An ascent of Colorado’s Mount Elbert

Mount Elbert (Wiki Commons photo)

False summits suck.

When you’re slogging away on a long trail somewhere north of 13,000 feet the monotony of the long trudge to the top can start to wear on you. Especially when you think you’ve neared your goal, only to come up and see another half mile or so in front of you.

Which invariably leads to another false summit.

If you’ve done the northeast slopes of Mount Elbert before, you know what I mean.

Campfire going near the Mount Elbert trailhead. Water sources are scant up higher on the trail, so camp lower or haul your own water. (Rick Ponder photo)

Colorado’s high point stands at 14,433 feet above sea level, topped in elevation by just one other mountain in the lower 48. That said, it’s an unassuming peak that lacks even semi-technical ascents unless you choose to climb its snowy couloirs during the winter or spring. All you really need are strong legs, a strong heart and a good set of lungs. And the fortitude to keep pushing on, one foot after the other.

At this point I was still a relative newb when it came to this kind of thing. I knew enough to bring bug repellent (mosquitos were thick) and I was getting pretty annoyed at the little bloodsuckers buzzing around my head.

Heading up the well-maintained trail. (Rick Ponder photo)

So here was my bright idea: Spray some bug juice on my hands, then rub some in around my neck and forehead. Great, huh? Well, not so much.

You see, my body is incredibly adept it keeping itself cool when the exertion starts to set in. And I do a magnificent job of keeping myself hydrated. All this bodily excellence means that I sweat a lot.

So as the sweat built on my brow and then began to run down my face, it was inevitable that some of it ended up somewhere near my mouth.

Conclusion: Sweat mixed with mosquito repellent will make your lips numb. Just so you know.

After a time, I got past tree line and the slope approached what looked like a much steeper section leading to the top. Good enough. I saw the work that was ahead of me, sized it up and took off.

Above treeline, looking back on the route. (Rick Ponder photo)

It’s one thing to climb at higher altitudes. It’s tiring and it’s work. But it’s also mentally engaging. I think that mitigates the fatigue and other effects of thin air. But on a straightforward hike, you’re just plodding on, hoping to beat the weather in time to make the summit and get back down.

Just as I thought I was nearing the top, there suddenly appeared another long stretch of ridgeline. It was less steep, but it appeared I had a long ways to go.

At the end of that stretch – another false summit.

Making our way up higher, other big peaks come into view. (Rick Ponder photo)

Disheartened, I had a seat. I confess this moment of weakness, because it was here that I actually thought about calling it a day. Ridiculous, I know. But Elbert had worn me down.

Was this next stretch of hiking the last? Or was this yet another false summit before some last mile-long leg that would do me in? Was I really having fun? Was I ready to pack it in?

This is an embarrassing thing to admit. But I did rally myself to plug on toward the top.

Even though it was July, the upper slopes still had some snow. A couple of my buddies had reached the summit before me, and one of them – longtime friend Trent Gibson – managed to lob a couple of snowballs my way as I topped out.

Something to keep in mind: Mount Elbert is a popular destination. Since it’s a relatively easy 14er to hike and the highest point in the state, people flock here.

A view from Mount Elbert’s summit, the highest point in Colorado. (Rick Ponder photo)

I wasn’t surprised to see people there. What surprised me, however, was to see a large group of twenty-somethings topping out in matching T-shirts singing hymns. That’s right, singing hymns. Here I was struggling for air over the past our or so and some college church group was busting out tunes straight out of the Baptist Hymnal.

Amen, brothers and sisters, but your vocalizations just seemed like bragging to us breathless flatlanders.

After getting past that exhibition I stopped to take in the scenery. Elbert has great views of the surrounding high peaks – La Plata, Mount Massive and others. Twin Lakes are visible to the east, and on this day they were reflecting the sky beautifully, distant mirrors laid down on the valley floor thousands of feet below.

A short stay at the top was cut even shorter by the building of clouds to the east. Usually that meant they’d be going away from us, but it’s not uncommon for storms to “build out” before moving along. It was a long way down to treeline, which would be at least somewhat safer than being caught out in the open.

Those storms developed fast and started dumping copious amount of rain on the ridges on the other side of the valley. Deep gray streaks from the clouds brushed the ground, then thin white fingers of lightning flashed. I won’t make light of the fact that having that sort of a storm nearby is not exactly safe. It may have been more than 10 miles away, but for lightning bolts 10 miles is not far to travel. Nonetheless, it was beautiful – the brown rocks of the mountain, the green of the forest and the slate of the storm above it all – it was enjoyable to watch the Rocky Mountain summer monsoon in action during the hike down.

The pleasant feast for the eyes at the summit and on the way back to camp would not have happened had I succumbed to the dreaded false summits along the northeast trail. Let that be a lesson for you: Good things come to those who try.

TO GET THERE: The standard route up Mount Elbert is its northeast slopes.  To get there, take U.S. 24 just south of Leadville, turn onto Colorado 300. Drive 0.7 mile and turn left onto County Road 11 toward the Halfmoon Creek. Go 1.2 miles, turn right on the dirt road to Halfmoon Creek. Drive five miles to the Mount Elbert trailhead.

ABOUT THE ROUTE: The trail is well-marked and easy to follow. It’s Class 1 hiking all the way to the top. As you emerge from the forest, the route to the summit becomes clear. Hike west, then up a steeper section to your first false summit. This starts about 12,900 feet. Just shy of 14,000 feet you’ll reach another false summit, but from here the summit comes into view with just a short section to the top. Route length is nine miles round trip, with 4,700 feet of elevation gain.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088

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