Lake County Highpoint Trip Report

Mount Elbert (14,433 feet)

Date: August 28, 2006
Authors: Lanny Wexler and Ken King

Lanny arose at 5 am, in nervous anticipation of his climb up Mt Elbert. Lanny had been thinking of Mt Elbert for months and was full of nervous anticipation of this climb. He had doubts about his ability to climb Elbert as he had a bad experience on a van trip to Pikes Peak 14,110 feet in 1985 where he nearly fainted when he left the van. His heart raced, his breathing was shallow and his legs felt like jelly.

In the weeks following Pikes Peak, Lanny awoke at night feeling he was being suffocated; he was told by a physician, he was having a panic attack. A cardiologist diagnosed Lanny with mitral valve prolapse after an echocardiogram was run. Mitral valve episodes generally manifest themselves during times of stress.

Despite the seemingly serious symptoms, the cardiologist gave Lanny a clean bill of health after a thallium stress test was run. Still, Lanny who does not really work out, except for occasional walks and longer heights was feeling nervous but not enough to stop him from his goal.

Lanny had been to Wheeler Peak, at 13,161 feet the highpoint of New Mexico, four years ago. Lanny did ok, but it was still a tough climb and it had been awhile since he last climbed and Elbert is 1,300 feet higher than Wheeler. Therefore, Lanny thought it wise though, not to climb the mountain alone and hired a guide; Rick Altman, owner of the Black Cat B & B who would accompany Lanny on his climb. The guiding fee of $100 was reasonable which also included a ride in a four-wheel drive jeep to a higher trailhead that saved some 500 feet of climbing and two miles of hiking.

Rick used to live in Key Largo, Florida until earlier this year where he operated a dive shop. This is quite a change of scenery and quite a change in occupation, from sea depths to mountain heights.

The climb up Elbert was 4,000 feet gain and 7.6 miles of climbing, more than what Lanny ever climbed in one day. Lanny and his guide Rick left a little after 5:30 am in darkness and reached the trailhead at first light at 6:20 a.m. Just getting to the trailhead was an adventure. Lanny climbed way up into the 1976 red jeep and closed a flimsy plastic door. As they headed up the 4-WD road, they were jostled about as the jeep wound and wove its way through ditches, depressions and small boulders in the road. Lanny was wondering at times if this jeep would make it or would they turn over. Rick repeatedly gunned the engine and jammed on the brakes as we attempted to avoid or get past these obstacles.

They exited the jeep at 6:20 am, Lanny hoisted his new orange Kelty Pack upon his shoulders. The pack was full of warm clothing; fleece jacket, hat, gloves, food, two quarts of water, first aid supplies, toilet paper, compass and camera. Lanny wore his hat, fleece shirt and yellow Gore-tex jacket as he started out. After about ten minutes when the steep climbing began, off came the Gore-tex and fleece shirt, so that Lanny only wore his green polypro shirt even though the temperature was not much above freezing.

The forecast for Denver was sunny, about 70 F, with a slight chance of thundershowers in the mountains. They needed the early start as Lanny did not want to take the chance of having to get up so far and be chased down by a thunderstorm, yet another hazard to worry about.

The first 5 to 10 minutes of the hike were easy following the Colorado Trail through forest. They quickly reached the sign for the Mount Elbert Trail and almost immediately began their climb. Lanny climbed with the goal of doing about 500 feet before stopping for what Rick calls a "real break", 5 to 10 minutes to get a snack and some water. A mountain of this size has to be climbed in stages. You don't think about going all the way to the summit; while you may glimpse the summit from time to time; the psychology is to make short term goals to spur you on. I'll take a pause at that large tree ahead, or that large boulder if you're above treeline or when the altimeter reaches 13,000 feet.

Lanny's approach was the tortoise approach, slow and steady. The importance is reserving your energy to make it all the way and not to burn out. Elbert is a real slog. There is nothing technical about this trail but the grade is steep and prolonged, while there are switchbacks, there are not a whole lot of them.

As we emerged above the tree line at 11,700 feet the rising sun warmed us and we could see our route zig zagging all the way up the rocky ridge to the summit. I was slow and people did pass us on the trail, even some dogs as well but my demeanor was calm and determined as my mission was to summit this mountain. Step by step, one by one I went higher and higher. Step by step, one by one, higher and higher, we ascended into the blue.

A magnificent view unfolded below as we saw the silvery Twin Lakes below, shimmering in the morning sunshine. We could see the city of Leadville, some fifteen miles distant and thousands of feet below. Some puffy small clouds started to form below us! Rick encouraged me to take in deep breaths, to help bring in much needed oxygen to my oxygen-starved lungs. I think this really helped. I stopped on occasion for water and to snap a picture. It was no doubt taxing and an effort but I was encouraged by my progress.

We began to encounter some of the snow that fell two days before about 13,000 feet. It was a bit slippery in spots but not enough to impede our progress. A guy with three dogs passed us. As we got nearer to the top, a few people were already starting down with words of encouragement to spur me on.

Finally, after interminable switchbacks and anticipated false summits, Rick motioned that the real summit was just up ahead. I could see a small group gathered up there. Five minutes later, I could not believe it, I was up there at the summit! I had done it! My goal was accomplished, reaching my highest altitude under my own power of 14,433 feet.

It was 10:45 am. It had taken me four and a half hours to reach the summit. The rugged brown and white peaks of the Rocky Mountains spread out before me. There were many other Colorado 14ers and 13ers stretching out in all directions and I was higher than all of them! Really, really cool! I really felt on top of the world as I savored this view.

Mount Elbert summit
Lanny Wexler at the long-awaited moment -
atop Mount Elbert with all of Colorado at his feet.
After taking in the view, I sat down behind a short wall of rocks to get out of the wind. It was breezy but not all that bad, The temperature on my pack registered 35 degrees. I ate my long awaited lunch, very much enjoying the foccacia sandwich of turkey and roast beef as I gulped down my drink.

I chatted with a few of the other climbers. We met two guys from Kansas City and a Tony Crivello who took a photo of me and Rick and I and in return we took his photo. I signed the 14er canister that was wedged between the small boulders and then it was time to pack up and begin the long trek down.

About ten minutes into the descent from the summit, Lanny realized he had left my hiking pole at the summit. After thinking about whether to go back to retrieve the pole, Lanny decided to go as he did not want to leave any litter on the mountain. It took about 20 minutes to regain the summit or about 300 feet of climbing. However, when Lanny reached the summit and looked for the pole there was none. Lanny questioned people on the summit but they had not seen the pole. Lanny, realized the pole was gone and restarted his descent. Shortly after reaching Rick, they ran into the same two guys they had met on the summit and to Lanny's relief they had my hiking pole. Luckily these hikers made a wrong turn and had to retrace their steps to return to the trail they needed so they met Lanny and Rick on the descent. Lanny thanked them and they all headed down.

Rick told them if they got down to the trailhead about the same time, he would give them a ride out to their car which was parked at the main trailhead parking area that was accessible to passenger cars. It would save these guys who hailed from Kansas City about two miles of walking.

Lanny and Rick got ahead of them and waited about 25 minutes at the jeep for them. Lanny thought it only right to return the favor. Still it was taking a lot longer than either Rick and Lanny expected. At 2:40 pm, just as Rick and Lanny were going to leave, these two fellows showed up. Lucky for Rick and Lanny that they had waited, in yet another twist of fate, Rick's jeep ran out of gasoline, shortly after he dropped off the two hikers at their car. The two hikers came along side Rick's jeep and hearing Rick had run out of gas; gave Rick a ride to the nearest gasoline station in Twin Lakes; and then drove him back to his jeep while Lanny awaited along side CO 82. One act of kindness, led to another act of kindness. So with all this Lanny did not get back until 4:30 pm.

After Lanny returned he rested for an hour, then we drove south to Buena Vista, which is as far south of Twin Lakes as Leadville is north, for dinner at a Chinese restaurant. Before coming on this trip we had made reservations for two nights at the Black Cat Inn; we decided to stay there this night as well because the place was so comfortable. Its only drawback is that Rick does not accept credit cards, so I had to go to an ATM to pay him in cash.