Mount Elbert-09/12/2006-Black Cloud Trail

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      [Ed: Imported from Americas Roof ‘Summit Trip Reports’ forum]
      [By: Matthew DiBiase on September 27 2006 at 8:57 AM]

      SEPTEMBER 12, 2006

      The bagging of my 20th highpoint proved to be a much tougher task than I had ever anticipated. Little did I know that by taking the Black Cloud Trail approach, I was not as I had thought taking the path of least resistance but, instead, choosing the toughest trail I have ever encountered.

      I spent the week of September 10-16 on vacation in Colorado (my first trip ever to the Centennial State). Unlike my other trips my itinerary wasn’t filled with a lot of things to see or much to do save for two things: climb Mount Elbert and interview former Chicago Black Hawks hockey player Eric Nesterenko (a member of the 1961 Stanley Cup champions) for a future book project I am presently working on. Luckily for me, I accomplished both goals and got to enjoy the thin, mountain air of Leadville, Colorado.

      I arrived in Leadville on September 11 and didn’t waste time scouting out the trailhead at Black Cloud and doing a one hour round trip reconnaissance of the beginnings of the Black Cloud trail. (Little did I know that my reconnaissance wouldn’t even begin to show me what was in store for me when I really would hike the trail)?

      The drive to the Black Cloud trailhead is stunning. Once you leave Leadville you are swallowed up in the vast openness that forms the base of the East Faces of Mounts Elbert and Massive. Route 24 meanders through high pastures and you cross over the Arkansas River (just a little stream) until you reach Route 82 and you make the right turn onto Route 82 and stay on that road until you find the trailhead. Driving West on Route 82, you pass by Twin Lakes and you confront the mighty citadels that are the Sawatch Mountain Range. Some mountains had snow and some did not. I kept wondering whether Elbert would have snow and would that snow interfere with my hiking? I had concerns and real doubts as to whether I would be able to successfully summit Mount Elbert. (The only other time I’ve ever been in a huge mountain range like what I saw in Colorado was in 1986 when I spent three days in the Austrian Alps with a former pen-pal of mine. The Sangre de Christo Mountains in New Mexico don’t even compare to what I saw in Colorado).

      Finding the Black Cloud trailhead, though, can be tricky. I overshot it myself and was forced to backtrack and ask for directions. I stopped at the Mount Elbert lodge and asked someone if the trailhead was near. A guy told me it was one hundred yards down the road from the lodge. (Rule of thumb for Highpointers: if you reach the lodge, you’ve gone too far. Please turn around and go back one hundred yards and it’s the first left turn you see).

      I did what the guy told me and there it was. The sign identifying the trailhead is not very visible from the roadway and the road itself is an earthen road more suitable for high clearance vehicles like trucks and jeeps (which is what I had, a Jeep Wrangler).

      My reconnaissance didn’t amount to much. I only had one bottle of water so I couldn’t go too far. I walked for thirty minutes, contemplated my position, and returned uneventfully.
      The only question that remained was to choose the best day for going for the summit. I had a narrow window of opportunity for climb Mount Elbert: the 12th, 13th, and the 14th. After checking the Weather Channel, I ruled out the 14th because the report called for stormy weather that day. I also had to factor in which day I was going to interview former NHL player Eric Nesterenko. When I got back to the hotel, I called Nesterenko and made arrangements for the interview. I asked to do it on Thursday the 14th but Nesterenko preferred to do it on Wednesday the 13th. Having no choice but to comply I agreed therefore my summit attempt would have to be the next day, the 12th. That wouldn’t give me much chance to enhance my acclimatization but I had no choice. The Weather Channel called for perfect weather that day. (Wednesday’s forecast called for more clouds).

      I had a restless night’s sleep that night and by 6:30AM, I left the hotel to have breakfast at the Columbine Café in downtown Leadville. (Note to Highpointers: The Columbine Café doesn’t open for breakfast until 7:00AM after September. During the summer months it opens at 6:00AM). After a delicious breakfast (I ate all my breakfasts there), I went back the motel to load up for the hike. I left the Super 8 motel at 7:39AM. The weather (as promised) was glorious. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Visibility was limitless. The early morning sun gave the pockets of snow of the mountains a heavenly radiance. The drive to the trailhead was uneventful. I arrived there at 8:05AM. If it hadn’t been for the autumnal hours of the Columbine Café I would have been there an hour sooner). It took me fifteen minutes to gear up for the hike. I was wearing my usual hiking regalia: t-shirt, long johns, blue jeans, and my L.L. Bean gear: wool socks, liners, day hiking boots, trail jacket, gloves and backpack. To top it off I made the daring decision to wear my medicine hat (if you’ve read my previous reports it’s my tan hat with bird feathers obtained from my previous travels stuck in the headband. I felt I needed the talismanic magic that my medicine hat would give me (but if the weather had turned bad, I had a wool cap in my backpack). I was carrying five liters of water and six Hershey bars.

      It was 8:20AM when I began the hike. The Black Cloud trail is steep to begin with. You start climbing immediately. It wasn’t like last year’s hike at Guadalupe Peak in Texas where there are level stretches that relax the legs. At Black Cloud you start working immediately. The beginning of the trail is canopied with stands of aspen and red pine trees. In places the red pine needles carpet the black earth of the forest. The switchbacks begin at once and you fall into the rhythm of the trail. As you ascend there are certain areas where you find exposed ledges. One needs to be careful and deliberate when you walk these sections. There is no cover for leverage if you lose your footing. Obviously these are places where there have been washouts after heavy rain falls (hence the exposed nature). Vegetation is sparse and the soil can be soft and slippery during rainy days. I had no trouble in these sections but they shouldn’t be dismissed if you’re walking them.

      I was using my usual routine of hiking for fifty minutes and resting for ten. Rest break number one (at 9:10AM) was at the first crossing of Black Cloud creek. Until I reached the summit, I was almost alone throughout the entire journey (I did meet one woman from North Jersey when I began the hike. I passed her at the first switchback and never saw her again).

      The lower part of the Black Cloud trail skirts and then crisscrosses the creek until you leave the timberline. I crossed the creek at least three times during the hike. The crossings are via felled logs across the water. After the first creek crossing I entered the most pleasant part of the hike. You enter a tree-filled meadow and for a brief time you have a level playing field to ease the strain on your legs. You make your way toward a ridge and once in a while you will find clearings. As you keep going the timberline starts to shrink and you begin to enter exposed ground.

      (Note to Highpointers: the Black Cloud Trail isn’t marked at all in the lower portions. You follow the obvious trail but there are times when the trail has off-shoots and tangents—where they lead to? I don’t know but they do exist. One must use one’s instincts in following the trail).

      My second rest break took place (at 10:15AM) further up the valley, above the timberline, but still way below the top of the ridge. I know the hike was an eleven mile round trip but I was amazed at the length of the hike. I wasn’t in any particular hurry and I was also conscious of not over-exerting myself. I need to make sure to conserve my leg strength for the hike back if I were successful in reaching the summit.

      Whereas with the South and North Elbert trails you are ascending the front of the mountain, with the Black Cloud trail you are taking the mountain from the rear.

      I was hoping to reach the top of the ridge by my next rest break but it was not to be. An hour later I was resting again along the trail just shy of the top of the ridge. It was 11:15AM and part of me was wondering if I was on the right trail. Looking around, I couldn’t get a sense of the landmarks and that was contributing to my confusion. Where I was, I was in a very exposed position on the slope leading to the top of the ridge. Scanning around, I saw the moon rising from the East and my instincts told me I was in the right position but I told myself to reach the top of the ridge before deciding whether to press on or not. I figure that if I could reach the top of the ridge then I could orient myself better.

      At this stage of this hike, the trail is marked by rock cairns molded into unique shapes. Shortly after rest break number three I reached the top of the ridge. Where the Black Cloud trail meets the ridge, there is a flat platform like area. It was perfect for me. Once I was on top, I looked to my left and saw the summit of Mount Elbert beckoning to me. A quick look at the skies showed that my luck was holding up. The weather remained gloriously perfect. That factor alone decided the issue: I was going for the summit no matter what.

      I still had a lot of work to do. There were three to four false summits to tackle before reaching the summit. I was feeling the stress and strain of the journey but I knew there was no turning back. My feelings and emotions at the time were that this was a God-given opportunity. If I turned back now I would never get a chance like this again. I pressed on.

      I went for a little bit and then took my fourth rest break in a cluster of rocks just before the second false summit before you reach Mount Elbert. My water and supplies were pretty good. It was a question of time and calculating the limits of my physical strength.

      At 12:25PM I set off for the summit. Considering the lateness, I made a decision not to stop until I reached the summit. I kept moving over or around the false summits. There were so many that I lost track of them. At times I thought I was close to the summit and then another false summit would loom ahead of me. There were moments when I thought the summit was a mirage but I kept going. I could see other hikers on the summit and their presence spurred me on.

      I was huffing and puffing (not from the altitude but from my exertions. This was the toughest hike I had ever performed).

      At this point my memories are fragmented. I moved mechanically, giving myself pep talks, refusing to surrender. I do remember the final approach, picking my way up the tan rocks, spying the flag pole. There were eight people there, waving me onward and upward. I would step, gasp for breath, step, gasp for breath again; the mind saying “move, move, move” and then, finally, at 1:57PM, I touched the wooden pole that marks the summit and sank down onto the rocks, feeling physically spent.

      There were no words. I couldn’t speak. The others clustered around me and congratulated me. (There were two groups of four: four male Boulder Police officers and a group of two men and two women: educators from some Colorado town). One of the police officers made an interesting observation to me. He and his partners had been observing me as I made my way along the ridge towards the summit. I thought I had been moving with deliberation but they told me that they were amazed at how fast I was making my way towards them.

      I sat there, catching my breath, trying to rest my legs. After a few minutes I had the strength to do the now familiar summit rituals: the Trinity of prayers, the pictures of me holding the U.S. and Colorado state flag, and the taking of the panoramic photos from the summit. The view from the roof of the Rockies was stunning and infinite. I could see the Twin Lakes glistening and gleaming in their subtle blues. Mount Massive lived up to its image: it looked to me as if it were the mummified back of some dead behemoth slain eons ago; westward the other mountains of the Sawatch lay below me in mute supplication.

      I was in no hurry to leave. I needed all the rest I could get because it was going to be a very long walk back to the trailhead. I was planning on leaving the summit at 2:47PM. Calculating the time needed to get back I realized that I could conceivably be forced to navigate the final portion on the trail in darkness (sunset that day was 7:17PM) something I had never done before. I wasn’t overly worried. I had a Petzl headlamp in my backpack but the proposition was sobering to contemplate. Still, there was no alternative. The only issue was in summoning up the will to keep moving.

      I ate some of my chocolate bars and finished off a bottle of water. By this time, the other eight climbers who had shared the summit with me were gone. I was alone (save for a small marmot that kept flitting around, hoping for a morsel of food from me). The weather remained glorious (which gave me hope for the long journey back).

      When my watch said 2:47PM I took the first step on the lack journey back. Descending was never the problem. The real problem was in having to re-ascend those false summits along the way; also, my main fear was in trying to remember where exactly did the Black Cloud trail intersect with the ridge to the summit? I was trying to remind myself of what that intersection looked like. My memory (fogged by fatigue) was hazy on that question. I moved mechanically, retracing my steps. (One nice thing about the pockets of snow, I could see my footprints and made my way back whence I came).

      I trudged back in silence, trying to keep my focus on where I was placing my feet. I was trying to avoid accidents or falls. Rest break number five took place between false summits two and three at 3:37PM. I was hoping to be off the ridge before rest break number six but that was not to be. I took rest break number six at a spot that I thought was close to where I would turn off onto the Black Cloud trail for the descent. When I finished the break it was at this moment that I would experience the lone moment of comedy during the hike. I thought I had reached the spot where the Black Cloud trail descends down the mountain. I began to descend but after a couple of minutes I realized that this was not the trail. Off to my left I thought I could see where the real Black Cloud trail was winding down. I realized that I had made an error but I had gone down a little too far and I lacked the strength and the inclination to re-ascend the ridge and make my way over to the right spot. What to do? I wasn’t lost. I could tell by the landmarks that I was going in the right direction. I was just in the wrong spot. My solution was simple. I would glissade slowly down the rocky slope while feeling my way to the left. My reasoning was that the real trail switch-backed on this slope and that by making my way down and to the left I would eventually intersect with the real trail.

      It worked out exactly as I figured. I felt my way down and made great progress. Midway through the glissade, I spied a pair of rock cairns and knew they were trail markers for the Black Cloud trail. I made my way towards those cairns and in no time flat had recovered the trail. I could laugh off the minor mistake. Now I was off the ridge, I felt better now. Even though the sun was setting behind the Sawatch mountains, I could begin to make good time down the trail.

      Now it was a question of putting one foot in front of the other (all the while giving myself pep talks to keep moving. My pep talks alternated between Vince Lombardi’s classic phrase, “the harder you work, the harder it is to surrender” to the late actor Raymond Chandler’s exhortations to his men in the movie Merrill’s Marauders, “all it takes is just another step” to my own exhortation, “every step I take brings me closer to safety.”

      Rest break number seven took place at 5:37PM midway down the ridge. I was still in the Alpine zone above the timberline. The last rest break was at 6:37PM at the meadow above the multiple Black Cloud creek crossings. I rested in the lengthening shadow of the trees as the setting sun cast a golden glow on the hills. I knew this would be the last rest break. Sunset would come in forty minutes and I needed all the twilight I could get.

      For the next eighty minutes I kept moving, down the trail, over the creek crossing, through the woods. With every step I could see familiar markings. The shadows of the forest enveloped me with every fleeting second. The encroaching darkness did not scare me in itself. My main worry was whether the National Forest people closed off access to the road after a certain hour or not. I had not recalled seeing any such sign but then I wasn’t looking for such a sign nor did I anticipate such a late return on my part. I also wondered whether my jeep would be ticketed or towed away. Those were my concerns.

      It was 7:07PM when I made the final Black Cloud Creek crossing. It would be fifty minutes to my jeep. Amazingly, despite the darkness, I never used my Petzl headlamp. I had just turned 43 the month before but I realized that I still had very good night vision. The trail was always clear to me and I made my way in my elephantine fashion. (I say elephantine because a camper resting in his tent at the trailhead told me minutes later that he heard me coming down the mountain). I knew that there would be some welcoming committee at the trailhead because as I was making my way down I saw a flashlight beam playing around down below. Again I was afraid of encountering a forest ranger and being accused of trespassing or else some sort of night prowler. (Don’t laugh. The thought of meeting Sasquatch entered my mind too, even though I don’t believe in Sasquatch. Actually my thrashing about in the woods helped me understand what it might feel like to be a Sasquatch if such a thing did exist?)

      It was 7:57PM and pitch-black when I reached the jeep. I didn’t linger long. I wanted to leave quickly. As expected I was accosted by the camper mentioned above. He was the guy with the flashlight. I explained who I was and both of us relaxed. (I can’t blame him for his concern. I would have been scared myself if I were in his shoes). I quickly doffed my hiking boots, threw my gear in the jeep, and roared off into the night. Access to the road wasn’t blocked off and in no time I was back on Route 82, heading for Leadville.

      I come from the South Jersey suburbs where there are street lights everywhere. I am always struck by the blackness of the wilderness at night. As I was driving I felt like I was in a starship traveling through the icy cold of space. I rode in silence (my radio was no good in the mountains), trying to comprehend what I had done. It was roughly 8:30PM when I returned to the hotel. There was so much to do. I needed to get my dirty clothes off, get washed, and try to find a place that served late meals in Leadville. (Not a simple task). In time all this was done and when I went to bed at midnight, I was one tired man.

      There are some points I’d like to make. If I had known that the Black Cloud trail was going to be this hard, I would never have tried it. In retrospect, I should have tried the South Elbert trail (that does seem to be the ruta normal for most Elbert climbers). I blame myself for not examining the differences between the trails better. I also blame myself for not remembering where the Black Cloud trail intersects the summit ridge better. If you’re climbing via Black Cloud please be aware of that. Also I don’t believe that the Black Cloud trail is an eleven mile roundtrip. It must be longer. It certainly felt longer. Mount Elbert is a new personal best for me in terms of altitude. It was my first time above 14,000 feet. It also marks the highest highpoint I will ever attempt. Before the Elbert climb, I had fanciful notions of trying to solo Mount Whitney but while I was trying to reach the summit of Mount Elbert, I realized just how fanciful the idea was and have decided to abandon it. Mount Elbert is my summit of summits and Mount Whitney has been added to the other seven highpoints I’ve deemed to be too difficult to climb. My next high-pointing adventure will be in October 2007 when I will try to climb Mount Marcy in New York.

      And now for the obligatory thanks for making this climb possible: first and foremost to God: in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen; to Eric Nesterenko for granting me the interview about his NHL career. It was an eye-opening experience; to Rosie’s Brewpub for being open for dinner late at night after I came down from the mountain. Thanks for the hamburger and the Guinness Stout beer! Great way to celebrate! A big ‘thank you’ to Zichittella’s Italian restaurant in Leadville for the great final dinner I had there. If you’re staying in Leadville and are looking for a place to eat then Zichitella’s is an absolute must. The Italian bake dish is to die for! To the lady working behind the counter at Bill’s Sport Shop in Leadville for giving me the beautiful red bird feather when she saw me wearing my medicine hat. That bird feather is now featured prominently in my medicine hat’s plumage. (I returned the favor by buying a t-shirt from the store); to the Columbine Café for their delicious breakfasts. My thanks to the Leadville public library, for letting me use their computers; to everyone in Leadville for their lovely hospitality; to Advantage Rental Car for the Jeep Wrangler that got me there and back; to the Best Western Gateway Inn in Aurora, Colorado for letting me stay there. Nice place to spend the night in the greater Denver region. I will stay there the next time I return.

      See you at the High Points!

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