We woke up early from a cold night of no sleep. When the alarm went off at 4:45 am, I felt like I had finally just shut my eyes for the first time, and it was already time to get up.
We were advised by a man we'd met in town to start our hike early. We needed to beat the early-afternoon lightning storms that come through the mountains.
When the alarm went off, it was still pitch black outside, and the last place we wanted to be was on a trail we didn't know in the dark. We decided to sleep for another couple hours before starting the hike.
We finally woke up around 7:00am, cooked eggs, and drank lots of water to get ready for our long day.
With only our Topographic map, we were immediately lost. We hiked for about 30 minutes before realizing we were actually on the Colorado Trail. There were no markings or directions at the actual trail head. At this point we were cranky to be starting the long hike only 4 hours before the first of the storms would roll in, and having wasted energy back-tracking.
It was 8:30am, we were a little above 10,000 feet in elevation, and we had 4,200 feet to climb.
I had heard someone describe the hike to Elbert's summit as climbing a 5,000 foot staircase. I didn't know it would be worse.
The climb was steep, and unforgiving. During the next few hours we only took 3 breaks. This was my first stop, and the one that made me realize I would not be stopping again for a long, long time. We were about an hour into our hike, and all I wanted to do was sit for a minute to catch my breath. Michael pleaded with me not to stop because he knew that I would have to break through the wall again, to be able to build up stamina to finish the hike.
And how right he was.
I sat for about 4 minutes, and we were off again. It felt like starting over, and I was angry at myself for taking a break so early on. We wouldn't stop again until we were above treeline.
The hike was nothing like I'd imagined. In my head I would take pictures, stop and admire the views, and generally have fun along the way.
For the most part, I can't tell you much about that day, except for the few things I'm talking about, now. I didn't take my camera out, I didn't look around, and I could barely think outside of just moving. Anytime my mind would wander from what I was doing, I was having to break through that wall again. So I didn't let my mind wander.
Everything hurts when you're climbing over 4,000 feet in only a few hours in freezing temperatures. My lungs hurt, my hair hurt, my fingernails hurt, my face hurt. You're producing ridiculous amounts of saliva and snot to the point where I turned into a 12 year old boy, shooting snot rockets and just moving on. For miles, I focused on a breathing pattern and didn't break it. We didn't talk, look at each other, or stop. We just pushed.
I worried about Hunter, knowing how I felt and wondering if his old bones were okay.
We passed hikers along the way that had turned back around 12,500 feet. Their dogs were showing stress and the storm was getting closer. We were halfway, and I couldn't let go of what we had come here to do. We kept hiking.
The 2nd time we stopped was around 13,000 feet. We had to make time to eat and hadn't stopped since our 4 minute break, miles back.
The air was getting thinner at this point, and I was starting to get worried. Hunter wouldn't eat, my hands were freezing, and we still had a long way to go. The steepest and rockiest part of our hike was still ahead, and I was starting to feel the affects of the elevation.
Miles away I imagined our little Yurt tucked into the mountains. I remembered sitting there 3 days ago and looking towards the point where I was sitting, now. We were here, and we would finish it.
From 13,000 feet to 14,433 was the point where I became what I like to call: mountain high. We were only functioning with half of the oxygen level we had when we first started our hike.
I was delirious. Almost crying one minute and laughing the next. Every time Michael would turn around and ask me if I was okay, I would say: "I'm fine, I'm just mountain high."
The last 1,000 feet of our hike looked like the picture above. Even though I knew we were almost there, part of me still wondered if I could make it over these rocks as I started hallucinating and my brain grasped for any oxygen it could take.
We were almost to the top, and the wind was piercing. We had no shelter or protection, and the clouds were getting thick. The temperature had dropped into the low 30's.
And then, after so many false summits, we were there. We finally made it.
It was 12:23 pm. It took us a little under 4 hours to climb 4,200 feet.
The summit was the 3rd and last break we took. I called my parents, we took a picture, and just as we put the camera away, the clouds surrounded us.
From the top of Mt. Elbert, you are looking down at every other summit in the Rocky Mountains. You can see Pike's Peak from there, and it feels like you're standing on top of the world. I was looking forward to this the most, but instead I was feeling ice cold rain on the back of my neck. But it wasn't rain.
The thunder was booming and we realized that it had started to sleet, and hail. We didn't have time to wait, and I didn't even get my chance to sit down. We ran. Down the rocks and steep trail, my knees were swollen and hurt more than anything. But we couldn't stop, and the freezing rain that fell on us for the next 2,000 feet down was a little bit of an I-just-summited-this-mountain buzzkill.
We didn't stop until we reached treeline, below 12,000 feet. We were soaked all the way through, and everything we had was ruined.
Fortunately my camera was still working, the lens was just foggy and cloudy. I had wrapped it in extra clothes and pushed it to the bottom of my backpack.
My phone was ruined.
In the shelter of the trees the sun started to peek out, and we saw this pretty little bird. It was the first time we'd smiled in over an hour.
Coming down was slow. A hike down that steep puts painful pressure on your knees. It took 3 hours to get back to camp, making our hike 7 hours long, total. (+30 minutes for getting lost in the beginning)
We took a nap when we got back to our tent, and I shamelessly begged to pick up camp and just head to a hotel for the night. We still had another full day of our trip planned, but all I wanted was to be home. I wasn't feeling well, my body hurt, and deep in my body a little baby was nestling in nice and cozy like. I just didn't know it, yet.
We took down our tent, packed, and headed to Leadville for dinner. I wanted a big greasy burger and fries, + a root beer to celebrate our summit. We passed Elbert on the way to town, and I saw a beam of sun breaking through. I was so thankful to not be at the top at that moment.
We decided to drive to Alamosa, so we could go to Sand Dune National Park in the morning before heading home.
It was a 3 hour drive, and for the last time that week, I saw Mt. Elbert. Even though I was standing in those clouds just hours before, I was still intimidated at the size and reality of it.
I watched the clouds swallow the summit as another storm pushed through.
This was a trip we could never forget.
next: Sand Dune National Park