Peak(s):  Mt. Elbert  -  14,433 feet
"South Elbert" - 14,134 feet
Cosgriff, Mt  -  13,588 feet
Date Posted:  08/09/2018
Date Climbed:   08/02/2018
Author:  timisimaginary
 2nd 14er - Elbert via Southeast Ridge   

This was my first trip to Colorado to climb a couple 14ers, and after summiting Quandary Peak on Aug 1, my next goal was to climb Mt. Elbert, the tallest peak in Colorado. My wife and I were staying at the Mount Elbert Lodge, so the nearby presence of the Black Cloud Trail was very enticing. When I returned from Quandary, I had a moderate headache, and was worried the altitude might finally be getting to me, so I considered postponing the Elbert hike by a couple days or taking the shorter NE Ridge trail. But 4 advil, 2 excedrin and a whole lot of water later, my headache was gone and the weather forecast for Aug 2 looked too good to pass up, especially since the following day was looking a bit more iffy.

Still, I had been a bit surprised by just how rocky and loose the traction on the upper part of the Quandary trail had been, for a trail considered Class 1. It gave me second thoughts about doing the SE Ridge to Elbert, a Class 2 route with even steeper sections than Quandary. But after reviewing the various route descriptions again, it seemed like the NE Ridge route would just be a longer version of the Quandary route, crowded and steeper/rockier near the top. The SE Ridge route just looked more enjoyable, and would be less crowded for sure. I knew it would be a longer, harder route than the standard route, but after the crowds on Quandary the previous day, the prospect of a long solitary day of hiking was really appealing. So the decision was made to try this route, and if I encountered any obstacles or terrain I wasn't comfortable with, I would turn back and try an easier route another day.

I set out from our cabin at the lodge at 5:20am. The Black Cloud trail started gaining elevation immediately, but the trail condition was fantastic. This turned out to be a wonderful, easy to follow trail all the way through the treeline and eventually up to the top of the ridge before briefly disappearing. I eventually reached the first creek crossing, expecting a nice bridge but instead finding some rather sketchy looking branches. Only after reaching the other side did I see that a false trail had split off before the trail reached the good log bridge, which was now behind me. Dumb mistake, I knew what the bridge should have looked like, but I knew there was a second bridge too which those branches had somewhat resembled and thought I might have gotten the order of the bridges mixed up. When I reached the second stream crossing, that bridge was still a better bridge than the fake one I had inadvertently crossed. If taking this route, definitely make sure you know what those bridges should look like so that you find the correct crossing.

Shortly after the second crossing, I reached an area where there was some treefall, easily stepped over. The only vehicle I had seen at the Black Cloud trailhead was a CFI truck, and now I came across a pair of CFI volunteers working on a larger tree that was blocking the path. These were the first people I had seen on this trail. They hadn't quite finished cutting the tree from the path yet, but it was easy enough to get over using my patented sit-and-spin technique. I'd heard there might be some treefall on this trail, but this tree was the only significant obstacle and thanks to the CFI volunteers is certainly gone now.

I soon reached the beginning of the steep climb up to the ridge. I knew this would be the toughest stretch of the hike, and determined to take it nice and slow up to the ridge so as not to wear myself out before the long ridge hike to Elbert. The only other hiker I saw on this route all day passed me here as I was beginning to climb up. This section wasn't quite as bad as I feared it might be. It was still a good dirt trail all the way to the ridge, though definitely getting steeper and slipperier as you get closer to the top. I also noticed that I had no cell reception at all until I reached the top of the ridge, which would ultimately play a part in my decision to descend an easier route after summiting Elbert. Once I reached the ridge, I took a short detour to the right (southeast) to Mt. Cosgriff. It was a short stroll from where the trail meets the ridge, marked by a nice-sized cairn, and I took a short break there before resuming the hike to my next destination, South Elbert.

The route to South Elbert was off-trail at first, but nicely marked by cairns. Soon the trail reappeared, and to my surprise, this trail remained for the large majority of the route all the way to the Elbert/South Elbert saddle. I wasn't expecting to find this much trail on the ridge, but I'd estimate that the section between where you first gain the ridge, to the saddle, is almost 75-80% on trail. This trail does fade out in places, but it's still there to be found if you look hard enough for it. The only parts of this section where the trail is not apparent is when you first gain the ridge, and then for parts of the ascent and descent of South Elbert, where it's a bit rockier, and the trail disappears in spots. After the saddle, the final climb up to the Mount Elbert summit is also mostly off-trail, though you can sometimes see snippets of trail, or discern something of a route through the rocks, but nothing that resembles a true trail.

I made it to South Elbert when I saw the hiker who had passed me earlier returning from the main summit. He was obviously faster than me, but I had set a schedule of where I felt I needed to be at each point of the hike to be able to summit and get back down in a safe timeframe without wearing myself out, given I'm coming from near sea-level and haven't hiked at these altitudes before. I left at 5:20am, made it to the bottom of the ridge climb around 7am, reached the ridge and then Mt Cosgriff by 8:15am where I took a break, then made it to South Elbert at 9:20am. Along with short breaks and plenty of picture-taking, I was comfortably ahead of schedule since I wanted to make the summit of Elbert by 11am. After another short break on South Elbert, I continued on.

Before long, I was on the final climb up the talus to Mount Elbert. This was the only part of the hike where it really felt like Class 2. I suppose the off-trail parts of the ridge are technically Class 2, but it's flat and easy through most of that, and really the hardest part of those brief off-trail sections is finding enough rocks to hop on to avoid stepping on the tundra plants up there. If you read my Quandary trip report, you'll find I was a bit surprised by how tough that final half-mile ascent to the summit was. I was more prepared for how tough this route would be, and while it is certainly tougher than Quandary, I didn't find it to be that much harder. I prefer hiking alone, and I think the crowds on Quandary made it feel tougher. There is physical fatigue, and there is mental fatigue, and hiking on crowded trails causes me a lot of mental fatigue that can be more tiring than any physical fatigue I might get from longer or steeper trail. Just having to move out of the way of descending hikers while I'm ascending, and vice versa, can add to the physical and mental stress of a hike. So it was a real treat to be able to hike this entire route up Elbert without having to dodge other hikers, which made it feel easier in a lot of ways than it otherwise may have been.

I reached the summit at 10:30am, and spent about 45 minutes there, snacking and taking pictures and walking around the rather wide summit area (I found two different survey markers, neither of which actually seemed to be at the highest point on the summit, so I just strolled around the various highest-looking points up there so I could feel that I really was the highest* person in Colorado at some point of my time up there). Conditions had been excellent for the entire time I hiked the ridge, there was some wind but not too much, but as I sat at the summit, the winds picked up and soon I was donning my down jacket to keep warm.

While planning this hike, I had considered many descent routes. The obvious route would be to return via the ridge I had hiked in on, and I certainly could have done that, but I had the luxury of being able to contact my wife and have her pick me up at one of the other trailheads, allowing me to choose an easier descent. While I felt capable of returning by the SE ridge, I felt like the steep, slippery descent from the ridge, where my cell reception would disappear, and with me hiking alone, wasn't a risk I needed to take, and I was more than happy to come down an easier path. I decided to come down by the East Ridge route, which would put me near Twin Lakes. I also had seen on one of my maps that there was a trail I could take from the East Ridge 4WD trailhead, continue on the Colorado Trail and reach a trail which would take me to a dirt road (26K) that led straight down to 82 just a short distance from the Twin Lakes General Store and lodges, a very convenient place for my wife to pick me up. I had good cell reception the entire time I was on the ridge all the way to the summit, so I texted my wife and let her know my plan and where to pick me up.

Coming down the East Ridge was a dream. This was an immaculate dirt trail from the summit all the way down to the trailhead. A bit of rock here and there maybe, but I couldn't imagine an easier trail going up or down any 14er. The sun was on me and the wind had died down, so I removed my down jacket before descending, but soon regretted it. Soon the wind picked up even stronger than it had been at the summit, and I spent much of the descent above treeline in a pretty steady 20-30mph wind. Depending on which direction I was going on the switchback, the wind was either plastering the hood of my sunshirt to my left cheek, or blowing it off my head entirely. I tend to hike warm though, so it wasn't enough to make me feel chilly or want to stop to put my jacket back on, and I continued on. It was a long way back by this route, but no longer than it would have been to return by the SE ridge route, and probably quicker since there was no particularly steep or difficult terrain to navigate. I was back in Twin Lakes by 2:45pm. Total trip time was about 9:30 including breaks, 14 miles and 5000 ft of total elevation gain (a little less than it would have been if i'd gone back by the SE ridge).

This was my 2nd 14er, and I definitely enjoyed it more than Quandary, mostly because of the seclusion on the route. I wouldn't have wanted to do this as my 1st 14er, since there were too many unknowns, such as how I'd adapt to the altitude and handle this kind of environment or terrain. A peak like Quandary is definitely better as that kind of 1st experience and testing ground, with a safety net of other hikers on the route to help you if needed, but after Quandary I felt confident that this route on Elbert was within my capabilities and comfort level, and was very glad I chose this hike.

My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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Comments or Questions
way to go!
08/09/2018 15:52
Impressed that you took this relatively obscure route for your 2nd 14er. I'm more surprised that your wife had cell reception down on Co 82, than that you did. Nice job.

08/10/2018 10:21
thanks. cell reception at the Mount Elbert Lodge was pretty spotty, but we were usually able to get texts through. the reception improved greatly once you got to twin lakes. i also had a two-way radio for backup in case we couldn't communicate by phone.

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