| Windy East Ridge
East Ridge Route
Start Time: 7:05am
Summit Time: 11:01am
Return Time: 1:51pm
My buddy Adam and I were planning to do Elbert at the end of March with a ski descent of Box Creek Couloir before he moved to Montana. Unfortunately, he got sick and we did South Diamond Peak at Cameron Pass instead. Still had a great time but now he's in Montana and, I recently made it my goal to hike all the 14ers in the Sawatch Range before the end of (the world) 2012. Of the ones I had left, I decided I'd start at the top with Elbert.
The misses was working Friday and I happened to have the day off. Since she works ungodly hours (3a-3p), I left Denver about 8pm Thursday night to camp at the trailhead. I made it up the 4wd road without a problem because, despite the rain, the road was relatively dry. Got to the trailhead about 10:30 and turned in for the night. I must say that I love the setup in my pickup - with the camper shell, platform above the wheel well, and egg crate mattress I can be bedded down in no time and sleep very, very comfortably. The precipitation on the camper shell was close enough for rain on a tin roof for me and turn consistently to snow a little after 11 when I went to sleep.
Birds woke me with their singing about 5:20 in the morning and, I contemplated getting the early start I had hoped for. The rare day off's chance to sleep a little more lured me back to my zzzs for another hour. After breakfast in bed I climbed out to a fresh dusting of snow and was on the trail by 7.
With forecasted highs in the upper 20s and wind gusts up to 45mph, I brought the fleece but stuck to my Pati cap3 shirt and Marmot shell all day (I tend to hike warm). I also stowed snowshoes on my back but never used them...should've used my gaiters though as I ended up with wet socks from the occasional posthole. Set out anticipating a 3-4 hour hike to the summit given I was alone and my natural inclination to picture take.
Made it across the bridge and turned uphill at the intersection between the South Mount Elbert Trail and the Colordao/Continental Divide Trail.
The trail climbed up and by a creek that was made quite beautiful with the new snow. The trail was wet but there were no snow drifts till about 11,300 or so and then a few more up till treeline. They were easily navigated through or around with no real need for snowshoes. The trail near and above treeline was a little hard to find at times on the way up.
The weather was staying true to the forecast and beginning to get windy just below treeline. Took a short break for water after the first mile. I've been contemplating doing away with my Camelbak bladder and tube and instead carrying just a 1L Platypus bottle and a Gatorade to lighten my load by not taking too much water. In the summer I'm sure I'll have to be more intentional about this but for this hike having just 2 liters worked fine. My new Platypus bottle did great and only froze near the bite valve once which was remedied with just a few breaths. On the water break, I snagged this view back down toward Twin Lakes.
The forecast called for partly sunny skies in the afternoon so I'd have to wait a while to see the sun. Further up, it stayed cloudy, kept snowing, and the wind grew stronger. Generally at and above treeline, the trail was covered in windblown snow anywhere from 2-5" inches deep.
After gaining the ridge and looking for the pikas who were announcing my presence on the mountain, I got my first "view" of Box Creek Couloir.
I didn't see it for long as the winds continued to pick up...and of course it was a headwind making the hike a little more fun! All the wind and snow to my face made me miss my winter beard and wonder if I had cut it too soon.
At 13,400 ft I decided I had had enough of the wind that was by now swirling and changing directions every other moment. Instead of following the trail, I decided to take a more direct route to the top and began climbing nearly straight up the snowfields between sections of open rocks and scree. Here's the route I took a little off trail. I use Runkeeper to track my routes running, hiking, skiing, etc. and sometimes have trouble with it like this time where the app froze and I had to start it again about 1.5 miles in.
The snow was mostly styrofoam-like with a couple inches of fresh blown snow powder on top. Given the temps, wet avalanches weren't an issue and the CAIC suggested wind slaps were possible. I'm certainly not an expert but I chose to believe that with the wind blowing as consistently and as forceful as it was, I had little to nothing to worry about on the 30+ degree slopes... When it gets this nasty, I like to make goals of taking so many steps before stopping...35 steps~30ft elevation gain...stop and brace for the wind...35 steps...stop and brace for the wind...35 steps...stop and take this picture of the final pitch to the summit...
As I made it to the top, I nearly got blown off my feet. The wind and snow blinded me so I decided to finally (and carefully) take out my ski goggles. I snapped a few pictures but, as my wife had warned, really couldn't see much. This is the best one...looking south
I took a picture of my phone's gps to verify I made it since I didn't get a good summit shot. It shows 14,446ft + or - 9ft which seems to fit more with other sites I've seen that have Mt. Elbert at 14,440 instead of 14ers' 14,433. Either way, I was on top of Colorado and didn't mind that I couldn't see a damn thing!
After just a few minutes on top, my shortest summit celebration yet (didn't even enjoy my customary summit Skittles ), I made my way back down the switchbacks thinking I could make faster time going downhill on the trail...And I was right. About 15 minutes later I was already down to about 13,900 and stopped to get some water and finally have my Skittles. I got this shot looking back up one of the snow-filled switchbacks.
The wind kept blowing but the skies began to open. I could see the sun and plenty of blue! I nearly became angry with myself and the mountain that it looked like the clouds on the summit were clearing and that there might now be better views that I had missed. I thought about hiking back up and hoping the weather would hold but instead reminded myself that I didn't come for the views. I hike fully knowing that I'm subject to the whims of the mountains not master over them. They graciously allow me to walk, crawl, and climb on, in, and around them offering communion with their spirits but make no delusional promises regarding my particular journeys except to remain standing long, long after I'm gone. I'm remind of one of my favorite quotes... "No matter how sophisticated you may be, a large granite mountain cannot be denied - it speaks in silence to the very core of your being." - Ansel Adams My task was to hear the wind and snow on Elbert speak silence into my heart knowing I will be back again.
While listening for that silence at about 12,500, I was startled by a shriek that sounded distinctly different than the pikas from earlier. I turned to look but saw nothing. I took a few more steps down before I heard it again. I looked again and finally saw this ptarmigan making use of its transformation to remain camouflaged in this year's early spring.
Ptarmigans sure are dumb creatures, letting me get really close for that shot. I didn't disturb for long since I was hungry and was hoping to make it to treeline before I succumbed to my stomach's calling. I took this shot just before my lunchtime stop at treeline. What a difference a few hours makes for this view of Twin Lakes...
The trail was muddy and soft till the aspens where, wouldn't you know it, it started to snow again. Got this picture of the creek just before I returned to the trailhead and my truck before 2pm.
I didn't see another human being the whole day and, I have to admit I didn't mind. I love meeting new people on the trail or hiking with those I love most but sometimes the solitude is quite welcomed. I read a lot of the recent forum posts on soloing and agree with how fulfilling solo trips can be. Though I think our most significant connections are with other human beings, as relational creatures we can certainly make connections with the mountains in powerful ways without others around.
My first experience with Mt Elbert was a good one. I plan to work my way through the Sawatch range over the next several months and am looking forward to the new connections to be had.
These last two pictures were taken on the way out the 4wd road and then on Hwy 24 looking west toward Elbert with a good view of the East Ridge Route.
I hope my children will one day say this of me..."My father considered a walk among the mountains as the equivalent of churchgoing." - Aldous Huxley
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):