Although I'd like to be able to say that the only reason I chose this more difficult route up Elbert's south side was because it was a more difficult route that includes a climb to Elbert's south summit, part of the attraction was that the trailhead is reached just off a paved road. I pulled away from the curb at 2:11am, and reached the trailhead off of Colorado 82, four hours to the minute after leaving. It was exactly where Roach's book said it was, but you don't see the small sign until you're right there. I farted around a bit, waiting for it to get just a little bit lighter outside, not wanting to bother with my flashlight. I was ready to leave the car at 6:29, with the nagging feeling that I was forgetting something. Oh yeah, I guess I should change into my hiking boots. D'oh!
The start of the trail is marked with an arrow-shaped sign, reading, oddly enough, 'Trail'. Soon after starting, the trail switchbacks steeply up a hillside through aspens which were still in excellent color. At some points on the hillside there were stunning views of the La Plata Peak area with snow-capped peaks above aspens, and dramatic shadows from the newly risen Sun. There are several creek crossings, including two across narrow two-log bridges. At 11600ft, near treeline, there's an old decaying log cabin near a gentler part of the trail. By this time I could see what I assumed (correctly) was the saddle that I was to reach, with South Elbert at the end.
After this gentler part, the trail steeply switchbacks up to this ridge at 13540ft, with the switchbacks slowly dying out to a final steep direct ascent to the ridge. At this point, you have your first view of Elbert. Roach says in his guidebook that this still rather distant view of Elbert may be discouraging, but I didn't really feel that until going over a couple false summits on South Elbert (14134ft), which I reached at 9:38. Although 300ft lower than Elbert's main summit, IMHO this summit had the best views because you could see the rugged terrain around La Plata, which was mostly blocked by South Elbert when looking from Elbert.
At this point, there's still over a mile to go and another 500ft+ of vertical gain to Elbert, and I was starting to feel the lack of a good night's sleep. At least the weather was looking great with crystal clear skies and only slightly cool temperatures. Although Roach indicates that there is no trail along the ridge, there is a climber's trail of variable quality in a lot of this area. At the saddle between South Elbert and Elbert there's a rockpile labeled as Point 13983, and because it was there, I veered off and up the talus to this very humble summit. After an amazing number of false summits, I reached Elbert at 10:41. I had been hoping that I would have the top of Colorado and, in fact, the top of the entire Rocky Mountain chain all to myself, and this turned out to be the case. In fact, I opened up the register, and found that I was the first of the day. On such a beautiful day, I really expected someone would reach the summit before me from one of the easier routes on the north or east sides. More beautiful views, a snack, and then back down.
I was tired and there's still some climbing to do on the way back. While starting to re-ascend South Elbert, I finally saw other people, who had summited South Elbert and were turning around to head back down. I didn't really care too much for the first part of the descent as it was rather steep and slick in spots. It did get dramatically warmer while descending, though. I passed that group on the way down before treeline, and I ended up passing a couple who had climbed nearby Bull Hill, and a few people heading up.
I thought I had found the right socks with my boots to prevent blistering, but I ended up blistering my heels of all places, and the last mile was a little more painful than it should have been. However, hiking through a grove of golden aspens under bright sunshine more than compensated. I reached the car at 1:38pm, 7 hours, 7 minutes after starting. The views along Colorado 82 on the way back were gorgeous, and a lot a lot of people were out enjoying the autumn spectacle, still under clear skies.
I wouldn't recommend this route as a first 14er, but the views are great, especially this time of year, and it's a relatively easy hike for such a large elevation gain.
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File last modified: 18 December 2004