Being a state highpointer, I have always wanted to climb Colorado's highest in winter. Elbert holds a special place in my heart despite the pain my wife and I went through climbing it as it was our first 14er on our first anniversary in 1998. Back then we were green hikers as I wore thin Nike boots, the classic JanSport backpack, jean shorts, and cotton! How is that for preparedness! It took us 11 hrs roundtrip from the south side as I felt like I had just run a marathon. I had blood blisters on many of my toes and got a mild case of altitude sickness. Could a winter ascent be any worse?
My friend Steve Mueller suggested Elbert and I was game for the punishment. We were worried about possibly breaking trail through 1-2' of fresh snow as the ski resorts were hammered late in the week. We left C. Springs at 5AM and were surprised that Princeton and Yale didn't have much new snow. Things were looking promising! Another feather in our cap was a scheduled CMC trip on the same day. If we show up a little late, maybe they will blaze a trail to the summit for us! We arrived at the trailhead around 7:30 and a small group of CMC'ers were getting ready to head out. They left 20 minutes before us and did a great job packing down the trail even more. Steve and I set out at 7:49am with temps probably in the upper teens. Things were looking good to steal a winter 14er.
The recent storm had only dumped a couple inches on the lower sections of the trail on top of a consolidated 3' or so of old snow. We moved quickly up the gentle grade of the CO Trail to the intersection with the S. Mt Elbert trail just above the summer 4WD trailhead. The day was quickly warming up and it was completely calm. Maybe the wind gremlins would spare us misery today. The steep grunt to the east ridge began in earnest as Steve followed the track. The CMC group ahead of us decided to gain the ridge early through a steep slope of aspens, so we followed and topped out on the ridge at around 11700'. The wind as expected began to pick up, but it wasn't bad yet. We wore our snowshoes all the way to a rock outcropping at around 12600' where we cached them for the return.
Fortunately, the wind was not a constant annoyance, so we plodded our way up, stopping to brace ourselves when we saw the spindrift coming. At around 13500’, we decided to refuel with a quick snack break for the last grunt to the summit. Here I donned my down coat and mittens and was toasty warm the rest of the way. The CMC group met us just a few minutes below the summit and said the winds were pretty bad on the summit as expected. Steve and I did the familiar winter drunken sailor walk the last few hundred feet to the summit and I could tell I hadn’t been this high in awhile. We topped out on the snow banked summit at 1:14. The views in winter are so much better and made the effort worthwhile, but this was no place to dink around. I put a rock on my camera case to keep it from blowing off the face of the earth as the gusts were probably in the 40-50mph range. Luckily it was not a constant howl so we took some pics when we could.
After a brief stay of 12 minutes, we were out of there. The wind abated somewhat as we were now with it on the way down. We took advantage of a couple short glissades on the way down and stopped for lunch at the outcropping. We met a solo hiker who was making his way up who admitted he wasn’t prepared for the conditions, so he turned around while we were eating. I decided to go without the snowshoes on the way down, which I quickly found out was a mistake once back to treeline as I postholed up to my waist. After 10 minutes of misery, I stubbornly put them back on. The steep track down through the aspens was an annoying slip and slide, but soon we were back on the pleasant trail. We were back at the car at around 4:30, happy to enjoy the highway to the top of Colorado!