| 1st 14er - Mt. Elbert (East Ridge) April 2007
Well, the preparation prior to flying over The Pond to Colorado went fairly well. I had been going to the gym between 3 and 4 times a week doing CV and leg work, and I had lost a fair bit of puppy fat (as I like to call it) round the middle. I would now be able to fasten the waist strap on the backpack I would be using, surely )
After much discussion and changing of plans via e-mail, Tom (my climbing partner for the trip) and myself decided that my first 14er (and first ever climb of anything I could call a mountain) would be the tallest – Mt. Elbert. Grays and Torreys weren't accessible (the TH was snowed-in) and Mount Lincoln, Democrat and Cameron were all blocked off due to a land dispute, or something along those lines.
So, with the stony lump chosen, I got ready for our flight out to see the in-laws.
My wife, kids and myself landed in Denver and we felt fine, even though we had just dealt with 9 hours of 3 kids under five years of age at 33,000 feet. An hour and a half drive up to Loveland would see us with easy access to a nice bed and a good nights sleep. Bliss!
When I got up in the morning, bravado set in and I thought, why not go out for a run to see how my lowlander fitness stacks up to the altitude. Big mistake! I managed an hour of running interspersed with fast walking/wheezing before I decided enough was enough.
That was when the tight chest and beginning of a chest infection started. For the next 11 days until myself and Tom (my climbing partner) set off for Leadville, I didn't feel particularly up for doing a full days exertion. A cough developed, it felt like a small child was sitting on my chest for most of the day and my mood was like the weather – gloomy.
Would I have to cancel the climb? Would Tom agree to carry up an oxygen tent and mobile defibrillator up the mountain for me? I thought not.
I was especially upset that I might have screwed up my chance to do the climb because I was trying to raise funds for a British charity - the British Lung Foundation (the irony of my chosen charity was not lost on me at this point!)...
The other thing that was worrying me was the weather reports – the only thing that the weather would be conducive for would be snowman-construction. I even had a mate living in N. Carolina e-mailing asking whether I had heard about the bad storms due in the Rockies. Thankfully it seems that the Leadville area ducked and dived and avoided the worst of it.
A quick check with you guys on 14ers.com regarding the conditions (http://www.14ers.com/bb/viewtopic.php?t=5558&start=0&postdays=0&postorder=asc&highlight=) made me feel more positive, although all of my in-laws thought I was a start-raving loony for contemplating climbing in April.
I decided I would listen to the advice I received from 14ers.com rather than let the hysterical rantings of my CO family put me off. I did wonder about whether I was doing the right thing though when my wife double-checked with me that the life insurance policy application had been fully accepted prior to our departure from the UK, and also how much was in the company account )
Finally after 11 days of nervous anticipation and a trip to REI in Denver (to obtain a rather nice pair of Asolo boots, whistle, powerbars, etc), the day arrived. I had borrowed a major expeditions-worth of kit from Tom and my sister-in-law Laurie (the worries about everything she was going to loan me being bright pink in colour were unfounded) and it was loaded in the car for the trip up to the mountains.
The plan was to drive up to Leadville, go out for a bite to eat (and a few sneeky beers?) and then get an early start on the Sunday morning.
The drive was quicker than expected – 2. 5 hours from Loveland (at legal-only speeds of course) and we arrived at our 5-star pad (the Timberline) by about 19:30. OK, OK, maybe not 5-star, but a damn sight better than a night in a tent with a grizzly bear and a coyote trying to taste a bit of English for the first time.
Once we had unloaded our stuff, we set off into town to sample the night-life. We wondered up the main street and a bright neon sign spelling out the words "Brew pub" pulled us in from the blizzard that was blowing outside. After some hot-wings, a fantastic cottage pie and a couple of pints of Rosie's beer (an excellent Amber and an equally good Stout), we felt energised to make our way back to the motel.
After 5 hours of sleep (well about 20 minutes of sleep for Tom in the other bed – he shouted across the room on one occasion with the words "Nigel.......you're......snoring!") we arose and immediately scratched around for the Advil (Tom had a headache, and I took some just in case I developed one).
With the kit loaded and the entire neighbourhood awoken due to the noise we were making scraping the ice off of the car windows, we drove 20 minutes to the South Elbert TH.
We couldn't believe how little snow there was as we approached, considering the bad weather reports we had read just prior to setting off, and the blizzard we had experienced in Leadville the night before. We reached the snow-free TH (trail-head) at 05:10 and quickly got on enough layers to make the National Geographic Antarctic Expedition proud...
Oh, how Tom's smile would slowly disappear!
Me dressed for the Ice Age
Within about 5 minutes of the set-off time (05:20) we realised that we were slightly overdressed for the part and I quickly started to shed the heavy-duty ski gloves and neck protector. At around 05:45 the sun started to rear its head and I decided my outer layer had to go (into my rucksack, rather than over the edge!). It wasn't until we neared the 4wd TH (1.8 miles up from the main TH car park) that we encountered snow. We took a quick breather when we reached the bridge at the 4wd TH...
Tom showing off his map skills
We set off through the trees and within about 30 minutes the going got tough – I know now what post-holing hell is all about! We resisted the urge for putting our snowshoes on (mainly because I had never worn them before I wasn't sure I would be competent going up steep slopes in them – in hindsight, I wish I had given them a whirl) and finally broke out of the dense trees into a meadow at around 11,500ft...
Going well – the Powerbars had started to work finally!
The views were truly stunning and makes me realise how amazingly lucky we were with the day's weather...
Incredible view from the meadow
It was at this point that I started to regret not wearing in my brand new boots before the climb. "Naaahh...they're not tough leather and they're already perfectly comfortable. They won't need breaking in...I should be fine" I had said to my wife when she prompted me to wear them round the house the week before. Every step now felt like someone was sticking barbed wire down the inside of my boots. The scenery made up for it though at that point and I don't think my blister-related whining got too much for Tom (???)...
Tom getting a bit Ansel Adams
At about 11,700ft, we reached the tree-line and we got, for the first time, an unrestricted view of Elbert...
The top looked bloody miles away and I was in need of another gallon of Powerade.
I was also in need of a bit more flotation at this point. The post-holing had got a little bit worse and I was starting to feel the energy-sapping effects of sinking up to my knees in snow with each step.
Anyway, the snow-shoeing proved to be a revelation! I quickly worked out that as long as you don't twist your ankle while you walk, you don't fall over! Why the hell hadn't I used these lower down the mountain rather than lugging them up on my back?
We continued up the wide ridge until we got to around 12,500ft, where we sat down to take off our snowshoes, and take on some more Powerade, Powerbars, Powernuts, PowerTrailMix, and anything else with "Power" in the title.
This is unfortunately where my fortunes took a turn for the worse.
In the weeks following the climb, I had debated in my mind whether I had succumbed to the early signs of altitude sickness or whether it was down to a more suspicious cause. In the end I just raised a new forum thread to unravel the mystery of my stomach-related goings-on...
I think with the help of my learned 14ers colleagues, I've come to a conclusion...I'm going to blame it on the evil powergels that Tom gave me to stop me whinging about being knackered!
Anyway, from that point until I reached the summit I felt absolutely awful – my stomach kept doing double-flips and I felt sapped of energy. I thought at this point that maybe all I need is to bare my backside to the wind and lighten my load (if you get my meaning). So, with the deed done and a small, unusual looking rock cairn built to disguise my own personal version of a carbon footprint, I continued upwards and onwards, feeling at least 0.01% better.
I have to thank Tom at this point - Tom offered to carry a Nalgene and my outer layer as he could see that I was suffering, and I duly caved in to his offer. He did also ask whether I wanted to give him my snowshoes, but some primeval stubborn feeling of pride kicked in and I declined (in hindsight, if a helicopter had appeared to whisk me off the mountain at that point, I may have done the cowardly thing and jumped in the back!).
We continued for a distance and soon I had to keep "a stiff upper lip" (as we Brits like to say), and not show the discomfort I was in - a couple of chaps from Buena Vista stopped to talk for a few minutes before overtaking us and leaving me to feel a little embarrassed by my lack of pace up the mountain. They did explain though that Buena Vista is at 8000ft and that they're used to the altitude, compared with myself.
The story of The Tortoise and the Hare came to mind as I saw them tearing up the slope leaving me shuffling upwards in a route that a dizzy drunk would have been proud of, but I couldn't see any trees around for them to fall asleep under so that I could sneak past. Thus, I came to the depressing conclusion that I would get easily beaten to the top by two chaps out for – to them - a Sunday afternoon stroll.
It was at around 13,500ft that we encountered the first part of the climb that made me feel uncomfortable (apart from my stomach and the indignity of a 12,500ft squat) - a sharp 700ft (?) drop directly below us...
20 feet above where we crossed the lip of a large steep drop
We were kicking out steps in the snow about 5 feet directly above a 700ft steep drop and we both felt that this was a bit crazy without crampons, so we moved to the left so that if we did slip we wouldn't risk a large drop.
The last 500ft!!! My nausea had reached epic proportions at this point, so I was moving up in 10-step intervals, swearing at myself to keep going. We met the Buena Vista gents at this point (they had got to the top and had time to do an hours step-aerobics on the summit, followed by a 3-course power lunch ) and they said that it was very cold and windy on the summit, but that we were going to make it..."it's only about 500ft to the top!".
That filled me with hope. I even managed to smile for a photo at around this point...
Me grinning through the nausea
About 100ft further up, I was losing the will to live. The top seemed to be moving away from me (what do they put in those bloody Powergels, eh!!!?). I could make out what I thought was a snow bank on the summit, but it seemed to still be miles away. Tom took pity on me and said "shall I go up over that crest and see whether that's the real summit and I'll let you know so you can decide whether to turn round or not?" I nodded before going deep into a bit of soul searching. Tom shot off and I carried on trudging up.
I have no idea where I got the willpower from, but by the time Tom stuck his head over the crest I was within 50ft of the top. Tom shouted that it was DEFINITELY the summit, and those words lent me speed.
Here's me coming over the crest of the summit...
...and the moment of joy at 01:07pm (just under 8 hours to summit from the lower TH)...
...and a few patriotic pickies...
For Queen and Country
The Summit Team
...and a stunning summit view...
A snowy mountain, another snowy mountain, and yet another snowy mountain
The obligatory summit celebration drink...
Can't beat a bit of Old Chub – Tom looks a tad happy!
For the record – the summit brew...
Mr. Oskar Blues, fancy entering a sponsorship deal???
It was at this moment whilst still on the summit that I realised my nausea had gone – I felt great! After about a 20 minutes stay on the top though, it was time to set off back down. We could see the first signs of changing weather off in the distance, so we weren't going to risk it by leaving the descent any longer.
It was at this point that gravity and a backside came into its own...
After a bit of backside tobogganing and speedy yomping down the mountain, we decided that the temperature was dropping and we donned our outer shell. Looking back up the mountain, we could see more and more clouds coming in. Here's a great shot of a cloud that looks like it's about to land in the valley...
The clouds come in
When we got back down to the tree-line, the post-holing hell started again. Numerous times Tom and myself disappeared into hidden traps, to each others amusement!!!...
Me in another bloody hole!
After about 2.5 hours we finally got down to the bridge at the 4wd TH and we could finally take a breather. I had never felt so knackered in all my life...
Who's idea was this???
After the longest 30 minutes of stumbling I have ever experienced (included drunken stumbling at 03:00 in the morning in central London) we finally got back to the car, roughly 3 hours after leaving the summit. As we drove off, we looked back up at Elbert only to see near white-out conditions above 13,000ft...
The weather closes in
Glad we weren't stuck up there at that point in time!
So, the journey had come to an end, and Tom drove me back to Loveland (via a Subway in Frisco – v. good meatball foot-long I hasten to add!).
Well, I'd like to say I had time to recuperate after the climb, but no chance. Had a shockingly bad night with our 3 kids screaming up a storm, only to be followed by a 9 hour flight the next back to Blighty.
Oh well, teaches me to not climb big hills, eh!?
Sorry if this is a loooonnngggg trip report. I hope you stayed with it! Here's a link to my personal site for a few more photos and things (use the links at the top of the page to navigate to photos/movies/etc (some people using Windows may have problems viewing some pages – people with Macs should do just fine)...
Again, here's a link to my fundraising page, just in case anyone is feeling generous towards us limeys!!!...
Last, but not least, THANKS TOM for your patience and guidance whilst going up Elbert - couldn't have done it without you.
Up for Long's next summer!!?