Colorado: Scary moments on Mt. Elbert

Kim Fenske describes a winter climb of Colorado’s highest summit

Mt. Elbert view: Alpenglow — and the moon — across the Arkansas River Valley.

Story and photos by Kim Fenske

At 14,433 feet, Mount Elbert is the highest mountain in Colorado. In summer, the summit is one of the easiest Fourtenners to attain. The primary trailheads mark junctions with the Colorado Trail that passes north and south along the base of Mount Massive and Mount Elbert within sight of Leadville. Branching off of the Colorado Trail, trails to the summit rise quickly on switchbacks to gain the summit along ridges from the northeast and southeast. The summit is four miles from the north trailhead and a bit over six miles from the lower south trailhead.  From either direction, the summit can be reached in approximately six hours, with a descent of about three more hours.

Sunset from the summit of Mount Elbert.

From Leadville, the north trailhead is southwest of Highway 24 a few miles from Leadville.  Taking Colorado Highway 300 west, a sign indicates a left turn to Halfmoon Campground. The northeast trailhead is located at the end of Lake County 11, beyond Halfmoon Campground.  In winter, the road to the trailhead is not maintained.

The south trailhead is west of Highway 24 on the way to Aspen. Turning west and driving four miles toward Independence Pass, Lakeview Campground lies north on Lake County Road 24.  The lower trailhead is immediately past Lakeview Campground, while a four-wheel-drive parking area is two miles farther along a mildly steep and rough Forest Service road.

On the summit, Mount Elbert offers expansive views of the Arkansas River Valley to the east.  The view south provides a backdrop of the Collegiate Peaks. Mount Massive lies north of Elbert.  The Sawatch Range provides dramatic mountain slopes projecting skyward across the horizon west of the Mount Elbert.

Although Mount Elbert is classified among the easiest Fourteeners to summit, I am aware that hazards exist along the 5,000 feet of vertical ascent from the valley to the ridge of this mountain. The temperature at the trailhead to any Fourteener can often be forty degrees warmer than the summit.  During much of the year, access to drinking water from natural sources can be nonexistent. Sudden storms and the lightning that may accompany them form quickly over the high mountains. The rugged terrain and slippery surfaces of wet or ice-covered rock provide ample opportunities for serious injury. Crumbling rock adds to the danger of both slipping on gravel and being struck by rampaging rocks on any hike.  Hikers often go unprepared to meet the dangers that exist on the mountain slopes of Colorado.

Mt. Massive, seen from Mt. Elbert.

Therefore, I will discuss a few items that help me be prepared for situations that develop in remote areas of the backcountry. I recommend that everyone who hikes in the mountains should carry these items, at a minimum. I often observe people on trails with much less gear and shudder because they are missing components of “The Ten Essentials.” 

In my pockets, I always carry a pocket knife and fire starter, tissues or lint packets, along with several bandages in my wallet.  Although reception does not exist in many gulches, I carry a cell phone that usually functions above tree-line.

In my daypack, I have compression sacks that hold my down jacket, heat packs, windbreaker, and down mittens or lighter gloves.  I carry a second fire starter and two headlamps with extra batteries.  I pack trail snacks, such as cheese, nuts, and rice chips.  Attached by carabiner, I have at least two water bottles, sunglasses, reading glasses, and global positioning system.  On most hikes, I also carry a water filter.

Sunset over Mt. Elbert.

Although I was reasonably prepared, Mount Elbert nearly killed me on my latest hike.  I was familiar with the switchbacks that ascend west about a half-mile north of the upper trailhead and quickly gained the ridge to the summit.  When I broke out of the krummholz, I observed a backpack left behind by the only other hikers on the mountain.  Since a backpack is an extra burden, they chose to ascend three miles and 3,000 vertical feet without emergency gear.  I was not tempted by the non sequitur  to follow their example.

I met the two mid-way up the southeast face of the ridge, while picking my path among steep stretches of talus, tundra turf, and snowfields. Two hours later, I reached the summit and watched the sun drop into the mountains beyond Mount Elbert. Under alpenglow and nearly full moon, I descended along a line north of my climb.  Encountering a couple of short snowfields, I glissaded on a shallow grade while holding my speed in check with the resistance of soft powder over a firm base.  I continued along the ridge until I arrived at a drop-off with a couple hundred feet of steeper snowfield. Since a detour around the snow involved cutting a level path across to the southeast face of the ridge for quite a distance, I decided to glissade this longer and steeper section of snow.

Sunset over the Arkansas Valley.

A few feet into my slide, the cornice of snow became a vertical sheet of ice. With rapidly increasing velocity, I was dropping in a direct line down the face of Mount Elbert toward a small boulder.  I kicked my heels into the ice in an attempt to check my speed, causing me to rotate over the slick surface until I was hurtling head-first toward the boulder at the base of the run. Assessing the awkwardness of this approach, I pulled my legs down until my back was facing the base of the ice flow and held myself in a fetal position. I braced myself for impact with the rock that came within two seconds, throwing me skyward and into three rolls across talus and tundra.

I stood up in a cloud of down blowing out of a hole in my jacket below the armpit and began hiking down the remaining two thousand feet to the tree-line. After a few hundred steps, I felt my knee getting cold and wet. I found a rock, dropped my pants, and discovered blood surging from some minor abrasions of the skin beside my knee cap. I patched the focal point of blood with a bandage and proceeded on the six-mile trek back to the trailhead. When I inspected the large hold in the lower center of my backpack and heavy-duty food container shattered inside, I was glad that I had hauled my backpack to the summit of Mount Elbert.

The southeast route on Mt. Elbert. Colorado.

Kim Fenske is a former wilderness ranger, firefighter who has hiked thousands of miles in the Colorado mountains. He has served on the board of directors of Friends of the Eagles Nest Wilderness Area.

Fenske has authored several hiking books filled with hundreds of photographs of Colorado wildlife, wildflowers, and scenery. His books are enjoyed by thousands of outdoor enthusiasts. His current electronic book titles are published on Amazon for Kindle, as well as Barnes and Noble for Nook. Search for these titles: “Greatest Hikes in Central Colorado,” “Holy Cross Wilderness Area,” and “Eagles Nest Wilderness Area.”

More stories by Kim Fenske:

3 thoughts on “Colorado: Scary moments on Mt. Elbert

  1. I doubt that an ice axe would have penetrated the sheet adequately while I slid out-of-control toward the boulders below. Furthermore, if I had rolled over the boulder while holding an ice axe, I suspect that I probably would have put the ice axe through my chest, throat, or head and died.

    In the last photograph, entitled “The southeast route . . .”, the glissade is visible slightly right of the summit and a few hundred feet down Mount Elbert. Although it looks like snow, the sheet was ice, and steeper than it may appear.

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