Mt. Elbert – The One That Almost Wasn’t

Trailhead: North Mt. Elbert Trailhead
Starting elevation: 10,060 ft
Ending elevation: 14,430 ft
Elevation Gain: 4,380 ft
Mileage: 9.7 mi

When contemplating whether or not to do a 14er, it makes sense to start with some of the lower ones and ease into the monsters. I had no desire or competitive streak to tackle the biggest. However, I am also not one to pass up an opportunity, so when we took off to Leadville, CO for the weekend and Mt. Elbert just happened to be one of our hiking options, I decided to go for it.

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Leadville is really cute.

Let me enlighten you with some background on Elbert. This monstrous peak stands at 14,430 feet and is not only the tallest mountain in Colorado but also the tallest in the Rocky Mountains. It ranks the 14th highest mountain in North America, beneath Alaskan peaks such as Denali (formerly Mt. McKinley) who towers over the competition at 20,310 ft. The only other non-Alaskan peak listed before Mt. Elbert is Mt. Whitney in California, rising 14,505 feet above sea level and coming in as the 11th highest peak. Mt. Elbert is the second highest peak in the contiguous United States after Mt. Whitney.

Since we are talking elevation, I will throw out the highest of them all for relativity: Mt. Everest. This behemoth stands at 29,029 ft, over twice as tall as Mt. Elbert and in the cruising range of a Boeing 747 (25,000-30,000 ft). After climbing Elbert, any lingering desire  I may have harbored for Everest has definitely, absolutely died. Those guys are legitimately crazy.

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Looking from Mt. Elbert to Mt. Massive, the second highest peak in Colorado.

If you’ve been following me and my somewhat obsessive desire for hiking data, you may notice that I usually give both the beginning and ending elevations as well as total elevation gain. Total elevation gain is not simply taking the trailhead elevation and subtracting it from the highest point you hope to reach. Total gain also includes the various crests and valleys you may encounter on the way. Most hikes have total elevation gains higher than the elevation difference between starting and ending points. Now that I’ve said that, check out the Elbert elevation gain: 4,380 ft, which is pretty much exactly the difference between the starting point, 10,060, and the ending point, 14,430. This means you simply walk straight up a big ass mountain. There are few, if any, dips or valleys to give the legs a respite.

 

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We’re heading to the peak yonder!

 

You may also notice that most of the hikes I’ve done this year have had around 2,500 feet of total elevation gain. Elbert is right in my mileage range but almost twice the climb I’m used to. I’ve noticed I have a propensity to forget the painful parts of hikes when planning the next, and I definitely fell victim to the “hell yes, I can do that” mentality without fully realizing the exhaustion that lay behind the numbers.

If you haven’t gathered, Mt. Elbert was hard. Really hard. Hard enough that I contemplated turning around and giving up. Not only was the climb steady and relentless, but by 13,500 feet I was also struggling for air. The hike became a slow trudge where I would stop every other step unless I picked a point and stubbornly forced myself to make it there before I could take a break. Oddly, I found it harder to breathe when I stopped and tried to “catch my breath” than when I kept slowly putting one foot in front of the other. I had bought some canned oxygen on a whim since I didn’t really think it would do anything, but it ended up being my saving grace. I only took 3-4 pulls of oxygen, but it did help regulate my breathing and kept my lungs from feeling close to hyperventilating.

I became cold and hungry and frustrated, exacerbated by my internal voice telling me I was holding back my group when in reality my hiking partners were awesome and supportive. I’m sure I wouldn’t have finished without them (they could’ve finished the hike a good hour or two quicker without me though). I didn’t like the feeling of weakness or the fear of failing or the pain, and I shed some tears…twice.

However, I couldn’t come to terms with working so hard and not getting a payoff and knew I would always regret not summiting when I had the chance. With 500 feet left to climb, I finally found my fighting persona, the one that tells me to buck the f*%# up when I’m close to quitting.

I ate lunch that day on the top of Mt. Elbert, sitting with my crew, and once again reveled in the high of not only mountaintop views but also the high of overcoming a formidable foe who almost broke me.

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The crew sans one, without whom I’m sure I wouldn’t have made it to this photo op!

I have an unhealthy tendency to compare my abilities, my achievements, my fitness to others and often end up feeling inadequate. Yes, many are able to hike farther, run faster, and climb higher (hell, there was a kid who literally RAN up and down Elbert), but that is their reality, just as it is my reality to have healthy legs, lungs, and heart that enable me to get out and do what I love (love is a relative term in this instance since I’m pretty sure “I’m definitely not lovin’ this” and other choice expletives came out of my mouth more than a few times on this hike).

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Some crazies brought their bikes to the top. Hauling myself up was work enough for me.

Colorado, thanks for keeping my ego in check, but I think I need to do one more 14er while I’m here.

Did I mention how easily I forget the pain? 🙂

The way down is much easier…and faster.

 

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