I hiked Mount Elbert last Friday for a few reasons…
I wanted to reach Colorado’s highest point.
Also, it has been a hot summer in the Denver area, with August’s daytime high temperatures running about 4ºF above average.
At Denver International Airport, the average high temperature for the month of August (through the 23rd) was over 91ºF (33°C). Getting up in elevation, where temperatures would be far cooler sounded refreshing.
Despite the heat, I could feel summer’s end approaching, with sunset getting earlier and earlier.
I was starting to feel as if I was allowing my Colorado summer to pass by without that many mountain adventures to show for it.
Finally, as recently as a six months ago, the idea of needing a day away from people would have seemed inconceivable to me. Things changed, and last week I was seriously feeling the desire to spend a day alone (well, with my dog). I guess it is true that even the most extreme introverts need human interaction and even the most extreme extroverts need some time alone.
So, I did the only logical thing. I left Denver at 3:45 A.M. so I could arrive at the Mount Elbert Trailhead at sunrise- in time to get the last parking spot in the lot.
It certainly was cooler. At the start of the day, the temperature had dropped into the mid 30s (≈2ºC).
The Northeast Ridge is the most popular, and most easily navigable route up Mount Elbert. The first mile of this hike follows both the Colorado Trail and the Continental Divide trail.
This first half of this mile is fairly steep, with switchbacks, followed by a flat section.
One of the greatest things about starting a hike this early is being there the moment the sun first hits the top of the trees.
I reached the tree line an hour into the hike.
The Arkansas Valley and the town of Leadville gradually disappeared from behind the trail, as if I was on an airplane taking off.
Due to the time of day, and sun exposure, it began to feel warmer. The trail also got even more intense.
One of the reasons people hike 14ers is to get that feeling of being on top of the world! Because the Mount Elbert Trail is pretty steep right near the tree line, that feeling comes sooner on Mount Elbert than it does on other 14ers. I looked back only about 15 minutes after reaching the tree line, and already felt as if I was looking down on all else.
The other common 14er experience that comes a bit earlier on Mount Elbert (compared to other 14ers) is the “scramble”. This is a really steep and rocky section where there is often not one specific route. On most 14ers, the “scramble” comes right at the top. However, on Mount Elbert it comes a bit earlier.
After a couple more miles of alternating steeper and flatter sections…
An intense “scramble” presents itself.
The top of the scramble, however, is not the summit.
Exhausted from the scramble, the trail seems to drag on forever (although in reality it is about 30 minutes). It is the kind of hike that forces a lot of hikers to reach, deep inside themselves, and find the energy and stamina they did not think they had.
I was able to summit right around 10 A.M., a safe time to summit given the thunderstorm threat is primarily in the afternoon.
Shasta (pictured with me here) was far from the only dog to hike Mount Elbert that day. However, I was surprised to see a mountain bike at the top of the mountain.
A hiker carried this bike up the mountain on his back, and then rode it down the East Ridge- WOW!
The man who carried the mountain bike to the top of the mountain was far from the only person I talked to on this hike. I talked to dozens of people, many others with dogs and even one of the trail volunteers who was helping build an erosion preventing wall along the trail just above tree line. It was not nearly as solitary as I had thought.
I really didn’t mind. In fact, I enjoyed talking to all of the people I met on the trail and felt it made it a better experience. Maybe what I really needed was not a break from all people, just the ones I felt were being demanding.
Downhill was also an adventure. The views are commonly different, as it is much closer to the middle of the day. Some places feel like they took on a somewhat different color.
It also presented a challenge of its own, as parts of the trail were slippery.
And, as was the case with the trip up the hill, it also felt like it dragged on longer than anticipated.
While I had grown tired of all things “demanding”, this hike made me realize that some of the best experiences in life are the demanding ones. The ones that force you to give more than what you were prepared to give. The ones that force you to reach deep inside yourself, both physically and mentally, and find what you did not know you had in you.
There are different kinds of demanding experiences. Some build something in us, such as hikes like these, the basketball coach that wants their players to reach their full potential, or a great boss or mentor that knows going soft on someone with real talent will shortchange them.
Then there are other ones, that do nothing but feed someone else’s ego, or squeeze every last hour of work or bit of energy out of you to line pocketbooks. Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference, especially when tired. I know there were sections of this hike where I was barely able to hold a thought. Somewhere deep inside, we all understand what is going on. All we need to do is trust our instincts and ask ourselves this simple question…
Am I Being Built or Harvested?
Be thankful for the experiences that build us, no matter how frustrating or exhausting they are. Run as fast as you can from those where we are being harvested.