Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Rocky Mountain High: Climbing Mt Elbert- the Highest Peak in the Rockies

The Rocky Mountains have no shortage of high summits.  The highest peaks of the range are in Colorado.  Mt Elbert stands the tallest as both the highest peak in Colorado and the highest summit in the entire Rocky Mountain Range.  The summit elevation is 14440 feet. (14433' is often listed as the elevation but the most recent surveys list 14440')  Only California's Mt. Whitney, 65 feet taller, has a higher elevation in the lower 48 states.

Despite Mt Elbert's lofty elevation, it is known to be a fairly tame mountain to climb among 14ers.  Because of its status as Colorado's highest peak and relatively easy terrain for its size, it tends to get crowded.  I'm not a fan of crowded summits so I was in no hurry to climb Elbert during the busy, snow-free hiking season.  Drew Petersen, with whom I climbed Quandary Peak on my last hike, was looking to climb Elbert this winter.  Since I never have been on Elbert, I was happy to join him.  

The weather didn't turn out in our favor last week.  We had a period of warmer temps and a decent weather window on MLK day.  We planned on hiking the East Ridge.  The slopes are relatively gentle with nearly no avalanche risk.  Despite the gentle slopes, the route covers about 12 miles* round trip in the winter and gains close to 5000 vertical feet so it's still a workout with its high elevation. *(I have seen the distance for this trip range from just over 11 miles to 12.5 so I'll use about 12 miles for my distance.)

Even though we hiked on a Monday, we were surprised to be the only car at the trailhead.  It was MLK day and a long weekend for many.  One of the benefits of winter hiking is more chance for solitude.  Since this route has little avalanche risk and climbs the highest summit in the state, we expected to see a few people, especially after our fairly crowded midweek climb on Quandary.

We began our trip a few minutes after 8AM.  While the forecast wasn't that bad, it called for increasing clouds and somewhat windy conditions.  There wasn't a cloud in the sky or a breath of wind at the start of the hike.  From the trailhead, the hike follows a snow covered road with easy hiking and little elevation gain before reaching the Colorado Trail.  The easy hiking continues on the Colorado Trail before beginning the climb on the South Mt Elbert Trail.  From the trailhead, the route was well packed from previous traffic and an easy bareboot walk.

Early view near the start of the hike
Once on the South Mt Elbert Trail, more challenging hiking begins. The trail begins to really climb.  The climbing isn't too difficult and begins in a pleasant forest with plenty of aspens.  Along the way the trail passes through a few clearings that offer decent views, mostly toward South Elbert and a few views to the east and the Mosquito Range.  We were able to hike bareboot all the way to treeline with no issues.  The long East Ridge ahead to the summit was visible.  There were large sections of windblown terrain with little snow.  To save some weight, we stashed our unused snowshoes at treeline.  Up until treeline it was fairly warm and windless.  I was able to stick with my baselayer shirt and didn't even wear my gloves.

Walking through aspens
Mt Elbert in the distance
Looking over Twin Lakes
Nice views passing through a clearing
Looking south 
Another nice clearing
Approaching treeline
Not far above treeline a lone hiker with a dog passed us.  He was moving up the mountain at a blistering pace.  He made it to the summit quickly and passed us on his return down the mountain well below the summit.  On his decent he was running.  We came to find out he was a local from Leadville training for the next Leadville Trail 100 Ultramarathon.  He was the only other hiker on Mt. Elbert for the day.

As we gained elevation Drew and I split up to travel at our own paces and I took the lead.  By 12000 feet in elevation the snow was thin enough that the trail was visible and could be followed at times.  The wind picked up with elevation and I made a couple stops to add layers and goggles. With the elevation gain the views continued to get better.

A good look ahead above treeline
Nearly snowfree section 
Stretch of visible summer trail
The last hump to the summit, the trail disappeared again and there was a consistent snow field to the summit.  The upper part of the ridge is the steepest but never gets too steep.  Even with the hardpacked snow on the upper ridge we were able to continue to the summit bareboot without traction devices.  
The end of snowfree travel
Snowfield the rest of the way to the summit
The last few feet to the summit
I made it to the summit about 1140AM, about 3.5 hours from the start.   I took some summit photos before adding layers. The wind was somewhat gusty, maybe an occasional 40MPH gust, but nothing out of the ordinary for January at 14000 feet.  While Drew made his way up the last part of the ridge, I hunkered down out of the wind the best I could and enjoyed the solitude.  I had the summit to myself for close to 30 minutes and savored the views from the rooftop of the Rockies.

Elevation 14440 feet
Looking down Northeast Ridge with Mt Massive beyond
Clouds moving in to the north
Looking toward La Plata Peak 14361'
The scenery on any alpine summit is wonderful and Elbert's summit was no exception.  Colorado's second highest summit, Mt Massive is just a few miles to the north with a beautiful basin between the two mountains.  The clouds that were forecasted for the afternoon were visible toward the northern end of the Sawatch Range in the vicinity of Mt. of the Holy Cross.  La Plata Peak's jagged Ellingwood Ridge is just to the southwest and most impressive.  The endless summits of the Sawatch Range stand to the south with some of the Sangre de Cristos visible in the distance on the horizon.  The peaks of the Elk Range near Aspen are easy to pick out to the west.  To the east, the length of the Mosquito Range seems close by with Pikes Peak looming large on the horizon.

Elbert's South Ridge and Black Cloud Trail Route
Looking southeast
Endless mountains in the Colorado Rockies
Tomcat on the summit
When Drew arrived on the summit, we lingered for a few minutes to take a couple more photos before heading back down the mountain.  The upper snowfield was steep enough to boot ski at spots. We made quick time on the decent stopping only briefly for a few pictures and to lose some layers.  The snow managed to stay pretty solid and we didn't have any problems postholing as the temperature warmed with lower elevation.  We managed to complete the entire route bareboot.  The last stretch of the trip on the snow covered dirt road seemed to drag in the end but we managed to make it back to the car before 230PM.  Our total time was less than 6.5 hours to cover nearly 12 miles.  By the time we reached the trailhead, clouds were just starting to reach the summit.

Looking back down the ridge toward Twin Lakes
and Elbert Forebay
Drew desending the ridge
Good look at the snowfield
Tomcat enjoying the view across Box Creek Couloir during
a break to remove layers
Descending through a meadow
Once again this was another beautiful trip in the mountains.  The skies kept clear our entire route and we had nearly endless views.  The packed out trail and solid snow on the upper mountain allowed for fast travel without any rocky travel.  We were happy to have the highest mountain in Colorado basically to ourselves.  As an added bonus we saw a herd of elk on the drive and a coyote running along the road.  There were also a few cat tracks along our route, most likely bobcat.  You can't ask for a much better day.

Cat tracks, I'm guessing bobcat
One more summit shot

Thursday, January 8, 2015

A Beautiful Winter Climb of Quandary Peak

Quandary Peak is one of the most climbed of Colorado's 14000 foot peaks.  It is a relatively short hike and fairly easy as far as 14ers go.  It also has very easy access with its trailhead just off of paved Colorado highway 9 close to the town of Breckenridge.  It's a popular peak among hikers new to hiking 14ers as well.

I never climbed the peak.  Stories of big crowds deterred me from visiting Quandary.  Drew Petersen, another hiker from Salida that I started talking to climbed the peak several times and spoke quite highly Quandary.  Drew had plans to hike the peak again in the near future.  Since we live pretty close to each other and I never climbed the peak, we decided to climb the peak together. We monitored the forecast and set out on Wednesday, January 7th.  When we arrived at the trailhead it was in the 20s with nearly no wind at the parking lot.  It was a beautiful clear bluebird day.

Quandary has relatively gentle slopes and is typically safe from avalanches in the winter on its East Ridge route.  This makes it a popular 14er for winter climbs as well.  Because of its popularity, the parking lot already had quite a few cars for a Wednesday in January.

From the trailhead, the trail was very nicely packed from the hiking traffic.  Almost immediately we put on microspikes and used them the entire trip.  We had the trail to ourselves as we traveled through the woods on the lower reaches of the route.  As we broke out to the trees for good we could see quite a few groups climbing ahead of us.  Even on the lower reaches of the hike there are plenty of views from several clearings. We reached  treeline quickly and the views are pretty much continuous the rest of the climb.

Looking back toward Hoosier Ridge
The trail was well-packed
Looking toward North Star Mountain early in the hike
The summit poking out above the trees
The route passing through a meadow before treeline
Drew climbing a lower slope
View toward Grays and Torreys
Before climbing above treeline, we stopped to add a layer since the wind was picking up with elevation.  Almost immediately we began passing other hikers.  There were a decent number of hikers along the way.  By the time we reached the main ridge to the summit we passed every group climbing that day.  Only one other climber that already summited passed us on skis as he descended.

North Star Mountain
Catching up to other hikers above treeline
Looking ahead to Quandary
I think this looking at Wheeler Mountain
Pacific Peak
Before we made our way up the last 1000 feet to the summit along the ridge we stopped to add our shells and goggles.  The wind was stronger along the ridge above 13000 feet.  I took the lead and made it to the summit about 15 minutes before Drew and had the top to myself until he caught up.  I had a snack and drink while taking in the views at 14265 feet.  The summit was a little chilly with gusts maybe reaching 30MPH and a temperature probably in the teens.

Quandary's East Ridge
Drew making his way up the ridge
The scenery started early on this hike and the summit views are beautiful.  The 14ers of Lincoln, Democrat, and Bross are just a few miles to the south.  The northern Sawatch 14ers area are prominent to the west as well as the Elk Range's high summits.  The front range 14ers of Gray and Torreys seem very close and Pike's Peak dominates the skyline toward Colorado Springs.  The Sangres are even visible far to the south.

Looking west from summit
Looking east
Looking north
Sawatch Range beyond the West Ridge
Sawatch close up

Decalibron 14ers over North Star
Looking down the West Ridge
Tomcat on the summit
We descended quickly making great time.  Along the way we passed quite a few people.  The views are just as good heading down as they are climbing.  Before entering the woods for good, there were a few places where the snow started to soften but never bad enough to put on our snowshoes.  We used microspikes the entire trip with no issues although most were using snowshoes or skinning.

Descending back down the ridge
The view northeast as we descended
 It seems a lot of people that climb 14ers in Colorado grow tired of hearing about Quandary climbs.  It is a fairly easy peak among the 14ers and gets quite busy.  I can't speak for the trip in summer, but in winter this is a beautiful trip,  As far as winter hikes go, this one is a great bang for the buck.  Starting at nearly 11000 feet, there is minimum time below treeline, and the views are big.  The entire trip is around 7 miles and getting to the trailhead is easy.  Seeing the endless views of snow covered mountains from the summit was well worth the trip even if having Quandary to yourself is rare.  This was the most people I have seen on any hike since I moved to Colorado.  I was lucky to have the summit to myself for about 15 minutes even with quite a few others climbing that day.

Line of hikers heading up as we descended
I did this hike with Drew Petersen.  This is the first time I hiked with Drew.  In fact since I moved to Colorado in June I have hiked, mountain biked, and cross country skied more than twenty times and each trip was solo so this is my first trip in Colorado that I wasn't solo.  Even though he is nearly twenty years my senior he kept up with me and passed the entire crowd of other hikers on the climb.  He traveled over 1600 miles last year  in the mountains by foot so he's in great condition.  I'll be sure to join Drew on future trips in the mountains.

Another shot of  Tomcat on the summit