1.31.2005

Combining my 2 mountain loves

Sorry for the delay to my update, I was being lazy with my blog, but not with my mountain activities. Recently we haven’t been getting any new snow, and the conditions at the resorts have been rather marginal. A few of the guys at work and I were talking about maybe using this past weekend to try some winter hiking. The more we talked, we decided we would attempt to climb a fourteener in the winter, and that led us to think maybe we should ski back down it after we climbed. We did a little research online, asking about conditions, which peaks are safer from avalanche danger, that sort of thing. We decided upon Mt Elbert, the highest in the state at 14,433 feet. Quite a daunting task for a first winter ascent/ski descent, so we wanted to make sure we got an early start. We met up at 6am at the coffee shop, loaded up and headed out. We planned on hiking the North Mt Elbert trail, which has less vertical gain and is a couple miles shorter than some of the other routes. Access to the trailhead is via a dirt road that in most seasons is maintained in winter up to a campground that lies a mile before the trailhead. We figured with no storms in the last 3 weeks we would be good to the campground, but we were wrong. The road was only clear for the first mile or so, leaving us almost 5 miles from the trailhead. On top of that, I got high centered on a 2 plus foot deep wind packed snow drift. The tires wouldn’t get traction because the body of the car was still resting on the snow. We dug out around the tires and got some rocks from the side of the road under them and I was able to rock the car back out of the drift. All hope was not lost, as we headed instead to the South Mt Elbert trail, a longer route with more vertical, but one which has a paved road and parking area. In the summer there is a 2 mile road that 4WD vehicles can take to a higher point, but we had to walk that section as it is not cleared of snow. We loaded up our packs with our skis at about 10am and strapped on snowshoes for the 5 ½ mile one way climb and the 4800 vertical feet that went with it. The trail was well packed down; apparently we are not the only morons who climb in winter! We made good time at first, and stopped for lunch at noon just below the start of the east ridge. We pressed on and made it through a relatively flat spruce forest to be rewarded with a beautiful untracked face that we knew would be a good ski on the way down. We climbed to about 12,400 feet and ditched our skis, which add a considerable amount of weight to ones pack. In fact after ditching the skis, the packs felt like they weren’t even there. The problem was that slogging all that weight around was starting to really affect our time, and it was now 2pm. We decided to keep going, but to turn around no later than 3 so we wouldn’t run out of daylight on the way back down. We knew we would not make the summit, but we were able to make it to about 13,000 feet. We took a little snack break, and headed back to our gear. The boots were so stiff from being out in the cold, it took us a while to get them on. After a brief section of wind packed snow, we made it to the nice open face we saw on our climb. It was about 4 inches of untracked powder on top of a wind packed base, we were able to make several nice carves through the snow, then traversed through the trees to another open slope that took us back to our lunch spot. At this point we were reaching a dense section of aspens that was not skiable and had to walk down for a bit. Below that the forest loosened up and we were able to get a few sections of nice gladed runs in. When we got back to the access road, it was basically just like a catwalk in-bounds at any resort for the last 2 miles back to the car. Although not exciting, it was definitely worth skiing out on the road because of all the time it saved us. Altogether it was an amazing day, and while we were disappointed to not get the summit, we had such a great experience, and learned a lot for future climb/skis. We are already talking about trying it again soon, just on a shorter route next time.