Sunday, November 6, 2011

Mt. Elbert: Roof of the Rockies

Mt. Elbert (14,433')
miles hiked: 9.2
elevation gained: 4,685 feet

A fitting climax to our three-week tour of the Sawatch Range was to climb the tallest mountain in the range and the entire state of Colorado: Mt. Elbert. After a week long stretch of gnarly weather, we hoped, as we watched a tall storm build to the west of us the night before, for respite and some much-deserved blue skies.

Mt. Elbert is the roof of the American Rockies. It is the tallest point in the Rocky Mountains within the contiguous United States and second tallest in the lower 48 behind only the Sierra Nevada's Mt. Whitney (14,505'). We had the privilege of being joined for the climb by Outward Bound guide/climber/alpinist/adventurer/writer extraordinaire Cisco Tharpe. As will always be the case, it is a treat having good company for a good mountain.

Ella and Cisco almost at treeline:

Our climb up Elbert was quite special. We didn't let high winds or the winter-reminiscent chill blunt our spirits. We hit the trail early and climbed steadily. The last thousand feet to the summit were plagued by some of the strongest wind and coldest weather of the season, second only to our now-infamous day on Mt. Lincoln. Ella remarked, as we persevered, that she felt like a "dog with its head out the window, unable to get a full breath".This description seemed particularly apt.

From about 13,000' looking towards the summit:

When we reached the summit, we hid behind a pile of rocks from the wind and snacked on our food, enjoying unbelievable vistas in all directions. Mt. Massive loomed to the north, mocking us for not making its summit two days earlier. Our old friend La Plata (my first 14er) towered dramatically to the south. Its dramatic Ellingwood Ridge was jagged and impressive under a fresh glaze of July snow. To the west we could see the distinct skyline of the Elk Range. Snowmass Mountain, a two-pronged thrust, was particularly impressive as it was the only peak visible in any direction still white as winter.

View of Halfmoon area and Mt. Massive from the summit:

View to the south of beautiful La Plata:

Three's Company:

A short, windy video clip from the summit:
Not far behind us came a man with a particularly wind-blown look on his face. We asked him amicably how things were going, and he growled in response: "Pretty godd(pg.13)mn sh(pg.66)ty." He went on to complain in all seriousness that he was sure he had climbed the wrong mountain because there were several peaks nearby that looked taller. He pointed to Massive and La Plata as examples. We told him the elevations of all these peaks. Despite our assurances that he was indeed standing upon the highest point in Colorado, he persisted being furious that Elbert didn't seem like the tallest. I suppose he didn't understand that when you are talking about twelve feet (in the case of Massive) perspective can be deceiving.

A sparkling lake viewed on descent (this picture just doesn't quite capture it):

On the way down we felt much more playful with the wind. On switchbacks that faced it head-on we'd laugh and sing into it in defiance. On switchbacks where it was at our backs we'd spread our arms like airplanes or see how far we could jump. We'd try to find appropriate Caddyshack or Big Lebowski quotes for the moment. Embracing the wind, we decided, is the only way to keep it from taking over your day. We passed many grumpy people, however, still on their way up who hadn't discovered this strategy.

So ended our second, and longest, trip of the summer. We still have two more to go: a Front Range adventure in which we will try to collect Holy Cross, Grays, Torreys, Evans, Bierstadt, Pikes, and Longs; and a culminating backpack trip in which we intend to climb Snowmass Mountain and spend a week lolling about in the majesty of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area. Though we haven't climbed all the mountains we intended (12 out of 19 to this point), and expect it is quite likely we wont make every summit still ahead, we have had a beautiful summer and forged memories that will undoubtedly last a lifetime. The high country is an exotic and magical place. When you enter it with the reverence and respect that it deserves, you will come out wiser and stronger as a result.

Summer of 14ers totals (1 month):

distance hiked: 114.44 miles
elevation gained: 50,479 feet
With training month included:

distance hiked: 202.61 miles
elevation gained: 81,270 feet

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