Monday, September 30, 2013

Hiking Colorado's Highest Summit: Mount Elbert

                                                                                                                All photos by Ravell Call

Forget Longs Peak or even Pikes Peak: The lesser-known Mount Elbert is Colorado's highest point at 14,433 feet above sea level.
The second-highest point in the lower 48 states, behind California's Mount Whitney (14,494 feet), Elbert is a peak bagger's delight. It is as little as a 4.5-mile one-way hike, only climbs 4,358 feet from the trailhead and is scaled too in the winter by experienced mountaineers, because its gentle slopes moderate avalanche dangers.
Located in the Sawatch Range, about 10 miles southwest of Leadville, Elbert isn't as impressive looking from below as its nearest neighbor, Mount Massive (Colorado's second highest at 14,421). However, on top is one of Colorado's best panoramas, and unlike Pikes Peak or Longs Peak — both on the Front Range — there's far less trace of civilization nearby.

"Fourteeners" (14,000-foot or taller mountains) are common in the Centennial State. There are 53 Fourteeners in Colorado, none in Utah. (For comparison purposes, Utah's tallest summit, Kings Peak, is more than 900 feet shorter at 13,538.)
But despite the abundance of impressive peaks, "Wow" is still a common adjective heard among hikers who reach Elbert's summit.
Dozens of people a day reach the summit in the summer, with about half coming from the two longer routes: Black Cloud Trail (5.5 miles, one-way) or the South Trail (6.2 miles, one-way). There are also two other more obscure paths to the summit.
Ideal hiking time is June through the end of September. The only potentially disappointing factors in the hike would be stormy weather or getting "psyched-out" by the several false summits.

With the treeline in central Colorado in the 12,000-foot elevation range, surprisingly the first third of the hike up is through pine and aspen forest. The trail is well-defined, though one of the steepest sections before the summit does have an ample supply of loose rock — worse on the downhill return.
As with any high-altitude hike, carry plenty of liquid, have warm clothing on hand, beware of altitude sickness symptoms and watch the skies for potential lightning danger. In summer, it's a good rule to summit by noon to avoid storms.

• "This was our first Fourteener and a really great experience! . . . The aspen leaves were yellow, the sky was a dark blue and there was no snow or rain in the morning. Thanks to experienced hikers who gave us a lot of good tips for planning." — Tom Briscoe, Matt Briscoe, Michael Briscoe, Fort Collins, Colo.
Mount Elbert was named for Samuel Elbert, territorial governor of Colorado in 1873. It had other names, but Elbert stuck. A feud with lovers of nearby Mount Massive meant hikers used to stack rocks on that peak, hoping to elevate it above Elbert. Apparently, most of these efforts were abandoned when the U.S. Geological Survey declined to recognize any increase in height.
For part of the 19th Century, Pikes Peak was believed to be Colorado's highest and Elbert was undiscovered.
Unlike Kings Peak or Mount Whitney — totally covered with large slabs of rock on top — Elbert actually has a fair amount of true dirt on top. What rock is on the peak has been used to create a few rock wall shelters from the gusty winds that frequent Elbert.
On top is a truly panoramic, eye-candy view that could only be exceeded in an airplane.
Most hiking guides consider this a good day hike, with three hours up and two hours down as the norm on the south trail. Like Mount Whitney, this is one of those long walk hikes, with no special skills required.
Although you can drive to some other 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado (Pikes Peak and Mount Evans), this may be the easiest hikeable-only Fourteener in the country.
Consider this sampling of personal summit entries this past summer, taken from an on-line after-the-summit Web site,

                                                                                                                               Ravell Call Photo
• "First 14'er for me — I've lived in (Colorado) Springs for 7 months, so the altitude was not that bad . . . so I thought. Once Nicola and I got to the steep areas we could really feel the effects of it! She commented on how mountain area natives have genetically superior lungs. I definitely don't fall into that category. Great to get to the top, my legs are paying for it now . . . will go back to more 14'ers, I'm sure." — Shafinah Rosauro, Vallejo, Calif.
• "My Outward Bound group started the hike around midnight so that we were on the summit in our sleeping bags to watch the sunrise. It was incredible! I couldn't tell the difference between clouds and snow until the sun burned the clouds off!" — Connor Broaddus, Richmond, Va.
• "Lovely day. In Denver on business. Drove to Massive/Elbert trail head and slept in rental car in Halfmoon campground area. Left around 6 a.m. Passed a couple of groups and lone hiker on way up. Topped out at 8 a.m. Bomber day. Fantastic views. Tripped and scraped myself up jogging down. Wisdom: always wear some cheap gloves — the gloves at least saved the palms of my hands." — Jordan Clay, Bloomington, Ill.
• "Those false peaks are just that . . . false. Don't try to get down too quickly, and as always, take more water than you think you'll need." — Josh Richard, Greeneville, Tenn.
• "A straightforward climb of an easy, but steep, trail. Five and one-half hours up, four down. Elbert is amazingly un-rocky, even at the very top. . . .Truly amazing to stand on the highest point of land for 1,000 miles in any direction. My wife, my daughter, and my 15-year-old granddaughter, making her first 14'er climb, also made the climb. We were passed (twice) by a 54-year-old man who— ran — up and down the peak. My hat's off to him." Patrick L. Lilly, Cheyenne Canon, Colo.

• "We are amazing, we did it!! Party on top!" — Alex Rogers, Rochester, Minn.
• "I started out late (10 a.m.) and paid for it. I got to the tree line (12,200 ft.) about 12 and a storm was coming in. I decided to go up and got to about 12,800 and got hit by a thunder/hail storm and went back down to the tree line to wait out the storm. I waited for about three hours, freezing my butt off and watching people come down. I finally saw a break in the storm and took off about 3 p.m. I didn't see another person and had the summit to myself. I reached the summit about 4:30 to 4:45 and took off back down at 5 p.m. The views are beautiful. It was windy and cold. I should have taken a rest day and went early the next morning to avoid the storm, but I was impatient. It is a pretty easy trail all the way up." — Joe Buhler, West Jordan.
— To reach the North trailhead (10.075 elevation) from Leadville, go 3.5 miles on Highway 24 to Colorado-300. Turn right (west) on No. 300 and drive 0.7 miles. Turn left (south) on Colorado No. 11 and go on a dirt road almost 6.5 miles past the Halfmoon Creek Campground to the signed North Elbert trailhead. (Do not continue to the Mount Massive trailhead or you've gone too far.)
The dirt road has washboard sections but lacks potholes, and regular cars can handle the road at low speeds. Vault toilets (2) are available at the trailhead, but there is no water.
Nearest motels and services are in Leadville.
(-Story by Lynn Arave was originally in the Deseret News.)

                                                                    Mount Elbert

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