Ascent of Mount Elbert on 1995-08-05

Climber: Scott Surgent

Date:Saturday, August 5, 1995
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
Peak:Mount Elbert
    Elevation:14433 ft / 4399 m

Ascent Trip Report

I was here as a result of a lucky dollar coin at the Gila River Casino south of Phoenix from a month ago. I won $400, and parlayed the proceeds into two highpoint trips: this one, and Nevada's Boundary Peak a week later. I was still new to climbing, and anything requiring more than trail-following was beyond my skill set. Mount Elbert has three trails that lead to its top, offering a choice of length and gain. Despite its ease in technical terms, it does require a lot of elevation gain from any of the three usual trailheads, and at 14,433 feet, the air is considerably thinner than lower down. I opted to follow the southern route, which would entail almost 5,000 feet of elevation gain. For me, this would be my new one-day record if successful.

I left Phoenix on the 3rd, in the midst of one of the hottest heat waves ever. It had been 121 degrees F a few days earlier, and we would have 20 consecutive 110+ degree days, a record. The flight to Colorado Springs was short but bumpy as we descended into the airport, but the cool air was wonderful. I stayed the night in a hotel in Manitou Springs. The plan was to drive into the Leadville area the next day and not do a whole lot. In doing so, I'd be spending the day at 9,000 feet elevation, which would help me prepare for the big hike the following day. I drove to the trailhead to check it out, and stayed the night at a cabin south of Leadville, not too far from the trailhead.

I was up very early this morning, intending to be at the trailhead and walking before sun-up. Visiting it the day before was helpful because in the dark, finding it would have been near impossible. It's the least popular trailhead of the three, so not too many people come here, and it's hidden by the trees. I rolled in, got my pack in order, and was moving before 5 a.m.

The first couple of miles and 1,500 feet of elevation gain is up long, sweeping switchbacks in the forest. There were no views, so hiking this in the pre-dawn allowed me to complete this segment, saving useful daylight for when I'd need it. As the sun rose, and I gained elevation, there were spots in the forest where views out over the valleys below were magnificent. I made good time on this segment and was on schedule, as far as I was concerned.

The next segment of the trail makes a northward turn and follows a rocky drainage about a mile. The trail is good, but the trees thinned noticeably. The trail came to an old miner's shack situated at the headwall of this little valley. I was at 12,000 feet elevation, perhaps a bit less, at this shack. To here, the climbing had been straightforward, with the grades being mostly moderate and never too steep. I was making good time and had covered about half of the elevation gain.

Past the shack, the trail starts up steep slopes, with sparse tree cover and a few rock outcrops and fields of talus. It gets steep, but the trail is well built, and keeping a good pace was easy. At one point, a tiny rogue cloud blew in and dropped rain. I took refuge beneath a fir tree to stay dry. There was no lightning and it was gone in 10 minutes. That was it for the rain today. The rest of the day was shaping up to be very nice, with high clouds and the usual smattering of puffy cells. It was still very early so I figured I still had plenty of time before the afternoon storms built.

This segment of trail lets out on the main ridge at above 13,000 feet, marked by a very large cairn. I turned left (west) and started the final leg of the climb. Elbert's summit was still about 1.5 miles away and 1,400 feet higher, but the conditions along the ridge were superb. The trail was still easy to follow, although it grew faint at times as it crossed over some rocky balds. This went on for about 45 minutes until I came to another of the many bumps, at which time I would turn right again (north) for the final grunt to the top.

This final segment covered slightly less than a mile with about 500 feet of gain. The summit was in plain view the whole way, but at 14,000 feet now, I was slowing down. I took many breaks and took it slow, methodically putting one foot in front of the other along the ridge until at last, I came upon the summit of Mount Elbert ... hooray!

Not surprisingly, there were a few people up here, all having come from the other two routes. In fact, I had not seen anyone during my climb all morning. There were about six people up top, including two guys hitting golf balls from the summit rocks. I tagged the top and got someone to snap my photograph. The views were remarkable, a scape of high, snow-capped Rocky Mountain summits in all directions, including a few nearby ones just a dozen or so feet shorter than Elbert. I spent about 15 minutes enjoying the summit and the views, plus catching what breath I could. It had taken me about five and a half hours to make the top, although it was just about 11 a.m. at the moment. It was a beautiful place.

For the descent, I followed my way down the way I had come up. Finding the trail down to the shack was kind of tricky, were it not for the big cairn built for that purpose. I jog-walked down the steep slopes, gaining energy as I descended where the air was thicker. At the shack there were a couple people hiking up, the first I'd seen on this route all day. I took a few breaks along the way, but the slopes and the nice trails made it easy for me to keep up a good pace. I was back to my car by 3 p.m., making for a 10-hour day. I was beat, but thrilled to have climbed Elbert, to have gained nearly a vertical mile (my new record for the time), and to have another successful climb done for the record.

From here I drove back to Colorado Springs, finding it difficult to find a hotel to stay for the night. I eventually found one where I could get cleaned up. I flew home to Phoenix the next day.
Summary Total Data
    Total Elevation Gain:4610 ft / 1405 m
    Round-Trip Distance:11 mi / 17.7 km
    Route:South Trail
    Trailhead:9823 ft / 2994 m
    Route Conditions:
Maintained Trail

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