Mount Elbert - attempt

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Trip Report
Colorado, United States, North America
Date Climbed/Hiked:
Feb 25, 2002
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Created On: May 29, 2003
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I arrived in the Sawatch area the night before. I wanted to check out the accessibility of the Vicksburg TH and the South Elbert TH. Eventually I ended up parking my SUV rental at the South Elbert TH parking area. This parking area is really off of the Colorado Trail. The South Elbert TH register is about 2 miles up the Colorado Trail. To get to this parking area, take US 24, between Leadville and Buena Vista, to Colorado 82. Take Colorado 82 west for about 4 miles to Lake County 24. Take Lake County 24 just over 1 mile (just past the Lake View Campground) to the parking area on the left. I slept in my SUV, which wasn’t nearly as comfortable as the Barr Camp bunkhouse.
After packing up my gear, and eating my cinnamon Pop Tarts, I finally got started at around 7:30 am. My first mistake was missing the Colorado Trail. Instead on veering right off of the parking area, I veered left. I pretty quickly found my mistake and worked my way back up to the Colorado Trail. This part of the trail was well worn with obvious vehicle travel. By the way, I donned my snow shoes almost immediately on this trip. I had heard that I would definitely need them this time. It didn’t take too long before I got rather comfortable with them, and actually started enjoying my snowshoe experience.
I followed the Colorado Trail to the point where it intersects with the Mount Elbert TH. This is actually where the register is located. At this point the Mount Elbert Trail takes a left up the hill and the Colorado Trail continues right/straight. So, I started up the hill. The path was pretty well broken to this point. It wasn’t until about the 11,200’ point where I missed a switchback. This was mistake number two. I continued straight, until I eventually decided that I had been in the Bartlett Gulch way too long. So, I started working my way up through the dense trees and steep incline. I finally came out around 11,500’. I came out in a large open area. That was way too much work. I wasted a lot of energy making that climb. I still could not find the trail, but I knew that I was in the right general direction. As soon as I ventured out into the open area, I found out my punishment for not being on the broken trail. Almost immediately I started post-holing really deep; 2+ feet at times. I stuck my ski poles to the snow and they went all the way up to the handle at times. This was very frustrating and exhausting. I continued in the correct direction breaking trail as I went. At this point I was working with trail map and compass and I was losing more confidence the further that I went. It wasn’t snowing very heavily and the temperatures were actually nice (around freezing). The biggest problem I had was that I could not even see the peak today. It was cloud covered. This made it very difficult to keep my direction.
In addition to the deep snow, I also heard the classic “whoomp!” several times. I counted 6 times by the time I got back down. Even though this only occurred when I was on flat terrain, it still freaked me out a little bit. Most importantly, it told me that the conditions were bad! The Mount Elbert Trail should easily be safe though. The grade is 22 deg or less pretty much the whole way. However, due to my inability to keep the trail and my limited orienteering abilities, I was worried that I could easily be way off course. This worried me. On course, I was safe, off course, who knows.
So, combine the exhaustive post-holing, the scary “whoomp!” sounds, the fact that I was off course and just pure frustration, I eventually decided to turn back at about the 11,800’ point. I was so frustrated, but I was almost 5 hours into the hike and I knew that I had at least 3 hours minimum to the summit, plus I still had to get down – SAFELY! So, for the first time in my 14er career, I told the mountain, “I’ll be back!”
The hike back was much easier. Even though I was still dealing with the deep snow, I was at least able to follow the trail that I had already broken on the way up. I did find several unique and embarrassing ways to fall down with snowshoes though. I felt like a turtle on its back. I couldn’t get up. Thank God for Gortex. On the way down, I did not have to cut through the dense trees, because I actually found the switchback that I had missed on the way up. It only took me 2 hours to get back to the car. And, I actually started to like my snowshoes. Total trip time was just under 7 hours.
I had planned on hitting Belford the following day. But, based on the report that I got from Bob Dawson on an avalanche fatality at the Elkhead Pass, and my experience with the conditions on Elbert, I pretty much decided that I would approach the next day as a pleasant hike into the Missouri Gulch. I would only attempt a summit if safety was 100%.


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