Day 59: June 21, 2019 (Summer Solstice)
Destination: Leadville (via the Colorado Trail mountain bike alternate)
Today’s Miles: 16.4
Start Location: CDT Mile 1164.9 (Mt. Elbert Trailhead)
Trip Miles: 971.8
**I made a mistake in my destination mileage yesterday, so I corrected that. It did not affect the mileage tally, I just accidentally had Guthook configured as southbound instead of northbound, so the mileage point did not reflect the direction I was traveling in.**
It was chilly when I woke up - probably upper 30s - but despite all of the rain the evening before, my tent was dry from the wind. I had thought about leaving my tent and most of my gear and slackpacking up Elbert, but I needed both of my trekking poles (my tent sets up with one trekking pole), I was worried the wind might pick up or a storm could blow in, I worried that squirrels or marmots might mess with my gear, and I like having my sleep system and clothes in case I need to get warm in an emergency.
As such, I packed up camp, took only a small amount of water, and started hiking up the mountain.
There is a very well-defined trail going up Elbert. Absent the snow, it would be an easy climb. I followed the trail up, at first just seeing or having to walk through small areas of snow that were easy to handle. The ground was largely clear, which was wonderful. The wind was blowing fiercely, and as I climbed above treeline, I would occasionally have to brace to not have it push me to the side. The snowshoes on the back of my pack felt sort of like a sail. I kept climbing until I got to the first block of snow that I had to walk through. I chose poorly initially, post holing up to my quads. I strapped on my snowshoes and noticed a couple hiking near me. They waltzed right over another section in their shoes. Like I said, I chose poorly! I already had my snowshoes on, so I now walked over the patch with ease. Of course, then I had to stop and take them off. And therein lies the challenge with snowshoes - the shorter the snowfield, the less I want to use them because I know I’ll just have to spend time taking them off.
I caught up to the couple and found out that they had left Denver super early in the morning to climb Elbert. I moved ahead, happy that there was at least someone else around me. I started to notice the elevation sucking away at my breath. I think that’s the scientific description of how that works anyway. I know I’m getting pretty high in elevation when that happens. I’m pretty acclimatized at this point, and I’m over 10,000 feet fairly frequently, so it needs to be a good bit higher for me to notice it in my breathing. As I moved upwards, I startled a ptarmigan. It looked cold and fluffed up its chest feathers. Why a bird would want to live up here, I don’t know!
I followed the trail as best I could, but it was disappearing in patches of snow, and so I just focused on going up. I arrived at a junction where the trail ended in a field of snow. It was pretty steep, and there were two options. The first was a sketchy traverse. It was the shortest way to get out of the snow, but slipping and falling would mean you would careen off into the abyss and fall off the mountain. No thanks! I also didn’t have my ice axe, which I would want for something like that to have a chance at arresting a fall. The second was just to go straight up the snowfield. It was steep, but a fall would likely be ok as it emptied down into the lip I was standing on. It was still kind of steep and made me a little nervous because the wind was blowing like mad. I decided that if I was going to do it, I would leave my pack on the lip for stability, wear my snowshoes and use my trekking poles.
The couple caught up to me as I was putting on my snowshoes. They didn’t have any traction. Funny enough, the girl looked at me as I stood up and asked, “so what is your assessment?” I said, “let me preface this with ‘I’m from Georgia,’ but it looks ok to go up but maybe not so fun to go down.” I decided I would take some test steps, so I climbed up a little ways and then down to test the snow consistency and also to make sure I could get back down. Meanwhile, the girl decided not to go any farther, and the guy went up to the top of the snowfield in just his boots. For some reason, he didn’t continue to the summit and came back down as I started to make my way up.
Going up wasn’t bad; it was really just the wind that was off-putting. I had layered up before starting the ascent, but the cold had a real howling bite to it. One thing that I really like about my snowshoes is they have a heel lift in them. It’s a little bar that folds up and locks in place under my heel to help reduce angle-induced fatigue as I ascend. It helps a lot!
When I got to the top, I took off my snowshoes, but prematurely as there was one last, longer, snowfield to climb. This one wasn’t quite as steep, so I put the shoes back on and did it. As I approached the summit, I reached a patch of dirt and left my snowshoes there. I climbed up the rest of the snow in my hiking shoes without issue.
Once at the summit, I felt a real sense of accomplishment. It wasn’t because climbing Mt. Elbert is particularly difficult, but I think it felt like a real win to me because of all of the sections I have had to skip or circumvent. It finally felt like I had been able to achieve something I really wanted to do. Also, not having done a lot of the crazy high route stuff, this gave me a sense of confidence, albeit small confidence. I was elated and I took some pictures and enjoyed the view from the top.
At the time, I didn’t realize that Mt. Elbert is the tallest peak in Colorado at 14,433 feet. For ten minutes, I was the tallest person on the ground in Colorado! Unfortunately, there was no one else on the summit, and no sign, so I took a selfie and then took a screenshot of my elevation level in the Guthook map app. The wind was blowing so hard that I almost couldn’t hold onto my phone when taking the selfie. I imagine the sad reality of most mountains that high is that it’s usually too cold or windy to stick around long. I had also been monitoring some dark clouds in the not-too-distant sky, so I decided not to dilly dally and started my descent.
Going down wasn’t as bad as I expected. The snow wasn’t hard, but it still had a decent consistency for snowshoeing. As I was lacing up to head back down the steep field, a girl was snowshoeing towards me. I made it back to my pack and quickly checked it for damage. Halfway down I had seen a marmot running away from that area and was hoping that it hadn’t chewed into my bag. Fortunately it had not.
Feeling good, I made my way back down the mountain. A number of day hikers were wandering up and almost all of them asked me about the mountain. Most didn’t have traction and turned back. A few had snowshoes, and I presume they summited, but I didn’t stick around. I was cold! It actually snowed a little and sprinkled off and on after I got back to treeline and on my way back down to the CDT.
At the bottom of the mountain I got back on the CDT and walked that down to Mt. Massive Trailhead. I then took the mountain bike alternate along a forest road through the beautiful San Isabel National Forest. There were lots of car camping drive-in spots along the way, but they were simple and not over-engineered. They were well integrated with the forest. The forest itself seemed very dry with a kind of transitional high desert feel to it. I walked fast, determined to make it to Leadville.
I had phone service, so I decided to call a hostel called The Colorado Trail House to make a reservation. I figured I could get there by 6. Keep in mind that the mileage tally for today includes only trail mileage, not the miles going up and down Elbert, which is a 7.6 mile round trip bottom to top.
Unfortunately, the hostel and two other places I called were all booked because there was a barbecue festival in Leadville. Ugh! Fortunately, I called a place called The Abbey and they had rooms. I knew I would need time to make a plan, so I booked two nights.
I hustled and made the road walk to The Abbey by 5:30. I stopped at a convenience store in town for a Zero bar and a cherry Coke, then walked right through the barbecue festival to get to The Abbey. The town definitely had that small town charm. Mt. Elbert and Mt. Massive served as stunning, snow-capped backdrops for the town’s skyline. Music rang through the streets from the festival’s stage. It felt like I was coming in to some kind of homecoming parade.
The Abbey turned out to be a converted convent! In some ways, having gone to Catholic school for nine years, it was like a culmination of all my worst nightmares! At the same time, the proprietors were super cool, the atmosphere was really friendly, it was immaculately clean, and it came with breakfast! The bathrooms were shared, but I had my own private room and it had a sink in it, which was really nice for brushing my teeth, rinsing out my cook pot, etc. The owners went above and beyond when I asked about laundry. They don’t have onsite laundry, but they offered to wash my clothes in their personal machines! I’m sure they can’t do that for everyone and I wouldn’t assume they would do so, but I’m mentioning that to demonstrate how great these people were. The girl’s name was Brie; I can’t remember her husband’s name.
I spent the rest of the evening pouring over maps. I went ahead and planned to stay through Sunday because, believe it or not, it is supposed to snow this weekend! Yep, I‘m not kidding.... I glued myself to Guthook, my topo maps, and Google maps, looking at my options. Previously I had found another Great Divide mountain bike route that would take me west of the CDT to reconnect with it in Steamboat Springs. It is a lot of road walking though, and I am kind of at my limit for non-trail road walking. I had a lot to think about - do I move forward on the CDT and gear up for mountaineering through the high Rockies, do I take some kind of alternate, or do I flip north to a different section of the trail? I only knew one thing - I needed to answer the “what next?” question here in Leadville.
Today I felt great. Mentally, Climbing Mt. Elbert was a huge win and boost for me. It was definitely on my CDT bucket list to climb something over 14,000 feet. I must admit, it felt more meaningful to me because I really had to work for it. It wouldn’t have meant as much if I had just strolled up there. Also, getting to see it with that kind of winter beauty felt super special.
I’m feeling good and with my head back in the game, but I am genuinely confused about how I should proceed. I’m not keen on slogging through the high Rockies. It could be dangerous in spots and, as you all already know, I don’t really enjoy high elevation winter mountaineering - it’s stressful and scary at times for me! I also don’t want to walk more roads, at least not ones that are heavily trafficked and don’t pass through beautiful scenery. I need to knuckle down and figure this out. I also need some sleep!
As a final comment, Summer Solstice is also national hike naked day! I did not... it was so cold on Elbert that would have been crazy, but also, I’m not really a hike naked kind of guy. This cat likes his coat of fur! Some of my AT friends did it last year and I was really impressed that they had the courage and confidence to do so! I wondered if I would see anyone hiking naked when I got down off the mountain, but I did not. In a state where weed is legal, people keep their clothes on. Go figure.