August Adventure, Part 3: The Tallest Mountain in Colorado


Dan poked at me.

“It’s time to get up,” he said. “UUUNHHHG” I responded. It was 6 AM. I hadn’t slept well; the altitude had made the small muscles in my chest hurt and I just couldn’t get comfortable. It was freezing cold oustide as well, and I stupidly and groggily changed into my hiking clothes, shivered though the dismantling of the tent and the shoving of our gear into the car, and wished I’d brought gloves. And a hat.

Exiting the campground, we drove a short way up to the main trailhead parking lot, at which point we finished our preparation and began the 2 mile trek up the dirt road to the 4wheel drive parking lot. Moxie could have made it a little way up, we realized, but not very far, so it was just as well we’d left her where we did.

Car after truck passed us as we made our way up the road, but nobody stopped to offer us a lift. We crossed a runoff-swollen stream. We were making good time, we thought, but after a while it felt like maybe we’d gone too far. Then we came upon a sign that told us in no uncertain terms that we HAD gone too far, and we just hadn’t noticed the turnoff. The 14er book had steered us wrong again, and we probably ended up going over a mile out of the way, all told. When we figured out the right path, we stopped to eat some energy bars and bitch a little bit about how much unnecessary uphill we’d done. Then, right as we started on the appropriate trail, Dan tripped on a footbridge and banged his knee up.

At least once we got going, the trail was flat and easy, went downhill a bit, and then took a sharp turn to the uphill and stayed that way. And stayed that way. And stayed that way. It was really, really tough going, and we had to stop pretty frequenly to catch our breaths and rest our legs. The book had assured us that the trail leveled out for a while, which eventually it did, but not for long enough, because then came UPHILL. We passed tree line (side note, the trees at treeline are pretty weird!) and each step was harder, each break more necessary. When you get up that high, the altitude can have varying affects on any given person, and when you combine that with the possibilities of any sort of weather, you never know what you might get.

The trail got rockier and steeper. Dan had slowed down to a snail’s pace and I wasn’t going especially fast my own self. We hit what I estimate to be around 13,900 or so feet and suddenly the summit was just too far to go – at least a half mile further, and nearly straight up. We both felt the beginnings of altitude sickness (in my case, it was lightheadedness and dizziness and a slight bit of nausea) and decided that 14,400, the summit of Mount Elbert, was not going to happen that day. A combination of bad/not enough sleep, going all the distance out of our way, hiking 6 miles to get to the top instead of 3.5 from the 4-wheel drive lot like most of the other people on the trail, the weather (sunny and snowing at the same time!) all conspired to send us back down the mountain before we’d reached the top.

Intellectually, I know it’s better that we made that decision and didn’t try to push through our feeling poorly in order to reach the top. People die every year because they ignore their bodies’ warning signals and are too stubborn to turn around; other people are hospitalized for the same reason. But still, it killed me not to have reached the top of Mount Elbert, especially after we’d come all that way.

Downhill was nearly as difficult as uphill, especially on the steep, gravely parts of the trail. Loose rocks slide out from under you and it’s harder to keep your balance going downhill. We stopped to have a snack when we got to the flatter part of the trail down inside treeline and watched flakes of snow fall from the sunny blue sky. Down doesn’t take as long as up because you don’t have to stop as frequently, but it still takes quite a while, especially on the steep parts.

Finally, finally, finally we made it back to the 4 wheel drive lot, hoping someone would be there from whom we could beg a ride back to our car, but it was not to be. I joked with Dan that as soon as we got to the end of the road, someone would drive past us, and lo and behold, I was right.

We made it back to the car about 8 hours after we’d began the whole trek. We’d hiked around 11 miles up a mountain and back (including the out-of-the-way bit). We were both stinky and starving and a little bit sun/windburned. We got in the car and drove home (stopping in Leadville for Subway sandwiches, in stop-and-go Sunday afternoon traffic for two hours between the Eisenhower tunnel and Idaho Springs).

It was a good weekend.

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