So, we (me and my friend Sameer) did try to do something different. And, it was to summit Mt. Elbert in Colorado, in winter. Or, probably, you can call it late fall. It was the Thanksgiving break, and we were holed up in a small one-room motel in Leadville, CO. The owner of the motel was an ultra-marathoner, who could run up Elbert in the summer months in 2 hours. Yes, I am serious. He had loads of medals and trophies in his office. The fact that he has now taken a back seat, and just organizes these marathons doesn’t mean his expertise faded away. His expertise helped us reach the tree line early in the morning of 25th November’05. As mentioned by our route guide, we could not get past the tree line. Now, had we rented a 4x4 vehicle, instead of a Pontiac G6, we could have reached the trailhead directly. This selection of a vehicle added another 9 miles (4.5 each way, from the tree line to the trailhead) to our attempt. I saw the temperature sensor in the car crying out to me – its 5 degree F out there. Think twice, you guys. And, I am sure, this area being an open one, the wind chill had definitely helped the mercury plunge even lower. This one, being our first winter hike, we were kind of unprepared. By unprepared, I mean to say, in putting the sequence of things together. We had already put on 5 layers of clothing on top, a base layer (thermal pants), with ski pants on top of them. There was a base layer of gloves, on top of which we had good quality ski gloves on. I had worn 2 pairs of socks, one normal, followed by a woolen pair. I had my Merrells, a split-leather and mesh upper mid-weight hiking boot with waterproofing done to it. Sameer had bought a new pair of Hi-Tec Pinnacle, made of nubuck leather and completely seam sealed. But, the things we had not done, were, tightening up our draw chords on the jackets, putting on the hood etc. Also, we had to remove the gloves every time we needed to do something. This included putting on the snowshoes as well. The bad part was that it exposed our hands to the chilly environs, and made them ache like hell. The worst part was when Sameer wanted to pee, and had to take out his gloves again. At one point, we thought we were pretty sure about having our fingers amputated, because of frostbite.
Anyway, we started with vigorous enthusiasm. We started somewhere around 5 a.m. We had planned to reach the trailhead at 7 a.m. We reached there at 7:15 a.m. Considering the snow and ice covered trail, we though we did pretty well. And after crossing the Half-moon Creek campground and the Elbert Creek campground, we reached a bifurcation, from where one sign says – “Mt. Elbert Trailhead” pointing in 1 direction, and “Mt. Massive Trailhead – 0.5 miles ahead”. We took the one going towards Mt. Elbert, and continued past the voluntary donation box, right at the start of the trail. The trail was completely buried in snow, as it had snowed the previous weekend. But, probably somebody during the week must have attempted Elbert, so it was marked by footprints, interspersed with some animal’s footmarks. We managed to stay on the trailhead, avoiding temporary diversions. But, after hiking up for about half an hour, we reached a major diversion, and we had to decide whether to go straight or go right. So, Sameer called up Manasi, my wife, to get the Rangers’ office phone number. The call got disconnected as his phone battery discharged in almost a second. That got Manasi nervous, and she started thinking about why we called, and the endless possibilities of “what could have happened”. Based on our direction sense, and instinct, we took the one on the right, as it seemed to go towards the top of the tree line on Elbert. But, then, again after half an hour, what we saw was in a way, mysterious. The trail just vanished. Beyond a point, where a tree was lying across, there was no trace of any trail. The snow seemed as fresh and as powdery as if it had just snowed there a minute ago. We tried making our own way, tried it for almost half an hour, but when we started going knee-deep in snow, we took the sane decision of returning back. This was in line with the fact that “you are supposed to get off the mountain before noon”. If we had tried exploring further, without directions, we would have never made it before noon, and that would have been dangerous, considering the fact that we were probably the ONLY two souls on the mountain. The return journey, somehow took us to the trailhead of Mt. Massive. So, we figured, we had to walk 5 miles to the car, from there. A short munching break at the trailhead of Mt. Massive, in the morning sun was very much appreciated by both of us. Some weird things happened. My age-old Pentax K-1000 just stopped working. I tried clicking a picture, and the shutter never closed. It was probably due to the extreme cold outside. The return hike was very disheartening, as we knew it in our hearts – we could not summit Mt. Elbert. A short visit to the Rangers’ office just outside of Leadville helped us assure ourselves that we WERE on the right track/trail, and had not diverted anywhere.
We are glad we are back, safe and sound. That helps us plan another hike up Elbert as well as Massive, together, in the coming summer. We don’t know if we would have been “safe and sound”, had we gone ahead with the climb, instead of returning back.