Mount Elbert, CO

This is an account of one day of a short trip to Colorado last month to climb a few 14ers.

Finding an unfamiliar trailhead in the dark is always an adventure, and even this popular one was no exception. The lower, winter Twin Lakes trailhead has an obvious parking lot, but the paved road that continued gaining elevation past it threw me off. Only after wandering into some vacation homes in the next valley did I realize my error, return to the trailhead, crack my windows, and settle in for a restless night.

I started off using my sleeping bag as a quilt, but by 4:00 AM I was fully zipped in, with the mummy drawstring pulled tight enough for only my mouth and nose to show. It was zero degrees in the car according to my keychain thermometer, and I was just warm enough in my thermal layer and +20 bag. Though my alarm went off at 6:00, I didn’t start getting ready until about 6:30. The first order of business was to turn on the engine, close the windows, and run the car heater until the temperature rose above freezing. My two gallons of water were mostly frozen, but there was enough liquid to make my usual breakfast mug of instant coffee, powdered milk, and granola.

Cold dawn.
I warmed my damp socks and outer layers in my sleeping bag as I ate, then pulled them on as I exited the bag. As usual when sleeping in the passenger’s seat, my feet had swollen slightly in the night, and my boots were uncomfortably tight at first. I stuffed some granola bars in my bag, poured what water I could into the water bladder, and finally left the car at a leisurely 7:20.

Well-packed highway.After some unnecessary trail-breaking, I finally crossed the bridge by the 4WD summer trailhead (elev. 10,550) around 8:50 and continued up the well-packed trail to tree line. The slopes were fairly well-scoured above tree line, so while I used my snowshoes in a few places, I probably could have done without. The groups of skiers slowly skinning their way up had to pick their way carefully around rocks and bare patches, and there were few promising lines for them above treeline.

Long summit ridge.From there to the summit, the climb is a straightforward plod up a ridge, with several false summits. Despite wasting time stopping to swap gear and get snacks from my pack, I was moving well enough to pass some early starters.

La Plata, with Ellingwood Ridge in front.I reached the summit around 11:05, where I was surprised to find three men breaking camp. It must have been pretty cold earlier, since they were wearing Denali-style down jackets and mitts, and had cooked in a hole in the snow beneath their tent’s vestibule. However, by the time I summited, it was calm and above zero, and I loitered comfortably for about a half-hour enjoying the view. La Plata loomed spectacularly to the southwest, displaying both its standard route and Ellingwood Ridge. Maroon Bells and other peaks to the west.Many of Colorado’s other 14ers were also visible, including Democrat to the east, Massive to the north, the Collegiates to the south, the Bells to the west, and even (barely) Long’s to the northeast.

Mountaineering Colorado style.I passed many other climbers on the way down, chatting with a few, jogging some sections, and generally enjoying the warm mid-day cruise. After passing a truck that had tried to reach the 4WD trailhead, I reached the car at 1:40. Some friendly Buena Vista (pron. Byoo-na Vista) natives suggested a coffee place in Leadville, so I changed into dry clothes and headed into town to get hot food, use the internet, and decide what to climb the next day. Provin Grounds served overpriced soup and mediocre coffee with no free refills, but had good bread and, more important, comfy seating and free WiFi. I caught up on email, checked out the weather and road map, and headed off for Breckenridge and the next trailhead.


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