Why do we climb mountains? For the sheer physical challenge. For the adrenaline rush. For the smell of danger that accompanies looking over the edge into 2,000 feet of nothing but thin air. For the mental high that comes from conquering a summit. To temporarily escape from the chaos of humanity stewing below. “Because it is there”. Your answers may vary. I climb mountains for all of these reasons, with different ones taking priority depending on my mood (although I have a limit to how much danger I am willing to smell…). Ultimately though, as a photographer, I climb mountains for the view.
With the highest average elevation of any state, Colorado has no shortage of mountains, and thus no shortage of views. Some of the best come from the summits of Colorado’s famous 14ers, a group of 53 peaks whose crests reach to more that 14,000 feet above sea level. At this altitude, other than birds and oncoming thunderheads, there is nothing left to look UP at. No mightier peaks obstruct your gaze and if you’re lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of a plane flying a few thousand feet below.
However there is not a direct correlation between higher elevation and better views. Far from it. After all, the 14ers have done nothing special to earn their fame, they have simply been the recipient of enough geologic good fortune that their summits exceed the ultimately meaningless and arbitrary 14,000′ mark. As a result, the Mount of the Holy Cross, topping out at 14,009′, is one of Colorado’s most famous mountains, in large part due to those uppermost nine feet. Meanwhile, Grizzly Peak, just 14 feet lower (13,995′), lies nearly forgotten just a few dozen miles away (lost in the shuffle of six—that’s right six—different Grizzly Peak’s in the state) yet provides an equally majestic vantage point.
Below I’ve put together a collection of panoramas shot from different summits around the state in an attempt to present the diversity of Colorado’s mountain peaks. Every summit, no matter how high, has a distinct atmosphere and feel, from suburban hills where you can down onto sprawling subdivisions and strip malls, to remote wilderness peaks where the only sign of mankind might just be the jet contrail 15,000 feet above you. Seeing summit panoramas always encourages me to get outside and fight Earth’s gravity once again. So go find any good chunk of rock that sticks up a bit above its surroundings, walk, hike, bike, climb, or crawl up it, and you are sure to be rewarded. My only specific advice is to find a peak without a road to the top. Views are best enjoyed in solitude and few things as demoralizing than spending hours trudging up a mountain only to find a gift shop, parking lot, or a family of six enjoying a three course meal in the back of their hummer at the top…or worse, a combination of all three.
When hiking, alone and sleepy, though a dark, pre-dawn, dense forest of tall lodgepole pine, every shadow and tree stump looks like a bear. It’s a great way to get your heart rate going early in the morning. I had risen from my restful (save for some early morning screaming and yelling coming from the campground across the road) sleep at 4:30 A.M. in an attempt to climb Colorado’s highest peak, Mt. Elbert, without getting myself electrocuted. I found myself mentally preparing to defend my White Chocolate Macadamia Nut ClifBar to the death at least half a dozen times over a 1 hour period. Not only is Mt. Elbert the highest point in Colorado, it is also the highest point in the Rocky Mountains as well as the 2nd highest point in the entire continental United States, just 65 feet lower than California’s Mt. Whitney. Despite its height, the summit of Mt. Elbert can be reached via several well-traveled trails. All require a fair bit of elevation gain but the one I was forced to use as a result of not possessing a 4WD vehicle climbs 4,900 feet in 4.5 miles, a healthy climb regardless of altitude.
Summer is generally considered a bad time to climb any peak that involves spending time above treeline because of the summer monsoon thunderstorms that are ubiquitous across the southwest. Unlike its Indian counterpart, the southwest monsoon generally doesn’t deposit several feet of rain on the surface (although they can produce some locally heavy, but brief, downpours) but they can, and often do, produce copious quantities of lightning. Lightning, as you most likely know, hits high places. Mt. Elbert is the highest point in Colorado. A person standing on Mt. Elbert, would then, by extension, temporarily be the highest thing still attached to the ground in Colorado. Put two and two together and you can see this makes for a potentially life-threatening situation. The problem with these lightning storms is that they can develop incredibly rapidly and without warning out of clear blue sky. Your best chances of avoiding them is to hike early….really early.
I camped about 100 yards from the Mt. Elbert trailhead the night before the hike. A developed forest service campground was located directly across from the trailhead whose “services” I could utilized for $15 per night. Option #2 was to drive across the road and set up camp in a small clearing for $0 per night. The only things I would be missing (considering that I could simply walk across the road to use the water spigots) were the fire pit and picnic tables located in each developd campsite. Considering that I was alone (thus making a picnic table a bit unnecessary) and that a complete fire ban was in effect, I decided to save my hard-earned moolah.
Several vehicles were in the parking lot upon my arrival at 5 A.M. By the midway point of the ascent, I had managed to pass all of these groups, save for a pack of Boy Scouts who had ascended beginning at 1 A.M. in order to see the sunrise from the summit. Lunatics. After about an hour or so of hiking through the forest, the Sun rose above the horizon just as I hit timberline at about 11,500 feet. If you climb mountains on any regular basis, you’re probably aware that treeline on many peaks is a welcome sight. The lack of foliage generally provides reassurance that you’re almost there, in addition to providing spectacular vistas of the surrounding countryside. In other words, treeline often tells you: “Hang in there! Just a little bit longer!”
Treeline on Mt. Elbert invokes no such warm and fuzzy feelings. Rather, treeline on Mt. Elbert is merely a courtesy reminder that you are less than halfway there and that you still have more than 3,000 vertical feet to climb through ever decreasing oxygen levels. And the vistas aren’t anything to write home about from this point to boot.
Mt. Elbert also redefines the term “false summit.” Fortunately, for my sanity, I had thoroughly read a number of guidebooks and was well prepared for this matter. Good thing otherwise I probably would have consider hanging myself after reaching the 2nd one and finding the true summit still out of my reach (fortunately, the lack of trees would have made this a tricky proposition…). On the way down, I encountered a number of weary and inquisitive hiking parties just below the lower-most and most evil false summit (still nearly 1000 vertical feet from the true summit) whom I regrettably had to inform that they still had a good hour or more of trudging to go. Judging by their reactions and creative use of profane adjectives, they were not as well-prepared for this as I was.
The view from the summit is, as would be expected, spectacular, although not necessarily any better than a number of other, lesser peaks in Colorado. Mountains fill the field of view as far as the eye can see in all directions. Several other Sawatch Range 14ers are visible from the summit including Colorado’s 2nd highest peak, Mt. Massive to the north (Mt. Massive is aptly named, it consists of four individual peaks of 14,000+feet along a 5 mile ridge) and La Plata Peak to the south. The view on a clear day (which it was) stretches all the way to Pikes Peak outside of Colorado Springs, almost 100 miles to the southeast, and the Maroon Bells outside of Aspen. Being the first person apart from the overachieving group of scouts to summit that morning, I had the place all to myself for about half an hour. By the time summit-er #2 showed up at about quarter to 9, clouds were already starting to build up around the mountain so I decided to head back down.
Sadly, having reached the highest peak in the Rockies, my options for setting a new personal elevation record are now somewhat limited unless Warren Buffet unexpectedly names me in his inheritance or I find a big bag of money on the street (those are pretty much the same if you think about it…) and decide to go to Alaska or South America (to make a donation, you can find my contact information on the About page). Or, on a slightly cheaper thought, Mt. Whitney anyone?