Ascent of Mount Elbert on 1989-04-25

Climber: Greg Slayden

Other People:Solo Ascent
Date:Tuesday, April 25, 1989
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
Peak:Mount Elbert
    Elevation:14433 ft / 4399 m

Ascent Trip Report

Tuesday, April 25:

I woke at 5:30 A.M., thanks to my little alarm clock, but I felt very refreshed and rested from the effect of the decongestant pill I had taken. I had a breakfast of cold water and Peanut Butter Crunch cereal, stuffed extra clothes, water, some food, and first aid stuff into my little blue daypack, put on my hard-shelled A.T. ski/mountaineering boots (my hiking boots had been left in Telluride, and besides, I knew that I’d encounter snow), and headed up the steep Black Cloud Creek Trail towards Mt. Elbert, determined to reach the summit and finally set a definite personal height record.

The trail was very steep as it first switchbacked up out of the Twin Lakes valley, and despite the early morning chill, I had soon stripped myself of most of my clothes, making my pack bulge out pretty badly. I also had to stop to take care of a painful intestinal problem as I sweated uphill, and soon the first snowbank appeared. The trail began to flatten out a little bit, but the snow was covering more and more of the ground until I lost the trail in the snow-covered open woods.

I explored the area a while, looking for footprints in the snow and/or trail blazes, but after a while I just decided to forget about the trail and walk on upward on the hard-packed icy snow, which in the cool early morning made an excellent walking surface. I was already just about at timberline, and I decided to hike up a big snowfield that led up out of the trees to the upper part of the steep-walled cirque I was in, and this led to another, steeper snowfield that stretched up the right side of the cirque to the invisible ridge high above. I cranked it the best I could, making good progress for a few hundred yards before stopping to wheeze and pant on the incredibly steep wall I was climbing. I knew that the avalanche danger was low, and the weather was perfect, but I was a little concerned that I was the only soul on the mountain, and if I had an accident, no one would be around to help me out.

I milked the snowfield for all I could, and finally had to start uphill on a slope of millions of crumbling talus rocks, which made progress nearly impossible up the steep slope. Somehow, with frequent rests, I slipped and slid up the impossible slope to a high, grassy area near the top of a high, windy, ridge, where I could see a peak a ways along it to the north. Glad that the steep uphill part of my climb was over, I started north along the half snow/half grassy pleasant ridge that reminded me of Presidential-type terrain, happy to have my objective in view.

However, I soon realized that the peak I could see was not my objective, but that it was South Elbert, a 14,134 foot forepeak. Also, it took longer to get to South Elbert than I expected, so when I finally got to its summit, I was both depressed by the view of the true summit a mile away over more ridge, and exhausted from the high altitude and the hard miles I had already put in. Part of the problem was my map, which consisted of a rough tracing I had made of the one in Zummwalt in the morning before I left—I didn’t want to bring the whole book. It didn’t clue me in very well about the configuration of the ridge I was on.

After a rest and some food on South Elbert, I wearily started the descent to the South Elbert/Elbert col, crossed the grassy expanse, and trudged up the final summit ridge to Mt. Elbert. It is impossible to describe how totally fatigued I was—spending the last two weeks at or near sea level must have sapped my high-altitude stamina, and hiking along scenic, easy ridgetop terrain above 13,500 feet was now a terrible challenge, even though I had spent the previous night at 9600 feet at the trailhead.

I finally staggered up to the windy summit area of Mt. Elbert, and actually tried to go to sleep on a snowbank a little way below the summit before realizing I had better get moving. So I managed to take some pictures, eat some food, and admire the expansive view—as always, it was clouding up more and more, now that it was getting to be afternoon, but I could still see for miles and miles. Leadville, where I had been earlier in the month, was clearly laid out like a map in the Arkansas Valley below me.

I didn’t wait long, though, before starting back. I did all right on the downhill to the col, but became incredibly sluggish as soon as the ridge headed uphill towards the low prominence of South Elbert. After another long rest I continued south along the ridge, and decided to stay on it past the point where I had attained it in the morning. This was because the grassy/hardpack snow surface of the ridge was easy walking, and I wanted to avoid as much talus as possible. However, the route I finally took back down into the Black Cloud Brook Ravine turned out to be horrible, over incredibly steep and treacherous fields of loose rock. My poor plastic boots got badly scratched up, and only the fact it was downhill allowed me to continue in my fatigued state. I did see a herd of deer below as I descended, and they scattered into the forest below when I got near.

I finally reached the snow near the ravine floor, but I was extremely disconcerted to discover that it was now very soft and mushy, and I sank up to my knees or thighs with every step I took. I tried avoiding the snow, but it was everywhere. I cut through a stand of trees to get back to the lower snowfield of my upward route, and it was a complete disaster, as I post-holed badly and cursed life as I got my legs and feet totally snowcovered and wet. Once on the familiar snowfield, I was actually able to carefully tread lightly on the snow without breaking through for a few steps, but soon I was back into the forest for good, with its badly mushy snow.

The next hour or so was a nightmare, as I not only had severe problems with the snow (frequently tripping after a particularly nasty post-hole, cold and waterlogged feet, falling on logs and rocks when the snow gave way), but I had no idea where to find the trail that led down to the car. I tried staying near the brook, once even trying to walk on the rocks in its course with notable lack of success, then I explored either side, in search of snow-free ground. Then it started sprinkling a little bit from the now totally overcast skies as I stopped to rest for a second.

Things then started to improve. The rain never really materialized, I stumbled on what seemed like a faint trail, and as I followed the track the snow started becoming less and less. At long last I came to a little bridge over the brook that I remembered from the morning, saw how I had missed the trail on the way up, and gleefully started the last stretch back to the car. Soon the snow was gone for good, after a few more messy snowbank crossings that had been so hard in the morning that I hadn’t even left footprints. I didn’t feel so tired, either, probably because I was now at a more reasonable altitude. The one thing, though, was that I was fixated on food, especially the Peanut Butter Crunch I knew I had in the car. This was probably because I hadn’t brought much with me up Elbert (and also probably contributed to my fatigue).

The final push, though, was longer than I thought, and, as usual, I marveled at my strength in the morning while going up. At the very bottom of the trail I made a stupid wrong turn that took me towards another roadside clearing, and I had to backtrack a little bit before finally reaching my car in the cloudy twilight of 6:00, exactly twelve hours after I left.

I took off my boots (my feet actually held up pretty well), gorged on some Peanut Butter Crunch, and immediately after dinner crawled into the back of the car, and, for some reason, immediately fell into a sound sleep.

I now had smashed my previous personal height record, the questionable 13,250 feet on my climb up towards Mt. Sneffels in January, by over 1000 feet. Considering the time of year and the rancid snow conditions, as well as my lack of acclimatization, I had actually not done too badly on the 14,433 foot Monarch of the Rockies. However, since I didn’t see another soul all day, I realized that April wasn’t the best time to be trying it, and that further attempts at high peaks had best wait a while.

Mount Elbert, covered with spring snowfields, from south summit (1989-04-25).
Summary Total Data
    Total Elevation Gain:513 ft / 156 m
    Quality:7 (on a subjective 1-10 scale)
    Route Conditions:
Maintained Trail, Snow on Ground, Scramble
Ascent Statistics
    Gain on way in:513 ft / 156 m
    Start Trailhead:Elbert-S Elbert Col  13920 ft / 4242 m
Descent Statistics
    End Trailhead:Elbert-S Elbert Col  
Ascent Part of Trip: 1989 - Mount Elbert

Complete Trip Sequence:
1Mount Elbert-South Peak1989-04-25 a4434 ft / 1351 m
2Mount Elbert1989-04-25 b513 ft / 156 m
3Mount Elbert-South Peak1989-04-25 c214 ft / 65 m
Total Trip Gain: 5161 ft / 1572 m    Total Trip Loss: 4434 ft / 1351 m

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