Mt. Elbert, Colorado — Between Wind And Thickets, It Was All Roses

Post by blogger | May 6, 2014      

From Lou: I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve skied Mount Elbert, Colorado’s highest mountain and one of our easiest “14ers” to glide back down. Only it’s sometimes not so easy.

This past weekend we drove over the hill from here with plans for a quick dash up Elbert, combined with some relaxing trailhead camping. Like I always say “adventure is where you find it.” Not only did we nearly get blown off the peak, but we skied way off the trail during our deproach (no thanks to me, writer of the guidebook!) and ended up semi-lost until we were rescued by one of our gal’s intuition combined with info from a motorcyclist we encountered on a lonely walk down one of a maze of poorly mapped roads.

Plan A, approach via Halfmoon Creek Trailhead on Lake Country Road 11, nixed. Click all images to enlarge.

Plan A, approach via Halfmoon Creek Trailhead on Lake Country Road 11, nixed. An ongoing peeve here in Colorado is the way clueless counties simply don’t get how important these roads are to their recreation economy. They’d plowed the snow, it was perfectly drivable, but closure signs threatened towing. We gathered they’d closed it to prevent “damage” during mud season. Locals were driving it anyway. Yes, that’s Mount Elbert rising above. Click all images to enlarge.

Plan B turned out to be plan A, campsite by the South Elbert Trail, not too shabby.

Plan B turned out to be plan A, campsite by the South Elbert Trail, not too shabby.

An obvious trail makes an easy start, with optimistic views of ample coverage.

An obvious trail makes an easy start, with optimistic views of ample coverage.

Hurricane force winds kicked in at 12,500 ft., ripping the sunglasses from my face and flinging them a hundred feet.

Hurricane force winds kicked in at 12,500 ft., ripping the sunglasses from my face and flinging them a hundred feet.

Bracing 70 mph gusts on the summit.

Bracing 70 mph gusts on the summit. By now we’d all been knocked over multiple times and even crawled a few feet. If the breeze had been even a hair stronger we probably would have turned around. As it was, we could move forward — ever upwards!

It's freezing but check out my hot pink manicure.

It’s freezing but check out my hot pink manicure. The relaxing nap in the summit sunshine was not to happen. Spring skiing? Not today.

Lou exits pseudo Denali on Dynafit Denali.

Lou exits pseudo Denali on Dynafit Denali. We knew where the better skiing was, but instead took the most immediate exit to get away from the wind. The ski down was still fun — lot’s of vertical in an aesthetic location.

Anne, co-founder/owner of Icelantic skis, heads down on the Vanguard.

Anne, co-founder/owner of Icelantic skis, heads down on the Vanguard, handmade in Colorado. We were all being super careful as strong random wind gusts were hitting us even quite some distance below the summit. The snow was crusted over and icy in spots, so a fall could have resulted in a “slide for life — with rocks to catch you.”

Kim Miller, CEO of SCARPA North America, follows on his Trab Volare. Note the wind swirls coming off the ridge.

Kim, CEO of SCARPA North America, follows on Trab Volare. Note the wind swirls off the ridge.

Skis off, skis on, repeat for hours.

Skis off, skis on, repeat for hours. All because instead of following the obvious trail we made three extra ski turns. Lesson learned: if you take along a GPS, track your route from camp so you can easily find it if you get off route on the descent. Lou forgot to do this, understandable since the route up was so obvious. Luckily he did have a topo map on the GPS unit and we could tell exactly where we were. The trail was not marked so we got confused as to how much traversing we needed to do to re-acquire it. Anne broke out her smartphone only to find maps lacking in detail as well. We GPSed our way over to a road that was marked on the electronic map, but not before some hilarious bushwhacking. Amazingly, even though we were completely confused, we ended up heading the correct direction to get back on the trail, although we didn’t go far enough and dropped too low on our skis. It’s always interesting how the human mind works with inadequate information. Kind of a life lesson.

During hours of bushwhacking, whistling and laughing and whimpering.

Despite hours of this, whistling and laughing did not give way to whimpering. Being with a jolly crew makes it all good.

Consulting multiple electronic devices.  Finally feminine intuition and a little help from a stranger led us directly to our campsite, which our blundering had brought us surprisingly close to but we might have missed entirely.  Anne rules!

Consulting multiple electronic devices. In the end feminine intuition and a little help from a stranger led us directly to our campsite. Anne rules! Final stats: we summited in 4 hours, skied down in about 2 hours (including mode changes, photo sessions and rests) and hiked/bushwhacked out for about 6 hours.


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26 Responses to “Mt. Elbert, Colorado — Between Wind And Thickets, It Was All Roses”

  1. Jed May 6th, 2014 9:39 am

    Funny thing: this occasional WildSnow guest blogger seems to be following the A-team around… I skied Mt Elbert yesterday (5/5… Incidentally, my first CO fourteener.) And next I’m headed to Hunter behind Sponar et al. I found similar conditions on Elbert: cold and firm. But fast and fun. Different sort of experience for this Cali boy. Getting that high that fast is unfamiliar!

  2. Lou Dawson May 6th, 2014 10:04 am

    Hah! Come by Carbondale and pay a visit to HQ!

  3. Jed May 6th, 2014 10:16 am

    I just might do that! I’ll be back here in Leadville in early June. Maybe some red dirt turns on Independence Pass?

  4. Erik Erikson May 6th, 2014 12:24 pm

    Lisa, really enjoyed reading your blogpost and looking at the pictures. These days out that don´t develop exactly like planned stay in ones mind much longer. Reminds me of some tours I did this season – I like that kind of little adventures a lot myself.

    Lou, just basically curious (as I personally probably never will come close to your area); Wildsnow headquarter – what is it exactly?: Just where you live? Or is their a shop, a repair shop, or a museum (you sometimes mentioned this)?

  5. Lisa Dawson May 6th, 2014 1:48 pm

    Sweet, thanks Erik!

  6. Lou Dawson May 6th, 2014 1:52 pm

    Erik, you’ll have to visit to find out.

  7. Robin May 6th, 2014 2:14 pm

    Is it legal to mountain bike up there? I’d like to do that this summer.

  8. Lou Dawson May 6th, 2014 2:38 pm

    Robin, fortunately the main Mount Elbert routes are not legal Wilderness and are legal for bicycles, though I’d assume non motorized. Years ago a friend and I carried our hard-tails to the summit and rode down as much as possible. Much more fun these days on modern machinery, but our trip was a good adventure. Lou

  9. Robin May 6th, 2014 4:54 pm

    Thanks for the beta Lou. I’ll let you know if I make it.

  10. Kristian May 6th, 2014 6:16 pm

    Sooner or later, we all end up miles from where we want to be. I usually switch on a GPS to record my tracks going up. You never know. Sometimes a completely clear day suddenly turns to a few feet of visibility because of new local clouds or blowing snow.

    And that simple short cut across that small blank section on the map? Turns out that there will be a bergschrund, heinous icy talus field, cliff-ed out, or impossibly thick vegetation lying in wait.

  11. Lou Dawson May 6th, 2014 6:57 pm

    I’m usually a good boy about recording a GPS track from the start, which makes it super easy to return no matter what happens. Definitely a mistake this time. What’s funny is I’ve hiked that trail probably half a dozen times, and skied it nearly as many, overconfidence I suppose… along with how skis can shoot you far and fast while when you’re on foot you’ve got more time to think things through.

  12. David B May 6th, 2014 7:24 pm

    Quite a classic mix of skis on the participants feet.

    As a DPS crew member it’s good to see a pair of Wailers in the mix.

  13. Lou Dawson May 6th, 2014 7:56 pm

    And the congregation kneeled…

  14. John Gloor May 6th, 2014 9:13 pm

    Lou, I am pretty sure Elbert is wilderness now. In the days before wilderness, I think it had been jeeped.

  15. John Gloor May 6th, 2014 9:34 pm

    Darn. Link didn’t work. And I might be wrong. I think there might be prohibitions on bikes though.

  16. Erik Erikson May 6th, 2014 10:19 pm

    Hmmm, Lou… Doing a trip with the absolut highlight “visiting wildsnow HQ” garnished with a little “rest of the US” – does not sound too bad. Maybe I´ll actually do that some day…

  17. John May 6th, 2014 10:20 pm

    I’ve long been a believer in the phrase “It doesn’t have to be fun to be fun”

  18. Lou Dawson May 7th, 2014 6:25 am

    Gloor, indeed, motorized stuff on Elbert has a storied history. The first Jeep drive to the top occurred in 1949 according to Wicki, but I recall the most famous mechanized was a Chevrolet commercial that involved driving a couple of Blazers to the top, I think in the 1960s. The trail was closed some time ago to motorized, but to the best of my knowledge most of it, if not all of it, is legal for bicycles. I’ll do some more checking as this is important info and we don’t want folks landing here and getting the wrong idea of what they can do up there.

    I’d add that riding from the top of Elbert is definity a bucket list experience for any mountain cyclist. I remember my own adventure quite fondly, though we did not ride it 100% due to our no-suspension early tech bikes. You’ll definitely do some pushing and carrying on the way up, no matter what type of bike.

    As is typical of legal Wilderness areas, worshipful blather is easy to find on the web, but mapping and information about exact boundaries is amazingly difficult to find. The map I keep landing on via Google is the following, and it shows Elbert is most definitely NOT in legal Wilderness.

    There is one government page that mentions a “Mount Elbert Wilderness” but it appears that’s either a typo, or an over zealous stealth edit by a Wilderness advocate.

    Unless someone can please show us otherwise, my take after spending quite a bit of time researching is that bicycles on Mount Elbert south trail are legal.

    (It’s pretty funny googling “mount elbert wilderness” in quotes and seeing all the sites that scrape content from the same source. Worthless.)


  19. Lou Dawson May 7th, 2014 6:59 am

    Regarding “It doesn’t have to be fun to be fun,” our bushwhacking was way slow due to lots of time analyzing the GPS maps and terrain, as well as multiple skis-on-skis-off, (which folks were doing on the regular trail as well according to some guys we spoke with). If we’d been on foot during summer, the whole thing would have probably added an hour at the most to the total hike. I also get a chuckle out of the fact that we ended up off the trail because we followed some other ski tracks. My guess is those guys did a better job than we did (grin), but those extra three turns we got made it all worth it. If anyone needs a takeaway, main thing to remember is if you have a GPS, turn it on and track your route from the trailhead when you’re on an adventure. Otherwise, behave like you don’t have it. My mistake was in behaving like we could just whip out the GPS and see the trail on there, when in reality the maps on our GPS units had no hint of where the South Mount Elbert Trail is located. Of course I already knew that (hand slapping face), but just ignored reality.

    My only consolation is I _did_ use my GPS to find my shoes where I’d left them on the way up. A guy named Bob will appreciate that, due to some past history with leaving shoes on a 14er attempt.

  20. Scott Nelson May 7th, 2014 7:47 am

    GPS = shoe finder. That’s funny! Thanks for sharing your Tour de Elbert.

  21. Sky May 7th, 2014 8:08 am

    See any ticks up there? I had ticks both days on my person or clothing after doing Crestone Peak on Saturday then Crestone Needle on Sunday. It’s been quite a few years since one of those dreaded lost-in-the-woods-after-the-ski trips for me. Sounds like you found your way before dark, which is good!

    Oh yeah, following other ski tracks, that’s always a good recipe for disaster.

  22. Lou Dawson May 7th, 2014 9:21 am

    Sky, I think the ticks needed a few more days to bloom at the altitudes and latitude we were at. Luckily.

    I have a history of wandering in the woods.


  23. Billy May 7th, 2014 11:37 am

    Reading about your excursion is entertaining and the picture looking at the phones is funny. The story also provides a strong reminder for novices such as myself to stay safe within their capabilities. If Mr and Mrs. Wildsnow can get lost on an easy peak that they’re familliar with…… these types of posts can save people’s lives.

  24. Lou Dawson May 7th, 2014 1:07 pm

    Believe me, I’m not Mr. Perfect when it comes to navigation! When I’m intentional I can usually nail it, but I tend to get lackadaisical, that’s my weakness. If anything, that’s the lesson I’m always promulgating when I write reviews of GPS units — get it wired and use it extensively during a trip if you want it to work correctly. It’s not necessary to leave the GPS on all the time if you want to conserve batteries, as you can just turn it on and mark critical waypoints on the way in, but what works best is to put fresh lithium batteries in there, then just leave the GPS tracking all day, which will allow following your exact route back out. I’ll admit that when not carrying GPS I’m a lot more careful, which is probably means I’m a bad boy.

  25. Chase Harrison May 7th, 2014 7:18 pm

    Map and compass always works for me.

  26. Matt Kinney May 8th, 2014 10:35 am

    It takes a mistake to become lost, but takes experience and skill to get unlost.

    I did that Elbert mountain a few years ago with Tabitha, albeit from the other side in summer. …(Black Chief trail?)… or the one lou rode on his bike up to the summit. Still hard to fathom you riding that trail!

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