Sunday, March 4, 2007

Mt. Elbert, 14,434'

As planned, this weekend I went to go climb Mt. Elbert, the highest peak in Colorado, and the second highest in the lower 48 states. I went on this trip with the great people at and there was a group of about 30 who went. I left at 6:00 pm on Friday the 2nd with my buddy James Sloan, and we took off for the trailhead. It was a really sketchy drive up 1-70 due to the snow and the rear-wheel drive Tacoma that James had borrowed from his mom (not to mention the fact that James is a crazy driver anyway). After we got through the tunnel and down to Silverthorne, though, the roads cleared up. We made it through Leadville and to the Twin Lakes trailhead at about 10:00, and then proceeded to sleep in the back of his truck.

After setting the alarm for 5:30, we got in our bags. Unfortunately, I was the least prepared for this portion of the trip. My 15 degree REI sleeping bag did little to fend off the -20 degree temperatures that night, and I was quite cold. I had to keep moving around in the bag all night to stay warm, and got very little sleep. Fortunately, the night went by quickly and we got up to get ready to go promptly at 5:30. At 6:00 it was still about -11 outside, but my LaSportiva K4S boots kept my toes toasty warm. James and I were going to brew up some water for tea, but the extra gallon of water I brought had frozen solid. We tried using some other water, but my stove just wouldn't work in the cold. I figured it was the lack of outside air pressure due to the cold. The stove works by sucking the fuel out of the canister using a pressure differential, because the outside air, when above freezing, provides enough pressure to do this. Unfortunately, it was about 40 degrees below freezing so we were out of luck. At this point, we just strapped on our snowshoes and were on our way.

We started hiking at 6:30, and reached the 4-wheel-drive trailhead in about an hour (road is closed in winter due to snow conditions). It was looking to be an amazing day so far. The skies were bluebird, without any traces of clouds. Though it was cold, we were moving fast enough to bear it, and had enough equipment to survive. We took a quick break, and then continued. James and I had left the cars behind everyone else by about 10 minutes or so because of the stove problems, but had caught up to the leader after about 30 minutes. After the break, we continued for another mile through the trees to get to treeline. This was probably the most strenuous part of the climb due to the deep snow in the trees. Thanks to my routefinding skills, however, we were able to stay on the trail for almost the entire way to treeline. At treeline, there was a fairly steep section which had some clearly unstable snow. We could hear it collapse with big "thwumps" as we walked by. We avoided this section by switchbacking across a less agressive slope on the southernly aspect of the ridge. After passing this section, the following view awaited us.

The image here shows one of the false summits of the mountain, but it shows a clear view of the ridge we climbed. From this point is was still another 2,500 feet of elevation gain to the top. The gently sloping ridge sections are where I am the strongest, as I am able to pace myself to go for more than 30 minutes at a time without stopping. I quickly passed everyone else in the group, and gained a good 15-20 minute lead on all the other climbers. I took a quick rest and continued onto the steep section of the ridge. At this point, it became rocky, and I removed my snowshoes for the rest of the climb. Another climber (Dan, I think) caught up to me and we continued to push towards the summit. We stayed on the sections of the slope with the least snow, as the slope aspects to the south of us possessed considerable avalanche danger. This section of the climb was not too amazing, just kick-stepping into the soft snow and going up and up. I reached the summit at about 1:15. It was amazing to have the top of Colorado all to myself, there wasn't a single cloud in the sky, and there was no wind whatsoever (I measured the temperature to be hovering around 2 degrees). I could see all the way to Pikes Peak, and the entire Sawatch range, as well as Capitol Peak and Mount of the Holy Cross. It was amazing. James followed about 15 minutes after, and we both soaked up the view.

As I mentioned earlier, we were blessed from the start with an incredible day. There wasn't a cloud in the sky, and the wind didn't pick up until we were on the descent. We left the top at about 1:45, and then made the long haul down back to the car. On the descent the wind picked up to about 30 or 40 miles per hour, bringing the wind chill down to -30 degrees or so. We just kept moving and once we were down in the trees, the wind died down and we were able to hike in peace. When passing through treeline, we again heard the undeniable "thwump" sound of collapsing snow, and it was reported that a small portion of this section actually did slide as one of the heavier climbers descended after James and I. It wasn't anything to be worried about though.

James and I made it back to the car at 5:30 pm, and we were thoroughly exhausted. Overall, the trip was about 13 miles, with just under 5000 feet of elevation gain. I summited first, in 6 hours and 45 minutes, and we descended in 3 hours and 45 minutes, with a break of 25 minutes at the top, totaling 11 hours for the day. It was a really good time, and a good exposure for myself in questionable avalanche terrain, and good training on how to avoid potential avalanche terrain in order to have a safer, and clearly successful climb.

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