Mount Elbert (14,433 feet) — A Review for Hikers with Joint Disease, Joint Replacements, or Neuromuscular Deficiencies

© 2012 Peter Free


30 August 2012


Photograph of view from the top of Mount Elbert, Colorado, by Peter Free. 

View from the summit of Mount Elbert, Colorado, taken 29 August 2012.



This review of the northeast ridge, “standard” trail up Mount Elbert is for people with joint disease and/or mild neurological problems


For background regarding my impairments — so that you can gauge the relevance of this review to you — you can read my review regarding hikes on three other (connected) peaks, here.


Notice that I have had to give up non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), due to life-threatening hypersensitivities.


The best way for readers to judge the applicability my hiking reviews, to their circumstances, is to do one of the covered hikes and compare their impression of it to mine.


People with impairments similar to mine, but who can treat them with medication, will be able to go longer distances than I can.  My qualitative comments of each hike, however, may still apply toward the end of those extended ranges.



A note psychological perspective — moderation is wise, although I customarily miss the mark


Wise aging essentially becomes a game in which we try to use ourselves up at a rate that will coincide with, but not much precede, the end of our lifespan.


Arthritis involves progressive joint degeneration.  According to current medical understanding, each bout of significant inflammation further deteriorates affected areas.


Having trashed my body during my youth — by taking the phrase, “no pain, no gain,” much too literally — I now recognize that thrashing joints (or their prosethetic replacements) shortens their useful lives.


Now in my mid-sixties, I am trying to pay more attention to the physical costs of activities that medical professionals (including my nurse wife) think unwise.


That means that the aesthetic rewards, gained at the price of aggravating my decrepitudes, should to be worth it.  In the case of Mount Elbert, the aesthetic prize was probably not.



Summary of my conclusion — Mount Elbert is doable (for the group that I am addressing), but almost certainly not worth hiking twice


I found Mount Elbert to be a more tedious hike than some other Colorado fourteeners.


The summit view is nice, but in retrospect probably not worth its inflammatory cost.  There are equally good views from less inflammation-making peaks.  I won’t do Elbert again.  Had I known what I do now, I probably would not have included it on my list of to-do walks.



A note on safety — hikers are exposed to the elements for a long way


Most of this hike, time-wise, is above timberline.  It is long enough that, if you make a mistake in estimating when thunderstorms will strike the peak, you will almost certainly get caught in the open.  Lightning fodder.


Even if you can run downhill over this challenging terrain, it will still take you “forever” to regain the comparative safety of the trees.  Arthritics have to be especially careful.  We are not mobile enough to dash to cover.


On the day I was there, the storms rolled in later than they often do (according to more area-knowledgeable people).  It only rained at about 1400 to 1430 hours.



Don’t let hiking reviews fool you — Mount Elbert is not “easy,” except in the technical climbing sense


One of the things that weakens the usefulness of fourteener trail reports is their authors’ frequently exaggerated emphasis on how easily, or how quickly, they managed the route. 


Note — on peak bagging versus aesthetics


Fourteener route reports are often written by people who see personal affirmation in having made it to the top.  These are peak baggers.  The act of summiting appears to outweigh assessments of the aesthetic worth of the experience on a per-kilometer basis.


Without meaning disrespect to anyone, the simple act of hiking to the summit of the average fourteener is not especially impressive by competitive athletic standards.  How can it be, if I’m still (clumsily) doing it at age near-66 with noticeable physical impairments?


On the other hand, speeding up and down a fourteener in an impressively short time certainly is.  Hence, the emphasis on (and probable exaggeration of) short trip times in many route reviews.


That said, speed (over significant distances) is something that joint-diseased people have left in their pasts.


Despite being the highest mountain in Colorado (at 14,433 feet) and the Rockies generally — and being only 72 feet short of the Sierra Nevada’s Mount Whitney in California, which is the highest peak in the contiguous United States — Mount Elbert has a reputation for being one of Colorado’s easiest “fourteeners” to hike.


But that qualitative assessment is true only in the technical climbing sense.  Rock scrambling is not necessary on it, provided that you do not inadvertently go off-trail (as I did) at the mountain’s first false summit.


Via the “standard” trail up the mountain’s northeast ridge, the hike combines noticeable steepness with joint-inflaming challenges (due to distance and footing) that I found to be more trouble than they were worth.


Note — regarding the “standard” trail


The trail I am writing about is the one departs from the “North Mt. Elbert” parking lot, which is a short distance up-road from the Halfmoon Creek Campground.


Round trip trail length is usually reported at 9 miles.  It feels significantly longer, while coming down.



The first part of the trail does have some good points


I have never much enjoyed trail hiking because most trails seem to take too long to get somewhere interesting, even when they are intelligently laid out.  The northeast Elbert ridge trail (also called the North Mount Elbert trail) falls into this group.


On the positive side, it is wide and exceptionally well-maintained up just past tree line.


Note — not everything is intelligent in Forest Service land


The Forest Service inexplicably failed to sign appropriate directions on the parking lot’s connection to the Colorado Trail, which — if you turn left — eventually takes you to the signed fork for Mount Elbert.


Similarly, the Service failed to sign the Colorado Trail at its Mount Elbert junction to show down-coming hikers which way to go back to the North Elbert parking lot.  (They need to remember to turn left.)


This is fairly typical of the Service, which has more responsibilities than it can possibly fulfill and more liability exposure than it can proactively counter.


The rocks on the forest part of the route are mostly embedded in soil, so that the path is not the series of jagged-edged and unstable stones that characterizes Colorado fourteeners.  This part of the trail is well-suited to runners and speed hikers.


On the other hand, the route winds through unremarkable forest.  Off trail camping spots are plentiful, but reliably exhibit signs of recent use.  Not exactly the kind of thing that will appeal to those who delight in wilderness.



The above tree line part of the trail is better than some — but it is long and increasingly exhibits the kind of loose rock that aggravates arthritic people’s joints


Some distance after leaving tree line, the trail begins to exhibit more and more of the granite gravel and loose rocks that aggravate arthritis.


For people without joint disease, none of this is challenging.  However, people with joint disease will experience the inflammation and tedium that accompanies trying to keep one’s step-to-step balance via the myriad movements that such conditions necessitate.


This part of the trail seems to go on forever (especially on the way down) and it suffers from being within clear sight of wide-spread civilization in the valley bottom.  Perhaps I am jaded by having seen tiny portions of the beauty of true wilderness in Alaska and Canada, but Mount Elbert’s into-the-valley view did not especially appeal to me.



The first false summit — easy to go astray


Loose rock tedium gets particularly noticeable toward the mountain’s first false summit.  This, by the way, is the only summit one can see for the full length of the approach to it from tree line.  It is capped by boulders, much like the summit of Mount Democrat (which I disliked).


The trail braids at this false summit’s cap.  Having forgotten from various route reports that the path winds to the right (north-northwest) around the boulders, I lost my way in the early morning sun and made the more difficult climb over them.




I don’t recommend this mistaken boulder-clambering route to older folk.  Some of it was Class 2 plus.


The wind almost blew me off the pile in one place.  And there was significantly more “exposure” (meaning the ability to fall an unappetizing distance) at one spot than my impaired balance found comfortable.


The effort to route-find over and through this mess of boulders (on all fours) was probably more physically taxing, than it would have been to negotiate the proper trail, which I re-found on my way down the mountain.



The second false summit


It is only once past the second false summit that one can see the real summit.  Many route reviews comment about how discouraging these false summits are.


Since I expect to encounter deceptive peaks, I did not find this quality particularly discouraging.  On the other hand, the length of the rocky path from one to another took its painful physical measure.



An aside — on noticing what I can and cannot do on even moderately steep slopes


Having done several crowded fourteeners by now, I have noticed that I can keep up with, and often surpass, younger people on steep good-footing ground.  But, just as soon as the surface becomes even minimally unstable, they zip right past me, as if I were embedded in a tar pit.  In my youth, relatively few people could keep up with me going up or down.


I have also noticed that the physical effort that it takes to properly place my footsteps, and to struggle against inflammation-related neuromuscular compromises, saps my energy at an alarming rate.  I can be feeling really good just before one of these challenging trail segments (even at high altitude) and really drained afterward.


In Elbert’s case, the moderately rocky part of the trail had me in full inflammatory mode, even during the ascent below the first false summit.  That meant that my ability to move properly was sorely tested for perhaps three-quarters of the overall hike.


Going downhill is always an extended nightmare.  I have to pay extreme attention to each foot placement and trekking pole plant. Literally everyone passes me speedily by, like race cars passing a broken-down junker at the side of the road.



What to expect — in regard to the time that it takes to reach the summit via the standard route


I made it up yesterday in a about 3 hours and 40 minutes, with a fifteen to twenty minute stop to eat breakfast just after I passed the first false summit.




As an inflammation gauge, I had a very hard time just getting to a standing position afterward.  That was even more noticeable after I sat down on the summit.


From Internet trip reports, this 3.5 to 4 hour (to summit) time appears to be in the average range.




Remember that many of these reports are completed by low altitude visitors, who always impress me with their stout-hearted ability to undertake something that is much more difficult for them, than for those of us already living at altitude.


Thomas Dziezynski reports an overall trip time of 4.5 to 6.5 hours on page 155 of his outstanding book, Best Summit Hikes in Colorado (Wilderness Press 2007, third reprint 2010)




Available at Barnes and Noble, here.  And Amazon, here.


My guess is that his low end estimate is probably accurate for fit, able-bodied athletic types.


My impression is that most people can make it down the mountain in about half the time that it takes them to hike up.  That enviable ability is decades past for me.  Thanks to that, my overall times are almost always slower than the turtle-person end of Dziezynski’s time ranges.


If you are as molasses-like as I am while descending, be sure to incorporate that slowness into your hiking plans.  On Colorado’s fourteeners, lightning storms are the big danger.  With the lack of reserve that accompanies physical impediments, comes a narrowing of one’s safety margins.





On the Wednesday just before Labor Day that I hiked Elbert, there were at least 30 people on the standard trail.


That seems to be the average (at mid-week) for fourteeners with an easy to moderate reputation.


For arthritics, who are less the loner type than I am, these crowds are not a bad thing.  There will be people around to lend a hand, if you get into trouble.



Conclusion — Mount Elbert is definitely worth it for peak baggers — but maybe not so much for those who have to balance (a) the cost of aggravating their physical deterioration against (b) the aesthetic (or ego) benefits gained


I am too decrepit these days to put significant stock in my formerly athletic ego.  Instead, aesthetic rewards are generally the key to properly weighing the cost-benefit of aggravating my arthritis.


For me, Mount Elbert was too long an NSAID-lacking hike to have been worth the inflammation it caused.  I found the mountain’s above timberline, mildly rocky tedium unenjoyable, especially coming down.  Even in my youth, this mountain’s utility would have been confined to seeing how fast I could make it up and down.