Mt.Elbert (Sawatch Range) – Northeast Ridge (Class 1)
- Attempted 6/20/15
- 9.0 miles round trip
- 3.25 hours to summit and 1.75 hrs back to TH
- Easy 14er (Class 1)
- +4,700′ net elevation gain to peak (14,433′)
- sunblock (at that elevation, you’ll feel the sun)
- tech shell (you will want a shell to protect you from the wind)
- Soft shell or nanopuff jacket (always layer when attempting a 14er)
- microspikes and hiking pole (made the snow crossing easy and fun)
- headlamp (you’ll have to be starting this hike earlier than most 14ers)
- light gloves
- Lunch and lots of snacks
- Lots of water
It is a near year and a new season to get back in to shape for hiking 14ers, so my friends and I wanted to begin on an easier class 1 peak to “warm-up.” We left Arvada at 3:15a and arrived at the North Elbert TH around 5:30a. We then set off around 5:45a with enough sun coming over the front range that we didn’t really need headlamps.
After about a mile of hiking into the trees we reached the latter half of the trees where it got much steeper than the initial section. It continued like this for about a mile and a half until we cleared the treeline around 12,000 feet. We stayed pretty cool in the trees for the first 15 minutes and had to wear nanopuff jackets or soft shells. After that we all stripped to short sleeved shirts and long pants. No sunglasses or sunblock was required until we cleared treeline. There were a couple patches of snow above 11,200 feet or so, but nothing that could be walked around.
Once above treeline, there are two false summits that I can recall. The first is going to be obvious as it looks closer than two miles and you know you have two miles left from here. It is a steep hike up some pretty loose rock but it is all switchbacks that don’t require any special skills to conquer. I would just suggest that you leave several yards between each hiker in case a loose rock slips: you don’t want to be caught right behind a hiker when that happens, take it from me!
Now once you take the first false summit (which will be obvious once you take it) you may see snow if you go now. We were faced with two options: either stay on the main trail, which would have minimal snow crossings that could be accomplished without any gear or we could make our own trail in the snow. The main trail was well hiked and I didn’t see anyone slipping on it. However, given we had microspikes with us, it made passing people via a snow route much more enticing! We weren’t the only ones who had made this decision, as we saw several other tracks in the snow leading up to the second false summit. We were ascending this section around 8:30a and the snow was fine. My friends each postholed once, but I never sunk down, even on the descent (around 9:45a).
We summitted at 9:00a or so and took a nice long rest at the top, talking to some people and taking pictures as evidence of our achievement!
We began the descent around 9:45a or so and reached the bottom by 11:15a. Granted, we were trail running for about 1.5 miles from 14,443 ft to about 12,500 feet or so. Was it worth it? No way! I got some gnarly blisters from my new socks – those things are going straight to GoodWill. Running down the snow descent was fun. I think I didn’t post hole because I used my hiking poles with powder baskets to distribute my weight going down, as my friends again managed to post hole once going down. However, the snow wouldn’t have likely held a person much longer after noon is my guess. I saw way too many people breaking treeline at noon or even later, and that poses a couple problems here. While it may be hotter and more convenient, it makes snowy sections a slip-and-slide or worse and it makes weather an issue since the storms would roll in from behind the 14er – you wouldn’t know what hit you.
In conclusion, I think it isn’t too challenging to reach the highest 14er in Colorado. It is about a 2.5-3 hour drive from Arvada/Denver and is only 4.5 miles one-way! I do think that the distance makes it a bit more challenging than, say, Mt. Bierstadt (which is 3.5 miles one-way but only 2,850 ft in gain). If I didn’t get blisters, the descent would have been quicker, less painful, and not as stale of a memory. However, the hike up was beautiful and the summit was great! I still haven’t summitted anything as beautiful as Mt. Sneffels, but I am always searching!