| Buzzed on the highest point in Colorado
(East Ridge from the South Elbert Trailhead)
As we climbed the last few steps to Mt. Elbert's snow-covered summit, it was difficult to tell where the snow ended and the sky began. I was careful to stop short of the cornices that dump abruptly over the peak's west side.
With snow falling and light-flattening clouds surrounding us, the highest point in Colorado wasn't a very hospitable place. So after snapping a couple quick photos and saying hello to a lone skier who followed us up, we didn't spend more than a couple minutes up there.
Right after starting back down, Jen, in a panic, yelled that her axe was sparking her ass and that her head was starting to "crackle."
Concern and curiosity prompted me to pull my hard shell's hood off my head to better hear what she was saying. And that's when I heard one of the scariest sounds I've ever heard on a mountaintop. It was a distinct, non-stop, high-pitched buzzing sound that reminded me of the power lines and transformers I used to play under when I was a kid. Only this time, the constant buzzing sound was emanating from the trekking poles strapped to my backpack.
Even though our brains were firing on limited cylinders in the oxygen-deprived air, it didn't take us more than 1.5 seconds to put it all together, especially after seeing some of Jen's hairs standing on end.
"Jen!" I yelled. "We gotta get the f**k off this mountain!"
I have heard of many cases where people experience "buzzing" sounds on summits, which is a dangerous indicator of an impending electrical storm, but they usually occur in the summertime, and I've never heard of it happening in a snowstorm.
That sparking on Jen's ass was actually the adze end of her ice axe discharging on her back pocket's zipper. And the wet hairs on her head were indeed "crackling" with electrical charges.
Meanwhile, the lightning rods strapped to my backpack continued to buzz like power lines.
Up until that point, the climb had been going great.
Earlier that morning the skies looked better than expected from the Super 8 parking lot in Leadville:
Mt. Massive was frosted with some fresh snow:
And so was Mt. Elbert:
This photo of Mt. Elbert was taken near the Hwy 82 / Hwy 24 junction:
To our surprise, most of the 4WD road to the South Mt. Elbert trailhead was dry. But we were only able to drive about 1.25 miles up the road before being blocked by a fallen tree.
Upon closer inspection, it wasn't a naturally fallen tree, though. It appeared to be the work of a beaver, the cousin of the marmot. And I have a feeling it was an act of retaliation in response to all the marmot-punting threads on 14ers.com.
I doubt any beavers – or marmots, for that matter – will be moving it out of the way anytime soon, and we couldn't pull it out of the way with a tow strap because it's locked in the trees, so clearing that road will definitely require a chainsaw.
Knowing that someone will eventually remove that tree, the beavers have already started with their back-up plan, which is to dam up a small stream that crosses the road, not far from the fallen tree (photo taken on the descent):
And as a Plan C, not far beyond the icy water crossing, there is one more downed tree to contend with (though this one would be easy to pull out of the way with a truck):
Shortly after 7 a.m. we started up the road from the evil beaver ponds. Unfortunately, we hiked too fast and blindly followed the tracks in front of us. When the tracks went up a road to the left, we continued to follow them, even though we should've taken the road to the right. At first, Jen didn't believe my suspicions that we were on the wrong route. But a few hundred feet of vertical later, we finally realized our mistake.
That minor error was frustrating and it cost us almost 30 minutes, but we got back on track. And shortly thereafter, we marched past the summer trailhead.
Most of the lower trail was covered with slugs of ice and snow. Though it won't be long until it's all melted into the mud.
Farther up and just beyond where you leave the Colorado Trail, the summer trail is still completely covered in snow. Fortunately for us, it was nice and packed, so postholing wasn't an issue.
Crossing the open clearing, not far from treeline:
It may not look like it, but I was actually having a good time at this point (especially after we stashed our heavy snowshoes):
Working my way up to the ridge:
Pan of Jen climbing along the East Ridge (Elbert's upper slopes are obscured by snow and clouds):
Lone skier, dead center, following us up the broad ridge (two other skiers were climbing up behind him):
There was a lot of fresh powder, but luckily, it was only inches deep:
Jen gaining the summit, right about noon:
Me and the lone skier gaining the summit:
Me and my two lightning rods on the summit:
When everything started buzzing, sparking and crackling around us, it felt like we were sitting in an electric chair just waiting for someone to throw the switch.
As we ran for our lives down the powdery mountain – doing our best not to twist an ankle on the icy rocks – it was as if our wonderful climb suddenly went to hell.
I knew the two lightning rods on my backpack were a problem, but I didn't want to waste any time taking off my pack to unstrap them.
And even though I was trying to avoid electrocution, I couldn't help but think about all my other, lesser concerns: I really had to take a piss; we were moving so fast I was having trouble breathing; I developed a major stomach cramp that felt like a knife in my abdomen; and my glacier glasses were so fogged up that I couldn't see anything in front of me. The flat lighting and snow falling from the sky didn't help.
To add, I think I tripped on hidden rocks and fell into the snow at least a few times.
I knew that if we weren't careful, we could easily run over the edge of the ridge to the left. So we could only move so fast, safely.
When my glasses became nearly opaque with moisture, I pushed them to the brim of my nose and squinted the best I could into the blinding, bleached-white brightness ahead of me.
And when we made it down to the two skiers who had been climbing up behind us the whole morning, I frantically told them about the electricity on top. Thankfully, they were already aware of it.
While they worked to strap on their skis, they told us how their skis (when strapped to their backs) sparked them. We bid them good luck and continued our "charge" down the mountain.
Most of our ascent tracks had already blown off or filled in with snow, so routefinding back down the mountain was challenging -- especially at our high rate of speed. This is where the GPS came in handy, and I was glad I laid some bread crumbs on the ascent.
Eventually, the buzzing finally stopped, but we didn't. Less than an hour after booking ass off the summit, we had descended 3,000 vertical feet.
Back down to the safety of the trees, our parasympathetic nervous systems finally took over. And that's when the reality of what had happened finally sunk in, and our rattled nerves kind of screwed with our minds for a little bit. In short, we were mentally exhausted.
The descent from treeline was fairly straightforward, but the mountain wasn't done with us yet.
Just before making it to the finish line, the sky unloaded some serious graupel snow on us:
Which made the drive out a little more interesting:
Then, as if we hadn't experienced enough that day, a friend of ours called to say I-70 was a snowy mess and cars were sliding all over the place (we later read about a 20-car pile-up just west of Frisco). We decided to take 285 home, which 5-1-1 said was dry at the time, but when we got to Kenosha Pass, multiple accidents caused it to shut down.
Long story short, we sat near the pass for almost two hours while they cleared the wrecks.
Even though it's now May, I guess Mother Nature has not released her wintry grip on the high country of Colorado.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):