Mount Elbert Winter Guide: Resources for a Successful 14er Ascent

Mount Elbert is Colorado’s tallest mountain, reaching an elevation of 14,439 feet at the summit. This makes it a very busy peak in the summer months when conditions are warmest. Mount Elbert winter hikes and climbs are much less crowded, with only a handful of people on the mountain most days. In addition, Mount Elbert has very limited avalanche danger along its East Ridge route, and the class one terrain avoids any scrambling. It makes for a great first winter fourteener, for all these reasons and more. Here is my complete Mount Elbert Winter Guide to help you reach the summit safely and successfully.

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Mount Elbert Winter Guide Fast Facts

Mount Elbert Winter Route Map

Planning Ahead for a Winter Mount Elbert Hike

A lot of research is needed to prepare for a Mount Elbert winter hike. First you should check the weather forecast for your trip, watching out for storms, snow, high winds, and other dangerous weather conditions. I recommend these two sources for Mount Elbert forecasts:

You should also check the Avalanche forecast. While the East Ridge is normally low-risk, there are extreme situations where something could slide. Check the forecast so you know what terrain or areas to watch out for out of an abundance of caution.

Finally, check 14ers.com to see if there is a recent peak condition report to help plan for the snow (or lack of snow). If there are no recent reports you can also check the previous snowfall records for the past several days. This should help you plan whether you need snowshoes and traction, and whether or not to expect a trench established along the trail. If you are new, stay home if there has been recent significant snow as it will make navigation and route-finding much more difficult.

Getting to the Trailhead

The South Elbert Trailhead is usually accessible to most 2WD cars – but you may want to bring a 4WD vehicle just to be sure. Located near Twin Lakes, you can approach from multiple directions: from the north via Leadville, or from the south via Buena Vista. Keep in mind that Independence Pass closes in the fall until late spring and that roads may not be easily driven following significant snowfall – which is relatively common. Check trailhead condition reports on 14ers.com for the most up-to-date info on the trailhead. Once you park you are ready for your Mount Elbert winter adventure!

Part 1: Leaving the Trailheads

Set out from the trailhead along the National Forest Road 125.1B. It is approximately a 1.8-mile hike along the road to reach the upper 4WD trailhead, which is closed in the winter. From here, continue along the trail and cross a small footbridge. Take a left at the first crossroads you come to. After a half-mile, come to another juncture and take another left. Finally come to a third juncture a short hike onward, and take yet another left. At this point, you are officially on the Mount Elbert winter route.

Part 2: Switchback Through the Forest

Follow the trail as it switchbacks up through the forest of aspen and evergreen. You may see tracks leading away from the trail – do not follow them, as there are some small avalanche-prone slopes located off-trail in the forest that you could stumble upon. Cross through several clearings as you ascend, until you finally reach the tree line. You’ll be treated to spectacular views of Mount Elbert from this position, which makes it a great spot for a water break. 

From here turn right and traverse north, then regain the west side of the ridge around 12,100 feet. Aim for a saddle on the east ridge proper.

Part 3: Climbing the East Ridge

If the route ahead appears wind-scoured you can stash your snowshoes at this point as you will not need them beyond. The trail is often clearly visible, with packed snow from previous hikers. Microspikes are helpful here if the snow is continuous – during light snow years, it may be better to go without them. Swing right around the first initial point on the ridge. Then follow the trail directly up the east ridge, reaching a flatter spot around 12,900 feet. 

Continue hiking up to 13,200 feet. From here you can see the crux of the route ahead of you, a series of long switchbacks up the steepest part of the mountain. Take a water break and check the weather before continuing onward

Part 4: Switchback to the Summit

Work your way up these switchbacks, taking time to establish a slow but steady rhythm. Try taking a step, pausing for a breath, and repeating. This is called the ‘rest step’ and helps you avoid taking constant little breaks that tire you out more. Once past the steepest section around 13,800 feet swing left to ascend a final gentler set of switchbacks the final 600 feet up to the summit. If there is enough snow, it is sometimes possible to leave the switchbacks and hike directly up the face to the peak – but this is only advised if you have an ice axe, training, and traction.

From the summit, enjoy views of nearly all of Colorado’s mountain ranges. There are two large rock ring shelters at the top to get out of the wind for a quick rest and water break. I do not recommend spending too long at the summit, as the cold, windy conditions quickly sap your energy. You will need it for your long 7-mile descent, which is the most dangerous part of any Mount Elbert winter climb.

Mount Elbert Winter Gear Recommendations

You will need the right gear to stay safe during a Mount Elbert winter expedition. Here are some of the key necessities I recommend that you bring with you to stay safe and successfully reach the summit.

  • The Ten Essentials for Winter
  • Winter Boots for 14ers
  • A Mid-Capacity Backpack
  • Microspikes
  • Trekking Poles
  • Snowshoes (if dictated by conditions)

Not sure what to wear? Use layers so you can add or take them off to respond to changing conditions on the mountain. Start with a warm base layer of smart wool, followed by mid-layers of fleece, and an outer-layer winter jacket. A hardshell jacket is also helpful to block wind or deal with wet conditions if you expect them. Don’t forget warm gloves and socks, a hat and face mask, and goggles, to avoid frostbite and protect your extremities.

Lastly – always bring strong SPF 70+ sunscreen on Mount Elbert winter hikes. Snow amplifies and reflects sunlight back towards you and can cause serious burns. I speak from experience.

Tips to Stay Safe on a Mount Elbert Winter Hike

Winter temperatures on the mountains routinely drop below zero, with 50+ mph winds blasting their summits. Even a minor accident while climbing Mount Elbert can spiral into a catastrophic disaster. These simple tips will help you manage your risk and plan ahead for a worst case scenario.

  • Leave a detailed itinerary of your plans and an expected return time with someone dependable back home.
  • Bring the ten essentials with you on your Mount Elbert winter hike or climb.
  • Go with a buddy so someone can go for help and provide first case in an emergency situation.
  • Research the route in advance and bring other navigation aids including a map, compass, route photos and GPS unit.
  • Start early to beat the early winter sunset as temperatures drop dramatically at night.
  • Get trained! Avalanche education and wilderness first aid classes make a big difference.

Hiking Mount Elbert in Winter: Now You Know!

Mount Winter is a great winter hike, but it is significantly longer than other low-avalanche risk peaks like Mount Bierstadt and Quandary Peak. Doing the proper research and bringing the right gear will go a long way in helping you succeed while also keeping you safe. Don’t let this guide be the end of your preparation – check out some additional resources below to continue learning about this route. It will make a big difference in your planning and help you have a better experience. Good luck on your Mount Elbert winter hike or climb; Safe travels on the trail!

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Alex Derr, Creator of The Next Summit

Alex is an Eagle Scout and mountaineer living in Denver, Colorado. He created The Next Summit to help others stay safe exploring the mountains and advocate to preserve the peaks for the future. You can subscribe to his Next Summit Newsletter here.

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