Let's climb the highest mountain in Colorado...
Having grown up in Leadville under the brooding presence of Elbert & Massive, it somehow never occurred to me or my family to climb either one. We were very outdoorsy, but that mostly took the form of driving the old jeep trails, fishing, camping and exploring the easier reached areas. Although we did drive a '62 Chevy Impala over Hagermann Pass before it opened for the season back in '63! That was a bit of an adventure! So, after living for 36 years in the flattest part of northern Minnesota and vacationing occasionally in Leadville and other parts of Colorado, my husband got the idea that we should climb Mt. Elbert. I ignored him for a while, but he was serious! So, we started "training" which consisted of some x-country skiing during the winter, a little walking here and there, a strenuous backpacking hike in to a lake up on Minnesota's North Shore and by August we "hoped" we were ready to do it. We knew the best thing to do was to acclimatize gradually, so we spent three nights in the Black Hills and climbed 7242 ft Harney Peak. Piece of cake...pretty much! Next on to Colorado via Craig, Glenwood Springs and Glenwood Canyon where we climbed up to Hanging Lake. Although only a mile long hike, it was virtually straight up and a very hot (85 degrees) day besides. So, we had that under our belts. Arrived in Leadville and camped at Turquoise Lake. We made excursions here and there and towards the end of the week we climbed Mosquito Pass. We have never had altitude sickness, and still were feeling no effects whatsoever. Things were looking good! Now it was just a question of picking the perfect day...so as not to get killed by lightning....my biggest fear after reading all the warnings.
We drove up to Twin Lakes to check out the South Mt Elbert Trail. We have a 4-wheel drive pickup and were able to drive all the way up to the trail head although it was a pretty interesting little drive! We decided that was the route we would take. However, in the intervening days between scouting that route and the day we chose to climb, the tail-lights on our vehicle quit working and although we took it in to a local mechanic (who worked his butt off trying to solve the problem), we could not keep a fuse from blowing the minute we'd turn the lights on. So, due to the fact that we planned to be on the trail while it was still dark, we didn't think we could drive clear down to Twin Lakes without tail-lights...or, at the very least, we shouldn't! We decided to go the standard route from the Halfmoon Creek area trail head.
Up we go....
We went to bed at 8 p.m. on a Saturday night in a jam-packed, partying campground. Needless to say, we didn't fall asleep right away and when I finally did, I was awakened shortly thereafter by a drunken and/or idiotic woman at another campsite quite a ways away that laughed as loud as she could constantly....from around 10 p.m. til 2 a.m. I am serious. I would lay there writing versions in my head of the nasty note I was going to put on their campsite post and wondering when in the world she was going to pass out and how it was that any of the people closer to her were not actually hollering at her to shut up....or stabbing her! So, when the alarm went off at 3 a.m., I had probably had 2 whole hours of sleep. 2 hours when I was about to do one of the more strenuous things I have ever done! Dang. Also, don't eat Mexican food the day before a climb...just sayin'! One other little added fillip was the fact that the Leadville 100 running race was that weekend, so we also heard those people being cheered on all night as they went around the lake-oy! And, just when we thought we could sneak over to the Halfmoon road without ever going on a highway and encountering other cars with our lack of tail-lights, we found that gobs of spotter cars and even law-enforcement were out in full force helping with the race...even though it was only 4 a.m.! But, we got through all that with judicious use of our brake-lights when we needed to be seen and made our way to the trail head. We saw one other vehicle parked in the lot. We got out and got all our gear on, strapped our handy head-lights on and started out under the most beautiful star-filled sky you could imagine. Up the trail for a ways when out of the darkness loomed a man alone who asked if we had passed the Colorado Trail turn-off yet. We hadn't ever seen anything, so we said we hoped not! He disappeared into the night and we never saw him again. I hope he made the right turn! Still in the timber and darkness, we were resting when passed by a couple with a teenage girl. She did not look happy, but teenage girls often look that way! As the morning wore on and we'd pass them and they'd pass us, she looked even more unhappy and we found out she was a foreign exchange student from Sweden and her host-parents were from Cheyenne, WY. They kept trying to jolly her along and it made me smile, because my husband was beginning to have to do the same with me! There's a stretch while you're still in the woods where the trail seems to go straight up rather than switching back and I was starting to feel this wasn't going to be a piece of cake after all! But, the desire to come out of timberline while the sun was coming up over the Mosquito Range kept me going full-tilt. We could probably have been there just a few minutes earlier to get the best of the sunrise, but as it was, it was a beautiful sight. And there was the peak right above us (or so I thought...)!!
Sunrise at timberline...a beautiful morning!
Ahh...success is sweet!
Once out of the timber, we began the climb on a well-marked trail. We were shedding layers by that time and taking numerous breaks to drink water and take pictures...and rest. The legs were feeling the climb, we were a little puffy, but otherwise absolutely no physical problems...except sleepiness! The trail began to fill with people, young old, foreign and domestic..and a few dogs once in a while. By the time we hit the first false summit, I was beginning to get very unhappy. I decided that I would climb no further with my pack on, so we stashed it in the rock pile above the bowl (is there a technical term for that? Is it a couloir?). I figured that if my husband carried the remaining water, and I had my camera, we'd be good to go. It made his pack a little heavier, but this was his big idea anyway! Also, I felt my pack was safe stuck in the rocks...it was the same color as the lichen and if somebody was hardy enough to carry two packs, I say go for it. I felt much better after ditching the pack and on we went to the 2nd false summit. But we knew we were getting close and were meeting those people that had already summited coming back down and they were all very encouraging. That was one of the great things about being up there with so many people...it was one big happy party...comrades you could say! There were many stops to rest and take pictures. We were not one of the fastest couples on the mountain, but my husband knew that if he wanted me on the summit with him, he'd have to let me take plenty of rests. I was getting a bit snappish at times, hated those dang energy bars-the gels were OK-and at times wanted to just cry. Thinking back, I know it was the lack of sleep. At any rate, when we could see the dead Christmas tree, we knew we had it whipped. Once on the summit, happiness was everywhere. We signed the log, took pictures, had pictures taken, sent pictures via cell phone...gazed and gazed at the scenery on all sides. We were blessed with the most beautiful day, so there was time to linger and eat a peanut butter sandwich and laugh with everyone else on top. Some Che-look-alike lounged around drinking a beer while other people laid out flat-looking sound asleep (maybe they were camped by Laughing Woman too!). I saw the Swedish girl on the peak and went to congratulate her and tell her that I figured that she and I were probably the two most unhappy females on the mountain at some point...that made her smile as well as the fact that she had made the summit and had something to tell them back home. Come to find out her host-father and my husband were the same age and they decided they were probably the oldest dudes on the mountain (58) so they had their picture taken together.
Looking west/southwest towards La Plata from the summit of Mt Elbert Mt Elbert looking north towards the west side of Mt Massive
Down we go...easier said than done!
Although I could've looked at the view towards La Plata and Massive all day, no use pushing our luck, so we started down. At first going down was fine and since we use trekking poles, we had no trouble. Got to the rock pile and ate a little more, picked up my pack and took a few pictures of a chipmunk and started down in earnest. After a while, it really starts to hurt the knees and hips. Thank goodness for the poles. Although the treeline seems right there, it isn't. It seemed to take forever to get into the trees and it was starting to get early afternoon and it was very hot. Even so, we met people that were just starting out. By the time we had hiked in the woods for what seemed like HOURS, I was starting to gripe again "Where in the heck is the parking lot?!". It's a long ways back even though walking almost 4 miles in MN would be no big deal! We made it to the pickup, made a bathroom break, called High Mountain Pies in Leadville to order a celebratory pizza to go, and down the road we went. Back at the campground we ate our pizza, drank a couple beers, climbed into the tent and were in our sleeping bags by 7:30...and didn't wake up til 8 a.m.!! I have never slept that late when camping before and I don't remember even moving all night. That crazy laughing woman could've laughed all night while sitting in our tent and I wouldn't have heard her! I have never slept so hard and boy was it sweet! In the morning, I didn't have a bit of stiffness. My husband was already talking about doing Massive in 2011...I said that, much like childbirth, I would need some time to forget how awful it was, but I am already planning the climb. I know now I can do it and with a few tweaks it will be even better. Don't climb on a Sunday morning unless you are camped alone....and, like I said, no Mexican food the day before. :)
It's an accomplishment I will always cherish...and my husband was very grateful and proud of me. You can't beat that! I meant to mention too, that much of our inspiration and preparation came from the trip reports posted here on SummitPost...we're thankful to all those that post those reports and routes. They're interesting and very helpful-thanks!
Descending Mt Elbert