Please join us in San Francisco on October 3, 2012 at GirlVentures' EMPOWER! Breakfast! Click here for details.
Highpoint: Colorado. Mt. Elbert, 14,440 feet. September 3, 2012
South Mt. Elbert Trail from the upper trailhead (end of "4WD" road).
About 8 miles roundtrip and 4100 feet of elevation gain.
We had a Plan A and a Plan B for this hike. Plan A was to drive the "4WD" road to the upper trailhead for South Elbert Trail and hike the East Ridge route. Plan B was to drive the all-vehicle road to the North Elbert Trail and hike the Northeast Ridge route. Plan A involved 8 roundtrip miles and 4100 feet of elevation gain while Plan B involved 9 roundtrip miles and 4900 feet of elevation gain. The night before our hike, I drove to Elbert and checked out the "4WD" road with our 2WD high-clearance rental (a Ford Escape). All went well -- I actually think I could have gotten my Honda Civic up that dirt road with a little care and a lot of caution. There were no steep drop-offs, it was just a dirt road with lots of ruts and rocks. For those of you who live in New Hampshire's White Mountains, it was no worse than Sandwich Notch Road. On the way down from the trailhead, I gave a ride to a nice couple from Canada who had parked at the lower lot in the morning and had hitched their way to the upper trailhead. Hence, if one wants to hike this route but is worried about the 4WD road, I'd say go the day before your ascent and check it out...even if you decide you don't want to drive the dirt road, you can probably park low and hitch a ride up on your hiking day.
We slept in a Leadville motel the evening before our hike (elevation 10,200 feet...highest town in the USA). The girls were a) thrilled to be in a motel after four nights of camping and b) ecstatic that they didn't have to take a shower until after the Elbert hike. None of us had bathed or showered since we'd left New Hampshire, and the girls were taking great pride in their filth.
I woke everyone up at 4am on September 3. Hugh was leaving that morning to go back to Boston; the girls and I bid him a fond farewell before lacing up our boots and heading out the door.
We arrived at the trailhead around 5:15, about an hour before sunrise, and, thankfully, there was another group of people already there and gearing up. The girls and I had been wondering how to handle the start time for this hike...on one hand, we wanted to get a predawn start so we could be back at the car before the standard afternoon thunderstorms hit...on the other hand, we wanted to begin after sunrise in order to minimize our chances of a run-in with a mountain lion.
Yes, I know, mountain lion sightings and attacks are extremely rare. However, I hike with two small people who probably look like an easy meal, and one of them speaks in a squeaky soprano. May as well tape a sign that reads "DINNER" on their foreheads. Also, I'd stumbled across this video from two years ago of a mountain lion hanging about the woods of Mt. Elbert...and I'd read one too many of these types of encounters...needless to say, my maternal paranoia was running high and I couldn't shake the thought of a cougar pouncing on one of the girls. And yet...the thought of being caught in an afternoon thunderstorm on the bare summit of America's third highest peak didn't sit too well with me either. We could hit the trail early and get eaten in the dark, or we could leave after sunrise and get fried by afternoon lightning. Decisions, decisions.
The sight of the other group vanquished all (ok, most) of my mountain lion worries. I approached the two men and one woman while they were putting on their packs and asked if it would be okay if the girls and I hiked behind them. I sheepishly explained my paranoia about mountain lions and said that I'd like to put the girls in the middle of the adults...at least until the sun came up.
The three adults, Mike, Dee Dee, and a kind fellow whose name now escapes me, were extremely nice and outgoing. They welcomed us into their group and we all set off around 5:30am.
Girls at the upper trailhead around 5:30 am.
A couple tenths of a mile into the hike...the South Mt. Elbert Trail swings to the left...
The group was from out-of-town; the folks lived at low altitude and had not acclimated for the hike. Their pace was therefore a bit slower than ours. The girls and I felt fine -- in fact, so far, the hike was a cinch since the footing was easy. New Hampshire trails generally look like this:
Typical New Hampshire trail
In contrast, the South Elbert Trail was a generally smooth dirt path.
As the day broke, my mountain lion paranoia diminished (somewhat).
We came across some cairn art...guess someone did this the night before, since we were first on the trail this morning.
We began to break away from the nice folks who had allowed us to join them. They were feeling the altitude bigtime and were slowing down. If we hadn't just spent five days acclimating, then I'm sure we would have been in the same boat.
We reached a clearing and enjoyed our first views of the day...
Onward, through the meadows and toward the summit...
Looking back through the trees of the meadows...
Breaking above treeline for good...
We were on our own at this point; we didn't see Mike, Dee Dee, or the other nice fellow again until we began our descent.
Looking back toward Twin Lakes...
See what I mean about the trail? It looks like one could drive an ATV up this section...
Stopping to take a break...we're over 13,000 feet now...
Not long after I shot the above video, we were passed by a man jogging (!) with his dog, two fellows hiking together, and one solo dude.
Up up up we continued...
We were on the last push for the summit when someone abruptly turned off the oxygen. We were probably at 13,800 feet or so when it hit all three of us at once. We could no longer hike at our normal pace without having to stop every ten feet to gasp for air. Alex started complaining of a slight headache. After a bit of experimentation, we discovered that all three of us could breath normally and Alex could ascend without a headache if we restricted our movements to baby steps.
The baby steps worked. We kept moving nonstop, me setting the pace (Alex and Sage kept going too fast).
Views from the almost-top...
The girls reach the summit while I lag behind...
All three of us make it. Highpoint number 40!
The time was 9:30. We had taken exactly four hours to ascend. We could have gone faster if the high altitude hadn't sucker-punched us during the final 600 feet.
Views from the top of Colorado...
Sage was touched by the views and by the hike itself. She actually had tears in her eyes while we were on the summit; she told me that everything was so beautiful, and that she was so happy she was on Mt. Elbert. She was amazed that we were able to hike so high with so little trouble. I reminded her that the mileage and elevation gain were similar to what we do on a weekly basis in the Whites, and that I never had any doubt that she could take this mountain fairly easily, as long as she was well-acclimated. Sage's euphoria lasted all the way down the mountain. Alex was in great spirits too; the two took turns leading on the descent, and they skipped as long as they could get away with it (I had to periodically fuss at them since I didn't want them to break their ankles).
We saw Mike, Dee Dee, and the nice fellow whose name I can't remember (my apologies!) on our way down. They were slowly ascending the final 200 or so feet when we (figuratively) ran into them. I give those three a lot of credit; I'm not sure we could have hiked this mountain without acclimating first. They looked tired but determined -- I've no doubt they made it to the top.
We passed a lot of people going up as we were coming down, which surprised me a little since I had that leave-at-dawn-to-avoid-thunderstorms rule firmly entrenched in my mind. That being said, it never did thunderstorm that day, so these folks may have gotten some last-minute early-morning forecast details that I missed.
Back to the meadows...
Through the gorgeous trees, which we could now fully see...
View of Twin Lakes...
Trees with no mountain lions (at least, none that I could see...)...
Last trail sign before the trailhead...
By the way, the Continental Divide Trail runs across/along the trail to Mt. Elbert for a few dozen feet. Here's a piece of the CDT, right by the trailhead for South Mt. Elbert Trail...
We were back at the car at 11:15. It had taken us four hours to ascend and one hour forty-five minutes to descend.
View of Mt. Elbert from the lower trailhead's parking lot...
We enjoyed Elbert. The footing was easy, the views were outstanding, and the weather was perfect. Couldn't have asked for a better day.
Come back tomorrow for Highpointing 2012, Part Three -- "Staying Acclimated Between Elbert and Wheeler."
Congratulations are in order again! Gorgeous pictures! I am shocked by how trail-like (ie, not a big pile of rocks with the occasional blaze painted) the trail is...
Thanks, Melinda! Yes, the trail is very, as you put it, trail-like. :) This was not a difficult hike -- the only challenge was the high altitude, which wasn't too big of a deal for us since we were fairly well acclimated. Had we tried this the day after our plane had landed, however, I'm sure we would have had a much tougher time.
Thanks for sharing this nice report, photos and video, Trish. You've got me thinking. My goal is to get to the top of Longs Peak and down safely. The seed you've planted in my mind is, in the week or so I intend to spend in Colo., to climb Mt. Elbert first, as it is much easier, staying in Leadville for a shoulder day on each side of that climb. Then, head over to RMNP and take on Longs after becoming acclimated to the elevation. Thank you again!
Congrats ladies, what a wonderful accomplishment! We are enjoying reading your adventures very much, are constantly inspired by them in fact. Keep it up! Can't wait to see you.
You might want to think about staying at Longs Peak Campground, which is just 200 feet down the road from Longs Peak's trailhead. The elevation is 9200 at the campground...and you can drive into Rocky Mountain National Park each day to acclimate. You can get up to 12,200 feet easily without wearing yourself out hiking (you can save your strength for Longs Peak). This is essentially what we did...spent a week getting higher and higher in RMNP and spending the night at Longs Peak campground.
Dan and Meena,
Looking forward to seeing you folks as well! Good to hear about all your 52WAV accomplishments! Please let us know when and where you plan to finish. We'd like to make sure we're there for that (if not for an earlier peak).
One 14-er in a week, on second thought, Trish, is surely more than enough for me. :)
Acclimating in RMNP has its rewards. I love the drive over the top on 34. So beautiful. Did that with my grandma and grandpa when I was a teen. Amazing place, the Colorado Rockies.
I just finished reading your book, noticed that you three were now taking on high points, and checked to see if you'd done our local one. You had a great day for it; I recall that week was a gorgeous one and there were many folks up hiking. Reading your account was a bit bittersweet as my own kids have yet to climb Elbert and they see it every day. This summer for sure :) Keep on hiking, it's a pleasure reading of your adventures!
We did have perfect weather for that hike, that's for sure! As a matter of fact, we had fantastic weather for that entire trip.
Elbert was gorgeous and I'm sure your kids will love the views. You're lucky to live among the 14-ers. No doubt we'd tackle that list if we lived in CO.
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