Peak(s):  Mt. Elbert  -  14,433 feet
Date Posted:  09/22/2012
Modified:  10/03/2012
Date Climbed:   09/22/2012
Author:  richfromnh
 Itís all about the Altitude  

Let me start by saying that we are from New Hampshire, and live very close to sea level. We regularly hike in the White Mountains and surrounding area where terrain and weather, not elevation, are the biggest challenges.

Knowing the altitude would be an issue, we arrived on Tuesday, planning to hike Elbert on Saturday. We spent a day in Vail at about 8000 feet, and then 2 days in Leadville, hanging at 10,000 feet and doing acclimatization hikes to about 11,500 feet both days.

We used our acclimatization hikes to decide which trail to do. We tried the North trail on Wednesday, knowing access to the trailhead is not a problem. On Thursday, we decided to see if we could get to all of the way to the South trailhead. The 4WD road is in great condition, and we had no problem navigating the full distance in our rented AWD Kia Sportage. The real issue is ground clearance. 4WD was really not necessary.

Since access was not a problem and the South trail is both shorter and has less elevation gain, we elected to take that route. For various reasons, we chose to hike on Friday instead of Saturday. We drove up in the dark and started hiking at daybreak - around 6:30AM. The weather was cool - in the mid 40's at the start, and the forecast at higher elevations was for a sunny day with temperatures in the 50's and light winds. We hit the weather jackpot!

As for the hike itself, we love hiking out west. You actually have trails that you can walk on without having to stare at your feet the whole time. In the Whites, most trails are very rough. You are usually walking on rocks and roots - not flat trails. Image
Upper part of "Trail" to Mount Washington, NH
A mountain biker actually pushed his bike up the trail and rode down - try that in the Whites! Image
Upper part of South Mt. Elbert Trail
If it weren't for the altitude, this hike would have been a piece of cake.

The trail was in great condition and easy to follow. It does start out very steeply as you climb through the trees, but levels out a bit over time. I would not want to do this hike in bad weather. After roughly the first 1.5 miles and 1000 feet of climbing, you emerge from the trees and are totally exposed for the rest of the hike.

The benefit of all that exposure is incredible views. The Aspens were in full fall glory, creating beautiful scenes with the bright yellow contrasting the greens and other colors. There was some haze due to smoke from the wildfires in Idaho but it did not hide the views. Image
Views with Beautiful Fall Foliage

Above tree line, the trail straightens out and follows the ridge toward a lower peak that hides the summit. You hike around the back of the peak until you reach a small plateau. From there, you follow a set of small switchbacks that climb the remaining 200 feet to the summit.

We intentionally started at a very moderate pace, knowing that was the only way we would avoid problems with the elevation. As we got higher, the breaks became longer and more frequent. As we got near the top, it got to the point where we would have to rest after only a couple of steps. The last few hundred feet to the summit took almost a half hour. The views kept me going as I fought the altitude, giving me the incentive to continue climbing.

The ascent took a total of 5 hours. We spent almost an hour on the summit enjoying the views and spectacular views before heading down. It was worth the effort! The descent took about half as long. Image
Our group at the Summit
Beatiful vista behind me at the summit

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):

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