The ‘Leave No Trace’ philosophy is, without question, the best way to enjoy the outdoors in public places. You’ve probably seen signs, if you’ve entered national or state parks, that say ‘Take only pictures. Leave only footprints.’ But after a couple of hours on the trail up Mt. Elbert in Colorado, I was thinking about leaving more than footprints. I was thinking about leaving my breakfast.
Paden and I had decided to climb the highest mountain in Colorado, which happens to go by the name of Elbert. I have no idea why it doesn’t have a more imposing title. I suspect someone named Elbert showed up there one day and learned the mountain had never been named, and gave it his. Who wouldn’t? Better than keeping it.
Anyway, after spending a few days in Ouray, Paden and I had moved over to Buena Vista and taken up residence in a ‘rustic cabin’ at Arrowhead Point Campground about five miles north of town. We considered going whitewater rafting, but after visiting an outfitter and looking at pictures of people in rafts, who all seemed cold, wet, miserable, and terrified, we said, “Nah.”
We bought a National Geographic map of the area from a store called ‘The Trailhead,’ which sells things like camp drinking cups that cost upwards of thirty bucks. This is the kind of place you shop for backpacking gear only if you can afford to hire someone else to do your backpacking for you.
But we needed a map, so we got the one for ‘Aspen/Independence Pass,’ which contained a little, dotted line for each of the two trails up Mt. Elbert. That’s what it claimed, anyway. I’m still unconvinced.
In the movie ‘Pirates of the Carribbean,’ when Keira Knightly was captured by Captain Barbosa, she tried to envoke the Pirate’s Code, which said something about keeping her alive, I think. Barbosa told her, “The code isn’t really a set of laws. They’re more guidelines.”
That’s what National Geographic maps are, I think. The one for ‘Aspen and Independence Pass’ is not so much a map as a rumor.
We chose the north trail for Elbert, which starts at Halfmoon Campground, and is the Colorado Mountain Club recommended route. The map showed a fork in the trail just an inch or so from the campground, where we were supposed to turn right. So, at the first fork in the trail, we turned right. Wrong.
The fork we were supposed to take was another two miles down the trail, as we later learned. The fork we found on the ground was not in any way mentioned on our map. And that’s how, after being on the Mt. Elbert trail for less than 200 yards, we struck out on our own to make a new and, as it turned out, far more difficult route up the mountain. Paden and I are professional amateur mountaineers. Please do not try this at home, in the event you have a mountain in your domicile.
After a few hours we figured we must have taken a wrong turn somewhere, but we could see Mt. Elbert, and it looked like we would be able to get to the top, so we kept going. The trouble, as I mentioned before, is that breathing is difficult in the absense of air, and we were learning that hiking is not so easy in the absense of trail, either. Still, we endeavoured to persevere.
The whole trip was hideously painful, but the last mile was downright scary. We found ourselves having to climb up over huge, loose rocks piled so steeply they were often dislodged by our passing, and we watched them bounce down the near-vertical mountain, creating small avalanches, until they disappeared from view, about half a mile below. If we’d fallen, which we very nearly did many times, we would probably still be falling.
The last few hundred yards levelled out somewhat, but the mountain was covered in snow, with rocks sticking up here and there. The temperature had dropped to somewhere between freezing and frozen, and the wind sprayed us with snow blown from surrounding peaks. Paden made a video on top, but most of what he said in it was unintelligible, although you can clearly hear him claim, “I’m on top of Mt. Elbert, the highest mountain in the world. Don’t look that up.”
The moment was pretty awe-inspiring, and I highly recommend you go and climb Mt. Elbert, if you’ve learned to survive without oxygen.
After a short stay we started back down, which would have been easy on the regular trail. But we had to go back the way we’d come, because I had talked Paden into leaving our packs about a mile down the trail, to keep from having to carry them to the top. All I can say is that it seemed like a good idea at the time.
We had a little trouble finding our way back, but managed to make it before dark. My recommendation, should you decide to climb Mt. Elbert, is to go to The Trailhead, buy a $35 drinking cup, and hire someone to take your camera up the hill and take some pictures for you.
But if you ever want to see your camera again, you might want to look into finding a reliable map. Coincidentally, I’ve got one I’m willing to turn loose of at a bargain . . .
Kendal Hemphill is an outdoor humor columnist and public speaker who plans to do all his climbing into and out of bed during the forseeable future. Write to him at PO Box 1600, Mason, Tx 76856 or firstname.lastname@example.org