Sunday, September 13, 2009

Colorado Highest, Mt Elbert

This weekends climbing schedule was a little tricked up. I had originally planned on the Castle and Conundrum idea, but could not find anybody to go with. That climb is best done with another person, and not solo. So, I had to look at other peaks that I could climb solo that fit the criteria; close to home, decent weather (no t-storms, or white out snow conditions), and class 2 climb. There is plenty of peaks within a 3 hour drive to Colorado Springs, but none as close as our own, Pikes Peak. It would have worked well, but the weather forecast for the Springs was pretty grim, and the summit forecast was much worse. 70% chance of snow, up to 3 inches during the day, and another 3 to 5 overnight, and high temps around 30F. Definetely winter, but I wanted one more summer climb before winter takes hold of the high country, plus I also wanted to see how the Fall colors were coming along around the central mountains. The East Trail of Mt Elbert fit the bill. With a 30% chance of rain/snow showers and "some thunder possible", and highs around 50F, it was the best forecast for 14ers in Colorado.

By the time I got things ready to go on Friday, it was too late to leave for the mountains. And we BBQ'd friday night with our neighbors until 11pm. So, there was no way I was going to get up at 1am and drive 3 hours to the trail head in the dark, then climb for 2 and half hours by headlamp (note. also in the dark). 3 hours of sleep is not enough to climb any mountain, let alone a 14er. Instead I set the alarm for 230am, and boy did it come around quick. I felt like I just went to bed, so I turned it off, giving up on the idea of climbing, and fell back asleep. Around 530am my body woke up and said "if your going to climb something today, then now is the time!". So, I listened, and left in 15 minutes.

Leaving the Springs, I still had Pikes on my mind. After fueling up in Divide, I sat there in the cold 36F weather, pondering and looking over at Pikes. It was 645 am, and I would have another 2 hours drive to the Elbert trail head, putting me on the trail at 9am. Really late start! Where as I could be on the trail for Pikes at 7am, 2 hours earlier than Elbert. But what about the weather on Pikes? Naw... Elbert or bust! Here I come! Watching the weather move in towards the front range on the drive out, assured me that I had made the right decision.

I arrived at the trail head at 9am and began hiking at 915am in brilliant sunshine. The trail begins in a very large forest of aspens, and most of them were changing to their fall colors. As I climbed through the forest, the sun was overtaken by dark clouds, and the wind began to pick up some. Upon reaching tree line, the objective became clear, just as the snow/sleet began to come down. It was too warm for it to stick to the ground. Continuing up, the squalls would come and go, as with the visibility. It was never bad enough to turn around, as I could still clearly see the trail ahead, but the surrounding mountains would disappear. This trail to the top of Colorado is pretty straight forward, just follow it until it ends. I summited at 1pm amidst half a dozen other people. There were stronger storms to the north and also to the south, whereas only scattered snow was to our west, the general direction that the weather was coming from. After a quick snack, it was time to descend, before the weather changed it's mind. About half way to tree line, loud, crackeling thunder began to roar behind Elbert, and I knew it was coming my way. I scurried as fast as possible down the steep trail, to the point of almost jogging, racing the impeding storm! If I could only get to the trees before it hits, then I'd be safe! Reaching treeline, I turned behind to what I thought would be the storm of all time, only to see light snow/sleet falling on the ridge behind me. The storm had just missed me by one ridge! Whew, that was close! Descending further into the forest, I had to shed my winter layers and return to fall like weather. I reached my truck at 330pm, roughly 2 hours after I left the summit. It was a fairly uneventful drive back home, until I reached Wilkerson Pass, where the rain began to come down hard. Reaching Woodland Park, the clouds dropped, as thick, soupy fog settled in, and flashes of lightning were all around. I met my family at Black Bear Diner for a nice big breakfast supper. Here is the pics from the trip.

Thick aspen forest on the trail

Mt Elbert is finally in sight

Closer to the East Ridge of Elbert

On the East Ridge looking across the basin to the North Ridge

Mt Massive, 2nd highest, and my 2nd 14er

Looking down into the East Bowl

Twin Lakes and Independence Pass road from high up

First view of La Plata, 4th highest and my 1st 14er

Looking down the North Face

Highest point in Colorado, Mt Elbert summit

La Plata with storms boiling to her south

Northeast from the summit

View North from the summit, Mt Massive and North Halfmoon Creek drainage

View Southeast towards Buena Vista and Twin Lakes

Official summit USGS benchmark, 14,433

Looking roughly West from the summit

Across the Arkansas River valley, with Mt Sherman about to be stormed on