No Go on North MaroonI had no intention of climbing Mount Elbert on Friday. Rob and I planned on climbing North Maroon Peak, and we were scheduled to meet Kiefer Thomas in the parking area at the end of Maroon Creek Road at 3 AM, but late August snow at the upper elevations brought those plans to a screeching halt.
This was the second year in a row where Kiefer and I tried to get together for one day of climbing during my annual visit to Colorado. In 2009 we were supposed to meet up to climb Len Shoemaker Peak but his work schedule didn’t work out. This year I told him that I was curious about giving North Maroon Peak a shot. I had studied the route extensively leading up to the trip and I wanted to give it a try. The timing worked out this year and we were all set to meet, until Mother Nature got involved Thursday evening.
My son Andrew and his friend Connell were planning on climbing Mount Elbert on Friday. Andrew had been interested in climbing Elbert ever since our trip last August. And it was a good choice for Connell who was hoping to end the trip on a high note, as he didn’t get a chance to summit Snowmass Mountain earlier in the week. They were planning on car camping at the South Elbert Trailhead, so late Thursday afternoon Rob and I helped them tear down camp and load up their car. As Friday meant the end of our week long trip, we planned on meeting back up on Friday afternoon in Twin Lakes where we would start our drive home.
Right about the time they left a vicious thunderstorm came in over the Maroon Bells. Rob and I were now confined to our tent so we used the opportunity to catch up on some much needed sleep. At around 8 PM the rain finally stopped so I got out of the tent and realized quickly that our plans for climbing North Maroon Peak were over. From our campsite at Silver Queen on Maroon Creek Road we had an excellent view of the Bells, and what I saw was a nice dusting of snow at the upper elevations. Rob and I already had our concerns about climbing North Maroon, giving her plenty of respect. And while I’m sure that the snow would be no big deal for Kiefer, it put Rob and me over our safety limits. North Maroon would have to wait for another year. So we drove into Aspen so we could get some cell coverage. I was hoping to catch Kiefer before he headed out from Fort Collins, and fortunately I did. When I told him about the snow he commented “Well, that makes things considerably more difficult.” I knew that he had an opportunity to do some technical climbing elsewhere that weekend so we chatted for a while and I told him that maybe next year we’d finally get to climb together! So he headed for the Breckenridge area and Rob and I spent the next hour deciding on what to do on Friday.
Black Cloud TrailWith North Maroon out, Rob and I narrowed our options for Friday down to three possibilities, UN 13,020B from East Snowmass Creek Trailhead, Castle Peak or Mount Elbert. We decided that Mount Elbert was the best option. I had been interested in Mount Elbert via the Black Cloud Trailhead since our trip last year, as we had met a couple from Aspen that said the route was beautiful. The fact that you can make a mini-loop out of the climb by descending via Bull Hill made Elbert even more intriguing. While by no means technically difficult, the Bull Hill variation would make for a challenging day with 5,640 feet of vertical gain on the 10 mile roundtrip. A beautiful and challenging route! That’s what I love! Besides, the trailhead was on the way home. We had to drive over Independence Pass to meet up with Andrew and Connell later in the day anyway. Heading to the Black Cloud Trailhead just made a lot of sense. We slept until 4 AM, broke down camp, and were on the road by before 5 AM. We unfortunately had more adventures in trailhead finding! Roach’s book mentions “the easily missed turn” off of Hwy 82 and he’s correct. We drove by it twice! The sign is pretty small and is literally right at the turn. It didn’t help that it was still dark.
We would not be disappointed with our choice of Mount Elbert as the route was as beautiful as advertised. We weren’t on the trail long when the trees broke open enough for us to get our first views south. Low lying clouds and the light dusting of snow on La Plata Peak and Ellingwood Ridge made for a beautiful backdrop. We would end up having the beautiful view of La Plata for the majority of the climb. But while quite beautiful, the route is physically challenging. Attaining Elbert’s southeast ridge was hard work. The trail is steep and there seemed to be numerous false “summits”. For a while I thought we would never reach the ridgeline.
The Southeast RidgeAs we ascended to the southeast ridge we finally ran into the snow that fell the night before. It was pretty, but also made some of the rocks on the trail a little slippery. At this point I commented to Rob that we had made the right decision not trying to head up North Maroon. This Class 1 trail was slippery enough. I could only imagine how dangerous North Maroon’s upper slopes would be with this thin layer of ice.
As I love hiking on ridgelines, the Black Cloud route was perfect. Once we hit the southeast ridge we had two miles of ridgeline walking to reach Elbert’s summit. The views from the ridgeline were spectacular, and since the ridge is so wide it makes for great hiking. It’s not like you have to watch every step worrying about exposure. It’s pretty much a Class 1 stroll.
Along with being beautiful, the Black Cloud route is not busy. When I think of Mount Elbert, I think large crowds. Being Colorado’s high point, with its Class 1 standard east side routes, the summit is very accessible. I was expecting a busy trail. Fortunately the vast majority of people head up the standard routes. We would end up only seeing one other person until we reached the summit. Rob and I truly enjoyed the climb up Elbert – a nice long hike alone on the mountain.
A Summit PartyI expected the summit to be busy, but I was only interested in seeing two people up there. I was hoping that Andrew and Connell would be on the summit when we arrived. I realized that the chances were fairly small, but I could always hope. As luck would have it, Andrew arrived on the summit moments after we did. The timing couldn’t have been better. Before I could even pull my camera out to start shooting pictures, I looked up and here comes Andrew up the other side of the summit. He was surprised to say the least, as he figured we were on North Maroon. Connell reached the summit about 15 minutes later. I was very happy for him. It was a great way for him to end the trip, after the disappointment of not going up Snowmass earlier in the week.
We spent a good half hour on the summit, and despite the large crowds I had a lot of fun, and I think that is the approach you have to take when going after this summit. I had my quiet time and solitude on the climb up. It was wonderful! But the summit of Elbert is not a place for quiet and solitude. It is a place to meet a bunch of happy people. I couldn’t help but be in a good mood, because everyone else was as well. At least 20 people were on the summit and everyone seemed so happy about achieving this goal. It was more like a party, so I joined in the festivities as well. I talked with a number of people as well as taking summit pictures for a number of them. I screwed around taking a few Splattski's. And in a strange coincidence, in a group of three ladies on the summit, one of the three was from Columbus, OH and lived two blocks from Rob and one of the others had the last name of Didier. (We aren’t related as far as we know.) These coincidences only added to the party like atmosphere.
When it was time to leave I offered Andrew the opportunity to descend with Rob via Bull Hill so he could enjoy the beautiful route down. I descended with Connell to the South Elbert Trailhead and I was glad I did. Besides having a good time chatting with Connell on our way down, I was able to compare the two routes, and there is no comparison! I found the standard route to be just that, quite standard! Unlike the Black Cloud Trail, there was nothing exceptional about the scenery, and the route was plenty busy. There was still a steady stream of hikers heading up even after noon.
It may be more work, with up to an additional 1,200 feet of vertical gain, but after experiencing the standard route, going up Black Cloud with its beautiful scenery and its solitude makes it well worth the extra effort!