Sunday, June 20, 2010

On Top of Mt. Albert

Mt. Elbert (14433')
"South Elbert (14134')
11 miles hiking, 1 Mile elevation gain
Black Cloud Gulch, Class 1/Class 2

Mt. Albert is in New Zealand, while Mt. Elbert is the highest point in Colorado, and the highest point in the U.S. outside of Alaska or California, for that matter. So, on the day before Father's Day, 2010, J and I planned on hiking up to the top, where we dropped off some of Grandpa Al's ashes, along with Grandma Charlotte's. Neither of them were particularly mountain folk, but Grandpa spent some time in the Army down in Pueblo, and since the state high point is pretty much homophonic with his, I decided it might be a fitting tribute.

Back to the hike: there are a couple of easier options popular with peakbaggers, but the Black Cloud trail stuck out as a more intriguing option: over 5000 feet elevation gain; a beautiful, uncrowded basin and gulch with great views of La Plata and other peaks to the south; the chance to bag the unofficial "South Elbert", while spending a good couple miles on a high alpine ridge. So, this hike had a lot going for it! Otherwise, Mt. Elbert itself is less impressive and prominent than a state highpoint should be, a rather unfortunate state of geologic affairs for the serious alpinists in a state of more worthy scary, jagged peaks I suppose, but instead it reveals itself to be a democratic mountain, accessible to all.

Also, this hike was to serve as a tune-up for J to get ready for a Longs attempt this year. She's done the elevation, the distance, and bits and pieces of Class 3 and exposure. This hike added the last piece of the training puzzle, by giving her a feel for 5000 feet of gain as well as a true alpine start. One final bit of training: continuing a tradition of camping somewhere on Father's Day/Solstice weekend, albeit with camping being loosely defined as sleeping anywhere outside.

Friday after work, we were off to Leadville, in no big hurry (except I realized I forgot the camera, so we had to settle for cell phone pics!) other than to arrive in time to grab some High Mountain Pies pizza action before they closed at 10pm:

We got there by 8:30, put in a pizza order, then swung over to the liquor store for some a little beer and wine, as the restaurant doesn't serve it, but lets you bring your own in. No problem with that! I thought a large vegetarian pizza and an order of garlic bread might leave us with a few slices for breakfast, but I underestimated our (OK, my) appetite, whoops! Well, we still had 1 breakfast slice left, as well as an assortment of breakfast burritos I brought with us.

Satiated, we headed down to Twin Lakes and over to the trailhead. After reading various reports, I intended on being the first person ever not to drive past the trailhead, but this was not to be, as I passed it once, turn around at the Lodge, then passed it again. Ultimately, we arrived and saw one other vehicle parked there, and another arrived an hour after us. We made camp in the car and drifted off to sleep, though I was pretty wired and restless.

On the drive out, I warned J about every aspect of the hike: needing to leave early; the steepness; various false summits and the long view of the summit from the ridge; unknown snow conditions since last weekend; being exposed to weather (lightning and wind especially) for much of the hike. I've seen trip reports averaging around 8 hours on the low end, and other suggestions of allowing 10-12 hours, so I played conservatively with a 4AM start time.

4AM and we were off, headlamps a-blazin' and on guard for mt. lions. The trail was easy to follow and manage in the dark, and I tried to keep tabs of anything to the side or behind us that might have glowing eyes. Just after 5AM, twilight began, and 10 minutes later headlamps weren't needed. Here, just after an hour, we saw a tent pitched, as well as our first stream crossing, a makeshift bridge of logs.

Now we were near the open basin, but had a few more stream crossings to navigate. One of them was blocked by a fallen tree, so we hunted around for an easier crossing, then bushwhacked back east until we ran into the trail again.

As we made our way up the basin, the rising sun lit up the peaks behind us.

We followed the trail up to treeline, where the ridge came into view, and then began switchbacking in earnest. Now, many switchback trails (RMNP trails, CFI trail on Huron Peak, e.g.) seem to be too conservative, and you can at least appreciate the temptation to cut switchbacks, all the while acknowledging the erosion control properties of a well-planned trail, but these swithbacks were steep! The switchbacks almost needed switchbacks on some of the looser stuff. No, it was actually quite dandy, a calf workout for sure but not overly obnoxious.

It did take awhile to claim the ridge, but before that, our first objective ended up meeting the sunshine level before the ridge, where temperatures and optimism soared.

Finally, after obtaining the ridge, we could see what lie ahead: a rolling ridge and the big knob that made up South Elbert, followed by the ridge curving N-S up to Elbert itself. Snow conditions looked fairly decent, with shaded North spots holding snow of course, as well as leeward East-facing slopes on the final Elbert ridge. Wind wasn't too bad if we stayed on the East. We took a quick snack break and set off for South Elbert.

The rest of the hike was mostly Class 2, although faint hits of trail were scattered about through the talus, so most of it was picking a line across stable Sawatch rock and tundra. Dancing on the ridge, we continued to have great views to the south as well as new views to the North, while not looking ahead to the summit. J kept a great, steady pace: Relentless Forward Motion, just like we talked about, rather than getting anaerobic and taking too many breaks.

Finally, after 4.5 hours, we arrived at South Elbert, firmly above 14k feet.

Feeling good, it was time to press on. Without a cloud in the sky, we had little to worry about with the weather, and I was pleased that it was only 8:30AM. The downhill jaunt to the saddle was a fun relief more than it was an annoyance, and now the last grunt began. The left or West side of the ridge always offered solid, stable rock, but the snowpack remained nicely firm. In general, the snow ended up giving even better and faster travel without postholing. It was quite nice to have options!

After an hour, we obtained the summit, shared with perhaps 8-10 other folks (the first people we had seen after 5.5 hours of hiking) from the other side of the peak, all of them friendly and stoked to be up high on such a nice day:

I let the ashes fly into the wind, and signed my grandparents names in the summit register.

We sat down for a good 25 minutes or so for a nice, unhurried lunch break, and took in the views.

Now it was only 10AM, and time to head back. On our way down to South Elbert, we saw a solo hiker from Kearney, NE heading up in good spirits: he was the one who had pitched his tent partly in, and had his truck parked near ours at the TH. Heading down the softening snow, I alternated between running and sliding. There wasn't any great time-saving glissaditunites on this route, but I found a legit North-facing field with a good runout, and practiced sliding and self arresting.

After reaching South Elbert again, we saw a couple more parties. Among them was a woman hoisting a full-suspension mt. bike. A very nice downhill bike! She was friendly (gun-to-my-head, I'd guess "Swiss", but why didn't I just ask?) and asked about upcoming conditions: I suggested that the snowy downhill between the peaks would be a blast, but...Did you ride that up here? Are you really going to ride down past South Elbert? (Keep in mind, I am generally unflappable about this stuff, but I was momentarily flapped). She estimated ~2% of the uphill was rideable, but 80-90% on the way down. We bid her good luck (why didn't I try a "Berg Heil?") and kept this in mind as we finally finished the ridge and joined the trail again. This is more popular on the Class 1 trail from the North, but I hadn't read about it on this side, unless I misunderstood and she was making a loop out of it. I tried picture riding my bike down any part of the trail...and I just couldn't picture it. Then I tried picturing blasting straight down the tundra: maybe, but it seemed like hematoma-city. Kudos to her, though!

Where were we? Ah, the switchbacks seemed even steeper downhill, but again were in no hurry, as we were now protected from the wind, and shed layers in the warming sun. Tra-la-la-la-la, and we were back in the basin, back over the river, OK this is getting old now, time for a nap! 9.5 hours later, back at the car, where I cleverly had stashed an extra beer in my little cooler. We popped the back of the car open and piled in for a siesta, feet dangling slightly outside, the shade just cool enough to sleep. (I've seen Heaven sold as clouds and angels and harps, the chance to peer over the edge, as a voyeur, watching other people do stuff. Por moi, give me sun, and a chance to watch old videotapes like this one, over and over).

An hour later, we felt sufficiently refreshed, with enough energy to drive to town to get coffee to get enough energy to maybe eat. Oh, J promised herself fudge after a successful hike, so we procured some mint and marshmallow fudge from the tourist-friendly fudge shoppe in town, whose staff was also curiously dismayed when I asked to cut the large hunks smaller (so that we would only be purchasing $7 worth of fudge, for an immediate snack), as they seemed poised to sell $20 worth of fudge to any tourist that came through.

Anyway, fudge and coffee in hand, we now had enough energy to make it up the road to Frisco, where we stopped in by the river for some delicious Mexican food. Now, finally, I had enough energy to make it home. J declared this her favorite 14er hike. Score!

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