March 20th, 2004
It was time to ring in a new season. Winter officially ended yesterday, and the first day of spring was dawning. We decided to enjoy the first day of Spring on the flanks of Mt. Elbert. Amy and I departed Boulder Friday night and stayed in Leadville to be closer to the trailhead. We had a terrible night sleep at the Super 8 in Leadville, you could hear somebody fart 2 floors above and 5 rooms down the hall. I don't recommend it to anybody, we should have just camped out at the trailhead. We got up about 5:30 a.m. and were heading towards the trailhead by 6 a.m. The sun was rising and Mt. Massive and Mt. Elbert were coming to life. I stopped to take a couple photos of the peaks from HWY 24.
We quickly made it to the 2wd parking lot and since the 4wd drive didn't have any snow on it, we decided to see how far up the road we could get. We were able to drive about 1 mile further before the snow became too deep to proceed any further. We had gotten stuck twice this winter trying to drive further than we should, so learning from experience, we decided to park and walk the rest of the way. We got our packs organized and began hiking right about 7 a.m. It was a beautiful morning and the temperature was quite warm.
It tooks us about 20 minutes or so to get to the 4wd trailhead from where we parked. I had climbed Mt. Elbert before in the summer time and it was cool to compare the difference the seasons make on the area. There was about 2 feet of snow piled up on the bridge in the photo below.
Very shortly after crossing the bridge the trail splits and a sign indicates to take the left fork to head to Mt. Elbert. The trail was covered with snow through the Aspens but was pretty packed down, so the snowshoes remained on our backs. About 1/4 mile into the hike the South Elbert Trail departs from the Colorado Trail and turns uphill. This section of the hike is steepest of the entire hike. The trail gets down to business as it climbs steeply through the trees. I was quickly overheating and had to shed my shell to keep from sweating to death. The trail doesn't remain steep for long and the grade abates as you work your way towards treeline. In the photo below Mt. Elbert can be seen coming into view as Amy leads the way.
As we continued over the snow towards treeline, the snow was still quite firm and snowshoes were still unnecessary. We continued working our way onward and upward, enjoying the glorious day. There was hardly a cloud in the sky and the wind was quite calm.
We made it to treeline and decided to ditch the snowshoes. Mt. Elbert and South Elbert were standing tall in front of us. South Elbert is in the center of the photo with Mt. Elbert on the right.
The route continues up towards the north until you gain Elbert's east ridge. The photo below was taken at the bottom of Elbert's east ridge and shows the route up to the summit.
Our spirits were high, energized by the beautiful day as we proceed east up Elbert's east ridge. The wind picked up a little bit here and it was time to put my shell back on. The east ridge is a series of bumps, and we dissected the ridge, 1 bump at a time. The trail was visible for most of the ridge but disappeared under the snow the higher we climbed. I remembered from my last climb of Elbert that the route heads towards Elbert's south face. We decided to take a more direct line towards the summit and headed straight up the snow. Twin Lakes can be seen behind Amy in the photo below.
We began to tire a little bit as we neared the summit. Using Mt. Belford and Mt. Oxford to the south as an elevation indicator, we were about eye level with them, so we knew we around 14,000 feet. La Plata Peak is 14,336 feet high, so when it was at about eye level, we knew we were close to Elbert's summit. We gained the summit ridge and crested out on top of Colorado at about 10:30 a.m., taking 3.5 hours for the ascent. The views from the summit looked like a winter wonderland. The high peaks of the Sawatch Range we all around us, Mt. Massive and Holy Cross to the north, the Bells and other Elk Range peaks to the west, the ever-present Pikes to the east, and a multitude of 14ers to the south. I pointed out La Plata, Mt. Belford, Oxford, Missouri Mountain, and Mt. Harvard to Amy, all standing over 14,000 feet. We hadn't seen a person all day after leaving the trailhead and we had the summit all to ourselves. The last time I was on Elbert's summit, there must have been 50 people on the top. Since nobody was around to take our summit photo, I had to use a trick I learned to get the photo below. Amy and I take turns taking each others picture from the same spot, making sure we stand in a different spot in the frame. Then I can stich the two photos together to make it look like 1 picure, the joys of digital photography. Mt. Massive is in the background between Amy and I.
La Plata Peak was probably the most commanding peak in view, and the Ellingwood Ridge can be seen in the photo below leading to La Plata's summit.
We signed the summit register and noticed some familiar names from 14erworld, Ken, Teresa, and Dan M. We stayed on the summit for about 30 minutes, eating and basking in the warm spring sun. We decided to depart and played "connect the snowfields" as we made our way down the east ridge. I was hoping to get some nice glissades in, but the snow was too soft. It wasn't until the bottom of the east ridge that we came across the first people all day. There were a couple guys skiing a snowfield on Elbert's southern flanks, and also a party of about 5 people making there way to the summit. We maded it back down to treeline in short order, grabbed the snowshoes, and continued downward.
The snow was much softer baking in the sun all day, and we had to put the snowshoes on for the first time. Even with our snowshoes on, we were sinking 2 to 3 feet into the snow. At one point, Amy sunk into the snow clear up to her waist. The scene looked so funny I had to take a picture.
It was so funny, I was cracking up. I should have know better than to laugh at Amy's predicament, the Karma Gods would get me back. Making my way down a fairly steep slope, my left leg sank completely into the snow, and I was stuck. The wet snow was packed around my leg like concrete and I couldn't free my leg. It took a couple minutes to dig down to my foot and unbuckle it from my snowshoe. Ah, free at least. I dug down some more and retrieved my snowshoe. From this point getting back to the trailhead became quite an ordeal. It was Amy's turn to laugh at me since I kept sinking into the snow as we made our way down. One time my foot punched through the snow so quickly that it threw me forward and I did a nice faceplant into the snow. My head was stuck in the snow like some retarded ostrich. Ok, this is getting ridiculous now. Finally, we got to a point where the snow was still hard-packed enough that we weren't busting through anymore, and proceeded back to the 4wd trailhead. It was a quick stroll down the road to the 4runner and we arrived back at 2:30 p.m., making our roundtrip time about 7.5 hours. Fighting with the snow made the descent take as long as the ascent. It was a comical day but a wonderful day in the high country nonetheless. Spring is officially here and soon the summer climbing season will be in full swing.