Sunday, May 29, 2011

This just in: Memorial Day weekend has apparently been rescheduled for the middle of winter

Today was the first hike of the trip. I decided to start off both ambitious and lazy, with the easiest hike I had planned, which happened to be up Mt. Elbert, the highest mountain in the state (and the second highest in the contiguous 48). According to the guidebook, it's a 6-9 hour hike, depending on how good of a hiker you are.
I left Leadville at about 7 and got to the trailhead around 7:30. There are two different start points for the trail I used (the South Mt. Elbert Trail), and I used the higher one, or as close to it as I could manage. The higher one (which, as you may have guessed, results in a shorter hike) was at the end of two miles of fire roads that are designed for four-wheel-drive vehicles. Well, my vehicle has one-wheel-drive, but I gave it a shot anyway and managed to make it about three-quarters of the way up before a section of the road was flooded. (Side note: it's a lot of fun to ride on back roads like this, but I think in the process I knocked the muffler and now need to fix it again.)
From where I started, the trail was an 8.5-mile round trip, with a bit over 4,000 feet of elevation gain. The first mile wasn't bad – it was a bit steep in places, but this is a fourteener, so that's kinda the point. After that, though, I hit the snow.
Now, I realize that I'm currently at both a higher elevation and a higher latitude than in Virginia, and both of these tend to result in colder temperatures, but it's Memorial Day weekend, basically the start of summer. And I knew there was snow on the mountains when I got here – it's pretty hard to miss. However, the sheer amount of snow was the surprise.
At first, it didn't seem like much. My boots sunk an inch or two, but that was it. Then, all of a sudden, I was up to my knee. I'm rather grateful that I made it back without a broken knee or ankle given the number of times I sunk in without warning, while my body kept moving forward.
It was a pretty even mix of ice-topped snow that would at least mostly hold my weight, and fluffy snow that I sank right through. Some of it was only a few inches deep, but after another mile and a half or so the snow started getting deeper, to the point where there were multiple times I sunk in all the way to my waist.
This waist-deep snow happened to unfortunately coincide with a section of trail that I could only discern by the snowshoeprints left by someone else, and also unfortunately coincided in many places with a stream. Now, I have relatively waterproof boots, so the occasional quick dip into the shallow stream when my foot went through the snow wasn't a terribly big deal. However, my boots are only waterproof up to my ankles, not my waist, so the snow still got them soaked inside and out.
The trail turned pretty steeply uphill, and it felt as much like climbing as hiking. The waist-deep snow continued, and the trees got a bit denser. Not enough to make it impassable, but enough to be an annoyance.
Eventually, I reached the treeline. This brought with it a revelation that, based on the trail condition, I'd been somewhat expecting: I wasn't on the trail. The snow covered any markings on the ground, so all I had to go by were the snowshoeprints, and apparently whoever left them decided to be adventurous.
(Random side note: Mushroom/pineapple/jalapeno pizza is delicious. Especially after a day of hiking.)
Past the treeline, the trail itself isn't incredibly important for navigation purposes. I was going to the highest point for three hundred or more miles, so it was pretty easy to see which way I needed to go. However, trails are designed to follow relatively easy slopes, instead of going straight uphill. What followed was by far the most tiring two miles I've ever hiked. It was pretty much straight uphill, through the snow, although there weren't any spots in this section more than thigh deep.
By the time I was approaching the summit I was stopping every minute or two to catch my breath. Above 13,000 feet, 50 steps was the most I was able to manage without a break.
The terrain thankfully leveled out about five hundred feet from the summit, and the last section was a much gentler slope, culminating in a mound of rock and snow that made me the highest man in Colorado (with the possible exception of the folks who run the medical marijuana dispensary in Leadville).
For as far as I could see in any direction, there was no one. I passed two folks who were coming down while I was struggling up the last thousand feet, but that was it my entire time on the mountain, and they were long gone by the time I made the summit. It was 3:30 at that point, a full eight hours after leaving the trailhead.
I rested for a few minutes and took some pictures. It definitely ranks in my top 4 scenic landscapes. The first is a valley on the Vietnam/Laos border, the second is the area around the Temple of Delphi in Greece, and the third is the view around a lake in Norway (there should be pictures up of that one, back in late April or early May of 2009). The view from Elbert is definitely at least fourth, possibly higher. The exact rankings fluctuate based on my mood (right now, for example, the warmer the place, the more appealing it is, hence Vietnam and Greece taking the top two spots).
After enjoying the top for a few minutes I headed back down. However, it was a bit difficult to find the proper trail, because there are trails leaving in three or four directions, and only the footprints even indicated these. I initially took the wrong one, but it quickly became apparent when I compared the surrounding terrain to my map, and I was able to make my way around the slope leading to the summit to reach the trail I had intended to follow up to the top in the first place. Getting down from there was relatively simple, although still tiring and long. I got back to the bike at 7:15, nearly twelve hours after starting on a hike that wasn't supposed to take longer than nine even for a relatively inexperienced hiker such as myself. Right before reaching the bike it started raining, but just a few drops, not enough to really bother me.
After that, I hurried back to Leadville, and am currently sitting in the Tennessee Pass Cafe enjoying pizza and still suffering a bit from altitude sickness. On the one hand it's annoying – getting out of breath so easily sucks, and the trouble sleeping is also a bother, but the fact that after less than half of a 12” pizza I'm full, when all I've eaten today is trail mix and sunflower seeds, is a nice change from my usual overeating.
Anyway, all in all hiking Mt. Elbert was something that I'm very glad I did, but also something I'm very glad is over. I had planned on also hiking Mt. Massive and Mt. Harvard, but given the amount of remaining snow, as well as the fact that there's more in the forecast for tomorrow morning, I might just rest up and run a bit and try to get more used to the altitude before Mt. Whitney on the 7th. I don't particularly want to die in a snowdrift or have to be medevaced off a mountain, and given that I'm hiking solo, if something bad happens (as easily could've today, were it not for me being, as one friend put it when marveling at how life just seems to work out for me, seemingly protected by divine forces) those are the only two options. At the very least, I'll take tomorrow off. I might hike Massive on Monday or Tuesday if I'm feeling up to it.
And now, as a treat for those of you who've actually stuck it out through the past thousand-odd words, photos:

This is the trail intersection where I made a wrong turn. See that massive trail that goes straight, and the tiny little thing off to the right? I think you can guess which one is the correct one, based on what happened.

I like portrait photography, but as I'm traveling alone, I have to choose less-than-human subjects, like my hiking pole.

See that mound of snow in the center, the one covered in glare from the sun? Yeah, I hiked that. And this wasn't even taken from the bottom of the trail. There were still at least two miles left. (And the actual peak isn't even visible in this, it's a bit farther back and to the left, but because of the change in slope it's blocked from this angle.)

A layered shot of the lake and trees at the base of the mountain.

This is a flower that was growing in the snow on the eastern slope of Elbert. Reminds me of the flower from Batman Begins, but I didn't check to see whether it gets you high.

A photograph from the summit. If you look at it upside down it can almost (not quite, but almost) pass as the snow-covered shore of a lake, with the clouds reflected in the water.

(I apologize for none of the photos being post-processed, but I don't have any editing software on my netbook.)

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