Well, I’m supposed to be sorting Mount Rainier photos…
But when we see Mount Elbert (14,433), Mount Massive (14,421), and La Plata Peak (14,336) right out the front windshield of the RV, how am I supposed to stay inside and be productive?
The Hulking Beast
A semi-alpine start (4:30am) got me to the 2WD trailhead by 5:00am, and shortly after the trailhead I picked up a hiker + dog who didn’t have the appropriate vehicle to make the rocky climb and water crossing up to the 4WD trailhead. No sense letting a fellow hiker add 4 miles to their grind!
Levi and his human Kayli would be my hiker buddies for the day, and when her first words were “I’m not sure I can summit but I want to get as far as I can”, I knew she was a trooper.
The trail up to treeline is amazing – huge, huge forest of aspens, white trunks as far as you can see. Slowly the aspens give way to pines, then wind-stunted pines, and then you drift into the world above the trees.
The Sawatch Range
The alpine isn’t for everyone – at 14,000 feet you have about 60% of the oxygen you would have at sea level. For flatlanders, this can lead to fatigue, shortness of breath, headaches, and nausea. No fun, and potentially lethal if you get HAPE or HACE. On these climbs I’m extremely grateful for every moment I’ve spent grinding away at altitude, building up those red blood cells.
You also get terrain changes – snow, ice, and ankle-twisting rock fields. The beauty of the forests around the trail gives way to the beauty of the peaks and valleys stretching across the horizon.
Many people aren’t prepared for these changes, especially on the “easier” peaks. Poor footwear, poor outerwear to protect against the biting wind, lack of water and snacks, and a general level of non-fitness lead to many miserable climbs. There is an old saying that holds very true – “there is no bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.”
We made our way quickly up the trail as we watched the sun break through the trees to the east. I had originally hoped to be above treeline for sunrise but realized I just didn’t get enough alpine in my alpine start…
As always, after treeline things change quickly. Clothing layering changes often with exertion level and wind shifts. Even though I’m going by recorded GPS tracks on my watch and GPS, when snow covers the trail there really is no trail. Often others boot and snowshoe tracks are way off the mark and can lead you astray, and you’re better off trusting your instincts and picking the route that feels right.
Since I brought ascent-focused snowshoes along and I’m coming off my Rainier training, my aim was to blast straight up the mountain and make good time up and down. Nice for me, but definitely not very nice to my hiking companions. We attempted to follow the trail as much as possible, with a lot of half-azzed route finding under the snowpack. My route finding certainly wasn’t that great, but we managed.
Finally a Flat Spot
When we finally cleared the summit we found 4 or 5 other folks there who had come down from the Northeast Ridge route. Most looked unprepared to be up there in those temps, but as long as they made it back to their cars with no physical damage it’s all good.
We spent a couple minutes up top taking photos and making video calls (amazing Verizon reception!), then we turned around and headed down.
The fun thing about going down on snowpack is that you can sit and slide – called a glissade but it’s really just a fancy name for adult sledding! We shortcutted at least a mile of trail on our butts, significantly cutting down the return time.
6 hours, 46 minutes and 4,000 feet of elevation later, the Jeep never looked so good!
Mt Elbert Overview
Mt Elbert Summit