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It was inevitable that I would eventually find my way to Mt. Elbert, Colorado's highest summit. It's only five miles south of Mt. Massive where I'd spent the previous day, so today was Mt. Elbert's turn. I decided not to use the ever-so-popular North Elbert Trail starting from near the Mt. Masssive TH - that one seems to get about 90% of the traffic and this is probably the state's most climbed 14er. Instead, I used the South Elbert Trail that might more accurately have been called the East Elbert Trail. The regular start makes for a longer hike than the North Elbert Trail, but by using the 4WD TH, I could cut off two miles each way, making it shorter than the North Elbert Trail, about 7.6mi with 4,000ft of gain. Of course just going to Elbert and back would make for a short day, so as usual I had to hunt up some bonus peaks. South Elbert and Bull Hill did nicely in this department, keeping me occcupied for the better part of seven hours.
I spent the night camped just off the access road to the 4WD TH. Unlike the previous night, there were only a few cars that drove by. In the morning I was up and drove the remaining 1.5mi to the TH in the dark, finding only a few cars there. Most of the road is in decent shape, with the crux coming at a wide creek crossing and then some pretty rough road just before the end. It was obvious that this was a far less popular way to climb Elbert. The South Elbert Trail shares about half a mile with the Colorado Trail before forking off on its own. The initial 2mi or so are through forest before opening up with meadows and eventually above treeline. The Colorado Initiative folks have been working on improving this old and well-worn trail. There seems to be a great deal of money, time and effort being poured into it. The steepest portions have been rerouted, with some restoration effort made on the old trail sections. Large wooden barriers have been erected in places to keep the riff-raff from cutting the trail, but I found them to be far more of an eyesore than the resulting shortcuts would be. Oh well, they didn't put me in charge, so I shouldn't complain (too much).
Using Gerry Roach's Colorado's Fourteeners guidebook, I had decided to make a loop of things by first visiting South Elbert. To this end, I left the trail around the 12,000-foot level and traversed into and across the Bartlett Gulch drainage heading southwest. The idea is to get on South Elbert's NE Ridge and climb to the summit from there. As I was crossing the gulch (really just a wide, very pleasant meadow-y area in the upper reaches), I decided to skip Gerry's instructions to jump on the ridge southeast of Pt. 13,227ft. This looked like some tedious, rocky work from my view. Instead, I decided to climb a grassy slope to a small saddle SW of Pt. 13227ft. This would give me more time hiking across the green meadows and give me less rock work. Not that I would have any shortage of the latter. Once at the saddle, I had a steep, 1,000-foot climb in less than 2/3mi. It wasn't bad as the footing was pretty good, but it was tiring. As I was making my way up, I spied another hiker on the next ridge to the south, probably having come up the Black Cloud Trail (the REAL South Elbert Trail). His ridge had a far more pleasant gradient but a longer distance, and I would leave South Elbert before he arrived.
It was almost 9a by the time I topped out on South Elbert. Mt. Elbert can be seen about 300ft higher to the northwest, though there is also a several hundred foot drop between them along the connecting ridgeline. There is a super fine view of La Plata Peak to the south (tomorrow's scheduled 14er). To the southwest was Bull Hill, the lowest of the day's summits and my next objective. There is a 600-foot drop to a saddle, followed by 400-foot climb to the summit. This would add an extra 1,000ft of gain and 2mi to the loop described by Roach in his guidebook. I was hoping I might find a use trail heading out to Bull Hill, but alas, it was not to be. Instead, I had a cross-country jaunt of rock slopes mixed with some vegetation. The vegetation seemed more pronounced along the top of the ridge, so I followed this for the most part. Yesterday's fierce winds were a little less so today, but it was roaring over that ridgeline between Elbert and Bull Hill. So I had a tradeoff of more wind for more vegetation which I vascillated between depending on how cold I was feeling.
I reached Bull Hill's summit (btw, Bull Hill is Colorado's highest named hill, only outdone in the lower 48 by Mt. Shasta's Misery Hill, 100ft higher) by 9:50a, quickly taking a few pictures before ducking back out of the wind. It would take another hour and twenty minutes to make my way between Bull Hill and Mt. Elbert, fighting with the wind for much of the time. I was perhaps ten minutes from Colorado's highpoint when I crossed paths with two other hikers heading back down the Black Cloud Trail (it's not much of a trail from South Elbert, but its better than nothing). One of them commented encouragingly, "You're almost there! Just a little ways still." I found this more annoying than helpful, but I smiled and returned, "Thanks." I mean, I could see the summit in front of me, right?
Elbert's summit was populated by the expected large crowd. There was a sort of queue for people to take a picture at the highest point with a summit sign. Other's were huddled behind rocks on the leeward side, snacking, cell phoning, and chatting. My summit visite was exceedingly short - I basically walked across the summit, snapped a few pictures without even stopping and then went looking for my exit down the South Elbert Trail. I found a surprising number of folks still making their way up the trail, but like yesterday, today was a good day for a late start. There was no threat of eletrical activity aloft and a late arriveal at the summit when it was a little warmer would help take the sting out of the wind. The new trail work did not extend to the upper 1/3 of the mountain as yet. One could see places where it was badly needed, and indeed they are reworking this rutted section currently, the new trail segment just not yet open for business. It would be nearly 1p by the time I returned to the TH, just about the right amount of exercise, by my reckoning. Yesterday's outing was 2hrs longer and quite a bit more tiring, so it was good to get more rest today. Shower, and back to Leadville - meeting up with Eric and Leroy this afternoon.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Bull Hill - Mt. Elbert
This page last updated: Fri Aug 30 17:42:23 2019
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