CLIMBING MT. ELBERT
TO MY PARENTS, I was going on hikes in the Colorado Rockies before I
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.
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
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
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
BACK IN LEADVILLE that afternoon, I headed over to
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
indeed, I soon began to see little creatures moving about on the
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
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.
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
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.
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
after a few final switchbacks just below the peak, I was 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 on the continent.
Only Mt. Whitney (in California) and Mt. McKinley (in Alaska) are
higher than Elbert.
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.
We began looking for the summit register, and couldn’t find it.
Eventually, “Old Style” located it, wedged into some rocks. It didn’t
look Forest Service regulation; it was just a clear plastic box, with a
small spiral notebook (from a “Flying J” travel center) along with
some other odds and ends, miscellaneous keepsakes left by visitors. I
wrote my name, and then my Dad’s name and dates, with the notation, “Finally
made it”. I also left a small photo of him – the one of him as a young
man on a Sierra peak, which appears above on this page.
was building. Folks who had been up before me were on their way
down, and below, more people were heading up towards us. I could see
that it was only going to get busier, and that I could not expect to have
the peak to myself, so I decided it was time to just go ahead and do what
I’d come there for. I cut the seal on the plastic bag I had carried up
in my backpack, and went over to the northwest edge of the summit, where
the terrain slopes down and away most steeply. Reaching in, first with my
hand and then with his old Sierra Club cup, I scattered my Dad’s ashes
on the rocks and boulders before me. It took only a minute. None of the
others at the summit said anything, although I am sure they saw and
understood what I was doing.
It had not seemed like it, but somehow
an hour or so had passed since I arrived at the summit at about 9:20
AM. I knew it was time to go when a new arrival plopped himself down
and began calling people on his cell phone. I shouldered my
backpack, now lighter by the weight of the load I was leaving behind, and
headed down off the
DESCENT was easier in some ways, and harder in others. Elbert is not a
technical climb in any respect -- it is rated Grade II, Class
1 -- but the trail is long, and steep. It's like a 5,000
foot tall staircase. Descending it makes you acutely aware of your
knees. As I headed down I was even more thankful that I had decided
to bring my monopod to use as a staff, to help in balance and to take some
of the weight off my knees with each downward step.
I had the tremendous views in front of me as I walked -- which was a
problem, as it distracted me from my most important task, which was
watching where I was putting my feet.
A distinctive sound came to me, seeming somehow out of place -- but I
was not mistaken -- it was crows. I turned to look back up, and
could see a large flock of them, swirling around over the summit. Crows
at 14,500' -- amazing. Presumably, they find enough of the leavings
from the crowds of people that climb the mountain to make it a worthwhile
trip for them as well.
And indeed, people were streaming up the mountain as I
descended. Between the summit and timberline, I must have met a
couple of dozen folks heading up.
large Army helicopter had been flying around the area for an hour or so,
up and down the valley of the Arkansas to the east, over to and back from
the Aspen area to the west. As I continued my descent, it came
barreling over the ridge south of Elbert and then descending towards the
Twin Lakes area. It was a strange experience to see the thing
dropping down the valley until it was flying well below me.
I ran into a fellow heading up who explained to me, in what I think was a
South African accent, that he ran flight school near Wichita, and that he
assumed they were out doing runs to qualify pilots for high altitude
I was nearing timberline. Behind this scenic little outpost of
gnarled pine, I found a pile of litter -- plastic bottles, food wrappers
-- near signs of a small campfire. Back to civilization
(sigh). I packed the crap out with me.
I was still meeting people coming up, but fewer. It was past
noon, and these folks still had several hours of climbing to go. The
rule of thumb recommended by the Forest Service is that, wherever you are
at noon, you should stop and turn back, because afternoon thunderstorms
can develop quickly, and lightning can be deadly above timberline.
But, as it turned out, the storms never came that day. Perhaps even
the stragglers I met got their climb in.
Perhaps -- but as to one group I met, I doubt it. Just above
timberline, I met a young family -- mom with a very little one in a chest
pack, three other little ones on foot, one of them hand-in-hand with dad. We
stopped briefly and chatted. I asked how they were going, and the
woman gave me a half-hearted smile and said, "Well, it's been getting
tougher" or something to that effect. It reminded me of our own
family, of how my parents also had trudged up countless Colorado trails
with 4 of us little kids in tow. Perhaps even this
trail; my Mom had reminded me that one summer we set out to climb
Elbert, but had to turn back. I couldn't see this particular
group making it to the top that day either, but, I thought, perhaps
someday one of these kids will.
so I continued, passing in reverse order the points I had come by earlier
that morning, that now seeming to me to have been ages ago -- the
"Marmot Rocks", the great long slope where my shadow stretched
for hundreds of feet, the timberline camp of "Mr. Spoon",
the open areas below timberline, the
steep switchbacks leading down to the Colorado Trail junction where the
trail register was located, the wooden bridge (where I stopped and soaked
my feet briefly in the freezing cold stream water), and the winding 4WD
roads leading back to the lot through the aspen forest.
On this final stretch I fell in with a young man who told
me about his plan to climb the highest points in each of the 50
states. He'd done quite a few, and had quite a few left to
THEN, suddenly it seemed, I was back at the parking lot. It was
over. Sitting in the back of my car and putting my tired feet into
fresh socks and boots, looking out towards Twin Lakes -- now more or less
across from me, rather than below me -- I tried to recall the unique
feelings I had on the summit.
There is something ineffable about the experience of
being on a high mountaintop. Partly, I think, it is the ability it
provides to appreciate the huge physical scale of the world. Partly,
it is the knowledge of the rarity, and the transitory nature, of the
It is rare at least in the sense that it has not been,
and probably cannot be, commodified. No one gets up to the top of a
mountain without doing, themselves, the substantial work necessary to get
there. There is no tour guide or package you can buy that will get
you the experience while sparing you the effort; if you get
there, it will be because you put one foot in front of another enough
times to get there yourself.
And it is transitory in the sense that, of course, you
can't stay. The impermanence of your experience there -- a few
minutes, a few hours -- contrasts with the permanence of the
mountain. Sure, you can go back -- maybe I will some day -- but each
climb will still carry with it that feeling of the inseparability of
beginnings and endings.