Last Friday my uncle, my cousin, and I made an alpine start on Mount Elbert. If you were to Google it, you would learn that Mount Elbert is the highest peak in the Rocky Mountains, and at 14,440 feet it is the 2nd-highest mountain in the contiguous United States (after Mount Whitney in California). The highest of the “14ers” of Colorado (mountains over 14,000 feet), it lies within the San Isabel National Forest at the center of the state. What Google couldn’t possibly tell you, though, is the reason I’ve made two tries at climbing Mount Elbert: my cousin Andy’s ashes were scattered from its summit 4 years ago, after he died unexpectedly in a bicycle accident at the age of 21.
For my non-climbing/hiking friends, an alpine start involves beginning a climb well before dawn in order to ensure a safe descent before dark, or before weather creates dangerous conditions. In the Rocky Mountains afternoon thunderstorms are common, and it’s important to summit before noon to begin your descent ahead of any storms. My first attempt at climbing Mount Elbert two years ago was cut short by storm clouds that began to cluster when I had about 40 minutes of climbing left to go. Despite beginning a prompt descent the thunderstorm came on quickly, and well before I reached treeline there was fire raining down terrifyingly from the sky. This year I upped my cardio prep to improve my speed; the weather proved much more favorable; and at last I made it to Andy’s final resting spot.
With bobbing headlamps lighting the way, we set out near the north Mount Elbert trailhead, connecting from the Colorado Trail. The first part of the hike is a gradual rise through pine forest, with gentle switchbacks and occasional flat stretches of walking. Any illusion of ease, though, ends after about 1 mile, with a sharp right turn onto the Mount Elbert Trail. From here the path grinds straight up the mountain relentlessly, gaining 4700 feet in elevation over about 4.5 miles. While this hike requires no technical skills, every step requires commitment and intent to persevere through hours of steep ascent.
Shortly after the upward turn my cousin, who had been nursing a toothache, realized the pain had become too great and she would have to turn back. Reluctantly, we went on without her. We passed the treeline, after which the mountain’s false summit comes into sight, as do utterly glorious views of the surrounding mountains. These provide plenty of photo ops (or convenient rest breaks, as the case may be).
It seems impossible, but the trail gets steeper the higher it goes. Just before the false summit, there are sections of trail so degraded that it is nearly impossible to get a foothold in the loose soil, and at one point I resorted to hands and knees to avoid sliding down. At last I reached the false summit, where I’d been forced back two years earlier, and the skies were still sunny and blue: onward and upward.
From here the grade becomes slightly less steep, and feels almost luxurious in comparison to the just-traversed terrain. As a result it felt the summit came on quickly, and all of a sudden the panorama was startling and breathtaking. The requisite photos were taken before my uncle took me to where Andy’s ashes had been scattered, on a quiet section of the southwestern side of the summit. There, a sheltered spot on a beautiful day afforded us about an hour of thinking and talking about Andy. We made a PBR toast in his honor just before we left, then sipped silently for a few moments before turning back down the mountain.
The downward hike is challenging in its own right, taxing the knees, proprioception, and balance all the way. It’s important to stay focused because the steep grade and one’s natural fatigue make this the most dangerous part of a mountain hike, statistically speaking. My uncle and I kept our own paces, hiking a short distance apart, and I thought about Andy for most of the descent. With no idea how soon the time would come, he had mentioned that when he died he would like his ashes to be scattered from the highest mountain in the Rockies. Just as his adulthood flickered at the horizon, he left life behind for territory unknown. I know it wasn’t what he’d planned, but I figure Andy got an alpine start on all of us. We’re still climbing, but he’s been waiting at the summit for a while. He loved his family beyond measure, so no doubt there will be big long hugs, beautifully sculpted cappuccinos, and craft beer all around when we finally catch up.