- Physical Condition
- Getting Started
- Quandary Peak, the First Fourteener
- Mount Elbert
- Mount Massive
This is the story of a 65 year old Flatlander, in moderately good (but certainly not great!) physical condition who decided to attempt Mount Elbert (elevation 14,433 feet), the highest summit in Colorado and the second highest in the 48 contiguous States.
I had been to Colorado twice before, in 2000 and 2001. The first trip was a very gradual introduction to the Rockies in Rocky Mountain National Park, the high point of the trip being a couple of Thirteeners, Mount Chiquita and Mount Ypsilon. In 2001 I had climbed two Fourteeners, Mount Gray and Mount Lincoln. In both trips we acclimated gradually, and I had no problems with the altitude.
In the winter of 2002 I planned a rather ambitious trip for the summer, planning to spend two weeks in Colorado, and hoping at least to bag Fourteeners on alternate days.
I hike year round in New Hampshire, often doing hikes that might be considered strenuous. At the end of winter I normally take a break from hard hiking to recover from one season in preparation for the next, and I do the same as fall changes into winter.
This spring I started training much later than usual, and once I started found a lot of excuses to train less seriously than in previous years. The official excuse was the weather, the real reason was probably a lack of motivation, since I had proved most of what I wanted to prove to myself the previous year. As a result I had only done three hikes with more than 4,000 feet of elevation gain before my departure for Colorado, and had huffed and puffed on all three.
Fortunately I realized that I was not going to accomplish as much as I had hoped when I made plans in winter, and so I redefined my goals as:
- Enjoying the glorious Colorado Rockies.
- Continuing the process of getting into shape for the rest of the summer.
- Attempting a few Fourteeners, perhaps including Mount Elbert and, if all went really well, Mount Massive.
I flew to Denver on Saturday, June 29th, and drove to Silverthorne, in Summit County, reaching my motel around 2 PM. There is a supermarket about half a mile from the motel, with around a couple of hundred feet of elevation gain. I slowly made my way there and bought some hiking food. I also found a nice, completely flat road near the motel, and spent an hour (maybe more) walking along it slowly.
Next day I decided to do Ptarmigan Mountain (12,498 feet) as an acclimation hike. I had done it the previous year, and remembered that it had excellent footing and gentle grades, rising 3,100 feet over 4.5 miles. Using the White Mountains formula for book time that should take 3:50, since even when out of shape I easily beat book time by 25% or better (in the lowlands!) I estimated that I should be able to do it in three hours.
The trail starts up rather steeply from the trailhead, then goes down a hundred feet or so, and starts climbing at a gentle grade all the way. The lower part of the trail is in the woods, but there were several openings which gave views of the Gore Range that improved as I got higher. By the time it got above treeline I was more interested in breathing than in enjoying the views, but I kept going. I reached the summit in 2:50, and sat down to have an early lunch.
The views from the summit were spectacular. In New Hampshire I can identify most of the summits I see, here all I could do was admire the views. Of the Front Range summits the only two I could identify were Grays and Torreys. In Summit County I clearly identified the Ten Mile Range, and Buffalo, Red and Willow Peaks in the Gore Range. Beyond that all I could see was a jumble of mighty peaks!
Next day (Monday) I was tired, so I did touristy things, exploring Summit County using their excellent free bus service.
Having rested on Monday I was ready for Quandary peak on Tuesday! I reached the trailhead at 7:30 (to be off the summit well before the time at which thunderstorms often start) and started up. The trip is roughly 3 miles with 3,000 feet of elevation, for a White Mountains book time of 3:00. I intentionally went less fast than I could, doing the first and last 1,000 feet in an hour each, and the middle 1,000 feet in 0:45. I was warming up for the first 1,000 feet, cruising for the second, and getting a bit tired for the final, steepest, pitch.
The weather on the summit was great, and once again there was this jumble of strange peaks. A map helped identify the closest neighbors, but so many peaks remained unidentified!
I met many people on the way down, including several groups with young children just having walks in the woods at the lower elevations. My car was the third car to arrive in the morning, by the time I reached the trailhead there were over 30!
On Wednesday I decided to do a hike with little elevation gain, I chose the Peaks Trail, which goes along the sides of the Ten Mile Range, starting in the valley at Frisco and ending near the Peak Eight ski lift above Breckenridge. This is a lovely trail that goes through the woods, past some great beaver ponds, and gains only 1,000 feet over ten miles. Unfortunately there are few openings with views, but all in all it was an excellent trip. There is a bus from the ski area to downtown Breckenridge, and another one from Breckenridge to Frisco, so I could do this with only one car. In fact I did not use my car at all, as there is also a bus from Silverthorne to Frisco!
I did the ten miles plus 1,000 feet in three hours which was pretty fast, so I decided to take Thursday off, to be in good shape for a Friday attempt on Mount Elbert.
I spent a lot of time thinking, planning and worrying about Mount Elbert. On the one hand I kept reminding myself that it was only 4.5 miles each way, with 4,500 feet of elevation gain on a good trail all the way. Even with my current level of fitness that should be quite easy to do. On the other hand I worried about my lack of fitness, and about the effects of the altitude, even though it had not bothered me. The one thing I did not worry about was the weather, as the forecast was for almost no precipitation as far as the forecasters could see.
If you do not have a printed map handy you may want to look (in a separate window) at a Topozone map of Mount Elbert as you read this page.
I chose the North Mt. Elbert Trail, largely because it seemed to me to be the easier one to drive to. I wake up slowly, so I set the alarm for 4 AM, slowly made coffee in my room, dressed, packed and was out at 5:30, exactly as planned. The drive to the trailhead took a bit over an hour, and I was hiking at 6:45.
My plan had been to take 45 minutes for the segment along the Colorado trail (1.3 miles and 500 feet according to Roach's book), then 45 minutes for each of the first two 1,000 foot intervals, and a full hour for each of the last two (the last segment was only 900 feet, but I assumed it would take a full hour). I used my altimeter to monitor my pace, slowing down whenever it showed that I was going faster than planned. At each 1,000 foot interval I stopped for almost five minutes, took off my pack, ate some real food (bagel or banana rather than gorp), had a drink and just rested. That is not my normal style, I tend to have one or two very short stops, grabbing some gorp from my pouch and a drink from the external bottle without taking my pack off. But this was Mount Elbert, and I was treating it with great respect.
The trail was good, the weather was good, and I seemed to be going up effortlessly! In spite of my attempts to slow down I was beating my plan by an ever increasing margin, and I reached the summit at 10:05, in 3:20 versus my planned 4:15! I was not even really tired, or perhaps I should say that I was too happy to realize that I was tired. I looked north to Mount Massive and smiled, that would be my next peak, it was already as good as in the bag, no doubt about that!
That evening I met some friends who had arrived that day. Our plan had been to have dinner together while they were in Silverthorne, and decide on a day by day basis whether we would hike together or I would hike separately. That night they told me that they had planned an easy acclimation hike for the next day (Saturday), and I decided to join them without asking any questions. That was a big mistake! The "easy acclimation hike" turned into a grueling trip, the less said about it the better.
I obviously took Sunday off, the combination of Mount Elbert on Friday and our Saturday adventure had really tired me out. My friends had planned to do Mount of the Holy Cross on Monday. I decided that I was incapable of doing the 12 miles and 5,625 feet, especially since that included around 1,000 feet of elevation gain on the way back. After a lot of thought I decided to give Mount Massive (14 miles and 4,500 feet) a try on Monday. I knew that it would not be easy.
On Monday morning I woke at 4 AM and reached the trailhead (very close to the Mount Elbert trailhead) at 6:45. I started on the Colorado Trail, and made good time on the gentle trail. When I reached the junction with the Mount Massive Trail I felt reasonably confident that it would be a tough trip, but that I could do it.
The Mount Massive Trail rises abruptly from the Colorado Trail, and after the first few hundred feet of elevation gain I realized that the cumulative exertion of the past week was catching up with me. As I went up Massive's "gentle" slopes (Roach's adjective) I found myself stopping more often and for longer periods. I kept going (the weather forecast was good, so time was not a consideration) and eventually reached the col between the main peak and South Massive. Here I took a long break, putting on fleece and windgear, eating, drinking and resting. I probably stayed there for half an hour, and the feeling of total exhaustion left me. But when I finally got up, put on my pack, and looked both up and down the choice was clear. I probably could have gone up had I been with a group that was determined to do so. But I hike because I enjoy hiking, not to bag peaks. Going up would have been exhausting, so I went down.
That evening my friends told me that they had also turned around on their Holy Cross trip. Next day they were planning to do Mount Bierstadt on their way to the Indian Peaks Wilderness, where they were staying for the second half of the week. I declined to join them.
The Mount Massive trip, coming so soon after Mount Elbert, had exhausted me. I spent the next few days doing easy trips, unfortunately below treeline.
I have thought a lot about the causes of my failure to do Mount Massive. I am not sure how much was due to the altitude and how much to my being in less than normal shape. I suspect that the altitude exacerbated the effect of being out of shape. Fortunately I had redefined my goals before starting, and I can say that I exceeded them. This is the first trip (out of three) in which I was never chased off the mountain by a thunderstorm. The views were spectacular, and I returned to New England in better shape than I had left. Next trip is to Mount Whitney in August 2002, then next summer back to settle some scores with Mount Massive!