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Saturday, December 10, 2011

Sunrise at the top of the Rockies

Really early Saturday morning there was a total lunar eclipse. My mission was to see it from the top of Mt. Elbert, along with the sunrise that followed shortly thereafter.

Mt. Elbert (elevation 14,433 ft.) is the tallest mountain in the entire Rocky Mountain range, as well as the tallest in Colorado. It is the second tallest mountain in the lower 48 s
tates behind Mt. Whitney in California.

I tried to take a nap in the late afternoon, but I could not fall asleep. Therefore I was left doing this hike while pulling an all-nighter. I left my house at 10:15pm on Friday night and drove 2+ hours to the trail head for Mt. Elbert's east ridge.

At the south Mt. Elbert trailhead, there's a
4-wheel drive forest rd that runs for 1.8 miles of this 12 mile hike, and I decide to take a crack at this in the Honda Ridgeline in order to save some time. I drive the first 1.4 miles of this trail without any major issues. The road is covered in packed snow, but so far I have good traction. There's a couple of white knuckle moments, but it's really just my very big truck vs. the very narrow, snow covered trail shows with sheer drop offs on the edge of the road. At the 1.5 mile mark, I pass a campsite where I see a Jeep Rubicon parked and a tent pitched behind it. I think very briefly, "I wonder why he stopped here rather than another 1/3 of a mile up the road at the trail head." I drive toward the trail-head and as I am approaching I see two things. There is no parking area here, and the snow on the road is much deeper now. I wonder if I am going to have difficulty turning around. As that thought crosses my mind, my truck begins to lose all traction, and I am officially stuck.

I did come prepared for such a problem. I had brought a shovel.

Not the best thing to do at 1am when it's 5 degrees outside, but I get out of the truck and realize I am in a pretty bad spot. My truck is up to it's bumpers in deep snow. I am on a narrow 4-wheel drive trail in the dark with my only option of backing down the trail since there is only deeper snow in front of me. They say a picture is worth a thousand words... so feast on my mspaint interpretation of this situation.
I proceed to dig, shovel, rock the truck back and forth a few times, shovel some more, and I scope out the situation and decide that if I can make it back through this first set of trees I can back up a snow covered hill with no real trees on it and maybe make a 3 point turn. But first I have to not hit any of these trees and every time my truck rocks back and forth it's sliding further to the right and my truck bed is now maybe 3 or 4 inches from a tree... and getting closer.

I shovel some more. Trying to ensure my next attempt will not slide any further to the right and instead I will just go for it down the hill backwards into this snow covered turn around area.

I finish shoveling A LOT of snow and am prepared to make a run for it. I fold in the mirrors on the truck just in case.

I miss the tree on the right by maybe an inch or two but successfully get past it and out of the deep snow. So I pick up a little speed to plow through backwards into this turnaround area. I manage to miss all the tree somehow and only make it about a 1/3 of the way up this hill, and I cut the wheel a little too late so I am further down the trail slightly (which puts me closer to a tree). I again have to shovel myself out and then get to a point where I am literally between a rock and a hard place (pic below).

I eventually get it turned around and escape without a scratch by doing a lot of shoveling, and a 12 or 16 point turn. I drive a 1/3 of a mile back down the trail to a place I can park. At this point I am already exhausted from shoveling, and have wasted about 45 minutes with the whole getting stuck fiasco.

I am determined though. So I gear up, winter boots, gaiters, ice axe, snow shoes, trek poles, etc. It's about 5 degrees at 1:30am. You usually lose about 5.5 degrees with every 1000ft in elevation gained. So, it's only going to get colder as I hike up and it won't even start warming until the sun comes up. Clothing is a huge deal when hiking a 14er in winter. Particularly when you are stupid enough to hike one in the middle of the night.

Feet: Single pair of Merino wool socks, Sorel winter insulated boots. Microspikes (for traction)
Legs: Smartwool base layer on my legs. A synthetic layer too, just for added warmth. Top layer is waterproof & windproof pants. I also have gaiters on.
Core: Synthetic layer next the body, then a loose fitting Under Armor shirt, then a thin alpine weight fleece. The top layer is a PrimaLoft jacket that is wind proof but not water proof. If I get caught in snow or rain, I have a waterproof rain jacket in my backpack.
Head: Thick fleece neck gaiter, balaclava, and my Boston Bruins hat of course. I also have ski goggles in my backpack if the wind starts blowing snow around. Headlamp for navigating in the dark.
Hands: Synthetic glove liners, and a windproof and waterproof REI mountaineering gloves on top.

Finally ready to go have some fun...

I start my hike and quickly realize that although I am carrying snow shoes, I likely will not need them. There is a fairly solid trench of packed snow below the treeline. I quickly throw the Microspikes on which is very helpful on some of the steep packed snow terrain that cuts through all the aspens.

I make my way through the trees quickly... stopping occasionally for water and to take in the full moon. The full moon in fact is so bright that I don't even really need my headlamp. I have it off for at least half the time.

I never listen to music when hiking, but brought my iPod on this trip. So I rock out to some music while making my way to the treeline. This hike from where I eventually parked my truck is probably 4400 ft in elevation gain, and right around 9 miles round trip.

Hiking at night is so peaceful, and quite different. So far I am warm, but my toes are beginning to get cold. I tell myself that I will likely need to break out the chemical toe warmers soon.

After getting to the treeline, and realizing I am maybe only halfway to the summit, I feel tired for the first time. I trudge along. I remember the countless trip reports I had read on about this hike and heard about the many false summits. I am mentally prepared for them.

I stop about 13,000 ft to put chemical toe warmers on my feet and in my gloves too. At this point the cold is really pissing me off. I am doing everything I know to stay warm. My balaclava is frozen from where I am breathing on it, my nalgene water bottle even with the insulator around it is frozen shut and when I do get it open I have to use a knife to break through the layer of ice to take a drink. I have ice crystals forming on my eyelashes, but I am too cold to even stop and take my backpack off to get my goggles.

I continue while viewing the sky starting to lighten up.

I realize that I am likely going to miss the total Lunar eclipse since the moon is setting at the time of the eclipse and I would have to be at the summit then, and I just don't think there is a good chance at seeing that as I watch the moon begin to disappear behind Mt. Elbert.

I have already passed a couple of false summits and now I think I am actually approaching what I think is the summit only to have Mr. false summit rear it's ugly head and tell me I have another 30 minutes more to go at least. My pace is slow right now. I am probably around 14,000 ft in elevation. My feet are cold, and hurting. My spirits are way low and with every false summit I have thoughts of just quitting. But, this being my 18th 14er, I have been here before, on almost every mountain I have climbed. When this happens I just tell myself to take X number of steps more. I then take 30 steps...again I am frozen, tired, sore, thumbs going numb regardless of the chemical warmers.... I take another 20 steps this time.... again I think about turning back.... I wait till I can breathe a bit easier and my body tells me to "move or freeze" and I take another 40 steps this time....

Eventually, I reach the ridge to where I can see the view to the west of me. This is a huge motivator. The sun also peaks up at this time.

I now see what I am 99.9% sure is the real summit. I am now super motivated again and eager to get a move on, but even with numb fingers in this 10 - 15 mph wind at probably -15 degrees, I stop to snap an amazing shot of the mountains to the west of me with the sun glow on some peaks and the shadow of Elbert (which I am standing on) in my view.

It's views like this
(below) that makes me want to endure this bull shit.

I hurry to the summit trying to warm myself with my pace now.
The last few steps are always the best as that feeling of "Holy shit... this is it!" hits you.

I have made it to the TOP OF THE ROCKIES!!!

I literally scream in joy. The physical relief, sense of accomplishment, conquering self doubt, the views, all rolled into one. I am the happiest guy at this moment, even with my numb hands. I stand there for a minute just taking it all in and then decide I am going to snap some pictures quickly and get down to a warmer area asap.

I immediately begin my descent, thinking to myself that the only thing that sucks about winter climbs is the enjoyment of the summit is usually very brief.

I start my descent, and am 100% satisfied. What a great (and yes, I'll admit) slightly insane night/winter hike up Mt. Elbert.

How many people out there can say they've seen a sunrise from the highest point in the Rocky mountains?

On the way down, I have a lot of fun. My knee is hurting the whole way, but I just don't care. The sun has warmed the day so much that I lost the hat, gloves, jacket, fleece, and it might as well be a spring day. Even though it's only 20 or 25 degrees now, the sun makes it feel so much warmer.

On the way down, I stop once to eat a Snickers bar and some pretzels I had brought. The "Summit Snickers" was a suggestion from somebody on that I thought was a great idea. Even though I ate mine at 13,000 ft. on the way down, and it was frozen solid, it's still an awesome idea.

I bump into the two guys who were camping near the trail head. I apologize for keeping them awake with my drama with the truck. We share some good conversation and I am then again on my way. I reach the truck at 11:35am stopping only a few times on the way to take some pictures of the aspens.

My day ends with a drive down the 4-wheel drive trail that made me learn the lesson of... "if you see a parked Jeep Rubicon on a 4-wheel drive trail, and you are in a shitty Ridgeline, stop, do not proceed."

On the way home driving into Leadville, I pass by the East side of Mt. Elbert. It puts it all into perspective. Another great adventure in the Rockies comes to an end, now if I can just stay awake for the drive down I-70 into Denver.

1 comment:

  1. Adam - thanks for this report. I have a little kia and would love to buy an old jeep or something to drive these dicey roads. I can't tell you how many miles I've hiked just to make it to the THs and already fatigued ;)
    There's a group getting together to hike Elbert Christmas day so your report/blog will be helpful.