A day after my 34th birthday, I was staring at the base of a mountain. The top of Colorado, Mt. Elbert.
The South Mt. Elbert Trail was only 11 miles roundtrip, and my initial reaction was that of overconfidence and a general feeling of relaxation and tranquility. With my increased conditioning (this was my 11th highpoint attempt) not only could the hike be done in a day, but I was looking to do it marathon-like with continuous climbing without breaks.
No basecamp, no heavy pack, mild mountain weather — sure, it was a “fourteener” (a peak over 14,000 feet) with 4,600 feet of elevation gain, but again, only 11 miles. Couldn’t get any easier.
And it was. Sorry to spoil the end, but there wasn’t much to Mt. Elbert via either of the standard routes, even with my scrambling on the north face.
As a result, I had much contempt for the climb and felt extremely unfulfilled and had a huge realization after the climb. You see, a month earlier I had summitted Mt. Whitney, the highest in the lower 48 states, and as soon as I was back at my desk in Ohio, I was buying plane tickets to Colorado for another venture. But a less challenging one.
I would, however, have a traveling partner for the first time in my cellmate, although she wouldn’t be hiking, after almost dying of altitude sickness on Wheeler Peak.
We got into Denver around 9 p.m. on Friday and stayed at Hotel VQ, right beside the Denver Broncos football stadium. As a disgruntled Browns fan, I was disappointed in my reservation and flipped off the structure through the window throughout the evening.
On day two, Saturday, we headed west on I-70 for about 80 miles and then dipped south to Leadville, the highest incorporated city at over 10,000 feet. Leadville keeps the Wild West motif of wooden sidewalks and old saloons. From there, we traveled further south to a cabin in Twin Lakes.
It was my birthday. I didn’t drink to mark the occasion for the first time since I turned 21. But my cellmate made me “wrestle” a lot to honor the day and my legs were shot for the hike.
Like Whitney, I pounded water all day trying to acclimatize.
Then up at 4 a.m. on Sunday, day three. But it was so different. Waking up on summit day in a bed? Being able to make breakfast in a kitchen? Using indoor plumbing? Crazy.
It was a short drive to the trailhead. Up the pothole-filled dirt forest road (really fun driving if you have a rental car that you don’t mind destroying) and on the trail at 5 a.m. with “leadlight.” I was the only one on the trail, my headlamp harpooning the dark, with the distant barks of dogs. Or coyotes. Or some mix of cougar-dog that would smell my fear of being alone and track me to the top and devour me at the summit. Insecurities were overtaking my mind.
Sunrise broke right before the treebreak of the Alpine zone. It was a fantastic views of Twin Lakes (looking like puddles now) and other fourteeners in the area, like Quail Mountain. No trees can grow at that altitude, so there’s that distinct line of the alpine zone, where green fades to coal and sheens of granite glory.
I noticed two dots on the ridge above me — thought I was the only one. I couldn’t let them beat me to the top so I started chasing them.
Finally, I caught then 10 minutes from the summit.
It was an older couple from New Hampshire. It was their first big peak. He wanted to join a search and rescue team back east and this was his tryout.
Above the treeline, I was really surprised with the constant wind pressure on the body, willing you in any direction.
Alone at the top. I’ve had the peak all to myself for dozens of climbs and there’s nothing better than not having to share the thin air.
As many understand, if you want less people, go a harder route (or go to a less popular mountain). For example, I only climb the mountains east of the Mississippi River in winter and I usually start hiking in the dark, early-morning hours. On the downclimb, there’s nothing better than passing the herds of hikers on their way up, bottlenecking and crowding the whole time.
My descent was that of pure speed. At the car, now coated in maroon dust, I checked my mountaineering watch (with a built-in barometer) and the total hike time was four hours, 19 minutes. My finest physical accomplishment at that time. Little did I know the mountains in Montana and Wyoming were simultaneously laughing at what I thought being in shape was.
My legs were weak and I didn’t acclimatize well enough so there was more pain than usual. The overwhelming euphoria didn’t come over me, either. It was just too easy of a hike. Since I started highpointing, it had been about going to the next level. But Elbert was regression. I thought, it’s time to get serious about real peaks or time to consider retirement.
Before I got on the plane, I remember what the old timers on Mt. Whitney told me months ago about the “Southern Six Pack,” how you could do it all in one big push in summer, but it would takes days in winter.
I thought, as my boarding pass was scanned, I’m going to set the world record for the fastest winter climb of all six peaks.
And that quest will be detailed in the next column.
The Life section is supported by Brethren Care Village in Ashland.