Two days after climbing Quandary Peak, I headed off to climb Mt. Elbert. This had been my targeted destination for my trip to Colorado because of the several distinctions it holds: tallest mountain in Colorado, tallest in the Rockies, and second tallest in the contiguous United States to California’s Mt. Whitney (14,505ft).
My plan was to take two days and go up-and-over the mountain. This created an new logistical issue for me to figure out since this was my first time going backpacking where my gear had to clear airport security.
The TSA website says that camp stoves and fuel bottles can be checked or carried on as long as they are free from fuel residue. This can be a tricky thing to accomplish. Much of what I found online suggested buying a new bottle for the flight out with the understanding that it may not make it back.
Since I was heading to a place where getting a replacement bottle would not be impossible, I decided to go with my used bottle. After letting it air out for 3 days and soaking in heavily scented soap, I couldn’t smell the white gas that had been filling it. Both my stove and fuel bottle went into my checked bag, along with my hiking poles and tent poles/stakes. The tent body went in my carry-on along with my lighter (TSA says lighters cannot be checked).
When I arrived in Colorado, I was happy to find that all of my gear had made the trip… I wondered if I could repeat this for the return trip.
I started up the North Ridge trail around noon. This trail starts out a bit easier than the Quandary Peak trail, though it does have a couple fairly steep stretches that had me wishing for a few switchbacks.
My parents hiked with me until we reached tree line where I would be making camp for the night. Above the trees the wind was blowing, but not as bad as on Quandary a few days earlier, so I descended a short ways below tree line to find a camp site.
After making camp, the parents headed back down the mountain. There were a few people trickling down the mountain, but it wasn’t long before I was the only one up there. It was about 3:30pm, and I took a nap.
I re-emerged from my tent around 6pm to make some dinner. The altitude was affecting my appetite and I only made it through half of my usual amount of tuna and rice. This was my first time cooking at such a high altitude (~12,000ft; boiling point of water = ~87°C) and I noticed it took a bit longer to cook despite having half the amount of rice I usually have. This was also my first time using my Whisperlite International with 91 octane rather than white gas… works great, but definitely left a thicker coat of carbon on the stove.
After dinner it was off to bed.
May 31, 2012 – Summit Day
I woke up at 5:30am and moved slowly out of camp. I still wasn’t very hungry, but I made my way through a bagel and an apple while breaking down camp. By 6:15am I was back above tree line making my way towards the summit. The sun was just above the ridge casting a beautiful glow over the mountain!
At the top of the ridge (13,750ft) I head some voices coming from below. I scanned the trail down to tree line, but didn’t see anyone. As continued climbing up from the ridge, I saw two people making their way out of the trees. I was amazed at how well I could hear them for as far away as they were. Continuing up, I was treated to some great views of the valley and Mt Massive (14,420ft).
As I approached the summit, I came to two short sections of snow that the trail crossed. I had picked up some yak tracks the day before and decided I might as well use them. It was still early and the sun hadn’t had a chance to warm the snow much, so the extra traction was nice.
I made the summit at 8am… 1st one up of the day, the tallest mountain I’ve ever climbed, and my 1st solo 14er! The view was amazing! I sat down for a bit to eat and sign the summit register. It was cold, but the wind had died down, so it was easy to enjoy the summit.
After an hour at the summit, it was time to head down. I was descending via the Black Cloud Trail which would take me down along the southern ridge. There was a stretch of snow leading down the ridge about 200 yards from the summit, so I again used my yak tracks. It would have been possible to avoid the snow by folioing the scree, but it was much faster to just cross it.
As I approached the saddle, I looked back at the summit as saw the two people that had been following me. They had reached the summit. Once on the saddle, the trail became difficult to follow. The path was much less obvious that the North Ridge trail, but since the trail just followed the ridge, it was clear which way to go.
When I reached the top of South Elbert (Mt Elbert’s sister peak), I stumbled upon a geocash and decided this would be a good place for a break. From here I had a great view into the green valley below, and some fluffy clouds began moving in. As I sat there, I saw two figures moving up the ridge towards me. We met up and chatted for a bit, snapped a few pictures and went our separate ways.
As I continued down the ridge, I began looking for where the trail took off down into the valley. I spotted a cairn about 50ft off the trail about where the side trail should be, but there wan’t much of a trail there. I stayed along the ridge for another 300-400 yards until I began to climb again. According to my topo and the GPS I had gone too far, and the cairn had been closer to the right spot.
As I was descending, I decided I definitely wasn’t on the trail. I found a small outcropping and scanned the slope and spotted the trail a short ways over. After traversing over I continued down. This stretch of the trail was well traveled so I’m not sure how I missed it. Perhaps the top stretch is normally covered in snow?
The trail descended steeply into the drainage where it met the tree line. Here it continued steeply down, winding through the Pine and Aspen trees. The temperature was warming up quickly, so I stopped here to shed most of my layers.
As I neared the bottom, I met up with the parents who had gotten to the trail head about half an hour earlier and started up the trail to meet me. They were happy I had started on the other side, cause this trail was significantly more difficult to climb.
Back at the trail head, we loaded up the car and headed for Aspen for some post-hike brews.
Check out more photos from this trip on Flickr!