I hadn't done a climb in a while and had an itch to go up Elbert as a "winter" climb. Elbert was the first 14er I ever did back in 1996 and I hadn't been up it since. I enjoy snow climbs on mountains I've done in summer as it feels very different and is like climbing the mountain for the first time. I also got it in my head that I wanted to try some snow camping, something I've never done before. I headed out of Denver after work on Friday and made it to the 4WD road at the South Elbert Trailhead around 6:30pm. Unfortunately, my Subaru Forester got stuck in some deep slush on a steep portion of the road about 1.5 miles up, which cost me time and made me leary of trying to go any further (most folks seemed to make it almost all the way to the 4WD trailhead without any problem). I backed down the road and parked about 1.25 mile up and then started to hike until I found a spot to pitch my tent before it got dark.
It was a surprisingly comfortable and in fact I got going much later than I had planned as I enjoyed sleeping in a bit. I left my campsite just before 7am and snowshoed the 0.3 miles to the 4WD trailhead. There was a well-worn hard packed trail through the snow but I still found the snowshoes helpful, particularly on the steeper stretches.
Snowshoeing through the aspens
I was surprised how warm it was that early in the morning and soon had to remove several layer before continuing on. The weather was perfect and the views of the surrounding mountains were beautiful as a got my first glimpse near the top of the aspen forest.
Apart from a few spots that had melted down to the dirt and rocks, I was able to keep my snowshoes on well past treeline. The summit and East Ridge soon came into view as I got a little higher into the evergreen forest.
First view of the ridge and summit
I was lucky that the snow had frozen over as I approached treeline for there were several areas that were quite deep. I could see that some folks without snowshoes had postholed pretty deep.
Deep snow near treeline
My wife wasn't overly pleased that I had chosen to climb alone and I was glad to see several tents near treeline, so I clearly was not alone on the mountain. I reached treeline at about 8:30 and had to start battling a bit of a headwind as I climbed higher up the ridge. The ridge was easy climbing for the most part. The route could clearly be seen and snow was hardpacked and smooth. It wasn't until I was about 2/3 of the way up the ridge that it became bare enough for me to cache my snowshoes. About a quarter mile later, the route became snow covered again and I wished I still had my shoes.
East ridge and Summit
I had to wind my way up through the areas where I could still see rock poking though and thus figured I could get reasonable traction. It really wasn't too bad and I only broke through the crust a handful of times. The last 250 vertical feet to the summit were clear of snow and soon I was at the top. I made it to the summit at 10:40am. It was nice to have the summit to myself. The last time I had climbed Elbert was a 4th of July weekend and I got to share to summit with 30 or so other climbers. This time it was all mine. I had great visibility in every direction and the views were stunning!
View of Massive from summit
Chilly on top
I would have spent more time at the top, but the cold wind finally forced me to retreat down the mountain. My hands got so cold that I couldn't feel my finger and had zip up my jacket by sight. Even worse was the agonizing pain as the feeling returned to my fingers on the way down. While I'd had the summit to myself, I certainly didn't have the mountain to myself. I passed at least 10-15 people also on their way up the mountain. Coming down was fast but the snow was starting to soften making the footing a bit trickly in spots. The weather held the entire way down and I was able to continue enjoying the beatiful scenery.
Returning down the ridge.
I made it back to my campsite at 1pm and was back to my car soon after that. As I drove past the mountain on the highway to Leadville at around 2pm, I could see that weather was rolling in and I could no longer see the summit. It had been a great climb. Just what I needed. It was actually a lot easier that I was expecting. A December climb of La Plata a year back felt twice as hard. I'm not sure how helpful my report of the conditions will be as the conditions seem to be changing quite rapidly with the significant weather swings.