Swing and a Miss: Mt. Elbert

Photo Credit: 14ers.com

Mt. Elbert (14,433′) is the highest point in Colorado, the highest point in the Rocky Mountains, and the 2nd highest point (after Mt. Whitney in California) in the lower 48. Yesterday was a GORGEOUS day in the Sawatch Range – low 30’s at altitude, low wind, and not a cloud in the sky. I left the house just before 6am (problem #1) and drove the two hours to the Elbert South Trailhead. It’s important to know that Colorado recently got its first snow in a few weeks, and the mountain got about 10″ of snow, with the storm wrapping up on Friday.

I hiked up the East Ridge route which is a LONG day when starting from the lower, plowed 2WD trailhead: 14 miles round-trip with 4,900′ of elevation gain. This was my first hike using my new MSR Revo snowshoes, and thank god I had them, because I was the first person up the mountain after the snow fall, and I broke trail from the 2WD trailhead all the way up to the windswept ridge (problem #2).

Early in the day, I started hiking with Michael, who would have bagged his 49th 14er that day. I was really happy to have picked up a hiking partner because our conversations helped break up the long day.


Michael and I’s boot track! The snowed-over track to the right would appear and disappear at different points along the trail. Also – so many Christmas trees!

As I mentioned above, we had to break trail in the fresh powder from the very beginning to about 5 miles in, when we gained the ridge, which was largely wind swept. Having never been the first one on a mountain after a fresh snow, this was a new experience for me and it is EXHAUSTING. Below tree line, we could follow the faint outline of the summer trail about 75% of the time. But above tree line, we completely lost the trail and had to route find a way up, off of the slopes, and onto the ridge. It was a ton of work to get to a point where the rock was exposed enough for me to stash my snow shoes, and my legs were just dead.

What Went Wrong

It was like a Robert Frost poem out there.

With a 7 mile one-way hike up, Michael and I set a loose turnaround time of 2pm and a hard limit of 2:30pm. Our goal was just to get below tree line before dark, because our boot pack was well defined below that and we both had head lamps.

At about 1:30pm, Michael was about 1,000′ below the summit and I was a little lower than him. We made the decision to turn around at that point because neither of us thought (I personally was highly doubtful that I could, but I believed he could have) that we could cover 1,000′ of climbing in an hour when we were already dragging it in from the slog to escape the snow. I’m definitely bummed that we didn’t make it up – and have to do that long ass hike again someday! – but ultimately, when the descent itself was exhausting and took almost three hours, we made the right decision. So what went wrong?

#1 – I left the house and started the trail too late. My alarm went off at 5am, but after getting dressed, having a quick breakfast, and stopping for coffee, I didn’t actually get on the highway till 6am – which meant starting down the trail at 8am. I should have pushed everything back at least one hour, or considered sleeping in my car at the trailhead again. That extra hour probably would have been enough to summit.

#2 – Underestimating what it means to hike immediately after a storm. I sort of assumed that, since I was getting a later start, that at least one other person would have started before me (and have done the hard work of breaking trail). The first half of the trail is pretty easy and gradual switchbacks – but once above tree line, as I wrote above, we lost the summer trail and had to route find, occasionally through some deep snow, our way up the peak. I think this route finding probably contributed a lot to my inability to push the pace and gain altitude quickly as the time ticked by.

I probably won’t attempt this hike again until the summer – but I’ll be back, Mt. Elbert!

I turned around at the cairn in the middle of the photo.

Author: Zach "Free Fall" Tucker

Long Distance Hiker, Traveler, Peakbagger, and AEA Stage Manager.