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Rocky Mountain High–Part 1

January 22, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

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In our travels around this beautiful country, mapping out our vacations and weekend trips to enable us to climb the highpoint of each of our 50 states, Mt. Elbert, Colorado was a recent destination. During the winter months, we had reserved a site online at a national forest campground located in the Sawatch Range of the Rocky Mountains. With a view of two pristine glacial lakes, it was a restful place to spend the nights before and after our summit.

As we often do, we spend the day prior to our highest climb to date gathering information. When checking in at our campground located in the San Isabel National Forest, we ask the host about the trail to the Mt. Elbert summit.  She informs us that the South trail is the only one to use, as the North is considerably more difficult. She explains that, in her younger years, she climbed both trails many times and warns that we had better be in great climbing shape. We leave her site a bit concerned as our guidebook, whose information and route we have studied considerably, not only recommends the North trail, it does not even mention that a South trail exists. We have followed the directions in our guidebook, and recommendations made by the highpointers website, www.highpointers.org, to the letter during our five years of climbing and have found them both helpful and accurate.

Mt. Elbert, Colorado

View of Mt. Elbert from the campground

After setting up our camper and unpacking a bit, we head over to the National Forest Service headquarters to gather more information about our intended hike.  Along the way, we drive by the trailhead for the South Trail and see a group of teens descending, having completed their hike a day ahead of us. They appear exhausted but jubilant as they regroup at the base of the mountain. We note that there are no toilet facilities at the trailhead and minimal signage indicating that this is the place to begin the climb.

At the NFS office, the ranger provides maps and a guide and informs us that there are indeed two trails. He, also, indicates that the North trail is the more difficult. At this point we are wondering why our helpful guidebook has not seen fit to mention the South trail.

While talking with the ranger, we notice a couple sidle up to the counter, interested in a map displayed there. Overhearing our conversation, they inform us that they had climbed the north trail the day before. In response to our inquiry about how it went, the woman responded that they were “on the mountain” for 12 hours. Upon seeing the shock on my face, she adds, almost apologetically, “We were moving very slowly.”

We leave the office more confused than ever. Our guidebook predicts the average hiking time as 8-10 hours. True to form, we are hopeful of completing the trek in less than 7 hours. In nearly every highpoint climb we have done, we have been able to accomplish the task, including taking photos at the top and during the climb, in less time than the book has predicted. The one exception occurred when we took a wrong turn on the way down Wheeler Peak in northern New Mexico and hiked about a mile out of our way, thus having to cover the erroneous mile twice. That was also our longest climb to date at 9 hours. We have no desire to spend 12 hours on a hike with a predicted completion time of 8-10!

Our final stop for our day of investigation before returning to the campground for an early relaxing evening was the North trailhead.  After a challenging drive over several miles of rutted gravel roads, we are treated to an obvious trailhead with restrooms and clear signage. Obviously this is the major trailhead after all.

At the Mt. Elbert North Trailhead

Ryan and Terry at the North Trailhead

As we are inspecting the site, an older man walks down the trail and heads to his car. He appears to be in his 70s and slender, in good shape. We ask if he has climbed Mt. Elbert. He indicates that he has, starting out about 6:45 that morning. It is now approximately 2:45. Not a bad time. I am hoping I will be doing this in my 70s and we are encouraged by his time and success. We decide this is the route we will climb in accordance with the directions in our guidebook.

We head back down our bumpy gravel road, prepare a simple but nourishing meal and make a small campfire. We relax a bit and watch an awe-inspiring sunset over the mountains and our two beautiful lakes. We turn in early to prepare for our challenging journey the following day.  More to come…Next: Part 2: The Climb.

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