The day of our Mt. Elbert, Colorado climb dawns sunny and clear. At 14,433 feet above sea level, Colorado’s highest peak is the tallest of the 54 “Fourteeners”, or peaks over 14,000 feet, found in the state. Wanting to get an early start to avoid the lightning strikes that are prevalent in the afternoon hours, we leave our cozy RV bright and early at 6:00am. As we begin our 30-minute drive to the North Trailhead, the temperature is 46 degrees.
A trailhead is a busy place this morning. There are several groups of hikers preparing to start out, including one family with young children and a group of young people speaking a language I did not recognize. We are forced to wait to use the restroom facilities, worth the wait, as they will be the last facilities we will encounter until the end of our hike, but that costs us some precious time. It is 6:52 when we are finally able to begin our trek.
The first mile or so of the hike is a steep uphill climb, involving an elevation gain of 500 feet. When we begin, seventeen-year-old Ryan is hiking right along with us, but due to his youth and avid soccer playing, he soon leaves us in the dust. Within the first mile, he is out of sight. Due to a severe attack of pride, I press for us to try to keep up with him, or at least try to keep him in sight, which soon results in an attack of altitude sickness about a mile into our hike. Unable to continue, I sit on a fallen log, gasping for air. I remember wondering how I would ever be able to make it to the summit.
After struggling to breathe and to quell the urge to vomit for about 10 minutes (cutting further into our precious time!), I remember that I had packed two tablets of my blood pressure medication when preparing for the hike. My doctor had informed me at my last visit when we were discussing our plans for this climb, that it was one of the medications often used to treat altitude sickness. I had packed them thinking my husband might need one as he had been feeling a bit under the weather for several days before our trip. Quickly downing one of the pills, I soon begin to feel more like myself. A few minutes later, we are off again, albeit at a more measured and realistic pace than before. We are able to finish this steep portion of the trail without further incident.
When the trail levels out, we find ourselves in a beautiful mountain meadow. We are struck by the amazing scenery we are passing, from fields of colorful wildflowers to tall evergreens to majestic mountains, both near and in the distance. One view is more beautiful than the next. Unable to stop ourselves, we pause just to enjoy the view on several occasions.
Soon we received a text from Ryan who, thankfully, has his cell phone and, amazingly, we have reception! He writes, “I lost my jacket.” We respond that we will watch for it and bring it up when we find it. It will be cold up at the summit.
A short while later, we notice we are passing other hikers who have slowed a bit or stopped to rest. I must be feeling better. One slight issue is that I am having difficulty getting water out of the camel pack on my back. While not a tragedy, it does make the shoulder discomfort caused by the pack a bit more irritating, though much less disturbing than the altitude sickness!
We enjoy the remainder of our hike to the top, meeting a wide variety of other hikers; college students, families with children, couples and several older hikers. One older man slightly ahead of us locates Ryan’s jacket as we had mentioned that we were looking for it. We quickly text Ryan that we have the jacket; he is relieved as he is getting chilly, being nearer the top that we are.
As we continue, we begin asking those descending if they have spotted our son. Many have and remark about his speed. One man stated, “I saw him coming [behind me] and wasn’t even going to try to keep up with him! He was moving!”
Soon we receive another text, “I have to pee!” Ryan was at the top and in dire straights, having finished his camel pack with two liters of water on the way up. We quickly text back, “Do what you have to do! Look for a place.”
Shortly thereafter we look up and can see him waving to us from the top, grinning from ear to ear. We increase our pace and he runs down to meet us. One of our climbing rules is that he can hike on ahead, as long as he waits at the summit so we can get some pictures from the top. We finally join Ryan at the highpoint and sign the register placed there for that purpose.
One of the friends Ryan has made during his wait takes a photo of us and remarks, “Sure he runs up the mountain, but he makes you two carry his clothes!” Ryan then performs his signature highpoint handstand at his highest point after his longest climb to date.
Ryan is happy to retrieve his jacket; he has had a chilly 45-minute wait at the top.
We are pleased with our time; we have made the four and a half mile climb and achieved an elevation gain of 4,550 feet in only four hours and fifteen minutes. The trip down should be even faster.
As we are taking a brief rest, snow flurries begin to fall around us. The date is July 23, 2009. We attempt to photograph them but we are unable to catch the light flakes with the camera. We pack up to make the trip down.
More to come… Next: Lightning on the Descent!