Mt. Elbert and the Shortest Season07/31/2009
The high mountains share their craggy wares with the bipedal traveller begrudgingly. It seems their default is that of wintry chill, cutting winds, uncomfortably low temperatures. And although they let go their security blanket of frigidity for a couple glorious months each summer, the mountains are always quick to remind us who is in charge and what season really reigns at the highest elevations.
It has been cold in Leadville. I went to bed last night wearing a wool cap and a sweatshirt. There are still brilliant moments of sunshine, but when the clouds roll in they are darker than usual and when they finally roll back out they reveal an ever-so-slight dusting of fresh snow above 13,000′. Is it July? Really?
Nevertheless, the high peaks beckon, and I cannot resist. This morning, the summit of Mt. Elbert is my goal, and I can only occasionally see it as its upper reaches appear intermittenly from within the swirling clouds. Sitting on the Roost’s tailgate, a few drops fall from the sky and I reach for my windshirt to tuck in my waistband. I debate about donning a singlet, and maybe even gloves, but, against my better judgement, the patches of blue in the sky convince me otherwise.
After a mile or so of warm-up on the road, I hit the trail. My legs feel good from the last few easier days that I’ve taken to recover from the weekend’s race, and the gain in elevation comes easily. Today I am running in a cloud. I love the sensation of popping above a cloud layer that an inversion has created and right at tree-line the clouds end and the sun warms my back. The expansive view is as if from an airplane window.
In Ashland this winter, many mornings the town would be consumed by the dreaded “ice fog” that would sit in the bottom of the valley and not burn off until late morning. However, upon a mere three or four hundred feet of vertical gain, one would emerge from this chilled blanket into exceedingly warm air. Stepping onto Elbert’s alpine tundra I am reminded of those southern Oregon mornings except for one key difference–here, on the mountain, the air above the clouds is even colder than further downslope. And, now out of the trees, the wind kicks up in ever increasing bursts that alternately serve as a helping hand or a frustrating hindrance, depending on the switchback.
Maybe five hundred feet below the summit I reach the fresh snow that I could see from town. Not surprisingly, this morning’s conditions have thinned the troops out on the trail and I am allowed to make my final push to the summit without an incredulous audience. My cadence matches the beat of the chorus of a raucous song by The Dodos stuck in my head, and soon I am alone on the summit, hunkered down behind a crudely-constructed rock wall, desperately warming my fingers in my armpits.
Despite the wind and cold I have made the ascent four minutes faster than a month ago. On the way down I am soon enveloped in the clouds again and during the last few minutes on the road back to the Roost a light rain begins to fall. Even if this week is representative of only a freak weather pattern, it nevertheless serves as a reminder to get to as many summits as possible before the real winter elements make their inevitable return.