Mount Elbert Trip Report
Black Cloud Trail, 08/17/06
That's one big hill, I thought as I huffed and puffed my way up the final few steps to the summit of Mount Elbert. It wasn't the distance or the elevation gain that was the problem, just my lack of preparation. Instead of hiking every weekend like I had previous summers, my wife and I had spent most of this year expecting the birth of our first child. After our daughter was born, and I prepared to drive our car to our new home in Texas, we agreed that I could hike Mount Elbert with my brother Ian, who was coming with me. I didn't know what I was getting in to.
Mount Elbert is the highest of the Rocky Mountains, and second only to California's Mount Whitney in the continental United States. (Collectively, the Rockies are much higher than the Sierras.) Since learning of its status as one of the State Highpoints, and knowing that it was only several hours away from my home in Utah, I wanted to hike it before leaving college in Utah. In spite of its height, it turns out that Mount Elbert is one of the least technical of the Colorado 14ers, with the three primary summer routes just strenuous day hikes.
I wasn't able to hike Mount Elbert before graduating, but I was able to arrange to stop past it en route during our move from Utah to Texas. The mountain sits just outside of Leadville, a small town which I had visited before as a kid. It was settled, Ian, my brother and road trip partner, and I would hike Mount Elbert. In looking at the routes, we chose the Black Cloud Trail, mainly for its difficulty and lack of popularity. This choice turned out to be a good one.
After packing the moving truck, and saying goodbye to my wife and child, Ian and I left Provo around 10am on Tuesday morning. We had an enjoyable drive through Utah and Colorado, taking the scenic route through Aspen and over Independence Pass, at an elevation of over 12,000 ft. We set up camp at the Twin Peaks campground, less than a mile from the Black Cloud Trailhead. After finding the trailhead and driving into Leadville to get a bite to eat, we settled down for a somewhat fitful night of sleep.
We woke shortly after 6am the next morning hoping to be on the trail by 7. With cloudiness the afternoon before, we wanted to be up and down the mountain before weather became an issue. We broke camp and drove the short distance to the trailhead. The Black Cloud Trailhead is only marked by a small sign, not easily visible from the road (hint, if you go west of the Mount Elbert Lodge, you've gone too far); we were glad we found it the night before. We parked in the small parking area at the trailhead, made sure we had everything in our packs, and set off up the mountain around 7am.
We didn't waste any time in gaining altitude. As it climbs through dense forest, the trail switches back several times, generally following Black Cloud Creek in a northern direction. When we were there in mid-August, the creek was still flowing well, and would provide a good source of water. After gaining 2,000 feet, the terrain opens up into a wide alpine bowl underneath South Elbert. At this point, the trail levels out a bit and turns from soil to rock. We were still shaded from the rising sun, and the air was cool on our bare arms and legs. I was beginning to feel the effects of the altitude, and our pace began to slow to something a little more comfortable.
As we made our way up into the bowl and out of the trees, our views of the surrounding terrain improved considerably. We could see La Plata Peak and its environs to the south, along with some of the other rugged 14ers of the Sawatch Range. From the bowl, the trail turns to the north east and begins to head of the ridge in earnest. Sometimes the trail switches back, in other locations it just goes right up the side of the mountain. In some ways, it felt a bit like the famous 99 switchbacks on Mount Whitney. We were above timberline by now, with the trees giving way to short grasses and lichens. The weather was also starting to get a little interesting; we could see cumulus clouds building above us, and hoped they would not turn threatening.
Once we reached the ridge, we got our first view of Mount Elbert, with its long south ridge which we would have to climb. We also noticed South Elbert, the false summit to our west which stood between us and the true summit. By this point, I was getting a bit tired. We had already climbed 4,000 feet, but we still had a ways to go. By maintaining a descent pace, we were able to make our way up and over South Elbert to the base of the summit ridge, all the while keeping an eye on the ever increasing number of clouds in the sky.
The final push to the summit was largely uneventful. The ridge gains about 500 feet, and I would stop and catch my breath every 100 feet or so. The grasses had become sparser, and the trail had disappeared, but route finding from this point was not difficult; just follow the ridge up. With only a few feet remaining, Ian waited for me and we took the last few steps together. Shortly after 11am, we were on top of the Rockies!
And we weren't alone. In spite of not having seen a single other person on the trail, there were around 40 people on the summit, most of who had come up the North Elbert Trail route. It wasn't particularly chilly, but with a little bit of a breeze and the sun perpetually behind a cloud, I decided to break out the fleece and gloves. Ian and I had some snacks, took pictures of each other and the wonderful scenery and chatted with other people who had made the hike. There were people from all over the country, as well as several of international origin. We enjoyed it, but after a while the wind picked up so we decided to leave.
The way down was largely uneventful. We met a couple of people who were coming up, and we managed to find the way down off of the ridge after hiking over South Elbert again. It can be a bit tricky, but the trail is well marked by a large cairn, so we found it easily. Descending the steep slope was just about as fun as going up, and when we got down into the open bowl, the sun came out from behind the clouds and things warmed up considerably. After what seemed like an eternity of hiking through the woods, we finally arrived back at the car, tired, but glad we had the chance to hike our first major mountain in Colorado.
After getting back to the car, we loaded up the gear, stopped back at the campground to fill up our water bottles, and started the long drive to Clayton, New Mexico. Along the way, we drove through the beautiful Arkansas River Canyon between Salida and Canon City, Colorado. We hit a couple of rainstorms, and after sunset could see the lightening dancing around in the clouds up ahead. Instead of camping in the rain, we stayed at the cheapest motel we could find in Clayton, and finished our drive the next day.