So I had a ski trip planned last week in Breckenridge and Keystone. I decided to arrive a few days early and attempt to summit Mt. Elbert. I spoke to a number of people here at SP, and they informed me that a South Elbert Trail ascent would be the best route.
Arriving in Denver, I drove West down Rt. 70 out through Dillon and Frisco.
I then headed South on CO – 91 toward Leadville. Just North of Leadville I stopped at a great ski rental place called Bill’s Sport Shop. The guys in there were a great help. [They can be reached at www.billsrentals.com/
I told them of my plans to summit Elbert later that day, and I inquired whether they thought skis or snowshoes would be best. Having quite a bit of experience in those parts, they suggested snowshoes, and gave me a great deal. Ten bucks total for two days. We joked a bit about the cold, and because it was only around 10 degrees, I was not too concerned.
I got back in my rental minivan and continued South on CO – 91 until it turned into US – 24. US – 24 winds through Leadville and then on for about 15 miles before I turned right on to CO – 82. My directions told me to go 6.5 miles on CO – 82, but it turned out to be only 4 miles before I turned off for the South Elbert Trailhead Parking lot.
I had told myself that if I arrived at the trailhead too late I would stay overnight in the car and set out in the morning. However, I had to meet my friends at the Denver airport the next evening, so I was disinclined to wait. One might say I was fool-hearty, but I’ll just say stupid. Thus, I set out at around 4:30 p.m.
To my surprise, the trail was well packed.
My snowshoes worked amazingly on the moderately packed snow. Since I flew in from Washington, DC at 20 ft. elevation, I was somewhat dizzy at the starting point of 10,500 ft. This uneasiness caused me to fall into the deep powder on the sides of the trail a few times.
Besides the dizziness at first, I felt remarkably good on the trail, and I was amazed at how gradual it climbed. I actually felt as though I was on a plain vanilla hike through the forests of Pennsylvania. There were some amazing views of the Elbert and Twin Peaks as I hiked the first few miles. By the time I turned left (west) onto the actual Summit Trail, it had become dark.
The night was incredibly clear and full of stars. Unlike anything I would ever see in the city. I hiked by Moonlight. The trail was clear as day. I stopped every couple hundred yards to gaze up at the stars or down at the lights of Leadville, which as I gained altitude came more into view.
At this point, I was moving pretty slow. I am not sure if it was the altitude or just the process of taking in my surroundings, but I felt as though I was moving in slow motion. I thought that if it stayed clear, I would keep moving until I got to tree line, and then reevaluate my goals. As I got closer to tree line I considered going for the summit and claiming a solo, winter, night ascent. But when I reached tree line, I found a good “flat” spot behind some trees for a tent. I decided to take a rest and hopefully go for the summit at sunrise. I think I was at about 13,000 ft.
There was an open field with many groupings of trees that seemed to block the wind pretty well. As I pitched my tent, the skies were still clear as day. As I lay in my Tent (in two sleeping bags), I realized how deep the snow really was. I thought I had excavated the campsite to a sufficient degree, but inside my tent, my feet and lower body began to sink into the snow. I kept sinking until I was at a 25 degree angle, and I kept sliding off of my sleeping pad.
To make matters worse, the wind picked up to around 40 M.P.H. and the temperature dropped to minus-20 Fahrenheit (without the windchill). Apparently, my tent was not rated for winter/windy conditions. The wind was blowing the tent flat on top of me and the snow stakes were coming out. I slept/persevered until 2:30 a.m., when I awoke to find my fingers and toes completely numb. INSIDE MY SLEEPING BAGS!!! I think I would have been ok down to about minus-5, but minus-20 is just plain insane outside of the Arctic.
I remembered Sir Edmund Hillary’s statement that a summit does not count if you do not make it back down, so I decided to bag the summit attempt and go down. This was probably a good decision because when I opened the tent door, I was surrounded by a whiteout blizzard.
So, I packed up my bag and exited the tent. The moment my body weight left the tent, it took flight. My freaking tent just blew away; right off of the mountain. How crazy is that? I briefly contemplated chasing after the tent, but before I knew it, it was gone. At this point I couldn’t feel my toes at all. You know it is cold when you are in two sleeping bags for a
few hours and your toes still get numb.
In an effort to warm up my toes I began running down the mountain. After a few minutes my feet were rewarmed, but the running at 13,000 ft. had killed me. I continued on, but I had to rest on my ski poles every couple hundred metres. I finally made it back to the car after about 2.5 hours of running/sliding.
In the end - No Solo, Winter, Night Ascent of Elbert.
I’ll be back, but probably in the summer.