Peak(s):  Mt. Elbert  -  14,433 feet
Date Posted:  05/03/2010
Date Climbed:   05/02/2010
Author:  Aubrey
 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




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):

 Comments or Questions
Wish I lived in CO

Good Read as Always
02/05/2011 00:22
Appreciate the marmot rebellion humor and your perspective on your ”hair-raising” experience. Sounds like a day you‘ll remember for a while!


Great report, Aubrey
11/30/2010 17:28
Exactly why I throw the chainsaw in the truck this time of year!! Friggin beavers. Great report and glad you guys didn't get zapped. Snow-thunder is always exciting.


I was the lone skier
05/04/2010 16:36
Hey- I was the lone skier behind you. I was happy for the ability to bareboot it, but then I had to walk most of the way down, too. I was also confused as to what the buzzing was, until I took off my pack. Then I also booked it down (wondering whether I should take off my skis), but I stopped when the buzzing stopped and was able to eat. I saw your car was gone when I got down to the parking lot, so I knew you made it out safely. I also ran into the two other skiers at the bottom, so they were safe, too. Nice TR, and good pics. Too bad it wasn‘t clear, but we‘re all safe, so that‘s good.


05/04/2010 17:03
Thanks, WILIC ... ”hair-raising” < funny

Bill, you should use the chainsaw on the beavers.

mrlogan04, glad to hear you (and the other two) made it down safely. We were wondering, especially since we got down first.


11/30/2010 17:28
Ha! Of course that's what I meant!!!!!!


Great TR, frightening experience...
11/30/2010 17:28
I know this feeling: "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."

My partner and I experienced similar on Huron last June, except we got cracks of thunder to motivate us like a bull whip. We felt we had escaped death, and were mentally wrecked by the time we reached our campsite. Back at camp, we ended up in the biggest argument of our relationship over the slightest of things. After the venting, we drove home without speaking, as Portishead's dark and melancholic album Third echoed through the silence. The entire day was a very surreal experience. Almost a year later and we haven't fully recovered. I am now wary of weather and am constantly watching clouds, and she hasn't climbed another mountain. We never want to hear a buzzing axe again.


05/04/2010 19:06
Wait, so beavers aren‘t ”natural”? And you guys are going to chainsaw them! Oh no!

I, for one, am a great lover of beavers and am most offended.


Great Pictures
05/05/2010 01:42
Most of the time a large number of photos do not add to a trip report. But these photos are great. I got so caught up in the photos, I had to go back to read the report.



01/19/2011 03:38

Glad you two didn‘t get fried up there. Let‘s hit a peak soon!


11/30/2010 17:28
Matt, thats a classic Frank Drebbin reference.

Aubrey, my buddy and I were in an electrical storm on Buckskin back in February. Pretty scary. My poles and edges on skis started buzzing, like you described. My friend put his pack on and felt a burst of currents flow through his body, as if he was holding on to a electric fence for a prolonged period of time. Unfortunately, the downclimb was littered with lightly covered talus and vertigo set in. The hike out was a 2.5 mile catwalk. I filed that one under "worst climb to date". Scary stuff.


congrats in the snow
05/07/2010 06:35
I have seen a few elictrical/ convective winter storms in UT, but don‘t know of as many around here. Glad to hear you had a safe trip to the top of CO.


Log is gone
05/10/2010 04:35
We didn‘t have a chain saw, but we did have a hatchet and an ax in my buddy Dan‘s jeep, so, to make that trip a little shorter we cut that log out (nice beaver!) on the 3rd and went back to summit on the 4th at about 11:30. We didn‘t have near the excitment you did, it was a great day. I got to make a fool of myself when I too fell face first in some rocks, thought my buddy was behind me but it was another climber we met on top, at least someone got to see me make a fool of myself.


05/12/2010 00:41
I was one of the two skiers that hiked just behind you the whole. That was the scariest thing I have experienced on the mountains so far. We were able to ski one of the chutes in Box Creek but once we came out of the bottom of the chute it was impossible to tell how steep it was and a very interesting descent until we got out of all the clouds. We decided to keep our skis on and ended up about 2 miles east of the Jeep - it was a fun bushwhack - try to find a trail - where the f$%k are we afternoon.

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