CLIMBING MT. ELBERT
THANKS TO MY PARENTS, I was going on hikes in the Colorado Rockies before I could walk.
My Dad, Jim Nance, grew up in southern California. He climbed in the Sierras as a young man, on Sierra Club outings. He ended up taking a job at the University of Illinois, a place about as flat as any place can be.
But he didn't give up on the mountains. We got out to Colorado most every summer, to camp and hike. Even before my first birthday, I was out on the trail, getting rides in my Dad's old rucksack.
My Dad and I climbed a few mountains when I was young -- including one "Fourteener", Mt. Democrat.
But, although my Dad always wanted to, we never made it up Mt. Elbert, the highest mountain in Colorado.
After he died early in 2003, it came to me that maybe it was time for me and Dad to climb that mountain.
So, I got myself into tolerable shape, and in the beginning of August I headed out to Colorado.
THE DAY BEFORE my planned hike up Elbert, as a "warm-up", I tried to get up Homestake Peak, a 13,200-foot mountain about 15 miles north of Elbert -- and failed.
I had climbed it with my Dad when I was a boy, and I had a vague memory of where the trail to the summit was, but I couldn't find it.
I tried a couple of approaches, and I managed to get some distance up the flanks of the mountain, but I ended up turning back on both.
One was much too steep, the other mired me in boulder fields. I was climbing alone, and realized that if I slipped and broke an ankle (or worse), I would be in a world of trouble.
The consolation was to again see beautiful Slide Lake, which lies at timberline at the foot of the peak. And, I stumbled across a small patch of columbines -- the only ones I saw on my trip.
BACK IN LEADVILLE that afternoon, I headed over to the Leadville Ranger District station . I picked up a copy of the USGS topographic map for the Mount Elbert Quadrangle, showing the South Mount Elbert Trail, and also got directions to the trailhead. Map and directions in hand, I then headed down to Twin Lakes to scout the trailhead. I planned to head out early the next morning and wanted to make sure I could find the trail.
Getting to the trailhead for the South Elbert Trail is pretty straightforward. You take U.S. Hwy. 24 south out of Leadville, then turn west on Colorado Hwy. 82, heading towards Twin Lakes. About 4 miles down Hwy. 22, County 24C heads off to the right up the slope. Lakeview Campground comes up on the left within a mile or so, and soon after that the road swings by a good sized paved parking lot on the left. Twin Lakes is visible below, to the south. This is the initial trailhead.
From there, the route is an unpaved 4WD road that heads off to the west. It is possible to drive some distance in with a high-clearance 4WD vehicle, and some people do, but I decided to hike it.
It was a pleasant afternoon, and my feet were holding up pretty well, so I walked in several miles, to the point where the South Mount Elbert Trail takes off from the Colorado Trail. On the way, I met "Mr. Spoon" and his dog, Wolf. Mr. Spoon had made arrangements to meet a party of climbers who were going to go up the next day, but he was going to hike up that afternoon, camp at timberline, and wait for his party to join him. He recommended that I start out even earlier than I had ever considered -- 2 AM! I decided to try for something more reasonable -- getting up at 4 and heading out then.
THE DAY OF THE CLIMB I woke up at about a quarter to 4, and decided to get going. I walked through the silent lobby of the Hotel Delaware, where I was staying, out onto the dark streets of Leadville. The sky was clear. Driving down the empty highways to the trailhead, I worked on a coffee and a muffin and tried to clear the cobwebs out of my mind. I arrived at the trailhead and started out at 4:20 A.M.
This map shows most of the initial part of the route, up to the junction of the Colorado Trail with the South Mount Elbert Trail, and the westward climb from there, up to the ridge. (The parking lot, and the first 1/3 mile or so of the road, is not actually shown here - it was on the next quad map over).
The road starts at a fairly low altitude, below 10,000 feet. Climbing steadily, it leads through an extensive aspen forest, with occasional breaks that allow views of Twin Lakes to the south.
Of course, as I started out that morning it didn't look like this shot, which was taken in full sun the day before. It was well before dawn, and the woods were dark. The stars were brilliant in the sky; the moon had set hours earlier.
My little flashlight was up to the task, though, and I had no problem as I strode along this initial stretch -- that is, until I came to the stream where the crossing was by a traditional three-log-bridge. (This crossing, at about 10,300' , is the one shown on this map just north of the small group of ponds near the word "Gulch")
The previous afternoon, I had crossed here without much concern, but now it was dark. Worse yet, the logs were wet (during the day, the warmer temperatures and the sun help to dry the water that splashes on the logs from the stream below). I didn't need to court disaster before the sun had even come up, I decided; also, no one was there to see me wimp out. So, I scooched across on my butt.
From there, the climb continued. The trail branches off from the 4WD road (which continues to the west). Another stream crossing, at about 10,500', is supplied with a fine wooden bridge, although the old three-log job is still there next to it for the traditionally-minded. This crossing (below the red "12" on the map above) is unfordable by vehicle, so from here on in, the route is a foot trail only.
As I traversed this stretch, rising and falling as it passed along the hillside, the eastern sky was beginning to grow light, and reflections of the dawn off Lily Pond were sometimes visible through the pines. Soon I came to the point where the South Elbert Trail branched off. I took a break for some water and a little trail mix, made my entry in the trail register, and started off again. It was about 5:20 A.M.
After leaving the Colorado Trail and turning onto the South Elbert Trail, some serious climbing starts. I was thankful here that I had brought along my camera monopod (a Manfrotto), which turned out to work tolerably well as a climbing staff.
By sunrise, at about 6 A.M., I was starting to pass through the larger openings that develop as the forest nears timberline. These openings, at about 11,400', and again at about 11,600', provide a first opportunity to get a sense of how far you have climbed above the landscape below.
Close to timberline, at about 11,700', I found Mr. Spoon -- or rather, Wolf found me. Perhaps it was the clinking sound made by my Dad's old Sierra Club cup I was wearing on my belt, that he heard first.
It turned out that Mr. Spoon's climbing companions had not yet arrived -- and since I had not passed them on the way up, that meant that they were at best some distance behind me. It looked like I was the first one up the trail that morning, and so I stood a good chance of having the summit to myself, at least for a time.
Bidding farewell to Mr. Spoon, and climbing through thinning trees, I soon passed timberline, and moved out onto the broad ridge that the route was to follow for most of the rest of the way up.
Here, the trail could be seen extending out far ahead. The summit itself was visible, although the lack of landmarks made it difficult to appreciate its scale, and its distance.
The sun had crested the mountains on the other side of the Arkansas River valley far below. As the slope fell away from me on the west, my shadow was stretched to hundreds of feet in length. What I found most remarkable, was the deep quiet.
At about 12,500', the trail rounds a small rocky knob just to the south. As I neared it, the distinctive "peek!" of pikas got more frequent and more insistent. Pikas (sometimes called "coneys") are small mammals who live in alpine rock. They are said to be fiercely territorial -- although one wonders how fierce a 6-oz. animal can be. In late summer they are defending the areas from which they harvest the "hay" which they store up to live on over the winter, and their loud, piercing calls carry a long way in the high thin air. And indeed, I soon began to see little creatures moving about on the rocks.
As I got closer, though, I saw that they were bigger than the pikas I had remembered from the mountain-climbing days of my youth. In fact, what I saw weren't pikas, but marmots (which are quite a bit bigger).
I sidled over to see how close I could get, and was surprised to find that they were pretty tolerant of my presence. I got to within 20 yards or so while they watched me with what seemed a nonchalant air. I suppose that, given the number of people going up and down this trail, these marmots are not very impressed with or concerned about humans.
CONTINUING past "Marmot Rocks", the trail climbed along the ridge. Looking back behind to the southeast, Twin Lakes mirrored the morning clouds. I crossed a small stream, and sampled the water with my Dad’s Sierra Club cup.
To the north was a steep drop-off down to a cirque where a small pond forms at the head of Box Creek. Far off, Turquoise Lake was visible.
From about 13,400’ to 13,600’ the grade steepens and the trail takes several switchbacks. Somewhere in this area I ran across a patch of "watermelon snow". The pink color is caused by an algae, which is said to have a watermelon flavor -- and to cause serious intestinal distress to anyone who decides to sample it. I didn’t.
From my vantage point at this height, I was able to see far down the trail behind me, all the way to timberline, several miles back and thousands of feet below. Finally, I noticed a few tiny specks moving along – probably the climbers that were coming up to meet "Mr. Spoon". I saw, with satisfaction, that they were far behind me; I would reach the summit well before them. I would indeed, I thought, be the first person up the mountain that day.
And then, I heard voices. I looked up, towards the summit, and saw tiny figures clambering about, and knew that I was going to have company after all. There are three trails up Mt. Elbert; besides the South Trail, which I had taken, there is the Black Cloud trail, which comes up from the south, and the North Trail, which comes up from Half Moon Creek. That morning, several people had come up the North Trail and summitted before me.
There were, as the voices I had heard earlier had indicated, already several people on top. We chatted a little, pointing out the sights to one another and trying to fully appreciate the perspective. To the southeast, Pikes Peak was visible, 75 or so miles away. To the northeast you could see the “Cloud City”, Leadville, and beyond it, the Mosquito range (including the great scar of the now-dormant Climax Molybdenum mine). To the west and southwest, it seemed that range after range of high peaks rolled away. Close in and obvious (and visible just past my shoulder in the photo here), was the distinctive rounded shape of La Plata, as well as the Collegiates pretty much due south. Another fellow with sharper eyes than mine thought that he could even make out Uncompahgre Peak far in the distance.
It took a few minutes for it to really sink in – at 14,440 feet, we were higher than almost anything else in the lower 48 states Only Mt. Whitney (in California) is higher than Elbert. [Thanks to the "Department of Minor Details" for straightening me out on my idea that Mt. McKinley (OK, "Denali"; I call it "McKinley" because I'm an old fart and I learned it that way) was the only higher peak on the continent - in fact, there are a number of peaks, in Canada and Alaska, well over Whitney's height.]
of the friendly folks I met on top was, I discovered later when going
through my photos, working on a can of Old Style beer. I hadn't even
noticed it at the time.
 (Back) In many sources, Mt. Elbert is listed at 14,433 feet. However, the United States Geodetic Survey recently found that GPS and satellite datum showed most figures for Colorado mountains to be in error of about five to ten feet short of true. In June 2002 the USGS released revised figures of the altitudes of mountains in Colorado. The revised figure for Elbert came in at 14,440 feet.
The National Climbing Classification System (NCCS), describes the overall
difficulty of a multipitch alpine climb or long rock climb in terms of
time and technical rock difficulty: