Mount Elbert has the distinction of being the highest peak in the state of Colorado, as well as being the highest peak in all of the Rocky Mountains. It is a mere 63 feet shorter than California's Mount Whitney, and the title of being the highest peak in the 48 contiguous states. That said, obviously the peak is a popular objective for hikers, and Elbert's gentle slopes make it climbable for people of all skill levels.
This was the first major non-Wasatch peak I ever attempted. In August of 1995 myself and two friends, Jason and Allen tried the peak from Halfmoon Creek via it's northeast ridge. We got a late start as we stayed in a hotel in Eagle, Colorado and had a long drive just to get there. We were not prepared for the afternoon thunderstorms. We were making great time up the mountain, and before long we had reached a ridge at 12,800 feet with what we thought was the peak straight ahead. We were oblivious to the dark clouds moving in from the west. We climbed higher thinking we were only a few hundred feet below the peak. The trail was deteriorating in the rocks now.
The wind picked up and soon it was snowing on us. Jason remarked that he'd never been snowed on in August before. To the north Mount Massive disappered into clouds. Lightning flashed off in the distance and we knew we had to hurry to reach the peak. We climbed for another couple of minutes when a flash of lightning lit up the sky, sending a shock through the button on my baseball cap down through my body. For a second I thought this might be the end! A deafening blast of thunder immediately followed. Jason and I looked at each other, and with no words said, both started down the steep mountainside as quick as we could go. Allen was still climbing up from below.
After convincing Allen to turn back with us we bolted back and took shelter amongst some rocks (which I now know was really not a good idea). The storm passed after 20 minutes, but we were too tired, wet and scared to make a bid to climb the remaining 1,600 feet to the peak again. We later found out that we were not at 14,200 feet, but more like 13,600 when the lightning struck. So we were still a good 30 minutes to an hour away from the peak. We headed back discouraged, but with a good story to tell at least.
In 1996, I had a group of six other guys from my job who were going to go and climb the peak, but the day before we were going to go I was hospitalized with what can best be described as a severe kidney stone. Thus, the trip was off. I was beginning to feel quite jinxed with this mountain. In 1997, I returned with another group from work to climb the peak. Allen, myself and Jeff, and three girls, Amy, Michelle and Debbie. This time we were smart enough to stay in Leadville rather than take the long drive and waste time like we did in 1995.
The fun started the night before when on the drive back from Buena Vista Debbie suffered a siezure of sorts in the middle of nowhere on a dark, deserted road. Fortunately she was fine. The following morning we all awoke early, only to find Elbert buried in clouds, though the sky was clear blue over Leadville. Wondering if we should go, we decided to have breakfast first, and see if it had cleared up. Fortunately it did, and we took off for the peak. Unfortunately, this gave us a frightfully late starting time of 10am. I felt almost sure the afternoon storms would be a problem again.
Debbie and Michelle had minimal hiking experience, and I figured they were not likely to make the summit. While I wanted to mostly keep the group together, it didn't take long to realize that was impossible. Jeff was off like a shot out of a gun, and I didn't see him until the summit. As the girls were lagging behind, Allen and myself took off for the peak eager to catch up to Jeff. The sun was out, and the ascent was steep and tiring at the high altitudes. Allen and I re-surfaced on the ridge at 12,800 feet, but we were tired from going quickly to try to catch up to Jeff. At one stop I met a guy from New York of all places who had also climbed 22,831 foot Aconcagua in Argentina.
I was getting ahead of Allen as we climbed higher up the ridge, past the point of the lightning strike in 1995, but I was feeling exhausted. The altitude was clearly taking it's toll on me. Every rest I'd catch my breath and then after two or three minutes of hiking again I'd feel like resting again. Even worse were the numerous false summits encountered on the climb, draining even more energy. The only thing keeping me going at one point was not being able to have Jeff climb the peak and me, the one who organized the climb, not climb it. Soon I emerged on a high ridge and the trail plodded through two feet of snow to where I could see a fairly large group of people waiting.
I met up with Jeff, who had only been on the peak for a short while. About a dozen other hikers were on the peak enjoying the fine view. To the west I could see countless mountains, including the Maroon Bells, Snowmass Mountain, and Capitol Peak. To the north was the bland Mount Massive. Leadville was obvious below, and south was the towering La Plata Peak (great view of it from Elbert). I remarked that Allen was lagging below and I didn't think he'd make it. We took video and photos of us on the top and started down when Allen came up the final ridge. We turned back and re-ascended to the peak for more photos with all three of us.
As we started down again, Amy was coming up the last part of the summit ridge. This time Jeff and Allen decided to keep heading down, and Amy and I went back to the peak (my third time now). We stayed for a while, signing the summit log and taking yet more pictures. The dark clouds were lurking around, but never got too threatening. We started down and soon caught up to Allen taking his time down the steep, knee-bashing trail. One benefit is that the trail is steep and short enough that the trip down doesn't take too long. I was relieved to finally have this high peak in the bag. We caught up to Jeff who was with Michelle and Debbie who waited for some time for us to get back down the mountain. Almost as soon as I was back in the car it was clear to me that I had to climb Mount Whitney now. We retreated to the Delaware Hotel in Leadville (3rd floor, steep stairs, no elevator, ugh!) and ordered pizza from Pizza Hut to finish off our successful day with four out of our six participants making the summit.
Mount Elbert is a wonderful mountain to climb. The trail we took is four miles each way climbing 4,400 feet. A comment in the trail register on one of our trips said that the trail was not marked clearly, but that is quite wrong...only a fool could get lost on this route. A longer trail climbs the peak from its southeast ridge. You'll see climbers coming up this ridge from the northeast ridge from 12,800 feet up across Box Creek (filled with snow until late summer). Roundtrip time would be between six and eight hours.