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.
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).
We get rained on, but only a little. Then the sun comes out and the wind dies down, and it’s quite pleasant.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Luckily the top is big enough where we all fit up there without any sense of crowding.
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.
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.
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.
Leadville and Turquoise Lake are also visible in the distance, it’s interesting seeing them from a bird’s perspective.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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