July 7th, 2011
If I ever write a book about my 14er adventures I am going to title it "There aint no such thing as an easy 14er." Even though Mt Elbert is the highest point in Colorado and the second highest in the continental U.S., it is touted as being a relatively easy 14er. With about 4,400 feet of elevation gain in just over 4 miles I am not sure I totally agree with the easy part. Sure the trail is well maintained and marked and hard to get lost on but it is ALL uphill. I would guess that less than 1/3 mile of the trail is downhill or flat on the way up. For 2 days afterwards I felt all that uphill in my legs. It felt like I had spent four hours on a stair climber.
The alarm went off at 3:30 a.m. as I wanted to be up and down before the afternoon storms. Left the trail head (10,020') at 4:20 a.m. I would have gotten an earlier start but I had dreams during the night that I was in grizzly country, (I just got back from Yellowstone National Park a few days ago) and did not want to hike in the dark with grizzlies around. Once I got my head around the fact that I was out of grizzly country, I hit the trail after a quick breakfast of Powerbar and banana.
The first part of the trail, up to the actual creek crossing had a small creek running through it. Not so much water that I couldn't avoid it. Fortunately once I got to the actual creek crossing there was a log bridge 10 feet upstream of the crossing, as there would have been no way to cross the creek without getting soaked. After the crossing on the bridge the trail began to climb.
In my opinion hiking in the dark is great. I always feel stronger at night. Your vision is reduced to the small arc of light coming off your head. With such a relatively short distance you cannot judge the actual steepness of a slope, so the mental game doesn't start and the body stays strong.
There is a small downhill section before the Mt Elbert trail breaks off from the Colorado trail/Continental Divide trail. Once on the Mt Elbert trail, it begins a continual climb up to the summit. At points along the trail it widens enough to get drive a truck through. Dawn broke about 35 minutes before I broke out of tree line.
Looming ahead of m, from treeline, was what looked liked the summit. However, I knew it was only the first of several false summits along the way to the true summit. The false summit starts with a gentle rise before kicking steeply upwards. I passed a group of 10 -15 teenagers and their chaperones coming down from the summit. They had left at 1 a.m. and made the summit in time for sun-up. It must have been a sight to behold. Shortly after passing this group I managed to lose the main trail and headed directly towards the top on the first false summit. I figured I was a little off route when the class I hike turned into a class II scramble. Nothing too difficult, but definitely not the relatively flat, rock free trail I had been on so far. Once I made the top of the first false my relief was quickly crushed as I saw false summit number to. It looked as large and steep as the first one. If you had not read the trail description beforehand this second false summit might kill you, it nearly mentally killed me. The second false summit ended up not being as steep as the first and I made decent work of it.
Once on top I saw two hikers about 50 yards to the south along a slim ridge taking pictures of each other, so I figured it had to be the summit. Just as I approached the summit, the 2 other hikers were leaving and I had the summit to myself. Took a couple of summit shots, then got a bright idea.
I knew I could not be the highest person in the continental U.S, as Mt Whitney in California rises to 14,505, but I figured there was already a mass of people on its summit. However, I had the second highest summit to myself, so I figured why not be the highest naked person in the continental U.S.. After a quick glance around to make sure I was still alone I dropped all clothes except for shoes and my hat and took a true victory summit photo.
From the summit, 2 other hikers pointed out La Plata peak to the south. Mount Massive was clearly visible next door to the north. After a quick 20 minutes of top I began to head down. Just after leaving the summit I ran into a mother and baby marmot. This was the first time I have seen I young marmot. A little farther down the trial I almost stepped on another brave and bold marmot who did not move until I was almost on it.
I started running into the rest of the days hiker as I started down the false summits. I am always amazed at how unprepared some people come into the wilds. Jeans- check. 16 oz water bottle- check. Let's hike. God must love stupid people because he seems to look out for them in the wild. Just below the base of the first false summit I came across 2 packs left alone on the side of the trail. I really wanted to leave a note that said "Thanks for the lunch! All my love, Bob the Marmot". At the time it seemed really funny. Guess it had been a long day so far. Passed the last hikers on their way up about 10:15 or so. Gym bag backpacks on their backs, and not much more. Hope they were right with God.
The hike down was uneventful. I did get to see the scenery that I missed on the way up due to darkness. Mostly a conifer forest below tree-line. Not much in the way of Aspens. Made it back to the trailhead in just under 3 hours; taking an hour off of my ascent time.(left trail head 4:20 a.m., summit 8:20. stared down 8:40, back at trail head 11:36).
Success on my first solo 14er. I am not sure what my future for solos will be. I liked moving at my own pace and not holding anyone up. But at the same time I do not have anyone setting the pace besides myself. Karen doesn't like me to solo, just in case something goes wrong. Plus I miss the companionship and sharing the success with someone else. Hopefully the future solos will be minimized.
Time to start planning for the next peak. Until then,
All my love,
Bob the Marmot