Wednesday was effectively a prep day for our attempt to hike up Mount Elbert, the 2ndlargest mountain in the continental US and the largest in Colorado (Elevation 14,440 ft). Base camp for the hike is the Lakeview Campground about 20 miles from Leadville, CO. The base sits at 9,500 feet which gave us a chance to acclimatize overnight for our hike.
Elbert is unique because it is one of the few 14,000+ footers which doesn’t require any technical climbing. The hike was supposed to take about 8 hours and because of the storms, we had to start at sunrise on Thursday. There were no trees or shelter above 10,500 feet, and we needed to be back down below the tree line by the time the storms started. Our realistic goal was to make the summit by 11:30, giving us 2.5 hours to make our way back down to the tree line.
We started at sunrise when the temperature was just barely above freezing. It warmed up quickly, but the climb was steep and relentless. About 4 hours into the hike, the summit seemed impossibly far away. We were exhausted and our pace was a crawl at best. I was about ready to bail. By this point the ground was covered in snow and the wind had started creating a significant chill. The major frustration was knowing that we were climbing the tallest peak in Colorado, which meant that every impossibly tall summit that I could see was lower than where we knew we needed to go. It was very fortunate that we bumped into a hiker who had started with us and was coming back down. He told us that we were already up to about 13,600 feet, and that we only had another 800 vertical feet to go.
We reached the summit at 11:06, well within our target range. It was a beautiful 360 degree view with mountains and lakes in all directions and very little in the way of civilization. We weren’t able to hang around too long because of the likely onset of altitude sickness and the need to get down before the storms. The way down started off very easily, but ended up in a mild hail storm early on. We finally found a place to take a lunch break, but by this point the big puffy clouds had started to form on the summit so we never had a chance to slow down much . We made it safely back to our campsite at 1:55 (perfect timing) before any thunderstorms got going. We re-hydrated on water and a few well earned Coors and made an obnoxiously large campfire.