| Elbert defends her skirts
Route: East Ridge
Date Climbed: 3/5/11
RT Length: 12 miles
Elevation gain: 4,900 feet
RT Time: 10 hours (with extended breaks)
Climbers: Brian (B-Thom), Jeff (SurfNTurf)
I wish I could blame it on someone else, but the idea was entirely mine. "Let's squeeze in one last winter 14er," I said. "I'd like to do Elbert." That's not the bad part. But I had to throw in one last thought. "Since it's so far from Denver, let's camp near the trailhead."
I'd hiked Quandary and Sherman so far this year, my first two 14ers in winter, with B-Thom, speth, ChrisinAZ and Rcizzle. Most everyone expressed early interest in Elbert after my initial PM, but as the date approached and plans were finalized, only B-Thom remained. Unfortunately, he was on board with leaving Denver on Friday night and camping.
The reason it wasn't the smartest plan? Both of us only have three-season gear. Watching the forecast, most nights this time of year in Leadville appeared to bottom out at 10 to 15 degrees. Not too bad. I've camped in 20-degree weather with my gear and been moderately comfortable. As my luck would have it, Friday night's low was a solid 10 degrees below that of Thursday or Saturday. The forecast when we left Denver at 5 p.m. Friday called for temperatures hovering around 0. Undeterred, we simply looked at it as an added element of adventure.
Brian: "We're camping in HOW MANY degrees?"
We arrived at the campsite at around 8:30 p.m. and drank (more than) a few beers to act as sleep aids, and then passed out shortly after 11. It was a miserable night; I'd be surprised if I managed an hour-and-a-half of fitful sleep. Brian seemed to fare a little better, but not much. Our wake-up time of 4:30 couldn't come soon enough.
We packed our stuff, drove a short distance to the TH, and began gearing up. We hit the trail at approximately 6:30. I'd admittedly struggled on Sherman a few weeks prior, so starting a 12-mile slog with 4,900 feet of elevation gain on less than two hours of sleep had me a little worried. It was OK though, I'd stuck to a hardcore training regimen of riding the stationary bike for 30 minutes once a week, for like two whole weeks. My body is a temple.
Sunrise at the South Elbert Trailhead
The very beginning of the trail, as viewed from the parking lot
The two-mile hike on the 4WD road was boot-packed and gradual. We knew it was going to be a long day so we restricted our pace and stopped often to take pictures of the gorgeous sunrise, but we still cruised to the 4WD trailhead in a little less than an hour.
Sunrise from the trail
Brian fueling up with a banana
Gradual, easy 4WD road
At the bridge crossing, we donned snowshoes and shed almost all our layers. I was comfortable in a T-shirt and a softshell. The sky was a magnificent blue, the only wind was a refreshing breeze, I felt stronger than I could have dreamed; surely, Mt. Elbert was lifting her skirts and letting us skip and hop our jolly ways all the way to the summit?
Make sure to browse the crucial posted information
Me: "Man, this is easy! I don't even need a beanie."
The trail steepened and finally felt like a 14er shortly past the bridge crossing. We meandered through the trees, taking in the occasional stunning views of Leadville or the rest of the route up Elbert. The path flattened again for a while before becoming steep for the rest of the climb. The bootpack was gone and snowshoes/skis were definitely a necessity, though there was a nice trench to follow. There was one guy on the mountain content to posthole up in double-plastics, and dude, my hat's off to you.
As comfortable and warm as we were down low, we could see the telltale spindrifts and snow plumes dancing in the alpine. Occassionally, the treetops would sway and creak from a phantom gust we hardly felt. I started to doubt the forecast of a 10- to 15-mph breeze.
Is that wind? No way is that wind
Looking down on Leadville from near treeline
Conditions as we left treeline
Once onto the alpine tundra, the conditions diminished. Blue skies turned to gray. The crystal clear summit of 7 a.m. was replaced by an obscure, growling lump. The wind picked up seemingly minute by minute. Layers went back on. We stopped for a while for Brian to melt snow and thaw food, but I got too cold and pushed forward. I planned to go slow and let him catch me, but I just couldn't stand still for more than a few moments without my hands going numb. I didn't see Brian again until about the false summit, very near the top. Once on the ridge proper, the terrain turned to hard wind-scoured snow and exposed rocks, so I put the showshoes back on my pack. Brian opted to stash his gear at about the same spot. He smartly kept his snowshoes and wore them all the way up.
Looking back down the route, two climbers are visible
Elbert wasn't going silently into the night after all
For the last 800 feet or so, every step was a battle against the wind. Two or three gusts knocked me off my feet when I was off-balance. I threw on my puffy and made sure my face was completely covered, and after that I wasn't bothered much by the cold. I was surrounded by folks from a couple other parties, and we all fell into a rhythm of taking a few steps and then bracing against a fierce gust. You could always tell the blasts were coming because you could see the snow rushing at you like a tidal wave. Brian eventually caught up and passed me, and we finally made the summit at about 1:30, sharing it with four other guys. None of us stayed much longer than five minutes. It was too cold and windy to snap any pictures. I didn't even have time to take my ice ax off my pack and brandish it like it had actually been of use. How will people know how cool I am now? What a waste.
Another party departing the summit
On the way down, conditions still deteriorating
Me in the blue slipping and sliding down
Brian was lacking layers and wanted to descend as quickly as possible to his pack. I'm a slow descender in the best of conditions (I take ginger, princess-like steps because I have weak girly ankles), and I hadn't been able to dig my MICROspikes from the bottom of my pack on the summit. Lesson learned: keep vital gear easily accessible. I was walking slowly and slipping on the hard snow and ice, and even though he was cold, Brian stuck with me. Thanks, man. Once we reached some softer snow I plunge-stepped down and we were back at his pack in no time. The snowshoes went back on and visibility increased, but the wind howled incessantly at our backs all the way to treeline.
Twin Lakes on the descent
Ready for High Mountain Pies in Leadville, we high-tailed it out of there. Unfortunately, walking on snowshoes, especially at a past pace, turns me into a bumbling idiot reminiscent of a college freshman stumbling to his dorm room at 2:30 a.m. I tripped and face-planted no less than twice and my snowshoes popped off a few times. I guess I have some practicing to do, as this was really my first extended time using the insidious contraptions. Luckily, Brian is a somewhat patient man.
Me: "%&$*#$()@$)@$%(@)%ing snowshoes!"
We got back to the car at about 4:30, or exactly 10 hours after we set out. A long day made longer by tough conditions. We more or less threw our gear haphazardly in my car and sped toward Leadville's junk food. After sufficiently gorging ourselves, we started the 2.5 hour drive back to Denver, and by that point the Sawatch summits weren't even visible through the whiteout. The ensuing snowstorm chased us all the way to Georgetown, where finally, after hours and hours and hours, we had a reprieve from the wind and snow.
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