were still heading up the peak at lower altitudes. This is a big pet peeve of mine. I don't mean to sound self-righteous and come off as above it all. I have only lived in Colorado for 1 1/2 years and this was only my 15th 14er. Still, I have learned enough, often the hard way, to know how to climb safe. Going up a 14er after noon, even if the sky is clear is playing with fire. A summer t-storm can roll in within 5 minutes. Clouds can be created instantly and if you are not moving fast you can be caught in a storm without warning. You can be contemplating your future and your last will in short order. I encountered all sorts on the way down. I saw high school girls in shorts and tanks with one Dasani water bottle chatting on their cell phones in what seemed "like a totally" foreign language to a 39 year-old crusty fart like me. I quickly felt young again after encountering two climbers in parkas and jeans (a big no-no in my opinion) who were at least 70 at the 13K point. They were moving very slowly and breathing hard. I said more than one prayer for them. Finally, the kicker came just above treeline. There in front of me was a middle-aged man in jeans and a t-shirt with a huge pack on his back. He was breathing hard and hunched over his ... ice axe! I asked him how he was doing and he gasped a very unconvincing, "OK." I did not read about him in the Metro section of the Colorado Springs Gazette the next day, so I think he is now safe.
Colorado 14ers are for everyone, whether you admire them from a distance or take in their views from the top. However, I fear that some day we are in for a tragedy on a large scale with so many people climbing high who do not realize the risks they are taking.
Despite being a little disconcerted on the way down it was a great day. I made it back to the trailhead in just less than 5 1/2 hours. The plan was to try Massive the next day. I spent the night in Leadville, but overslept the next morning. I can't say that I was too disappointed. I had a nice breakfast, drove up Independence Pass for some more great views of La Plata and headed home to wife, children, dog and cat for the remainder of the holiday weekend. It was a great day "together all alone" with the masses touching the top of Colorado.
"In him who is the source of my strength, I have strength for ALL things."