14,433 Feet

September 2, Friday (continued)

After hearing from Ryan’s Performance Motors (otherwise known as RPM) that my truck is stuck in shop until the holiday weekend is over at the least, Ethan and I drive to Poncha Springs, CO for dinner. Thai Mini Cafe is located just north of town and Ethan has been there before and says it’s great, I certainly enjoy what I get. The sun sets behind the mountains on the way back. I could spend the next three days worrying about the verdict on Bertha’s overheating problem, but that won’t change a thing. Better to get out and do things while I have a friend willing to provide transportation.

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September 4, Sunday

After nine rain days out of ten, today the sun peeks through the blinds on Cas this morning, hinting at a change. It still rains today, but by about 2pm the clouds are breaking up and Ethan and I chance a kayak tour of Turquoise Lake (he travels with an inflatable one).

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We get rained on, but only a little. Then the sun comes out and the wind dies down, and it’s quite pleasant.

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Since several people have asked, the kayak is a AdvancedFrame model by Advanced Elements. http://www.advancedelements.com/day-touring-inflatable-kayaks/inflatable-kayak-ae1007/

Clouds cast ever-changing shadows over the peaks to the north, a family goes past pulling an inner tube, and several fishermen dot the shoreline, trying their luck. It’s turned out to be a nice day on the lake after all.

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We don’t linger long though. The kayak is packed up by 5:30 and we hurry back to camp to prepare for tomorrow’s adventure, which is going to start early.

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September 5, Monday

Everything is dark and quiet when my phone wakes me up at 3:30 am. I put on my cold-weather gear and grab my backpack, already loaded with gear and ready to go. By 4 am Ethan and I are in his car and on the road.

Our destination is Mt. Elbert, highest peak in Colorado at 14,433 feet (second only to Mt. Whitney in California for tallest peak in the lower 48). The only other mountain I’ve summited was Mt. Washburn in Yellowstone at 10,243 feet, so this will be an order of magnitude more challenging. But if a person only has time to climb one mountain in Colorado, might as well go for the tallest, right?

The first hour or so of the hike there isn't much to look at

The first hour or so of the hike there isn’t much to look at

Note that tallest does not equal most difficult. We drive down 24 to Twin Lakes and turn west onto 82, then country road 24 past Lakeview Campground. Ethan’s Subaru Outback does a masterful job getting up 125B, the 4-wheel drive required road to the Upper South Elbert trailhead, Bertha would not have been able to manage it. This is the easiest approach to the summit up the east ridge, somewhere between eight and eight and a half miles round trip and about 4,000 feet of elevation gain, depending on what source you look at. It’s rated a Class 1 climb, which means it’s essentially a hike on a well-marked trail. No technical gear necessary, and no scrambling or use of hands.

We start hiking north on the Colorado Trail at 5 am, it’s still pitch black out and frost glitters on the bridge. Several vehicles have arrived before us, this is Labor Day and the first truly good-weather day this area has seen in quite a while. I wouldn’t have wanted to try this yesterday morning when Mt. Elbert was getting snow.

Conifers and aspen appear as apparitions in the darkness. Ethan has a headlamp on, and I have an LED reading light clipped to the strap of my backpack, which works surprisingly well. It isn’t long before we see the sign for South Mt. Elbert Trail, and the true climb begins.

It’s exhausting work. I’ve never hiked a trail this steep for this long before, and being at high elevation doesn’t help. It’s not a mad rush to the top but a very slow and deliberate creep up the mountainside. As the sky gets lighter, the trees get shorter and more spread out. We’re nearing the treeline. The lakes of Twin Lakes become visible as lighter patches in the distance.

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This is the reason for starting so early, to catch first light on the mountains from above the trees, and it was definitely worth getting up for. It’s a close-up view of what I got to witness at my sunrise photoshoot in the Sawtooth mountains with Nina earlier this summer.

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Soon the slope is awash in golden orange. With the sun comes the first blast of wind, strong and biting despite the warm light. The high temperature at the top of Mt. Elbert today is 39 degrees.

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I’d be lying if I said I enjoyed the whole hike, for much of it I’m quite miserable. Even moving at a crawl I’m gasping for air, my legs start to feel leaden. If it wasn’t so pretty up here I likely would have turned around in the middle, which was the worst part of the hike for me.

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It’s not uncommon for people to get elevation sickness and have to turn back, Ethan didn’t make the summit the last time he attempted Mt. Elbert. I’m at an advantage in that I’ve been camping over 10,000 feet for over two weeks now. I don’t get a headache or feel the need to vomit, but I do get a little light-headed despite staying well hydrated and taking snack breaks. Luckily, when we stop for frequent rests I’m able to catch my breath quickly and then feel fine again. It’s odd, feeling perfectly alright when standing still, but instantly not-quite-right as soon as I start to move again.

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Above the tree-line, it’s easy to spot the trail of people winding their way up the mountain, and after a while, a few early-risers start coming down. They’re in much better spirits and shape than those going up.

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After two false-summits, the top finally comes into view with about 1,000 feet of elevation still to go. The going gets easier for me here, with the end now in sight. Slowly, the trail climbs above the other ridges and peaks in the area.

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When the south trail meets up with the north trail, we’re nearly there. The sky remains cloudless, but the wind is pretty intense. A good-sized group of people is at the top, celebrating. We’ve made it!

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Luckily the top is big enough where we all fit up there without any sense of crowding.

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Being the tallest mountain in the area, the view stretches a full 360 degrees, a real treat, although the sun makes photographing to the southeast a challenge. All told, it took us almost five hours to reach the summit.

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There’s a tiny bit of last winter’s snow left, the snow that has fallen since I arrived doesn’t last longer than the morning and there’s none in evidence at the top.

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After about fifteen or twenty minutes of snapping photos of everything in sight, Ethan and I start back down. The first part feels really easy, it’s not as much effort to go down and so I’m not fighting for breath. I’m able to focus more on my surroundings, like these neat little alpine plants that are changing colors for fall.

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Leadville and Turquoise Lake are also visible in the distance, it’s interesting seeing them from a bird’s perspective.

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Once we get below the treeline, I’m seeing things for the first time as it was dark when we were coming up. The aspen are only showing hints of color in places, it’ll be a week or two yet before fall color starts at this elevation.

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Long before we reach the bottom, my legs are aching something fierce. The constant downhill works the calves and is hard on the knees. We still need to take the occasional break to rest and by the time we make it back to the Colorado Trail my legs are shaking from exertion.

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It takes us almost three hours to get back down, so all told, about eight hours round-trip. Getting back in the car feels great, and we celebrate by going to High Mountain Pies in Leadville for a late lunch. It tastes amazing.

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All in all, I’m very happy I hiked Mt. Elbert, but I don’t think I’ll feel the need to do it again anytime soon. My recommendation if you feel like summiting it would be to get use to hiking lower elevation mountains first to get your body use to all that climbing, and then to stay somewhere at a higher elevation for at least several days before giving it a go. Doing it without conditioning like I did was probably not the best idea.

* * *

Click for larger image

Click for larger image

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At IO I teach people how to ditch the status quo and travel full-time before retirement, and share stories of my adventures (and misadventures) to inspire future nomads and armchair travelers alike. Included at no additional charge: seizing your dreams, living boldly, and making a difference.


  1. Mike B on September 11, 2016 at 9:57 am

    Great job on the hike! That’s a tough climb. Well done!

    • Becky on September 11, 2016 at 10:08 am

      Thanks Mike.

  2. pamelab on September 10, 2016 at 1:19 pm

    Hi, Becky – Wonderful photos and thanks for the panorama that clicked into a larger photo. You had an amazing accomplishment! Congratulations! What a great use of your down time.
    Happy Travels.
    Pamelab from Grand Rapids, Michigan – for now

    • Becky on September 11, 2016 at 10:05 am

      Thanks Pamela, I hope you’re enjoying Michigan! Take care.

  3. Debbie on September 10, 2016 at 12:41 pm

    Wow! good for you. That well deserved pizza looks great.
    Debbie recently posted..Siverthread Scenic BywayMy Profile

    • Becky on September 11, 2016 at 10:03 am

      Yeah the pizza was great!

  4. Steve Kaeseman on September 8, 2016 at 5:07 pm

    Congrats Becky on your Summit of Mt Elbert, I hope one day to do so as well. Beautiful pictures and spot on description of how it feels to climb a mountain without proper training.
    I had a similar experience when I had the pleasure making the summit of MT. Fuji in 1999 when I was stationed in Japan with the U.S. Navy. I had never climbed a mountain before and had no condition at all. My legs hurt like you described.
    Please keep your blog going, love to live vicariously through you, until the day I can follow your path.

    • Becky on September 9, 2016 at 8:43 am

      Thanks Steve. I won’t say that it’s a fun hike, but you definitely do get a feeling of accomplishment when you make it to the top. I imagine summiting Mt. Fuji felt similar.

      Glad you enjoyed this, take care.

  5. Jodee Gravel on September 8, 2016 at 8:56 am

    That is quite the accomplishment – especially for someone who doesn’t hike to tall summits on a regular basis!! Thanks for sharing the expansive and amazing views you found. So glad you’ve got an adventurous friend to hang with while awaiting Bertha’s final diagnosis.
    Jodee Gravel recently posted..Getting Caught Up In Upstate New YorkMy Profile

    • Becky on September 9, 2016 at 8:39 am

      You’re welcome Jodee, glad you enjoyed this. Even though the process wasn’t very fun, getting to the top was worth it.

  6. Brian on September 8, 2016 at 6:11 am

    Congratulations on a successful summit of Mt. Elbert. You were fortunate to get a clear day to hike it. Was there a summit register to sign? I summited Elbert in June of this year and couldn’t find it (if there is one). You are absolutely right about the downhill part of the hike being difficult too. My hiking poles saved me from slipping and falling several times on the trip down.

    Bertha chose a nice area to take a “vacation”. I hope the repairs are done soon and not too expensive.

    • Becky on September 9, 2016 at 8:38 am

      Didn’t see any register Brian, I don’t think there is one. I hope your day was similarly clear, it makes for a much more enjoyable summit.

      I don’t own hiking poles, but I can definitely see where they’d be useful for the downhill.

  7. RGupnorth on September 7, 2016 at 6:30 pm

    Great hike – there are worse places to be stuck at for a few days than Leadville.

    Enjoy your time there.

    • Becky on September 9, 2016 at 8:36 am

      Yep there sure are RG, although it looks like there’s more rain coming in, that’s less fun. Thanks.

  8. Ernesto Quintero on September 7, 2016 at 6:08 pm

    Wonderful. 🙂

  9. Dawn in MI on September 7, 2016 at 4:51 pm

    Beautiful place! Loved your photos! And now I don’t have to actually climb that mountain myself! 🙂 🙂 🙂

    • Becky on September 9, 2016 at 8:35 am

      Glad you enjoyed this Dawn. Yeah, Mt. Elbert is no slouch.

  10. J. Dawg on September 7, 2016 at 4:04 pm

    Congrats on climbing that peak. And a 14K footer at that! Your post brought back a lot of memories for me. At one point in my life I was a peak bagger. I did a bunch on peaks in Maine and NH. For me, it was never the never the destination but the journey up. I loved being in the woods – the scents, the sounds, the winds thru the trees, and being surrounded by nature.

    • Becky on September 7, 2016 at 4:26 pm

      Thanks J. Dawg.

      I tend to like the journey more too when it comes to hiking, so the fact that climbing mountains seems to be pretty torturous means I likely won’t make a habit of it but I’m glad I did it this time. I bet Maine and NH has some pretty hikes, I’ll get there some day…

  11. Kent on September 7, 2016 at 2:33 pm

    4,000 feet of elevation gain? Whew! That there ain’t just no walk in the park!

    Clap, clap, clap… Whistle, whistle… Whoopwhoop! on your 14er Becky! That is some feat…. (Sore feet? 🙂 )

    Great TR and hoping all goes well with Bert Beck..

    • Becky on September 7, 2016 at 4:23 pm

      Yep, sore feet. Actually sore calves more than anything else, the downhill was worse in a way.

  12. Debbie LaFleiche on September 7, 2016 at 2:31 pm

    Amazing photos. Thanks for the guided tour. Your description makes me want to try it someday!

    • Becky on September 7, 2016 at 4:22 pm

      You’re welcome Debbie, I won’t say it’s a fun hike, but you definitely feel like you accomplished something when you get to the top.

  13. Gary Brooks on September 7, 2016 at 9:24 am

    Great accomplishment Becky, thanks for sharing. I climbed Mt Whitney in 1970 and your comment about how quickly after stopping for a rest you recover and then 10 steps later you are exhausted again. Great photos, as always. Hope all goes well with Bertha and you are back on the road to your next adventure soon!

    • Becky on September 7, 2016 at 4:20 pm

      Thanks Gary. Mt. Whitney is on my list, but it’ll have to wait until I have backpacking gear. Not trying 20 miles in one day. 😉

  14. Sue Ann Jaffarian on September 7, 2016 at 8:28 am

    Out of adversity comes a fabulous adventure with a friend! Great photos, as always, Becky!

    • Becky on September 7, 2016 at 4:12 pm

      It was hard to take a bad photo up there Sue Ann, such a beautiful place!

  15. Rob on September 7, 2016 at 6:53 am

    14000 ft is a long way up, I went up Mt Whitney way back when I was a Boy Scout & I can still remember the altitude sickness.

    Great photos from the top of the world!

    • Becky on September 7, 2016 at 4:11 pm

      We were lucky it was such a clear day, mountains as far as the eye could see. I’ll climb Mt. Whitney some day but I don’t have the backpacking gear for it right now. Glad you enjoyed this!

  16. Alan Belisle on September 7, 2016 at 6:08 am

    Got to admire the strength and determination that it takes to climb a mountain. Good for you! As always, great photos.
    Alan Belisle recently posted..Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island 8/26 – 9/2My Profile

    • Becky on September 7, 2016 at 4:07 pm

      Glad you enjoyed this Alan.

  17. Norm H. on September 7, 2016 at 4:28 am

    You’ll always be able to say, “I did that!” Isn’t first light amazing? Used to love that part about hiking in the Sierras. Loved your pictures. Felt like I was at the top with you two. Hoping by now Bertha is “feeling better.” Glad you are making lemonade out of lemons. It’s what keeps full timing sweet. Peace.

    • Becky on September 7, 2016 at 4:07 pm

      Yeah Norm, sunrise is pretty special. I’m glad you enjoyed the pictures.

      Bertha does need repairs, I’ll be stuck in Leadville a while yet.

  18. Chris on September 7, 2016 at 2:33 am

    What did you think of the inflatable kayak? Did you feel safe in it? I have been thinking of getting one, but I think I would feel vulnerable in one out on a lake. It is inspiring to hear how you are making the best of a not so great situation with Bertha.

    • Becky on September 7, 2016 at 4:06 pm

      It was pretty slick Chris. It rode well and was stable, I felt safe in it. Inflating and deflating it took some time though.

  19. Sarah Shillinger on September 6, 2016 at 10:36 pm

    beautiful pictures as usual. Did you have any problems with Amazon or haven’t you needed to talk to them yet?

    • Becky on September 7, 2016 at 4:04 pm

      I contacted Amazon and pushed my start date back a couple weeks, they were cool about it. Bertha does need extensive repairs so I’ll be in Leadville a while yet.

  20. Ron on September 6, 2016 at 8:17 pm

    Wow, another great adventure. Pretty amazing to cross that one off your list. Nice having a hiking companion.

    • Becky on September 7, 2016 at 4:03 pm

      Yeah Ron I won’t be forgetting that hike anytime soon.

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