Saturday June 6th 2009 – Mt. Elbert, Colorado
We left the Chateaux at 4:40am. We wanted the snow to be harder than yesterday, so an earlier start will give us a chance at the summit, depending on snow conditions. Mt. Elbert is the highest mountain in Colorado, and the second highest mountain in the lower 48 states after Mt. Whitney in California. It stands 14,440 feet (4,401M) high. Climbing it in the late summer will give you a chance at an easier summit because the snow would have mostly melted away, but in early June the snow was certainly out and about.
We drove past the old silver mining town of Leadville, Co (10,152 feet), famous in the Ultra community for the Leadville 100. The welcome sign said “Welcome to Leadville. On top of it all.” Leadville is the highest incorporated city in the United States.
Our start time for today was 6:08am. The first mile or so is on the famous Colorado Trail, and then we hung a right on the Mt. Elbert Trail. We ascended another 1,000 feet before we got above tree line. I could feel that today would be colder, but it was earlier than yesterday so I didn’t think anything of it. I was with George, Bill, and Pam. All of us had summated Mt. Elbrus the year before in Russia, and had climbed other high mountains around the world. Putting Mt. Elbert on our resume was something we all planned to do today.
The climb was steep, but less steep than Quandary Peak, and the snow seemed to be less. Maybe it was because of the way the sun beamed down on Elbert. After taking a few breaks, I decided to push on and go for the summit on my own. I ate a turkey croissant and an orange which was my fuel to ascend to the summit. The wind was harsh, and I was breaking trail above 13,000 feet as there was a fresh layer of snow from the night before. I was rest stepping with my Brooks Cascadias as I wanted to break them in to prepare for Hardrock 100.
After climbing up two false summits, the true summit was in sight, another 100 feet of vertical ascent and I would be standing on top of Colorado. The wind here was blowing at an excess of 70 mph. A combination of snow drift and tiny icicles would lash out with no warning and would sandpaper my face despite the buff I wore around my neck and face. This gave me an intense stinging feeling, and was like a natural microdermabrasion to the face.
Video: Summit of Mt. Elbert at 14,440 feet
Very close to the summit a powerful gust of wind blew and I feared that my body would lift off the mountain and fly away. I hunkered down, both knees to the ice and waited for 2 minutes. The summit was on a narrow snow ridge which probably would melt away in a month. It was here the serious thought of turning around came to mind. I waited it out. The wind died down for a few moments and I was on the summit at 9:55am (3:47 hrs). I enjoyed the summit views and more microdermabrasions for 12 minutes. I met Clint (61 years old), a Leadville native who has climbed all the Co. 14ers, on the summit. He thanked me for breaking trail and offered to take a summit photo of me. During the 12 minutes on the summit Clint pointed out all the peaks that surrounded us.
I descended slowly, and the snow was not soft like Quandary Peak, but icy. Continuing as much as I could with my heel step on the descent I felt safe coming down. The ice was hard on some sections and I was having some difficulty kicking it in. It was here I broke out the ice axe and the crampons! Soon after I laid down my pack, Pam, Bill, and George appeared. They were looking strong and were all wearing boots and crampons. I warned them they summit would be windy, and high fived them all. They pushed upward to the summit while I descended slowly.
Click on photo above: Can you see three climbers ascending to the Summit?
The weather down below was a bit warmer and less windy. I knew I would have at least an hour before the rest of the summit team made it to the top and back to where I was. I was in no hurry to get off the mountain, so I strengthened my lungs with a high altitude mountain dance. After waiting a while and getting snowed on, and getting colder, I descended more. I hung out with a marmot for a few minutes and descended further. We rendezvoused on the mountain at tree line and went out for dinner that night.
My first visit to Colorado was amazing, and I have a feeling that I will be attempting more 14ners to come!
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