| Mt. Elbert, Northeast Ridge
Our experience with 14ers hasn't been that satisfying. Living in the Midwest, we're 53-year-old flatlanders who get to Colorado only once or twice a year. Between us, we've had a handful of unsuccessful attempts at 14er summits that ended in retreats because of poor trail conditions, bad conditioning or simple fear of airy exposure.
After a shot at Long's Peak last summer ended at the Keyhole – the "exposure" thing – a couple of friends independently suggested Mt. Elbert. ("It's not a long, ugly slog and you can do it without getting on the trail at 4 a.m.")
We started about 7 a.m. at the Elbert/Massive trailhead, accompanied by Dennis, a good friend and retired lawyer who has summited more than 30 Colorado 14ers and climbed in Ecuador, Mexico, Europe, Africa and Nepal.
Weather couldn't have been better. Completely clear skies with temperatures in the 40s at the start.
We thought we'd be slowing Dennis down, but the guy was a metronome. He set a steady, regular pace that allowed us to get acclimated during the hike through the woods. The trail was surprisingly clear of snow, though the small bridge crossing the creek near the trailhead was partially iced over. Through the rest of the woods, we stepped around, over and through small piles of snow only occasionally.
We took a morning break at tree-line, then launched on the real business of the hike, switchbacks and a long stretch up to the first false summit. While working that rocky vertical patch, we encountered a couple from Michigan taking a break. He was fine, though she looked a little green from nausea. Dennis suggested more water and offered grapes from his bag – "It's instant water and sugar," he said.
She declined and they ultimately turned back.
We, however, felt fine. Our "conditioning" was paying off. Our usual exercise routine at home is walking the dog. But we'd spent the previous week doing progressively harder and steeper day hikes around Vail and Minturn. We took Thursday off – with lunch at the Woody Creek Tavern and a toast to Hunter S. Thompson – to let the muscles recover and allow our bodies to build red blood cells.
After rounding the false summit, we took another break at a cairn-on-steroids rock pile. The trail had been clear, but pounded from overuse.
From the rock pile we saw the next bit of work, hiking up a ridge, with long stretches of snow, to the next false summit. (Dennis kept our expectations in check each time we saw one of these hope-crushers.)
Working slowly, we kick-stepped up the slush piles until we saw . . . the third false summit, a fine craggy outcropping. We trudged up a firm snowfield – the outcrop to our right and Elbert's magnificent cirque to our left – toward what finally appeared to be the summit.
Then, just before we reached the top, Dennis, who had led the entire trip, stepped aside and said, "Go on, you made it here." So, about noon, we stepped out on the summit and took in the view – Pike's Peak to the east, the mountains over Aspen to the West, the Collegiate range to the South and a sweet look down at Mt. Massive.
"It's like being on top of the world."
"In a sense, you are," Dennis replied.
With skies still clear, and winds at only 10 mph, Dennis indulged us as we ate lunch on the summit and spent a half-hour taking pictures. (One photo included Dennis' ice ax – "The hero shot," he called it. Note: We never used the ice ax otherwise.)
Dennis also shared, for the first time, his pre-climb odds on our reaching the summit: 10 percent. Weather earlier in the week had been a dodgy mixture of high winds, rain/snow/sleet. He also was concerned about snow on the trail, guessing – correctly – that we wouldn't be interested in kick-stepping up 2,000 vertical feet. Neither had been an issue.
We began the descent about 12:30 p.m. Again it was slow. We had gained 4,700 feet over 4.5 miles, so we returned gingerly, sparing our joints too much trauma. (We've used trekking poles only recently. If they keep us out of knee replacements for two years or even two weeks, they're worth it.)
The descent was much longer than we had expected. Even Dennis was looking for a "light at the end of the tunnel." We walked onto the parking lot about 4 p.m., happy we had finally climbed our first 14er.
We took our last look at the mountain from a convenience store parking lot in Leadville. "Look at it," Dennis said. "You've been there, done that."
It was our best day in the mountains.
Until the next one.