Colorado: Mt. Elbert (14,433 feet)
Elbert is reasonable for a 14er. You don’t need to be on the trail in the wee hours of the morning to make it off of the summit before the afternoon storms roll in. We started the climb at 6:00 am, made it to the summit by noon, and were back at the car around 3:00. With a starting elevation of over 10,000 feet, the gain of just over 4,000 feet is not terribly intense.
The climb starts out relatively easy. After the tree line, it becomes steeper, with three false summits along the way. I had also read somewhere that it was 4 miles round trip. It ended up being closer to 4.5 miles each way, so those inaccurate expectations weighed heavily into the mental game of getting up and back.
My husband, who attempted to accompany me on this hike, gave out around 13,000 feet. He settled down for a nap while I continued on to the summit. During this time, a marmot came to investigate him, sniffing at his pack and his face.
In between naps and befriending marmots, my husband thought it would be a good idea to influence other climbers to avoid the “unnecessary arduous climb to the top” (his words, not mine). Climbers struggling for the final push of motivation, who could have made it with some encouragement, found their attempt derailed after talking with him. He would say things like, “Are you actually enjoying this? Tell your [whomever they were with] you don’t want to continue.” Or, “It’s not worth making this summit, so it’s much better to use the time to rest so you can get down.” He turned another half dozen people around by pointing out an impending storm. “You’ll never make it to the summit and back to the tree line with that storm approaching.” While this may have actually been sound advice, the number of climbs he sabotaged that day is staggering.
While he was being a devil on the shoulders of strangers, I continued on solo for about an hour until I encountered another solo climber from Wyoming. Luckily, he was up for some company, so we teamed up for the final push to the summit.
Having traveled from sea level to over 14,000 feet in under 24 hours, my body was not adjusting to the altitude very well. About 50 yards from the summit, my head began to feel like it was in a vice. Maybe three minutes after arriving at the summit (I couldn’t tell you with any accuracy since my sense of time was warped), I asked my new friend if he was ready to descend. He looked at me like I’d sprouted a third arm. He asked for five more minutes on the summit, which I agreed to by setting the timer on my watch. I’m not usually this much of a stickler, but I was getting dangerously close to vomiting and my head was getting worse by the second; I was leaving in five minutes with or without him. After snapping several pictures that I somehow managed to smile for, I sat down the rest of the time feeling miserable with no appetite and a crushing headache.
While I waited for the five minutes to expire, a family of four arrived at the summit. The husband, ever the character, started shouting to anyone who would listen that the rocky formation at the summit demanded the sacrifice of a virgin. And, who was the virgin at the summit willing to partake in the ritual? Getting no reaction the first time, he must have figured no one had heard him, so he continued his rant about virgin sacrifices and how necessary it was for the rock formation. His wife told him to settle down, which he did after a third loud proclamation. This guy clearly wanted someone to banter with, but I was too ill to go toe to toe with that kind of energy. Evidently, the other dozen or so people at the summit either shared my sentiment or were just plain put off by the aggressive shouting about virgin sacrifices.
Finally, exactly at the five-minute mark, my Wyoming friend and I began to descend. The virgin sacrifice man, his wife and two kids, who I later learned were from Oregon, teamed up with us and spent most of the time talking about how great it is to climb Mt. Hood. Since I was not intentionally high pointing at this time, I have the virgin sacrifice man to thank for adding Hood to my list, which I attempted the following year. This family turned out to be rather interesting to converse with, especially as I started to feel less awful the more I descended.
The six of us stayed together until I re-united with my husband who had descended quite a bit since we’d parted. My husband had been waiting in the spot where I’d left him, above the tree line being poked at by marmots. Once the lightening began, however, he wisely packed up his gear and headed down just into the trees. We had to be quick with the rest of the descent.
We just made it to the car before a violent hailstorm kicked in. Perhaps, this sudden storm was Zeus upset about the lack of a virgin sacrifice. Hail the size of golf balls pelted the car. Visibility was so bad that we had to stop the car for about 20 minutes until things calmed down. I remained altitude sick until the next morning. I was unable to eat dinner, but somehow felt well enough to go to the top of Pike’s Peak the following day.
Overall, a fun class 1 high point easily accomplished as a day hike. For anyone living at sea level who may have acclimatization issues, it might be worth spending the night before in Leadville (10,152 feet), rather than around 6,000 feet like I did.