Monday, August 29, 2011

Mt Elbert

About a month ago, my tri club posted on facebook about doing a hike up a Fourteener the last Saturday in August.  Groupon had a half off coupon for an adventure race, but this seemed more fun.  And besides, I'm a native and have never climbed at Fourteener!  Originally, I wanted Will to come along, but once he heard that we had to leave at 3 AM, he was out.  Also, this funny bit of conversation:

W: who are you hiking with?
E: people I don't know from my tri club. 
W: you don't know these people?
E: nope, but what could go wrong?

There are 54 mountains in Colorado which have elevations higher than 14,000 feet.  The common term for them are Fourteeners.  Quite a few people are focused on "bagging" every one of them, sometimes all within the same year.  Some of the hikes are 100% trails, some you have to scrabble up loose rock, some you have to very carefully walk along the spine of the mountain.  And at Pikes Peak, there's even an oxygen bar. (eyeroll).

Our hike leader, Matt, decided that we'd hike up Mt Elbert, which is the highest mountain in CO and the Rockies.  Its the second highest moutain in the continental US, only 65 feet shorter than Mt Whitney.  The hike was 4.5 miles with a gain of nearly 4,500 ft elevation.  The plan was to get to the trailhead at sunrise and summit well before thunderstorms could build.  Lightening is the main danger when hiking above treeline, thus the 3 AM departure time.

green line is the trail to the top
The drive up wasn't as awful as I anticipated (it helped that I wasn't driving).  Turns out I knew Matt from the club track workouts and we have done a bunch of races together (before I moved here).  So we chatted the whole 2 hr drive to Leadville, where we met the other half of our group.  Being up there in the dark was a bit spooky - and the trees were covered in frost.  (not ready for winter... yet).  After a quick pit-stop in Leadville, we drove to the trail head, where there were about ~20 other cars in the parking lot and more cars coming in.  Elevation was just over 10,000 feet.

Pre-dawn parking lot with lingering fog

We started hiking and I just took off up the trail.  I was hauling.  No idea why - maybe I was just excited to get going after sitting in the car for 2.5 hrs.  We took a break at the first mile for snacks, and I realized that I had an open blister just under my right ankle.  Fortunately I had some blister block (and it stayed on for the whole trip!).  After the rest break, I was no longer speedy.  I think the lack of oxygen finally caught up to me and I was no longer the leader.  Actually, I was in the back of the pack now. Boo.  When we were hiking in the forest, the trees were pretty thick and there was little undergrowth.  We started getting to where the treeline, the trees started getting a bit more sparse and you could catch glimpses of Mt Massive (another 14er adjacent to Elbert). 

The group just before treeline

Our group was a pretty good one - very friendly and all willing to take breaks.  Treeline was at ~12,000 feet and at that point, my asthma was becoming noticable.  I just couldn't get in enough air or catch my breath for any sustained amount of time.  Finally, I decided that it was better to go slow and to NOT get into an oxygen deficit than to go hard, ignore the breathing, get dizzy and then sick.  The topography was also becoming more steep.  As a result, I decided to hike 100 vertical feet and then take a 30-60 min mini-break to catch my breath.  Sometimes I'd stop sooner, depending on the steepness and my breathing.
Mt Massive peeking through

So more hiking... up and up.  Above treeline, the vegetation was high alpine meadow with sparse grasses and NO flowers.  Once you went up and over a saddle, you got to the main climb, where it was all rock and dirt.  But mostly rock.

hiking up out of the trees

the top of the hill was the first of 2 falst summits

this was the most sucky climb

the specs are people - top is the second false summit

Matt was hiking with me, which was nice, but I also felt a bit bad.  I don't think I was holding him back, but I hate hate hate being in the back of the pack.  However, my lungs were my limiter, and there wasn't anything that could be done except to take my time.  Somewhere mid-way up the hill on the above-right picture, my Garmin read 14,000 feet.  Matt thought my Garmin was wrong.  Turns out Matt was wrong and we actually did have another 400 feet of climbing.  This trail took us through two false summits.  False summits totally suck, because mentally, you think you're near the top.  Only to find out that you're not even close to the top. FINALLY we got to the last part of the trail, which was along the spine of the mountain.  And then we got to the top and the rest of our group was there, but they'd only been waiting about 10 minutes.  There were probably 40 (?) people also at the top.  We ate lunch and hung out, took photos.  Until a cloud over Twin Lakes started to look a bit too dark and scary, so at 11 AM, we decided to head back down.


scary cloud that made us think twice about lingering

survey marker

you can see the trail on the ridge below

Matt had planned on a 4:30 hike up, I made it in 4:20, so according to him, I was still "doing well".  Nevermind the fact that I got totally lapped by dogs.  We started down at 11, which was the time that Matt had planned on us reaching the top. On the way down, we were glad that we didn't linger, as the scary cloud started making noises, big ugly claps of thunder.  Being on a mountain above treeline in a thunder storm is NOT a good place to be!  We weren't in any danger, but the clouds were definitely building.  Going down wasn't as lung-taxing as going up, so I didn't need very many breaks.  I am a horribly slow down-hill hiker, though.  My knees just don't like it and my legs become very wobbly.  As a result, I take things very methodically and slow.

goal here wasn't to take a pic of these guys - I wanted
to show how steep the trail was, but they wouldn't move!
FINALLY, after 3 hrs, I made it to the bottom.  The top of my right foot was sore, both of my big toes were numb, and my calves were shot.  But we'd made it round trip in 7.5 hours (9.5 miles by my Garmin).  AND we beat out the storms.

We met up with the faster group (who got lost on the way down - oops!), the drove into Leadville for lunch.  PIZZA.  Mmmmmm!  After that, it was down to town and I was home by 6 PM.  Where I became a zombie.

rain falling over Twin Lakes

Today (2 days later), I feel like I just did a half ironman, if not more..... My legs are super sore and I'm TIRED. My right toe is still numb too. :/

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