To be the highest person in Colorado, a state where you can’t go a day without smelling weed, despite abstaining from any mind-altering substances, was my goal of the day: to stand on the top of Mt. Elbert winter summit at 14,439 feet. And despite some gnarly weather, I was committed to accomplishing it.The road heading out from the lower South Elbert trailhead is an unplowed dirt road that even in the summer challenges the most badass decked out trucks. In the winter it is a nightmare of ice, snow drifts, and deep wheel sucking potholes. Being the dumbass that I am, I threw my car at it like I was a pro, pretty seriously committed to getting my car stuck as high up the road as possible to cut down the distance I would have to travel the next day.
It was late at night and I was the only one out there in the North Sawatch Range. Through a dense Aspen grove the road curved and stumbled, my car bouncing over the deep drainage channels, holding its own against the mound of snow in between the tire tracks and keeping its grip on the icy grooves. But a half mile in, I barrelled up a hill only to hear the clanking of traction control skipping out and cutting off torque to the spinning wheels. The deep ruts held onto my wheel and kept me from going up the steep but short climb. I blasted my high beams into the distance, walked up ahead to see what was beyond and saw clear, flat road. If only I can jam my car up this hill, I could get a little further.
But with one throw after another, my car stopped on the same pothole, no matter how much momentum I gave it. I backed down 100 yards and settled for pulling off the road in a small clearing with shallow snow for the night.
I slept on the slopes of the hill, blood flooding my toes for the night, and awoke to a beautiful, warm sun. A truck had barreled past me earlier in the morning but contented itself with backing down as well. At least my car wasn’t too wimpy.
The Mt. Elbert winter climb
I set out after the sun crested the distance southeastern peaks, craving its warmth to make the morning a little more tolerable. The hike was a gradual climb up the road for the first couple miles and I enjoyed scouting out exactly where my car would’ve been trapped again, reassuringly not too much further up the road. Navigating up to treeline was a little more complicated than the usual “go up” sort of navigation on these 14ers, but still not an issue. It criss-crossed with The Colorado Trail and I marvelled at what I think were my first steps on that bucket-list hike.
I stopped often to take pictures of the wonderful grove of Aspen trees, the first time I had ever navigated through their white trunks, or at least acknowledged it. Usually the thick pines of the high mountains of Colorado block any view out or sun in, so it was nice to reminisce amongst the deciduous trees that are so common on the east coast trails.
Above tree line the wind quickly blasted me, the harshest I’ve felt from such low elevations, but it was somewhat expected from the exposure on the ridgeline climb. I had seen the forecast of the high gale force winds on my phone the day earlier but laughed them off. I had a balaclava now. I had would have every inch of skin covered and would be fine. But I could never have imagined the cold penetrating as deep as it did.
At around 13,000 feet, I dropped my pack and added a fleece layer underneath my shell. I saw two hikers descending down the ridge and soon they were upon me. “Did you all summit?” I asked, hoping for conditions from up higher.
“No, we turned around at around 13.4, feeling the altitude too much,” the climber who was struggling responded. His face was covered in a criminal looking balaclava while the other man had face sticking out in the wind with nothing more than glacier goggles to protect his eyes.
“Beautiful day though,” the guy feeling alright offered without the slightest hint of sarcasm.
It was a beautiful day, but if I was being honest, I would have said that it was a little windy for my liking. Instead I matched his thoughts and responded, “Sure is, you all have a nice hike down.”
They wished me well and I continued up, occasionally turning around to see the yellow and black of their jackets wind down the ridge until out of sight under the trees.
Nearing 14,000 feet I couldn’t take it anymore. As much as I hate having a balaclava covering my mouth, I was risking some serious frostbite on my face by leaving it off. And it was so worth it once I put it on. I could face the harshest wind and blasting snow with ease with it in, whereas before I was turtling my chin into my jacket, and only gazing up occasionally to scout the summit.
But within twenty feet of the summit the wind doubled and I was having difficult standing. I planted my leeward trekking pole, and occasionally fell into the hard-packed snow, waiting for the gusts to cease. The summit was hellishly windy and I spent little over a minute to capture some picture and a shaky video before working my way back down.
As has been the case on nearly all my summits so far, I become a photographer on the descent, now knowing approximately how long I have to get back before dark, and feeling comfortable about my chances of keeping the headlamp stowed. A half mile down I turned around in amazement at the sun resting on the peak, blasting spindrifts clouding the summit. It was amazing to witness that power and know that, even if just for a moment, I had stood up there.
I loved barreling down the gradual ridge, glissading when possible, and enjoying not having to face the winds head on anymore. The sun was warming on my back, and down at treeline, I took off all my jackets and the balaclava. And by the time I was arriving back at my car, my mittens and stocking cap were shoved in my hip belt.
I tackled the highest summit in Colorado, albeit with some discomfort, it was a smooth, comfortable hike. I felt some tightness in my legs from the climb and anticipated some serious soreness the next day from my continuing exploits. Time for some much needed rest.
6 thoughts on “Mt. Elbert winter climb”
What kind of shoes did you bring? & did they work for you?
I wore some scarpa mont blanc gtx but I would recommend double boots for the super cold days.
Dude too cool, thanks for sharing your story.
I was researching what summiting Elbert is like in winter because I am planning on heading up in December with my sister and saw you’re a medical student too.. looks like we both know how to use the time off!
Heck yeah man! Enjoy your hike; it’s gorgeous up there in the winter.
Great description of your hike!
I’m looking to attempt a summit in January, so finding your post was perfect. I’m wanting to backpack in a few miles, set up camp, and summit the next day. What training/equipment would you say is vital for attempting this peak in the winter?
It’s just a slog so I would say be in good shape. No specific recs. It’s a pretty mellow grade and when I was there the snow was so wind blown it was never that deep. Enjoy!