Mount Elbert in winter

22-24 Feb 2002 - by Robert Mullen

The idea was conceived sometime before the fall. Mount Elbert, a winter ascent and snowboard descent deemed a worthy objective for this stately peak. My brother Mike, myself, and our friend Gabe, warriors afoot are we. Reaching the Mount Elbert trailhead at 5pm on Friday, we begin the journey with a 2-mile hike to the CDT junction with the Mount Elbert trail. Here we establish a beautiful campsite at 10,600 feet, in the midst of Aspen groves, a marshy frozen pond, and 4 feet of powder snow. Our new home and it feels like a welcoming.

Pleasant temperatures and calm winds allow us to enjoy our dinner under the gibbous moon and myriad of stars that dominate the night sky for the watchful eye. Tomorrow is another day.

Awaking at 7am, the landscape begins to unfold before the eyes. The Mosquito Range in the distance cloaked in a pink blanket of wispy clouds, the cold landscape rendered a warm hue welcoming the new day. With all applicable snow tools lashed and packed, we begin the 4 mile 4,000 foot climb to the summit. Following a well-packed trail for a mile, the going is enjoyable and easy. However, around 11,500 feet we lost the trail and the three of us took turns breaking trail through 3 feet of unconsolidated powder snow, a laborious task by any means. The tree line beckons ahead with compacted wind hammered snow, so close yet so far. With exhalation the ridge unfolds beneath our feet, gazing upon the heights above, strong winds sweep the ridge like the broom of God. With firm snow underfoot, our spirits were not shaken by what lay ahead, quite the contrary we relished this opportunity to immerse ourselves in the unrelenting power of Mother Nature. Reaching the snow free portion of the ridge at 12,400 feet at 11:30, we removed our snowshoes, lashed them to our packs, and continued the seemingly endless ridge hike to the summit, still some 2,000 feet above. With the winds increasing dramatically, it came as no surprise to us that snow refused to stick to this ridge. Each step bringing us that much closer to the summit, keep on keeping on. The snowboards on occasion making for effective sails, the ship, well off the docks, now searching for a port of refuge. With the spirit of perseverance as our guide, we push on until the summit of Mount Elbert lay before our eyes. No sooner did no land stand above us, we did stand atop Mount Elbert. This place on Earth, one spot so small and insignificant, yet so wondrous. We walk in the mountains standing on the shoulders of giants, the lot of which mortal men are faced to render with soul aloft and spirit adrift.

In reality, to thwart our attempt was their purpose, but to the best of my recollection their efforts were futile, snowboards wanting snow. Firm wind hammered snow crunched under our boards, barely yielding a track but providing an oasis of stability. The strip of snow from near the summit ran out, remove the snowboards, walk to the next patch and then ride some more, repeat this process until the snow free ridge, at 13,400 feet. From the white mist an apparition appears strapped to a board telling the story of the souls who came before. Listen to the tale he tells as he vanishes into the mist, it is an omen of beauty.

Once back on the snow covered portion of the East Ridge a series of alpine turns awaited us, and we met these with fervent anticipation. Back through the trees applying a variety of snowboarding, sledding, and luging techniques we made our way to the final pitch of Aspen glades above the camp. Here were the long awaited turns that we so longed for, soft beautiful powder snow through tightly spaced Aspens, Colorado backcountry riding at its finest. Some 500 vertical feet later our tent stood steadfast, a beacon in the midst of this winter wonderland. 9 hours earlier we left this place, an arduous journey for us mortals. In camp, thoroughly wasted from the day's events, we replenished body, spirit, and soul with food and drink. Our gratitude for such simple staples of life can only be appreciated by those who have been there themselves. Words are not adequate.

Overcome with joy sitting in camp, stillness encompasses body. A feeling of love for all things of this earth great and small envelops the mind. This world is a world of pure beauty, where our energy flows through our blood into the land and back into our spirit. I see the snow on the trees, the clouds a blanket upon the mountains, the streams strewn with icy branches, the footprints of the woodland creatures that call this home, and what I see is beauty. Sleep was soon to follow.

The next morning, we walk the 2-mile hike to the trailhead in the company of lightly falling snow.


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