Name: Mt. Elbert, Colorado
Elevation: 14,439 ft./ 4,401 m
Latitude/Longitude: 39.11780 , 106.4447
Trail Distance (one-way): 3.8 mi/7.89 km
Elevation Gain: 4000 ft/1219 m
Average hiking time: 4 hrs. to summit (2 hrs descent)
Martin Classification: Class 6 of 10 (10 being most difficult)
Access to Trail: 4WD trail to upper trail head
Special considerations: Depending on time of year, winter wear or sunscreen. Small creek to filter water at upper trail head.
Closest town/supplies: Twin Lakes General Store, Twin Lakes, Co (4 miles Southwest of the lower South Mt. Elbert trail head. On Colorado 82)
Dogs Allowed: Yes
Our summit of Mt. Elbert in Colorado started on a cool fall afternoon (hovering right at around 32º F) with a drive up a 4X4 trail in the Subaru XV Crosstrek. Getting to the trail was no problem as the signage was well marked and well maintained. Most reports will tell you that almost any vehicle can make it 1.5 miles up the trail. But why stop there when you have all wheel drive and nearly the clearance of a Chevy Tahoe? So we pushed on up the muddy, cold, wet trail. I will say, I was beyond impressed with the ability of the Crosstrek to clear some of the higher mounds. After roughly 1.8 miles we reached the end of the 4X4 trail and parked essentially at the trail head for the East Ridge Route.
4-wheel drive trail
Creek Crossing on 4-Wheel Drive Trail
Finally after some impressive crawling by the loaded down 4-cylinder Subaru we reached the end of the road and found our spot to rest our heads for the night. Even at the base of Mt. Elbert on a cold and mostly cloudy day we were treated to a show of yellow aspen leaves shimmering in the breeze scattering the suns evening rays as they poked through the clouds.
Overnight the temperature took a plunge and in the morning we woke up to snow flurries settling on the ground around us. With the cold (now 22ºF) air encouraging us to stay in our sleeping bags we had to fight every logical thought that told us to stay put. We had to step out into that cold dark morning to begin our summit attempt.
Once we were sufficiently layered we crawled out and started moving at about 6am. Before long our blood was pumping, our bodies were warming and we settled into a comfortable hiking pace towards the summit.
The only real “wet” parts of the trail were in the first 100 yards where the small creek had run its banks and left a few small puddles for us to play some strange version of “wilderness hop-scotch” over. The dogs on the other hand made it quite clear that they had no idea what hopscotch was and decided this was the perfect opportunity to get muddy and wet paws. Why they decided that the 22º weather was the opportune time to get wet is beyond me. There are things about dogs I may never understand.
Mt. Elbert East Ridge Trail
The early part of the Mt. Elbert East Ridge Trail felt like it had the most elevation gain although a quick look at an elevation profile of the trail will quickly prove me wrong. In fact most of the trail maintains the same steady 18% elevation gain from the start of the trail all the way to the summit.
Since our base camp was already at a very noticeable 10,440 ft., it wasn’t far into the trail when the trees thinned into open pastures and eventually disappeared altogether as we made our way above treeline.
The higher we climbed in elevation the lower the mercury dropped. Most people are in agreement that (barring outside influencing factors and weather pattern changes) for every 1,000 feet of elevation gain, you should expect a roughly 3.3º F drop. If you do the math by the time we hit the summit we’d be be expecting the temps to be hovering right around 8.5ºF.
In late September that was the last thing we were expecting. We’re from Texas, and in Texas I’m not sure that the phrase “single digits” even exists. Nevertheless, we pressed on. The summit of Mt. Elbert was masked by clouds, but it was still in our sights.
Rising above treeline brought a new insult to our summit attempt. Not only was the temperature dropping, but we were treated to an onslaught of high winds and blowing snow that lifted thousands of tiny, sharp ice crystals up off the ground and delivered them at high speed into any exposed skin.
Even our dogs were starting to question why anyone would be up at this elevation.
Still though, dogs possess a quality that many of their human counterparts don’t. Dogs are loyal. Through the icy, cold wind our dogs stuck with us, never once complaining, never once leaving our side.
Most of our journey up the east ridge seemed to follow a pattern. It went something like this:
- The dogs would break the snow (which was now mid-shin to knee deep) and lead Austin and I by about 5 to 15 yards.
- Austin and I would see a blowing wall of snow heading our way down the ridge and we’d call the dogs back.
- We would both open our hard shell jackets and create some form of wind block for our group to seek shelter (In my mind we looked something akin to the cherubim atop the Ark of the covenant, although I’m sure we better resembled bumbling idiots atop a very cold mountain).
- Once the wind and ice had passed, we’d start hiking again.
After being beaten by ceaseless winds ripping over the ridge and reminding us of just how cold it really was, we were provided with some minor relief as the trail began to turn us onto the leeward side of the ridge. Finally out of the wind I thought we’d be able to “enjoy” part of our hike up to the summit.
And that’s when I saw it. Tiny red dots painted against a snowy white background.
“Someone’s bleeding!” I yelled ahead to Austin. What had we done? Had we pushed too hard? Should we have trained the dogs harder? Every possible though raced through my head as we gathered our group back together to assess the damage.
Upon closer inspection of the dogs feet we found a tiny abrasion just outside the boarder of Ellie’s pad. It was a minor injury and even more, a major relief. After some quick bandaging and building Ellie two temporary dogie shoes out of our supplies, we were back on our path to the summit.
After another 20 minutes of hiking we were in sight of the summit. The trail now was almost completely masked by snow on the ground and finding the trail became a game of finding where our step sunk the deepest.
Sure enough we made it to the summit and we were standing on top of Colorado. The summit this time of year didn’t make it easy for us. Covered in snow it became difficult to find any form of identifying markers. A neighboring mound made us question which of the two was actually the summit but we utilized our GPS to ensure we were at the proper peak.
After a little digging through the snow we found a paper sign shoved between two rocks that stated “Mt. Elbert 14,433 ft” We were there. The third highest point of the state highpoints.
We spent as much time as we could at the summit but after only 15 minutes of icy, cold wind and maximum exposure both Austin and I (and the dogs) were ready to head back down to the trail head.
The hike back to the car went much smoother and the clouds even parted for a while to warm us up. The dogs seemed in much higher spirits somehow knowing that each step they took brought all of us one step closer to home.