Here’s how to hike Colorado’s tallest 14er, Mount Elbert

A view of the Mount Elbert and Mount Massive, the two highest peaks in Colorado, from the Leadville area on Friday, July 29, 2011.
Jakob M. Berr | The Denver Post

LEADVILLE — Though it may lack in true climbing excitement compared with many of the state’s 14,000-foot mountains, hiking Colorado’s highest point, Mount Elbert, provides a textbook Rocky Mountain challenge for most any hiker.

At 4,700 feet of total elevation gain in just under 5 miles of hiking, Elbert’s northeast ridge trail hits hikers with the task of climbing about 1,000 feet every mile. For most hikers, the 1,000-feet-per-mile standard is kind of a rule-of-thumb suggesting when hikes start to get steep. The good news about hiking the 14,440-foot mountain — the second highest point in the Lower 48 — is that with an early start and a consistent, mindful rhythm in your hiking, conquering Elbert is doable for most any hiker in solid shape.

More good news for hikers is that the North Mount Elbert trailhead parking lot is accessible for most any vehicle: A two-wheel-drive sedan can make it up the 5-mile dirt road. On a weekday, plan to get to the parking lot at 6:30 a.m. or earlier to secure a spot. On busy weekends, that arrival time should be closer to 5:30 or earlier. That might seem like an early start, especially if you’re driving the hour or so through darkness from Summit County. But the earlier the start the better, as Elbert is notorious for sudden afternoon thunderstorms.

From the trailhead, it’s a short walk to reach the Colorado Trail, which you’ll stick with for just more than a mile. The sign directing hikers to the trail up Elbert’s northeast ridge is hard to miss. Once on the northeast ridge trail, which begins just above 10,500 feet, be ready for a plodding, gradual climb for the next 4 miles all the way up to the summit.

Two to three liters of water is a good amount to have, as hiking above treeline means 14,000-foot sunshine can zap you of hydration fast.

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Below the trail’s treeline, 1,400 feet of moderate switchbacks dominate the way. Through this portion, be sure to work into a regular hiking rhythm, timing your breathing, steps and poles by keeping time — the ol’ “1 and 2 and 3 and …” — in your head.

Though Elbert isn’t one of the state’s most difficult 14ers, trekking poles are highly encouraged for securing your footing through scree, or loose rock, during the descent. But they are arguably just as important on the way up to have an economic output of energy.

A focus on rhythmic breathing and steps, and balancing out the climb’s weight on your upper body with the trekking poles, is a great way to get up the switchbacks.

In hiking Elbert, know that you will be taking 1,200 to 1,700 uphill steps every 15 to 20 minutes. Each individual step you take up the mountain might seem inconsequential, but it all adds up over 6 to 8 hours. At the equivalent of about 450 flights of stairs, Mount Elbert is a natural StairMaster.

You should expect to burn 130 to 180 calories every 15 to 25 minutes during the plodding, gradual ascent of Elbert, so the best way to maintain your economy of energy is to snack on quick, high-calorie food on the way up, such as stroopwafels or gummies. At altitude, it’s important to remember hunger cues can be suppressed, so even if you’re feeling a little hungry, it’s probably a good time to refuel.

Once above treeline, you pretty much know how far away the top is, with the exception of a few false summits. Remember not to get summit fever: One by one, stick with those mindful steps, and you’ll be on top of the state before you know it.

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