Mt. Elbert Winter Ascent via East Ridge

I figured there was no better way to spend Christmas than on the top of Colorado. My friend Osman had recently flown here from sea level. But, we spent the last few days climbing 12ers, and made a go at La Plata Peak. He was nicely acclimated, and we figured a winter ascent of Elbert would be a fun time.

The East Ridge route is avalanche safe and quite easy. I think it’s one of the easiest winter 14ers out there. A straightforward romp up a flat ridge, without much snow to deal with above treeline. We never had to use snowshoes, and only briefly used microspikes.

Most people start at the plowed trailhead near Twin Lakes, which adds a few miles and about 1,000 feet of gain. I reckoned I could drive my RAV4 through the deep snow to the 4×4 trailhead.

That’s exactly what I did. I made it to a quarter-mile before the trailhead before getting stuck in deep snow. We spent an hour digging the vehicle out and putting chains on. In that hour, we could’ve done this approach on foot, but oh well. After freeing the vehicle, we drove a few hundred more feet before finding a deep creekbed. The vehicle wouldn’t be able to cross that. So, we parked off the road and started to hike.

We saw a few vehicles at the 4×4 trailhead. A modified jeep, a modified 4runner, and a modified Chevy truck. My RAV4 was able to make it within a quarter-mile of these guys. Not too shabby.

Thanks to our late start, there was a nice boot pack we could follow through the trees. We expected that and didn’t bring snowshoes, which was the right decision. A trench through the several feet of snow made the hiking much easier.

Before we knew it, we broke treeline. The route was right in front of us, and quite straightforward. It was a broad ridge with plenty of scree and rocks. The snow portions were wind-blasted, and most of the rocks and scree were frozen. There were even hints of the summer trail — an easier-going path through the scree.

It was windy above treeline. The wind was a constant 15 mph with gusts up to 25 mph. We put some soft-shell jackets on and continued to move.

For the first half of the ascent, we took a direct route straight up, rather than the hints of the summer trail. Colorado trails have too many switchbacks, it’s quite annoying. It was faster going direct here.

After about 12,500 feet, we started to follow the summer trail. There was a lot of soft scree and rocks. To go directly up would be tiring, so we resigned ourselves to the switchbacking.

We soon reached the false summit. The actual summit was about 500 – 1,000 feet higher. A little demoralizing.

A little bit later, we reached the actual summit — a broad plateau. It was so cold and windy that I had to put on ski goggles, a balaclava, and my down jacket. The wind was gusting in the 30 mph range, with temperatures near 0 F.

There was one other person here, and over the course of the day, we’d only seen a few people. It was a relaxing, winter afternoon on the top of Colorado. A bonus is that everyone we ran into was downright pleasant and cheerful. The combination with it being winter and Christmas seemed to attract a certain kind of person to Mt. Elbert on that day. The kind of like-minded person who prioritizes the mountains over anything else.

We took a few summit shots photos of the other person, and then ourselves. Then, we started to descend. We were starting to freeze a little bit.

Summit view.
The cliche jumping picture…I’ve since learned my way.
The pyramid-shaped peak left of center is La Plata Peak if I remember correctly.

We reversed our footsteps, and made it down at a great pace. With the elevation, one loses energy going up — but gains it going down.

Photo taken on the descent, looking towards the summit while on the East Ridge.

When we got to the trees, we did some light bushwhacking to take a more direct course to the car. It was a little miserable, but it saved us about 20 – 30 minutes.

We got to the car, and I started to drive back. I took it too fast around a few curves, and I almost skidded the vehicle off a small cliff twice. Osman, rightfully terrified, told me to slow down. I did, and we made it to the road without incident.

I spent 20 minutes removing the chains — a real pain — then drove back to Leadville.

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