I accidentally took the hardest trail. Again.
After recently failing to reach the summit of Wheeler Peak, the highest point in New Mexico, my friend and I wanted to try again. But we decided to go for the highest point in Colorado this time.
Mount Elbert is not only the highest mountain in Colorado, but it’s also the second highest in the contiguous United States. We thought that would make up for our failure on Wheeler last month.
On Wheeler, I made the mistake of thinking the shortest trail was the easiest. This took us to a difficult class 2 trail that went straight up the mountain. I was determined not to make the same mistake again.
The trail situation going up Elbert is more complicated.
The Forest Service website says the 13-mile South Mount Elbert trail is the “easiest,” though nothing is easy about hiking to the top of a 14er. There is also a north trail that is a class 1. The All trails app, however, doesn’t show a South Mount Elbert Trail. That trail is called the East Ridge trail on All trails. What I did find was the Mount Elbert Southeast Ridge trail. Confused yet? I was.
The Mount Elbert Southeast Ridge Trail is an eleven-mile trail also known as the Black Cloud Trail. After mistaking it for the easier South trail, I followed the All trails navigation to the trail head. I wish I knew then that it is a class two described as the “steepest,” “most strenuous” path up Elbert with a “dangerous descent” down. As if a 14,400’ mountain hike isn’t bad enough.
We were sure to stop and buy oxygen on the way there, but then we forgot both bottles when we left the car.
After the first two miles of climbing, we both felt baffled by the idea that the easiest path was so hard for the two of us. We were still a mile from the top when our hamstrings were cramping, and we were running low on water. The views were stunning, but they were hard to enjoy as we were both thinking about impending death. (I’m exaggerating a little.)
After almost six hours of climbing we made it to the top of the mountain, which was about 13,800 feet, when we realized it took another mile and a half to get to the peak itself, and we’d have to climb and descend another 14,000 plus peak just to get there. We each were down to a half quart of water and less than a half quart of life or motivation. Our choice was to go on to the peak or be able to make it back down the mountain. We chose option 2.
Two hikes in a row I’ve mistakenly led us on the hardest trail, and because of that we’ve failed to reach the summit both times. Still, both hikes were a fantastic experience and an overall success. We wanted to do something hard, and we accomplished that.
The amazing thing is that I still have a friend at all after I’ve tried to kill us both twice. He will be planning the rest of our hikes.