Ascent of Mount Elbert on 2017-09-09

Climber: David Odenwalder

Others in Party:solo
but met several people en route. There were probably a couple hundred people on the mountain at some point during the day.
Date:Saturday, September 9, 2017
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
Peak:Mount Elbert
    Elevation:14433 ft / 4399 m

Ascent Trip Report

Early September seems to be the best time of the year for me to tackle the more difficult state high points. In successive years since 2013, I had already done Kings, Whitney, Humphreys, and Wheeler (NM). So it seemed destiny that this year's hike be the lone uncompleted member of the four-corners states: Colorado. I had been watching the weather forecast for Leadville for several days, and prospects did not look good for the best - and perhaps only - available weekend this year (Sat after Labor Day). Midweek, the updated forecast improved, and it looked like a Saturday ascent might be possible. So I found a last-minute flight deal to Denver, and prepared to brave the mountain. My wife was concerned that I was intending such an arduous hike solo (more later). But at the same time, she flew to Florida in advance of Irma's wrath. My expedition turned out to be the safer adventure, in the long run, methinks.
The first part of my trip ended up being the most annoying. I had booked "no-frills" travel with an unnamed budget airline based out of Denver. I decided after booking the trip, that perhaps it would be cheaper to take a tent and sleeping bag, rather than staying in an expensive hotel. Since I didn't pay for baggage in the original booking, the aforesaid cheapskate airline now charged me an incredible $45 for my only checked bag - one way. Needless to say, this airline is on my "no-fly" list for future travel. To make matters worse, I decided on arrival in Denver, that my original car rental reservation could be whittled down by a few hours - 2 days, instead of 3 - but the unnamed cheapskate rental agency was still going to charge me part of the fee for the extra day, even if the car was turned in before 48 hours had expired. And they wanted me to pay upfront for use of toll roads, as well. I had some very choice expletives for the car company, the airline, and Colorado in general - words which I won't repeat here, lest I be booted from the website.
I had planned to take a day to acclimate in Leadville, before attempting my first Colorado 14er. But arriving late Thu night, I still had time to make a quick jaunt 90 miles north - and capture one of the state capitols not yet checked off on my list. So I headed for Cheyenne, taking the long way from the airport to avoid an expensive toll road. On the way toward Wyoming, I was recollecting, that Nebraska's high point was in the corner - only 50 miles away. So I decided to pick that one up as well (which meant staying overnight somewhere east of Cheyenne). Later I tacked on Kansas' high point, too. My arrival in Leadville - after several hours westbound on I-70 - was in the evening hours Friday. So much for acclimating.
I stayed in the car overnight at the Halfmoon Trail Head - maybe 20 miles or so from the town of Leadville. The graded road up the Halfmoon Creek Canyon was a bit rough, but passable for most vehicles. A sign announced that some municipality had taken over grading - I'm still wondering, though, why they didn't bother to fill in any of the thousand potholes. It's a very long three miles winding up the canyon to the trail head parking. A few cars were parked there for the overnight stay - most of the folks I talked to were planning for a 4 AM start - way to early for my body (and not wise without a headlamp). By about 6 AM the next morning, when I actually got up, the parking lot was full - easily 50 or more cars. So my wife's fears about me hiking solo were unwarranted. Nobody that I spoke with had, or planned to get a Forest Service one-day pass. Interesting - but no one got a ticket, so far as I know.
The hike itself was about what I expected - a punishing 5-mile (each way), ~5000 foot climb. The trail was surprisingly well maintained - not without rocky sections, of course, but far easier on the feet and knees than many other trails in the Rocky Mountains. No exposure of any consequence. But like Borah (ID), an almost unrelenting upward climb. The first couple of miles in the trees, then a path through the rocky upper sections. There are two junction points, the first just a few hundred yards from the trail head, the second about a mile up the trail (so the sign said). In both cases, it was marked and pretty obvious which way to go for Elbert. Above the tree line, there is a slightly less steep section over a "meadow" like area - but then looming ahead is what seems like it should be the peak - a massive domed "false peak" with cliffs facing the climber. Turns out, this is probably the most difficult stretch of the hike - a very steep climb to the right of this outcropping, only to reveal a yet higher "false peak" above. Fortunately, the climb gets a tad easier en route to the second "false peak" - but it seems to be a rounded knoll - you keep wondering if you'll ever reach the top. Once atop this knoll, the actual summit is only a few hundred yards more, and a pretty easy climb with modest elevation gain.
On top is a half-circle windbreak of piled rocks. The pole with an American flag (as some have shown in photos) is also still there. The apparent natural high point appears to be an incisor-tooth rock surrounded by the arc of posed rocks. I saw no register, no survey monument. There was, however, an engraved wooden sign proclaiming "Mt Elbert" (the sign gives the elevation as 14,439 feet - I have a picture of me holding it). I had rested a couple of times earlier for about 15 minutes at a spell, owing to some light-headedness during the climb. I now rested for about 20-30 minutes on top. Fatigued, but did not notice any other signs of altitude-sickness. While resting, a couple of folks - members of a band from Iowa - pulled out a drone and start flying it. They took some pictures or a video, which I hope to view at some time. There were about 15 people near the summit most of the time I was there. I had befriended a man from Grand Junction, who was hiking with his two sons - ages 10 to 12 or so. We hiked for quite a while together, but one of his sons had been sick the night before, and was really struggling. We separated after a while - I ran onto them again maybe a quarter of mile from the top. The ailing son was really feeling bad, and they did not make the final ascent, sad to say.
Just before I reached the top, the storm clouds were starting to gather. There were a few pellets of hail as I approach the summit. Then the storm abated a bit, and my time on top was pretty decent - lots of menacing clouds, but dry - and I could see the mountain range to the east, as well as the Mt Massive complex. As soon as I started down, however, the storm was back, and I had a mixture of hail and I don't know what most of the way down to the tree line. I was pretty wet, and cold enough to wear a jacket and gloves. At the tree line, the weather blew over again, and it became too warm for the jacket again - I actually partially dried out in the lower section of the hike down.
My time up: about 6:30 AM until just before noon, with a couple of longer rest periods - 5 to 5-1/2 hours total. My time down about 12:30 to 4 PM, so about 3-1/2 hours, more or less. Poles were a welcome help on the descent, in particular.
Summary Total Data
    Quality:7 (on a subjective 1-10 scale)
    Route Conditions:
Maintained Trail
    Gear Used:
Ski Poles
    Weather:Thunderstorm, Cool, Breezy, Partly Cloudy
Nice partly cloudy going up. Hail and some thunder coming down.

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