It’s my birthday weekend! Yay! I felt that a proper way to celebrate would be to set out with my two best friends to summit Mt. Elbert, the highest mountain in the Rocky Mountains of North America, which stands at 14, 439ft.
We hit the road after work on Friday, stopped for dinner en route, and reached the trailhead 8pm. I situated my trusty Nissan Xterra into 4L, turned on the high-beams, and we started our way up the mountain trail to the South Mt. Elbert Trailhead. All I have to say about this next part is DO NOT attempt to access this trailhead without a high clearance, 4WD vehicle. You will, without a doubt, bottom out or fail to make it up some of the pitted, rocky hills.
Luckily we were well prepared and slowly made our way to the trailhead, taking note of the plethora of dispersed campsites alongside the road. Once we reached our destination we pulled into the trees, found a flat spot near our car to pitch our tent, and settled in for the night.
Our alarm went off at 3:30am, and we struggled to leave the comfort of our sleeping bags. Once enough motivation was built up, we emerged into the clear, cold morning for a quick breakfast of yogurt and granola before beginning our hike a little after 4am.
Much of our hike was completed in the dark, which is probably for the best due to the steep, unrelenting incline that we were making our way up. It wasn’t until we broke treeline that the wind picked up and forced us into our extra jackets, gloves, and hats. As we continued on, we were slowly greeted with dawn which raised our spirits just enough to continue on as the sky bled yellow, orange, and red with the outline of Twin Lakes behind us and Mt. Elbert looming in the distance.
We continued on, adding layers of clothing as we gained in altitude. The cold wind was getting stronger the closer we got to the summit, which led to us simply putting our heads down and focusing on putting one foot in front of the other with the hope that we would reach the summit before we got too chilled.
Just as we had hoped, we looked up and there it was! We were looking over the West side of Mt. Elbert’s ridge, exposing the breathtaking sights that we hiked all the way up there for. We cheered, and while it was quiet having the summit to ourselves, the surrounding Rocky Mountains were quite loud in their spectacular peaks and valleys. However, our feelings of accomplishment were not as prominent as the feeling of cold as the wind howled around us, and we quickly asked the first person to summit after us to take our photo before we began our descent.
The main reason that I enjoy beginning our hikes so early in the morning is not so that we finish early (although that is a perk…), but it is so that much of our climbing is done in the dark. When you can’t see the trail ahead of you, I am convinced that you not only hike faster but also that you do not get discouraged by the seemingly never-ending incline ahead of you. Admiring our achievements is much more enjoyable on the descent, in my opinion. Ha!
We also saw a surprising amount of wildlife on the trail (and above treeline!). I am used to seeing small mammals such as pikas, marmots, squirrels, and chipmunks but seeing a flock of Grouse moseying about the trail was all new to me. They were quietly making their way about the hillside, not bothered by our presence whatsoever.
As soon as we returned to treeline, we were greeted with beautiful yellow and orange aspens. These fall colors make me giddy, and I was excited to see that our hike was not too early in September to see the beginning of the color changes. While certain sections of the aspen forest were already losing its leaves, other sections were still as green as in the summer, indicating that we are still one or two weeks away from full color change in the mountains.
We returned to the car around 10am, and were already anxious to head back down into town for some lunch! With our 12th fourteener (and Alison’s 1st) in the books, I would say that we earned the margaritas that were waiting for us down in Leadville!
Mt. Elbert, despite being the tallest mountain in the United States Rocky Mountain Range, you were one of the easiest to summit. The climb was never too steep, nor was the trail too rocky. All of this combined with a clear, sunny day made for a perfect birthday trip. I would not want to spent it anywhere else– or with anyone else!
“To be a climber one has to accept that gratification is rarely immediate”