Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Rocky Mountain High: Climbing Mt Elbert- the Highest Peak in the Rockies

The Rocky Mountains have no shortage of high summits.  The highest peaks of the range are in Colorado.  Mt Elbert stands the tallest as both the highest peak in Colorado and the highest summit in the entire Rocky Mountain Range.  The summit elevation is 14440 feet. (14433' is often listed as the elevation but the most recent surveys list 14440')  Only California's Mt. Whitney, 65 feet taller, has a higher elevation in the lower 48 states.

Despite Mt Elbert's lofty elevation, it is known to be a fairly tame mountain to climb among 14ers.  Because of its status as Colorado's highest peak and relatively easy terrain for its size, it tends to get crowded.  I'm not a fan of crowded summits so I was in no hurry to climb Elbert during the busy, snow-free hiking season.  Drew Petersen, with whom I climbed Quandary Peak on my last hike, was looking to climb Elbert this winter.  Since I never have been on Elbert, I was happy to join him.  

The weather didn't turn out in our favor last week.  We had a period of warmer temps and a decent weather window on MLK day.  We planned on hiking the East Ridge.  The slopes are relatively gentle with nearly no avalanche risk.  Despite the gentle slopes, the route covers about 12 miles* round trip in the winter and gains close to 5000 vertical feet so it's still a workout with its high elevation. *(I have seen the distance for this trip range from just over 11 miles to 12.5 so I'll use about 12 miles for my distance.)

Even though we hiked on a Monday, we were surprised to be the only car at the trailhead.  It was MLK day and a long weekend for many.  One of the benefits of winter hiking is more chance for solitude.  Since this route has little avalanche risk and climbs the highest summit in the state, we expected to see a few people, especially after our fairly crowded midweek climb on Quandary.

We began our trip a few minutes after 8AM.  While the forecast wasn't that bad, it called for increasing clouds and somewhat windy conditions.  There wasn't a cloud in the sky or a breath of wind at the start of the hike.  From the trailhead, the hike follows a snow covered road with easy hiking and little elevation gain before reaching the Colorado Trail.  The easy hiking continues on the Colorado Trail before beginning the climb on the South Mt Elbert Trail.  From the trailhead, the route was well packed from previous traffic and an easy bareboot walk.

Early view near the start of the hike
Once on the South Mt Elbert Trail, more challenging hiking begins. The trail begins to really climb.  The climbing isn't too difficult and begins in a pleasant forest with plenty of aspens.  Along the way the trail passes through a few clearings that offer decent views, mostly toward South Elbert and a few views to the east and the Mosquito Range.  We were able to hike bareboot all the way to treeline with no issues.  The long East Ridge ahead to the summit was visible.  There were large sections of windblown terrain with little snow.  To save some weight, we stashed our unused snowshoes at treeline.  Up until treeline it was fairly warm and windless.  I was able to stick with my baselayer shirt and didn't even wear my gloves.

Walking through aspens
Mt Elbert in the distance
Looking over Twin Lakes
Nice views passing through a clearing
Looking south 
Another nice clearing
Approaching treeline
Not far above treeline a lone hiker with a dog passed us.  He was moving up the mountain at a blistering pace.  He made it to the summit quickly and passed us on his return down the mountain well below the summit.  On his decent he was running.  We came to find out he was a local from Leadville training for the next Leadville Trail 100 Ultramarathon.  He was the only other hiker on Mt. Elbert for the day.

As we gained elevation Drew and I split up to travel at our own paces and I took the lead.  By 12000 feet in elevation the snow was thin enough that the trail was visible and could be followed at times.  The wind picked up with elevation and I made a couple stops to add layers and goggles. With the elevation gain the views continued to get better.

A good look ahead above treeline
Nearly snowfree section 
Stretch of visible summer trail
The last hump to the summit, the trail disappeared again and there was a consistent snow field to the summit.  The upper part of the ridge is the steepest but never gets too steep.  Even with the hardpacked snow on the upper ridge we were able to continue to the summit bareboot without traction devices.  
The end of snowfree travel
Snowfield the rest of the way to the summit
The last few feet to the summit
I made it to the summit about 1140AM, about 3.5 hours from the start.   I took some summit photos before adding layers. The wind was somewhat gusty, maybe an occasional 40MPH gust, but nothing out of the ordinary for January at 14000 feet.  While Drew made his way up the last part of the ridge, I hunkered down out of the wind the best I could and enjoyed the solitude.  I had the summit to myself for close to 30 minutes and savored the views from the rooftop of the Rockies.

Elevation 14440 feet
Looking down Northeast Ridge with Mt Massive beyond
Clouds moving in to the north
Looking toward La Plata Peak 14361'
The scenery on any alpine summit is wonderful and Elbert's summit was no exception.  Colorado's second highest summit, Mt Massive is just a few miles to the north with a beautiful basin between the two mountains.  The clouds that were forecasted for the afternoon were visible toward the northern end of the Sawatch Range in the vicinity of Mt. of the Holy Cross.  La Plata Peak's jagged Ellingwood Ridge is just to the southwest and most impressive.  The endless summits of the Sawatch Range stand to the south with some of the Sangre de Cristos visible in the distance on the horizon.  The peaks of the Elk Range near Aspen are easy to pick out to the west.  To the east, the length of the Mosquito Range seems close by with Pikes Peak looming large on the horizon.

Elbert's South Ridge and Black Cloud Trail Route
Looking southeast
Endless mountains in the Colorado Rockies
Tomcat on the summit
When Drew arrived on the summit, we lingered for a few minutes to take a couple more photos before heading back down the mountain.  The upper snowfield was steep enough to boot ski at spots. We made quick time on the decent stopping only briefly for a few pictures and to lose some layers.  The snow managed to stay pretty solid and we didn't have any problems postholing as the temperature warmed with lower elevation.  We managed to complete the entire route bareboot.  The last stretch of the trip on the snow covered dirt road seemed to drag in the end but we managed to make it back to the car before 230PM.  Our total time was less than 6.5 hours to cover nearly 12 miles.  By the time we reached the trailhead, clouds were just starting to reach the summit.

Looking back down the ridge toward Twin Lakes
and Elbert Forebay
Drew desending the ridge
Good look at the snowfield
Tomcat enjoying the view across Box Creek Couloir during
a break to remove layers
Descending through a meadow
Once again this was another beautiful trip in the mountains.  The skies kept clear our entire route and we had nearly endless views.  The packed out trail and solid snow on the upper mountain allowed for fast travel without any rocky travel.  We were happy to have the highest mountain in Colorado basically to ourselves.  As an added bonus we saw a herd of elk on the drive and a coyote running along the road.  There were also a few cat tracks along our route, most likely bobcat.  You can't ask for a much better day.

Cat tracks, I'm guessing bobcat
One more summit shot


  1. Great information and Pictures, coming up in Feb. for a climb. Thanks for such good insight.

  2. Hoping to summit Elbert this Sunday February 8th. Thanks for the great report.

  3. Is it worth skinning for a quicker descent?

    1. There was a fair amount of bare rock when I was there and not a lot of snow since. At that time I think the skis would have been carried a lot. Check the conditions on 14ers.com to see what more recent trips experienced for snow cover and possible ski conditions. With more snow it can be skied and skinned.

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