Peak(s):  Mt. Elbert  -  14,433 feet
Date Posted:  05/19/2010
Date Climbed:   05/16/2010
Author:  clemsonmtneer
 Elbert Ski Descent   

Mt. Elbert (14,433 ft.) - East Ridge Ski Descent

Skiers/Riders: Alan (clemsonmtneer), Phil (MrWaffles989), Jay (jmoney)
Date: May 16, 2009
Route: East Ridge
Elevation Gain: 4,100 ft.
Vertical Skied: 3,000 ft.
RT Mileage: 8 miles

Wanting to get another ski descent in, I met up with Phil and Jay and we all decided to go for Mt. Elbert, since we'd have a few different descent options based on snow conditions. Unusually cold and snowy weather had been hitting the area for several days, so the route we had hoped to ski, Box Creek Cirque, was in question because of potential avalanche danger. But we figured we would see for ourselves what the snow was like and then we could always just ski back down the east ridge for a safe descent.

The three of us met at the trailhead around 6 p.m. on Saturday evening. The weather had been looking stormy over the high peaks all afternoon, but things were starting to clear up when we arrived, and Sunday's weather forecast was looking sunny and much warmer. The road to the trailhead is clear, but the last little bit was very muddy. The road is considered a 4wd road and for good reason since there's a creek crossing about half a mile from the TH, and a lot of rocks after the creek crossing. There was fresh snow all the way down to the trailhead as well. We hung out for a little bit, then turned in around dark to get some sleep before our early alarms at 3:30 a.m. (this route is east-facing, so we needed to summit early).

It was frigid when we woke up in the morning... probably in the teens. We were hiking in the dark by about 4:15 or so, and made good time up the trail despite several inches of fresh snow on this lower part. About 1,000 vertical feet in, we weren't too far below treeline, and with there being continuous snow and the trail opening up a bit, Phil and I decided to throw the skins on. Jay was bootpacking the whole way up with his snowboard on his back. It was just starting to get light as we approached treeline, and it was looking like it would be a beautiful day.

Sunrise over Twin Lakes

Clouds still hanging over the Mosquito Range to the east

Mt. Elbert

Sunrises are one reason why alpine starts are worth it

Once, we hit treeline the wind was starting to pick up big time, and well, it was colder than we were expecting. In fact, the higher up we got, it was turning very cold, even with direct, east-facing sun. Apparently after the previous days' storm had cleared up, the temperature had plummeted that night, making it very cold by May standards. My hyrdation bladder had frozen first thing that morning (inexplicably, I hadn't even considered that possibility), so I was without water for a little while until I finally realized "oh yeah, if I stick the tube under my jacket and shirt it will thaw out... durrrh". In spite of the chilly weather, we kept working our way up the east ridge, finding continuous snow most of the way, though there were several rocky areas we had to navigate through.

Phil (MrWaffles) skinning up the trail

Jay (jmoney) hiking up the trail

Note: the pictures I got from Jay and Phil are smaller b/c I got them from their facebook pages

Alan (clemson) skinning up the trail

As we made our way up the ridge, we were noticing that the snow was in a more winter-like rather than spring-like state, and with all the recent snow and strong winds, wind-loading would be a concern on steeper slopes. The Box Creek Cirques looked very tempting, but our suspicions were confirmed when we saw evidence of a couple of recent slides in the cirque. Looks like fun, but we would have to save it for another time when conditions are more stable.

Box Creek Cirques... you can see avalanche debris in the bottom right corner of the picture

As we made the long slog up the ridge, we were all feeling it and slowing down a lot (my perfect streak of never puking on a 14er was challenged a couple of times), but at least it was a clear day with sweet views... after a crappy winter snow-wise, it was refreshing to see a lot of snow still covering the surrounding peaks here in mid May thanks to a snowy spring.

Looking northwest(ish)... Holy Cross in the distance

Jay working hard to break trail well above 13k

Remaining route to the summit

Phil reached the summit first, then I got there next about 5 minutes later. It was about 9:40 a.m. We waited another 15 min or so for Jay to summit, who was slowed down by having to break trail hiking in his snowboard boots (the three of us were never very far apart from each other, just all moving really slow towards the top). It was freezing on the summit even though it was sunny, thanks to the relentless wind. Another couple (one skier, one snowshoer) made it to the summit at about the same time Jay did. We all got the usual summit pictures, then were ready to leave the wind and make some turns from the top of Colorado's highest mountain.

Jay reaches the summit

Summit views

Left to right - Phil, Alan, Jay

Then it was time for the fun part. As soon as we put our skis/board on, we were like "oh yeah, the punishment we put our bodies through carrying all that heavy s*** up through the snow WAS worth it because we get to SKI down". The descent was great for the most part. We skied along or just to the right of the ridge on lower angle (i.e. avy safe) lines through soft snow and had a blast. There was that rocky section in the middle to deal with. Phil and I were trying to pick our way through, which was probably a mistake because the snow turned to crap (i.e. heavy crust, impossible to turn) around here and I think we both scraped a couple of times. Jay was the smarter of the three of us, and found a clear line to the right of the rocky area. There a rocky knoll ahead of us after this part, so we dropped into an open, but still lower-angled bowl to the right and made some nice turns on snow that had softened up, meeting back up with the trail lower down.

Pictures of the descent...

Jay (jmoney)

Phil (MrWaffles)

Alan (clemson)

We were able to ski down back below treeline, and actually made some great turns on nice and soft snow right around and a little below treeline. We eventually reached the open meadow before the trail gets really steep downhill, where more rocks, etc. were poking through so we stopped at this point to take the skis off, chill, and enjoy the much warmer weather (and get rid of some layers).

Just chillin'

We kept the ski boots on, and hiked the rest of the way down through a combination of slushy snow and mud, and it went by a lot quicker than it seems like hikes down from mountains usually take (although I guess it helps that we skied at least 3/4ths of the way down). By 12:30 or so we made it back to our cars where nice/warmer weather and beers were waiting for us. This ended up being an awesome day on the mountain with a great group and some nice turns. Can't wait to get back out this weekend.

Some departing shots...

Looking down at Twin Lakes on the hike out

Arriving at the trailhead

Comments or Questions

Holy smokes!
05/20/2010 05:57
A lot more snow up there compared to last year for sure. Sweet ski decent too.


Nice Job
05/20/2010 15:01
Jay, myself and my friend Steve attempted the Box Creek route a week before. We were also turned away after digging a pit at the bottom of Box Creek and went more conservative. I‘m glad Jay got back to Elbert and got it done, nice work to the group.

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