Mount Elbert via the Black Cloud Trail

Summiting the highest peak in Colorado, Mount Elbert, is no easy feat. Most people that reach the top hike from the trailhead located outside of Leadville near Twin Lakes, CO. I have started to prefer the alternate route to the standard route, which is a bit shorter in length, but with similar elevation, numerous false summits, and heavy hiker traffic. The alternative summit route via the Black Cloud trail (11 miles and 5,000 feet of elevation gain) offers an adventurous, secluded outing with a bit less driving from Aspen.

The Night Before 

My hiking partner and I confirm our 5am departure from Aspen after checking the next day’s weather forecast. We discuss the chance of afternoon thunderstorms and determine that an early start should get us off the exposed summit ridge early enough to avoid the thunderstorms. 

I then pack for tomorrow’s outing, getting together snacks, lunch, water, and warm layers for a long day in the alpine. I make sure to bring a water filter to refill water on the way down since I know the exposed ridge walk will deplete our water tomorrow. 

I can never sleep well before a big adventure but I try to lay down to catch a few hours of rest, I am excited.

4:30am

The sharp sound of my alarm interrupts my dream and I look around the dark room wishing I could get a few more minutes of sleep, but I urge myself to get up knowing even a 15-minute time difference could be the difference between a relaxed summit experience verse a hurried picture and departure from the summit as weather approaches later in the day. 

I grab a breakfast burrito from the fridge and toss the bag I packed the night before over my shoulder and jump in my car to pick up my friend for our trip up Mount Elbert. 

5am

We leave Aspen with empty streets and darkness enveloping us. As we make the winding drive up and over Independence Pass, the hour drive from Aspen passes quickly. Thankfully the road work that’s been congesting the pass this summer hasn’t started for the day.  We are excited for the adventure ahead and catch up on the drive. 

6am

Just after passing the charming Mount Elbert Lodge we turn off 82 and into the parking lot as my Prius just clears the bump into the dirt parking lot. We take a second in the car to enjoy one last sedentary moment and then throw on our headlamps and plunge into the darkness. 

We follow the trail as it switchbacks through the forest following a rushing mountain stream. I’m glad we’re in the dark for this part as the trail is strenuous and gains elevations quickly over a sandy rocky surface. 

After about two miles we finally cross the stream and wind our way up to an aspen grove and the trail begins to flatten out. As the sun begins to illuminate our surroundings we enter a beautiful meadow and get our first real look at where we are. In about two hours we’ve climbed up a long way from our cars and can see the elevation we have left before gaining the summit ridge. We take a short snack and water break as we enjoy the spectacular view. 

8:30am

As we cross the meadow and slowly gain more elevation all we can think about is the sufferfest we are about to enjoy for the next couple hours as we work to gain the ridge. We pass a pristine campsite in a grove of blue spruce and the trail turns to the right. The real climb has begun. 

We climb steep switchbacks passing the tailing piles of old mines. We spot a couple of marmots and pikas lounging on rocks and keep heading up. As we near the tree line, the sunrise is spectacular. Pink cotton candy clouds line the skyline behind us. 

We traverse a few more switchbacks above tree line and then the trail becomes a weave of dusty trenches shooting straight up. The ridge looks so close but we probably have about three fourths of a mile to gain the ridge. I try to focus on each foot step and put my head down as we climb. Noticing the beautiful wildflowers that surround the trail makes the ascent pass quicker. 

10:30am

We reach the summit ridge and can finally see our goal across the ridge. Looking southeast, Twin Lakes shimmers up the day’s sunlight and looking southwest we can see all the way down to the valley floor where we started. The views are stunning and we remark on how alive we feel! We apply sun protection and refuel with more food and water. Then, we are off again. 

We traverse northwest on the ridge following the light trail through beautiful alpine meadows dotted with wildflowers and scramble over rock fields. With each up and down across the ridge our goal looms closer and closer, and the views stretch out infinitely on both sides of us making it hard to focus on our feet below us. The hiking is relatively level with some ups and downs but being above 13,000 ft, the thin air makes a difference. 

After reaching a highpoint on the ridge we make an easy descent on a nice dirt trail to a saddle on the ridge. There the trail bends to the northeast for the last push for the summit. The trail becomes a hunt for cairns as we make our way through the talus up to the summit. This final part is painstakingly slow as we must watch our footing and the summit ever so slowly draws closer. 

12:10pm

We reach the summit and it’s a party on top. Throughout the morning we’ve only seen one other group ascending in front of us. However, once we reach the top we’re surrounded by people who have hiked up the standard route. All the people don’t diminish the spectacular 360-degree views though. We can see mountains stretching out in every direction. We settle down for a quick lunch and reflect on achieving our goal.  

After eating, we snap a few summit photos and take in the view one last time as we notice clouds building off in the distance. We recognize that we have about 2 hours of ridge walking before we are in the forest and safe from lightning so we decide to set off for the descent. 

12:45pm

We descend the way we came and see the ridge top views from a whole different angle. The ridge is slightly easier on the way down but still requires some navigation across the undulating ridge.

We reach the intersection with the Black Cloud trail and promptly begin heading down the steep dusty trail watching our footing as we descend. A trail crew can be seen off to the left working on building switchbacks. Hopefully next time we hike Mount Elbert this nearly vertical section of the hike will be smoother! 

2pm

We reach the trees just as the clouds darken overhead and we refill our water at the first stream crossing we come to. The next two hours pass quickly as we descend the seemingly endless switchbacks down the car. We’re amazed with how much we climbed up in the dark and we’re glad to reach the cars just before 4pm. 

I threw a couple car beers in a cooler last night so we crack one and reflect on our great day on Mount Elbert, feeling tired but grateful for such a fun adventure.

By Zach Benevento

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