Roof of the Rockies

Mt Elbert (51)

I was woken up in my seat by our shuttle driver’s voice when he announced to everyone that both lanes of the  interstate were closed down and that it could be a while before we started moving again. I was heading to Indianapolis to catch an evening flight to Denver, Colorado. As it turned out, there was a massive truck-fire on the highway that afternoon which caused the huge traffic jam and so I ended up missing my flight, along with everyone else in the shuttle! After reaching the airport and talking to the airline rep, I was put on the ‘wait list’ for the morning flight out.

IMG_20120901_012033

Airport couches aren’t that bad…

Thanks to whoever missed his / her flight!

Thanks to whoever missed his / her flight!

I crashed at the airport that night and was lucky to get a seat on the 7 am flight. I was almost laughing-out-a-little-too-loud when I saw the seat number I had been assigned – 22A! Those who know my surname and speak marathi will get this; others, I wish I could explain! 😀
Anyhow, so thanks to the time zones, I landed there at 7.30 am local time and so effectively I could still join my friends without missing out on much fun!

Getting there...  mountains calling :)

Getting there… mountains calling 🙂

A few close friends and I had put together a weekend camping / hiking plan in the Rockies; we were going to hike up Mt. Elbert! Mt. Elbert is one of the 14ers (peaks above 14,000 feet in elevation) and the highest in the Rocky Mountains – definitely something worth bragging, despite the fact that the most common trails to the summit are non-technical class 2 trails (mostly a regular ‘trek’ with little or no use of hands for support). We were a gang of six – Gubby (Ajay), Gautami, tai (Gubby’s elder sis), Naren (tai’s husband), Hemant (Naren’s friend from college and work) and me.

Saturday morning the guys picked me up at Denver airport and I met everyone at the hotel they had stayed in the previous night. While everyone took turns for the shower,
1) The remaining were savouring some crispy ‘jalebi’ (a sweet Indian delicacy in the shape of a coiled up snake :D)
2) Gubby and I finished the left over Chinese from last night
3) Naren, Hemant and tai were discussing how Naren couldn’t get tickets to the final match of the US Open – we could all tell how heart-broken the guy was! 😀
…all this while watching a match of the tournament on TV.

On our way to Leadville, which is the closest town to the trail-head of Mt. Elbert, we stopped for a hearty brunch. Oh yes, and our ride needs a special mention here – the Ford Explorer – a sexy SUV that we had rented for the weekend. Naren and Hemant took the wheel alternately and did a great job at it!

Once at Leadville, we headed to the campground where we had planned to set up camp. It was raining when we got there but by the time we picked a camping spot it stopped raining and so pitching tents was not a problem.

White = tai & Naren, Red canopy = G&G and me, Yellow = Hemant

White = tai & Naren, Red canopy = G&G and me, Yellow = Hemant

Once the tents were in place, we headed back in town to get wood, food and gas (for the stove) for the two days that we would be there. Pasta, fruits, soup and fried rice were on the menu for the weekend. The watermelon specially was a big hit the next day after the strenuous climb!

Gubby also had a cool idea to roast potatoes and onions on the fire which tasted amazing with our ‘good-for-all magic-spice’ – red chili flakes!

(Potato + onion) BBQ + chili flakes = YUM!

(Potato + onion) BBQ + chili flakes = YUM!

The plan was to sleep early and start climbing early in the morning, preferably before dawn. The idea was to reach the summit and get down in time to avoid the late afternoon / evening thunderstorms which are common on the mountain this time of the year. As planned, we were on the trail slightly before 6 am.

Mt Elbert (28)

Heading the right way!

Mt Elbert (26)

The total elevation gain from the Northeast trail-head is around 4000 feet and the treeline is roughly at half that height. We all covered that half pretty well; Naren, Hemant and Gautami were going strong in the front by quite some distance while Gubby, tai and me were following a little behind. At the treeline tai decided to turn back (she had decided to come up only till the treeline and been urging Gubby and me to push ahead throughout but we just stuck around for the fun of it anyway :)) At the treeline Hemant and Gautami were taking rest while Naren had already left when we got there. After a quick couple of sandwiches tai started back for camp while the four of us started climbing again. This is where the trail starts becoming a little steeper with occasional switchbacks in between.

A little later, as my luck would have it, I realised I was beginning to have a bad migraine incident! Crap – that’s all I need now; a throbbing headache above 12k feet. Even with my tablets, the headache was obviously not going to just go away. At some point I was considering Gubby’s idea of turning back even… “screw it – I know it is not because of the altitude, I have taken the tablets, and most importantly, the throbbing is going to stay anyway so might just keep ploughing ahead!” So after settling down a bit I started off in my own rhythm and overtook the three of them so at least I won’t fall behind / they won’t have to wait for me if I need to stop again for a long time.

After climbing alone for a while, suddenly at the top of one of the steep patches I heard Naren call out – he seemed to be coming in the opposite direction. He said he went to the top of the visible peak but that turned out to be a false summit; the true summit was behind it and some 800 feet higher! I knew this from one other person whom I had crossed just ten minutes ago… Naren said he didn’t feel like going ahead after the false peak so he had started back. After a little discussion we decided to wait for the others to come up and then take the call whether to push for the summit (true one) or not. I had somehow convinced him that if people are willing to go, we should give it a try together and may be that might just get us all up.

One of the false summits

One of the false summits

After some twenty minutes or so, G&G and Hemant came up and I got to know that GnG were heading back because someone wasn’t feeling very confident on the scree coupled with the steep slopes. My headache was a little less now mainly because the tablets had started kicking in and also the power nap that I had while waiting for the guys. Another quick discussion took place between the three of us – steep slopes, with around 1000 feet to climb (Hemant’s watch read close to 13.4k feet)… thankfully the weather was excellent throughout the day and the sky was pretty much clear still – we had a window to try to make it quickly. We decided to leave our backpacks at that point, hike up light and fast and pick up the sacks on our way down. We ate another sandwich, took a few energy bars and just one bottle of water between the three of us… light and fast, light and fast…

On top of one false peak, another false peak seen behind!

On top of one false peak, another false peak seen behind!

Finally around noon we reached the summit – the true one this time! It was totally worth all the efforts – the view form the top was simply beautiful; and we had plenty of time to soak it in and take photos and relax a bit… there were some people already at the top, just sitting and chit chatting, few others just coming up as we reached and some others starting their decent. We started heading down around 1 pm.

Summit!

Summit!

The decent seemed to last forever and the three of us were literally jogging our way down most of the time because we just wanted to get to the camp and fall down exhausted! We were so happy to see tai and Gubby and Gautami at the trail-head…

That night everyone fell asleep almost the minute we crawled into our sleeping bags.
Monday was pretty fun too – we got up, broke camp and left for Denver in the morning. After a nice breakfast in Leadville we were on the highway on schedule to reach Denver in time for Gautami to catch her flight out. But of course, we hit traffic on our way and it was close but we made it to the airport – a quick bye and Gautami was running through the gate! She caught her flight, thanks to Hemant’s driving skills and ‘inner voice guidance system’! 😀

We all got on our flights in the evening, Hemant decided to stay in Denver to explore some more and everyone else except me got home by night. I flew to Indy and since there wasn’t a shuttle back to Purdue until early next morning, I was back on the same couch that I had crashed on three nights earlier!

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