Location: Mt. Elbert, 14,440ft, Colorado (Highest Point in the Rockies and Colorado)
|The insanely rugged summit of Mt Elbert!|
My goodness, the Rockies are a whole new ballgame for me. Three years ago when I bought my mountaineering boots, the biggest decision point the salesman asked me was "Well, do you ever plan on climbing in the Rockies?" The point being, the Sierras and Cascades are nothing like the Rockies. This was my baptism by... ice(?) in Rocky Mountain Climbing.
Mt Elbert, at 14,440ft, is the highest point in the Rocky Mountains and is only 16ft shorter than Mt. Whitney. Despite its elevation, its actually considered one of the more moderate climbs in Colorado Mountaineering. In the continental United States, we refer to 14ers as mountains that are above 14,000ft of elevation (4,200m). 14ers only exist in the Sierras, the Rockies and the Cascades. In the grand scheme of mountaineering, 14,000ft is respectable, but certainly not world-class in climbing. However, the oxygen pressure at 14,000ft is half of what it is at sea level. Thus, climbing a 14er is a true alpine adventure.
|The lower mountains of the Elbert region, morning of climb.|
This wasn't my most difficult or most technical climb, but I think it was my best. I was epically prepared and planned. First of all, I'd been monitoring the weather using NOAA for about a week before the climb. In addition, I was making my own observations while in the lower regions of the Rockies. I bought the guidebook and studied it carefully and selected appropriate gear out of my ever-increasing selection. I was also mentally prepared to turn around at any point in the climb.
So, I woke up at the awfully late time of 5:30AM. This is unforgivable in the mountaineer's world, but it played to my advantage because the tail end of a storm was clearing out by then. I prepared my breakfast and pack the night before, so I was on the trail 20 minutes later. The South Elbert Route is a Class I trail in summer, but it was still winter up there. After hiking a couple of mile, I finally hit the south-eastern spur that leads to the summit. It was rather calm and a little snowy below the tree-line. Man, once I climbed above the trees at 12,000ft all hell broke loose with the wind. I don't believe I've ever experienced anything quite like the wind that was hitting that ridgeline. It was blowing at around 40mph constantly with 60mph gusts.
At times, the wind was so hard that I had to crouch down to avoid being literally blown over. The gusts made it difficult to walk, but surprisingly I was warm. I was FULLY bundled up; not a quarter inch of skin was exposed. My system of layers was working incredibly well and even my extremities were not too cold.
I'm at the point in my mountaineering career where I'm well beyond "summit fever" a.k.a. push to the summit if it kills you. So throughout the climb, I had my finger on the trigger, ready to turn around if needed. The wind was terrible, but the climb itself wasn't too difficult and I was holding up well under the conditions. I was moving at a snail's pace, but I set a good course and schedule for breaks. At around 13,500ft I was beginning to see the signs of the last slope to the summit. It was only a Class III climb, but this felt like the crux of the climb. False summits were mentally tormenting, but I was still warm and moving at an acceptable rate.
|Slowly getting there|
At around 14,000ft it was an athletic move just to drink water. Its like being sick; you don't feel like you need water or food, but you need to force yourself to do so. After what seemed like an eternity, I finally saw the summit proper. It was only 1,000 yards away, but this took around a half an hour with the wind. I'm no weatherman, but I do believe it was blowing at a constant 50mph at the summit. Its a gentle slope to the summit, so there was no danger in blowing off a cliff, but I didn't waste any time up there. It was literally a 2 minute, take a picture, and run down.
|QUICK, SUMMIT PICTURE!|
Well the climb down was not too bad! In fact, things started to clear up (go figure). The wind was still pretty bad, but the skies were only partly cloudy. I practically raced for the cover of the treeline and enjoyed a classy lunch of protein bars and cereal. For the first time in the day, I was taking off layers and taking off the annoying facemask. I made it back to the car around 5:00PM making the climb in about 11 hours.
|From 13,000ft looking southwards|
It was at about that time that I figured I needed some coffee and a warm place to... warm up. So, less than 7 hours after I reached the summit, I was sipping fair-trade, organic, certifiably-snotty coffee at a quaint lil' indi-coffee shop in Leadville, Colorado. That's what you're supposed to do after climbing; its in the guidebook, I swear.