November 17, 1999 - Mount Elbert Trail
After doing LaPlata, I was incredulous that the warm weather was still holding so I figured I would take a shot at one more 14’er for the season. I headed to Leadville and then camped in the USFS campground above Clear Creek Reservoir on the road to the Elbert Trail dirt road and trail head. I pitched the tent and awoke in the dark to get an early start on the trail, too early. The autumn time change came and went and the alarm clock I leave in the glove box had missed the event so I was up and about and it was dark and going to stay that way a bit more than I wanted to walk in. I drove the dirt road to the trail head, parked, and pushed the seat back for an extra hour of sleep.
I woke and as I was getting my pack, a fellow walked up and asked if I was Elbert bound. I said I was and we headed off for the peak. He was a flatlander, of course maybe I am too since I am from Cheyenne, but his flatland was elevation 500 and mine is 6000, there is a big difference. He had driven out from Michigan to catch a peak or two and we had good conversation for 2/3 of the trail up. We split at that point, I stuck with the trail and he went on up the ridge proper, both of which got us to the summit, just he got there a bit later in the day. I walked down and when I got to my truck, just hung out to give the out of towner a ride back down to his car at the hard road parking area. He wandered through after about and hour and was really happy to have a waiting ride that would cut 2 miles of road march off his climb. I dropped him off and enroute he told me of Quincy’s, a steak joint in Leadville that should not be missed. We agreed to meet there for dinner before heading off in other directions, me for Cheyenne, and he for LaPlata. Another 14’er, another acquaintance, another reason to keep climbing.
Mount Elbert . . . again
November 16, 2008 - Mount Elbert Trail
Almost nine years to the day, I was itching to get out at least one more time before skis or snowshoes became a necessary climbing accessory. I'd been up Mount Elbert before but Bob had not . . . no Elbert, no Colorado highpoint and no reason for him not to score both on what the weather folks were saying would be a bluebird day. Nine years before we were having a dry November and now we seemed to be in the same pattern.
We pulled out of Cheyenne at 3:30 am and for once the alpine start came easily. I'd caught a late afternoon nap,a good dinner and when the alarm went off a bit after 3, I was up and ready to go. Bob arrived at on time and we were off for Leadville and the Mount Elbert Trail. There were other routes but I figured that we might have shot at getting fairly close to the end of the 4wd portion of the approach road, so the Mount Elbert Trail it would be. The sun came up on the way up from Copper Mountain and we had full daylight when we arrived at the trail at a bit after 7. The packs came out, the boots went on and we each gathered what we were planning to take along for what I really figured would be a full day out.
I'd read a two day old trip report on the net and there was told a story of winds, woe and snow. We didn't see the conditions the other fellow spoke in awe of . . . but I've kind of been out a bit and figure the climbing season in Colorado starts with the arrival of snow and ends with the melting of the snowpack in the late Spring. Regardless, I had achieved what I wanted, the potential of a good climb and the minimization of Cottoneers on Colorado's highest peak. We left the truck at 7:40 and were at the cut off for the Mt. Elbert trail all of about 7 minutes later. The Mount Elbert trail cuts to the west and starts uphill right away. Not kind of uphill, but the kind of back and forth hard uphill on a snowy trail that I really hate.
The trail leads through a beautiful stand of aspen and climbs steadily until an open flat glade gives a brief break from the slog. We crossed the glade and took in the second series of switchbacks, but now more mellow and at least in the view of the peak we planned to summit that morning. The trail breaks the tree line and steadily climbs toward the mountain proper. The old two track has to climb because over the course of about 3 1/2 to 4 miles, you do have to knock out just shy of 5000 vertical feet. The snow of the lower open part was broken into patches but pretty constant on the trail proper as it is an old raod with enough of swale to catch a fair accumulation. Give me neve and crampons and I go all day, but a walk up a cold snowy hill does not rank high on my terrain list.
The route snakes up along the ridge and loops around a nubbin before going for the mountain proper. The route is broken into a climb, an apparent flat intermission,and then a climbing traverse up the flank of Bartlett Gulch to the summit. I dropped my vision to the trail and connected less snowy parts on the frozen ground, admittedly looking up only once in while as I convinced myself I would make it to the respite of the promised flat. It never came, instead the trail slackened for a bit before another set of snowy switchbacks took us to the start of the long traverse up the valley toward the summit cone. The snow was pretty constant but shallow enough that trail segments break through here and there and the rocks forming the border of the trail give a fairly constant outline of the summer trail's general course.
You never really see the summit for the vast majority of the climb, at least not until you have traversed half way up the gulch and you realize the summit is not the far point but actually the high spot off to your right side. I'd spotted a pole of some sort on the ridge and when the trail turned north with the trace of switchback visible, I remembered that the summit was both near and right above me. Back and forth for just a few more minutes and we broke the ridge proper and walked another 100 yards to the highest spot in Colorado. the wind that had been a absent for the first third of the climb and a nagging pain in my right ear for the middle third, now became a hard and very cold wind. We arrived on the summit, crossed the hiking poles, took a few photos and retreated back down the southern flank and down onto the ground to get enough of a wind break to eat some food and hydrate.
Our trip from 4wd trail head to the summit took just about 3 1/2 hours, an unexpected good time and far better than the five or six hours that it took me nine years before. The difference was simply experience, the rest step, no breaks longer than the time needed to shoot a Goo and take a sip of water. We turned and began our decent, knowing that the wind would warm with each step downward and that the truck was but 2 hours distant. The snow of the morning was now soft and our boots left tracks in the now soft gravel of the trail. We skidded our way down through he muddy woods but sure enough by 1:30 we were at the truck and on our way back to Wyoming.