Fourteen Thousand Four Hundred Thirty-Three Feet
Trailhead: Northeast Ridge (near Leadville)
Distance: 9.5 miles; 4,700 feet elevation gain (difficult)
Let me start out by saying that despite what this picture looks like, I H A T E D this hike. Hated it. But we’ll get more into that as the story goes on.
I’ve had my sights set on Mount Elbert for a while now, maybe even since we started hiking back down from the summit of Mount Bierstadt (LINK), our first fourteener in 2015. The only thing is, this mountain is big. The biggest in Colorado. The biggest in the entire Rocky Mountain mountain range. The second biggest in all of the continental United States. This fact is why I wanted to hike it so badly, and why it took me until this year to actually make those plans.
We had such little snowfall here during late winter, I was able to set my sights on Elbert much sooner than usual. Originally, this was supposed to be my birthday hike, but when the bad weather rolled in, we pushed our plans back a weekend. I was bummed I wouldn’t be standing on top while I celebrated my 25th birthday, but postponing meant Sam would be able to join us!
We decided it would be better to sleep at the trailhead – Leadville is about a 2.5 hour drive from our apartment and we needed to get on the trail no later than 5 am in order to have enough time to complete the hike safely. Logan and I headed down after work on Friday to meet Sam there. We got to the trailhead around 11 that night, and got all of our stuff situated to sleep in the back of Logan’s car. I waited up for Sam to arrive, kept awake by more and more people pulling into the parking lot throughout the night. Once Sam did arrive, I settled in for a very restless sleep. It’s great that we can sleep in the back of Logan’s car, but that doesn’t make it very comfortable.
Our alarms started going off at 4 am and we started moving probably 15 minutes later. After getting dressed & packing our bags, we got on the trail at around 4:45 in the morning. The trailhead was already entirely full when we got going, which made me very thankful that we decided to drive down the night before. It was pitch black as we got going, so we started out with our headlamps on but it lightened up quickly enough that we were able to turn them off soon after.
We had to take a break soon after started to shed some layers. It was freezing down at the trailhead after sleeping in our cars, but the trail was steep from the get go and we warmed up fast. I’m really bad about starting out at too fast a pace, especially if it’s early in the morning, so I was already feeling out of breath. I had been expecting to see the sunrise while we were above the treeline, but I had misread the map – treeline extended for almost half of the trail! We were able to sneak a couple of glances as we hiked, but I was bummed that I didn’t have us start earlier to get a better view.
When we finally did reach the treeline after about 2.5 miles of hiking, we paused again for a little snack and to apply sunscreen. We had gotten started with all of the speed hikers, but I was slowing us down enough that we were in a lull, between the fast people who had gotten started around 4:30/5:00 with us, and the slower people who had gotten started a little bit later.
Also when we reached treeline, I started moving slow. I wasn’t feeling great, my lungs were struggling, and my legs were burning. Logan and I told Sam to go on ahead of us, knowing he could move a lot faster than we could. I kept an eye on Sam as I slowly (slowly slowly slowly) picked my way up the trail. The thing about this trail is that there are 4,700 feet of elevation gain. IT IS STEEP! And I was feeling it. There was one point where I was able to go really fast (in comparison) without stopping, but immediately after I slowed down again.
Sam kept going ahead of us, and we finally reached a part of the trail that was relatively flat. All of the sudden, I felt really sick. My head was spinning, I felt like I was going to throw up, my head was throbbing, and I was way weaker than usual on a fourteener. I stopped a couple of times to try and have a snack, hoping that my blood sugar was just low and that I would feel better as soon as I downed an apple sauce or a hazelnut butter packet. But no matter how long I sat or how much water I drank or what snacks I ate, I was not feeling better. Logan wanted me to keep going on, so I slowly slowly slowly picked my way up the trail until we reached the part that I had been looking at and dreading. Right before the first false summit of the hike, there is an INSANELY steep part – like so steep that I was using my hands to help go up. I again tried to tell Logan that I felt like crap (I was hoping to myself that I could just throw up and be done with it), but he told me to keep trying – he thought we were closer to the end than we really were.
After crying my way up that insanely steep section, we had to pick our way around the false summit. I’m irrationally afraid of falling, so Logan had to hold my hand most of the way through that section – and again, I was going so slow I had to keep stopping to let people pass me. When we finally made it past that section and to the top of the first false summit, I was almost in tears because there was another long, steep uphill section that led to ANOTHER false summit. I was still feeling like shit, and had hiked part of the previous section with my eyes closed just because I could not keep them open. I cried basically the whole way up to the top, but at that point I had made it too far to turn around (in retrospect, I know I pushed too hard because I definitely had altitude sickness and it was not getting better).
I had been having Logan text Sam to make sure he was okay – I was worried about having let him go so far ahead of us. When we finally reached the top of the final false summit, I was ready to go. We crossed the ridge and joined another 50 people at the top of the tallest mountain in all of Colorado! Sam was sitting down waiting for us (he had been there for an hour and a half or two hours waiting), and we gratefully shed our backpacks and took our summit pictures!
We sat at the summit for a while. I still wasn’t feeling great, but I was definitely feeling better than I had been at any other point of the hike. The views were outstanding and the weather held out for us and we could see for miles!
Most of the time, when I reach the top of a fourteener, I’m ready to do it all again. The views are so stunning that I forget how much it sucked to hike. Not the case for Mount Elbert. I was so miserable the whole time and I have no desire to ever hike this mountain again. I thanked Logan for making me finish, because there is no way I could ever do this trail again knowing how steep and miserable it is the entire way up. It was definitely exhilarating to stand at the top, but I am very much done with Mount Elbert as a whole.
We eventually turned around to start making the steep descent back to the car. I was cursing the whole way down the mountain – my knees hurt, my feet hurt, and it was so hot (but I did not want to put more sunscreen on so I left on all my layers). The 4,700 feet of elevation gain was bad going up, but it was even worse going down. At points, the trail was so steep that I could not see the trail in front of me. I had a panic attack on the steepest section, and Logan had to talk me out of hyperventilating and hold my hand the whole way down. Sam again walked ahead of us and would pause and wait. All in all, it took us (read: me. Sam would have been much faster by himself) 12 hours to complete this hike.