The alarm went off at 5:20 this morning. We semi-quickly ate breakfast, packed up the tent wet from last night’s rain, and made our way a little bit up the trail to a 4WD trailhead for Mount Elbert where we filled up water and I had another snack. By the time we were moving from there, it was starting to get light out, thankfully. I am not a huge fan of hiking in the dark.
It was just a little bit farther to the South Elbert Trail, and we put headlamps away and switched some layers there before starting to hike uphill. It’s a new trail from the last time I was here (when I was being carried down it with a broken ankle) and it’s really, really nice. Less steep, more switchbacks, amazing rock work and steps, and just wide, clear trail. I didn’t need too many breaks as we starting gaining elevation from about 10500′. There were amazing views back to Twin Lakes, where we had hiked yesterday.
Once we reached treeline, we stopped at a campsite to eat more snacks and put warmer layers on. The forecast had been for a high of 36F at the summit, 23F with windchill. I don’t normally hike in my sleeping clothes, but since we’d be in town later, I put my long underwear on under my hiking clothes, and got out my warm hat and gloves, even though I was nervous I’d get too sweaty going uphill so steeply.
The wind wasn’t too strong at first, and we enjoyed more new trail as we got higher. I actually ran into a former coworker doing trail work on the mountain! After chatting for a bit, we kept moving and were back on the old trail to the summit, which is steep, loose, rutted, and terrible. And the wind just got stronger as we got higher. I think it was much stronger than the 25 MPH Mountain Forecast had said would be happening in the morning, at least the 45 MPH forecast for the afternoon, if not higher.
I definitely needed to take more breaks for breathing once we were above 11500′. Add in the headwind and steep uphill and I felt like I was barreling forward maybe 20′ in short bursts of energy, and then needing to stop and catch my breath for a couple minutes. Repeat.
We stopped for another snack and drink, kind of hunkering down behind half a rock to avoid some of the wind. Once we got moving again, I had even more trouble keeping going, and the wind gusts occasionally blew me off the trail. I was starting to worry that the wind would just keep getting stronger, and I could see over to the North Mount Elbert Trail that we’d be coming down that it was much narrower. I remembered it being steeper and with looser rocks too and I didn’t want to get blown off the mountain.
I motioned for Jeremiah to wait for me when he was taking a breather and I caught up to figure out what to do. He was fine turning around but I felt bad turning back because he hadn’t been on top of Elbert before. We decided to go a little farther and see if the wind got worse. Within a few steps of starting to hiking again, it was immediately way worse, so we turned back at 13521′, probably a mile or less from the summit at 14439′. Then we had to explain to each of the dozen or so people coming up the mountain behind us that, no, we hadn’t summited, and yes, the wind got stronger the higher up you got.
I’m not great at alpine starts because I can’t each much food that early in the morning, so I just felt like I was running on a deficit, and even the additional snacks I’d stopped for hadn’t helped. And with that wind, it was hard to stop for enough snacks. Plus, we had our bigger packs on (bigger than a day pack anyway) and it just felt like a sail that the wind was catching to blow me over.
Moving downhill in the wind was only slightly easier because I could breathe much better. Once we got back to the new part of the trail, it was much easier to keep my footing without loose rocks everywhere, and of course, the wind lessened as we got lower. Back at treeline, we stopped again to eat a bunch of food and de-layer.
Once back on the Colorado Trail, we continued north over easy terrain to the Mount Massive Trailhead. It was 5.4 miles of CT for the day, with 7.8 additional miles on Elbert. I’d technically connected this section hike with my 2014 section somewhere on the South Mount Elbert Trail, or on the CT where it passed the North Mount Elbert Trail junction, but I didn’t consider it finished until we got to the road. We sat in the shade to wait for our ride – Stretch!
She pulled up in a tiny rental car and we bounced back out the dirt road to Leadville. We stopped by Melanzana first thing, only to find the expected few items in stock, checked into the Inn the Clouds Hostel (the same hostel I’d stayed at before but with new owners) in a private room, showered, then headed back out for dinner and drinks. The only pizza place in town that is normally open every day happened to be closed today for mechanical issues. That’s what we’d really been craving but we decided to grab some Mexican food and margaritas instead, followed by drinks at the Legendary Silver Dollar Saloon. The banner on the outside told us it was the best saloon in the west so, of course, we had to be sure. It was pretty empty but fun all the same.
Tomorrow we head back to Animal’s house in Golden, and I fly home from Denver on Saturday.
Colorado Trail complete!