Ok. I admit, but I’m a total sucker for this. But everytime I hear Colorado, the first thing that comes to mind is its 14ers or it’s rocky mountains that stand over 14,000 ft. Luckily, I visited my travel buddy, Michael, last week so we had more than enough days to acclimate before climbing one of its infamous 14ers: Mount Elbert!
Standing at a beastly height of 14,439 ft. elevation, Mount Elbert is Colorado’s highest point and the second highest in the contiguous United States. We took the Northeast route which was one of the two standard routes to summit Mount Elbert (the other being the Southeast route).
Just a quick note: A lot of people say that this hike is relatively easy as it’s only a Class I (meaning it’s non-technical). To be quite honest, this was NOT easy at all and I’ll explain more in detail later.
Michael and I started our hike pretty early at around 4:30 am. There were a few other cars parked at the parking lot so we’re glad to get a head start away from the crowds.
Make sure to bring headlamps since it’s difficult to see the trailhead in the dark. Also, make sure to use the restroom before the hike and bring toiletries just in case. Sad to say, I had a few cases where I had to “go” unexpectedly during the hike and that was just a terrible experience.
Anyways, the hike starts off easy as it’s only a short climb up the switchbacks as you gradually get above the treeline. Make sure to follow the signs so that you don’t get lost. Michael and I had a hard time making out the trailhead before the sunrise, but thankfully there were signs which led us in the right direction.
As you get higher and higher above elevation, the roaring sounds of the river deafens out and the rising sun greets you with magnificent colors of yellow, orange, pink and light blue skies.
Around sunrise, we finally reached above the treeline and this is where the challenge began.
First off, you find yourself staring at what looks to be the summit. Unfortunately, that’s not the case as this is actually a false summit. Before trekking up the false summit, you have to walk up the steep, rocky switchbacks which reminded me of the notorious 99 switchbacks at Mt. Whitney.
Once you reach the first false summit, you continuously climb up a very steep trail with loose scree and basically hobble over behind the mountain. Unfortunately, Michael and I got lost finding the trail once we were closer to the false summit so we rock scrambled over to the other side and almost risked our lives by doing so.
After climbing the sketchy rocks and making it to the other side, we were then greeted to the second false summit. By then, I started to feel discouraged since most hikers passed us by with ease.
Thankfully, Michael was there to encourage me to keep going and that we’re almost there. Even a kind stranger who passed us by said that I was “one tough woman.”
Thanks to their words of encouragement, I got back up and pushed myself past the second false summit. With my heart beating rapidly out of my chest, I was determined to keep going and reach the top of Mount Elbert. Of course, I had to stop every once in a while to breathe normally and take in-between water breaks.
After reaching the top of the second false summit, we realized we’re VERY close to the summit. You’ll know once you see a pile of rocks. Feeling as though my legs were dragging over 50 lbs. of weight, I had to constantly pace myself even though it was torture. But hey, pain is only temporary right?
Then, we finally pushed ourselves to the last bit all the way up the summit. Once I saw the flag at the far end of the mountain peak, I gleefully sprinted the rest of the way like I was almost at the finish line during a marathon race. There were few other hikers at the summit and we all stared in awe at the lone flag displayed proudly in front of us. Not to mention, there was a bit of a snowfall too!
After we ate our lunch and took photos at the summit, Michael and I were ready to get down the mountain.
Ok…I admit. We were just as terrified of coming down the mountain than climbing up as this was a straight, very steep, downhill descent. We paced ourselves as we got down the treacherous mountain.
The first false summit was JUST. THE. WORST. As I mentioned before, this false summit was steep with loose scree. Imagine heading back down. This was torture to us as we practically got down on our butts as we half crab-walked down the slippery loose rocks.
Afterwards, I wanted to say the rest of our hike was smooth-sailing, but unfortunately it wasn’t. Our knees and foot were completely destroyed as we slowly descended down the switchbacks back into the treeline.
Meanwhile, Michael paced himself to reach the parking lot first while I walked like a zombie out of sheer exhaustion and altitude sickness. I had moments where I felt light-headed and started to get a bad migraine. Not to mention, my knees starting to violently shake as I slowly descended down the mountain.
What felt like forever but realistically it was around 2pm, we finally made it to the parking lot. Feeling elated as ever, I screamed for joy as I looked one final time at the sign for Mount Elbert. Michael and I finally climbed Colorado’s high point and so we rewarded ourselves with a high-five and a dip at a natural hot springs.
Tips for Climbing Mount Elbert
- Acclimate at least 2 or 3 days before the hike. If you’re like me and don’t live in Colorado where you’re used to higher elevations, then I suggest staying in Denver for the night and then staying in Leadville for a couple days before climbing Mount Elbert.
- GO. SLOW. If you really rush this hike, then the altitude sickness will get to ya’ unless you’re a super-athlete.
- Start early and I mean really early. I suggest starting the hike between 4 and 5 am since this hike is no walk in the park. Believe me, this hike was pretty difficult and it may take longer for some people to reach the summit. Your turnaround time should before 3 pm since you are above 10,000 ft. of elevation meaning you are at a higher risk of getting struck by lightning storms.
- Layer up! Basically, Michael and I wore mittens, beanies, and jacket during our hike. I even had to wear double layers for pants as the weather was very, very chilly. Depending on weather conditions, the mountaintops are quite freezing so it’s best to not risk getting hypothermia at the summit of Mount Elbert.
- Load up on carbs! The best way to deal with altitude sickness is to eat food with plenty of carbohydrates. So, I suggest eating whole grains, fruits and vegetables, pasta, and anything that helps boost energy (i.e. granola bar). Before the hike, Michael and I ate at a restaurant in Leadville called Treeline Kitchen. Thankfully, their foods have lots of protein and carbs so this was a great meal before hiking Mount Elbert.
- Staying hydrated is very important as this also helps with altitude sickness. The higher the elevation the lesser the oxygen meaning water quickly evaporates out of the body. So make sure to pack at least 2L of water before your hike.
Northeast Mount Elbert
Distance: 9 miles roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 4,750 ft.
Time: 7+ hours
Directions to Northeast Mount Elbert Trailhead
I hope you found this blog helpful especially if you’re planning on climbing Mount Elbert. Good luck and let me know if you have any questions.
Have you climbed Mount Elbert? If not, do you plan on hiking Mount Elbert in the future? Let me know by commenting down below.