Runtrails' Rocky Mountain Journal
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"Oh, you're Sue Norwood's husband!
- response from Terri Handy when Jim introduced himself to her during his run today


Gotta love it! Thank you, Terri. I hope I get to meet you before the race. (Terri's been reading our journal and looking at the LT100 photos -- she has a vested interest in what the course looks like since she's running it.)


When I went to bed last night, I wasn't sure if I'd be running with Jim on part of the Colorado Trail today between the Halfmoon campground (site of an aid station during the LT100 run) or climbing up Mt. Elbert. It depended on the weather and my mood this morning.

I had the best of both worlds -- I did both!

For several days Jim has been planning a 30-35 mile long run on the LT100 course that includes another double crossing of Hope Pass. He wanted to start somewhere on Halfmoon Road and turn around either at Winfield or the bottom of Sheep Gulch if he wasn't in the mood to run that road (we're both "moody," aren't we??).

The plan morphed to parking this morning at the Mt. Elbert trail head on Halfmoon Road. Jim would hit the LT course in about a quarter mile and continue on to Mount Hope and perhaps beyond. On the way back, he'd run most or all of Halfmoon Road until he got a cell phone signal and call me to come pick him up on that road or near the fish hatchery. He'd wear his GPS so he'd know how much he ended up running.

We like to leave room for changing our minds, don't we? There's a lot to be said for spontaneity. Wait'll you see how I changed MY mind today, too.

We left the camper at 6:30 AM and headed south toward Halfmoon Road. Oh, my, look at those unique clouds over Mts. Elbert and Massive!

Very unusual, we thought. The valley was covered in low clouds, both peaks were clear (part of Mt. Massive is shown above), and billowing cumulus clouds formed a backdrop against blue sky.

It reminded us of the lesson we learned on Mt. Olympus several years ago. We were in heavy clouds  most of the way up the mountain and were discouraged, thinking we'd wasted our time driving to the top because there would be no views. But we suddenly emerged into brilliant blue sky and fantastic views of other mountaintops poking above the fog-shrouded valleys. It was magnificent. We felt like we were in outer space or something.

Since then, we don't worry when we see low clouds in the mountains because there's the hope of a great panorama at the top. It doesn't always work out that way, but it's usually worth the drive or hike up anyway.


The trail head parking lot was already getting full at 6:50 AM. We planned for that -- it's the weekend and this is a popular route up Mt. Elbert, at 14,433 feet Colorado's highest mountain and one of its favorite 14ers to climb.

There are several routes up Mt. Elbert. The Halfmoon (AKA "North Mt. Elbert Trail Head" along the northeast ridge) and Twin Lakes (AKA "South Mt. Elbert Trail Head" on the east ridge) routes are the easiest and see the most hikers. Both are Class I climbs that will make you wonder what Class 2 and 3 are like if you're not a climber. Class 5?? Don't go there!

For brevity and the convenience of those familiar with the LT100 course, I'm going to refer to these trails and trail heads as "Halfmoon" and "Twin Lakes."

We've hiked up and run down the Halfmoon trail twice previously. In 2004, it took Jim, Cody, and me 3:50 hours to climb to the summit, where we stayed 25 minutes enjoying the views on a clear, sunny day. It took us only 1:53 hours to run back down, despite the steep, rocky terrain. Gravity helps. It's a 4,700 foot climb or descent in only 4 miles.

Each time I've climbed this route I've noticed hikers going up a more southerly ridge from the Twin Lakes side. Hmm, I've thought, "That looks like a more gradual slope than this one." But it's always been more convenient to go to the Halfmoon trail head from Leadville, so that's the way we've always gone. And today we needed to start there for Jim to get in the run he was planning.


We started up the trail at 7 AM right behind a man about our age and a younger man who looked like his son (that turned out to be right). They kept about the same distance ahead of us, then pulled away as I struggled up a long, moderately steep climb along the Colorado Trail that can be a struggle in the LT100 on the outbound after running for about 33 miles.

Jim pointed out some blue flagging at the bottom of this hill and just past the top. Apparently there will eventually be another reroute of the Colorado Trail in this segment. There have already been some switchbacks added a couple miles south of here in recent years.

I took this picture of Cody near the rocks and logs at the top of the hill:

Here is the flagging just south of that rock pile, where the new trail will rejoin the current one:

Soon we came to the turn-off to go up to Elbert. The Colorado Trail continued straight and down. You can see Jim heading down that way:

Cody and I turned right. I was able to run the Elbert  trail for about a quarter of a mile before it began climbing at a moderate, then steep, pitch. Even below tree line I was having to stop occasionally to rest my tired legs.

Over 12,000 feet, breathing became increasingly difficult. This would be the first time this year I've gone over 13,200 feet, so I expected it to take at least four hours to reach the top (longer than three years ago with Jim).

This is the third time I've climbed Elbert on this trail, and the second time I've said, "Boy, I don't remember this trail being so rocky and steep!"  All the way up I was thinking about how difficult it would be to come back down. My Granny Knees do much better on a steep ascent than a steep descent.


So my little brain came up with a plan: ask everyone I saw on the way up if they'd ever been up or down the trail that goes toward Twin Lakes. If the consensus was that it was more gradual than this trail, I'd take it, bonus mileage and all. I knew it connected with the Colorado Trail, which would eventually take me back to the truck. It would be a counter-clockwise loop, or more like a triangle with the CT forming the base.

I soon passed a group of five chatty, personable young women who were climbing their second 14er. ("We're pretty much 14er virgins," one told me.) We played leapfrog all the way to the summit. I kept a more steady pace and didn't stop as frequently or as long as they did, but only "beat" them by about ten minutes. It was fun to talk to them and they just loved Cody. He got a lot of attention today from dozens of people.

I told you it was a popular mountain to climb! There really were dozens of people on the mountain today. And even as slowly as I was climbing, no one passed me. (Now if they'd been a bunch of ultra runners, I would have been the slow one.) I passed about twenty people on the way up, all considerably younger than me. I wasn't being competitive. I was in no hurry, knowing Jim would be running for 10-12 hours. I climbed at a comfortable pace, rested when my legs or lungs needed to stop a bit, and ran as much back down as possible.

I ended up reaching the top in just over three hours, almost fifty minutes faster than three years ago when Jim and I went up together. I think we took longer rest breaks then to enjoy the beautiful (clear) weather and views. I'm very happy with my time today.

The low clouds over Mt. Massive multiple peaks were interesting as I climbed above tree line:

I had good views of the wide Arkansas Valley to the east on the way to the top. Twin Lakes and Mt. Elbert Forebay were visible to the southeast and I could see Leadville to the northeast.


The higher I got, however, the more socked in the summit became. I got lots of "into the void" types of shots as I looked up at hikers and false summits ahead of me in the mist:

Mt. Massive completely disappeared as I neared Elbert's summit and I didn't see it again until I was driving back to the camper!

Cody saved the group of five women and me from one steep climb when he literally sniffed out the correct trail to the right. He was going one way and we were going another.

We suddenly realized HE was on a better trail. I remembered it from my two previous climbs but was blindly following the women. There was no sign at the juncture and both trails looked equally used. We still had to climb up and over rocks on the traverse, but it was easier than it we'd gone straight up, over, and down that false summit.


There are several false summits on this route to the top of Elbert, but once you reach this rocky ridge you know you're very close:


Here's the (cloud-obscured) view into the valley facing Mt. Massive, which was invisible from Elbert's summit while I was up there:

Right before the real summit, the trail from Twin Lakes merged on the ridge with our trail. I talked with several hikers who came up that way and with others who have done both trails. Every one of them said the Twin Lakes trail was about the same distance as the Halfmoon Trail but more gradual (the trail head at Twin Lakes is a little higher than the one where I began).

The only things that concerned me about going down that way were not knowing just how much extra distance I'd have to go by doing a loop and the fact that it was so cloudy I couldn't see much of the route from the summit. The hikers assured me the trail was very obvious and there was a prominent sign where it connected with the Colorado Trail near Twin Lakes. I knew all I had to do was go left on the CT and follow it back to the Halfmoon trail head parking lot. I'd been on that CT section last year and should recognize it.

I decided I'd risk taking the unknown trail off the mountain. Heck, I had plenty of fluids and calories, I had plenty of time, and I was pumped about having a somewhat adventurous plan where there were some unknowns. Let's do it!


I was only a bit disappointed about all the clouds obscuring views of what I know are spectacular from the summit. There are beautiful mountains on three sides of Mt. Elbert, and the wide Arkansas Valley with its fields and lakes to the east. I've seen the panorama the last two times I was up there. I couldn't see much of anything today.

However, it was very interesting to see the clouds moving in and out so fast, providing "openings" through which we observers at the top could see glimpses of the southern ridges of Elbert (next photo) or the lakes below (second photo below). Very cool.


Cool, indeed. It was downright chilly up there, and windy. I think everyone but me had on a jacket and gloves. My nylon vest, long-sleeved shirt, and convertible pants were warm enough all the way up, and I didn't plan to stay long on top since I couldn't see much. In retrospect, I should have taken the time to get my jacket out and stayed longer than ten or eleven minutes. About a quarter mile down, it looked like the clouds lifted long enough to have seen better views.

It's always a party on top of Elbert unless the weather is terrible. There are several rock "pits" that have been arranged so people can sit and mingle.

I sat down to give Cody some dog bones and water while I talked to some of the folks about the hike up and the nature of the Twin Lakes trail. Twelve minutes later we took off down the Twin Lakes route. This should be fun!


The next photo shows some of the folks still up on the summit from my perspective about a quarter of a mile down the switchbacks:

I saw at least another dozen people coming up this side of the mountain at 10:15 AM, and more farther down. The clouds were still obscuring some of the views, but I had lots of "windows" to see down toward the lakes and the southern ridges of Mt. Elbert.

About a mile down the mountain I saw a familiar face coming toward me. What's wrong with this picture??

No, it wasn't Jim. It was the father half of the father-son team. Son beat father to the top by about an hour and sped back down to Halfmoon Road. Dad goofed, taking the Twin Lakes trail down instead of the Halfmoon trail. He realized it about two miles (and 2,000 feet!) down and was heading back up to find the correct trail at the summit.

I told him what I was doing -- taking the TL trail down about four miles to the Colorado Trail and heading north four to five miles until I got back to the trail head where we all started. Even though I didn't know the exact distance, he decided to follow me. He's a runner and kept up with me as we dropped, dropped, dropped down. That's him in the photo below.

After a while he let me know he was sorry he went that way because we were heading too far south. He didn't blame me, though. After all, it was his choice.

Somehow he got behind shortly before we reached the CT. I had told him very clearly to take a left (go north) there if we got separated, and follow it till he got back to the parking lot. I waited for him at the turn for several minutes, but he didn't appear. I hope he didn't go all the way back up!!

What I didn't know was that within a quarter mile there was a SECOND left on the CT that wasn't very clear. So I drew a large arrow in the dirt with my trekking pole and hoped he'd follow it. I drew another one at the second Elbert intersection four miles later. Jim saw them as HE ran back to the truck on the CT/LT course, wondering who did it and why!

I never did see the man again. I don't know his name, only that he's from Phoenix and runs. I saw his son in the parking lot and told him his dad probably hates me for leading him astray, but that he should be along pretty soon. I think he went back out on the trail to meet him, now that he knew which way he'd be coming. He said he'd been waiting for about three hours already -- fast guy.

On the way down I kept hoping to get a good view of Hope Pass, where Jim was running, but it was obscured either by another ridge or clouds as I descended. Looks like it's pouring in that direction (to the right behind the darkest ridge) in the photo below, but Jim said he got into sprinkles only.

I'm glad I chose to go down the Twin Lakes side. Although the trail was still pretty rocky, there weren't steep loose sections or large steps that direction. It was definitely more gradual with more switchbacks. The steepest part was back in the trees the last half mile before reaching the Colorado Trail. This is a pretty aspen grove before the trail got steep:

There are more green meadows and flowers above tree line on the Twin Lakes trail than on the Halfmoon trail, which is mostly rock with some alpine flowers struggling to find soil in which to grow. Both sides sport large marmot and pika populations. It's fun to see them scurrying about and listen to their squeaks. Cody perks up when he hears them, but he doesn't give chase.

It is about four miles down to the Colorado Trail on the Twin Lakes/Elbert trail. The drop is listed in various places as between 4,100 and 4,300 feet. It took me 88 minutes to run and hike it, then another 83 minutes to run/walk the CT back to Halfmoon Road (about 4-4 miles) for a total loop run of approximately thirteen miles the way I did it.

Jim and I both love the section of the Colorado Trail between the two Elbert intersections. It is mostly smooth and undulates in gradual climbs and descents -- very runnable, especially southbound in the LT100 race. The pine and aspen trees are also very attractive in this section and there are a few flowers.


I was able to run most of it back to the first Elbert trail I took this morning, as was Jim when he came along a couple hours later. The last mile was more rocky to the truck but still runnable going northbound because it was downhill (the part that's apparently going to be rerouted).


Mt. Elbert is fine for dogs as long as they can handle the rocks, altitude, and distance. The Twin Lakes climb and descent is less strenuous for two- OR four-footed critters than the Halfmoon trail. Water is an issue, however. There was no water for Cody on either trail to the summit, but plenty along the Colorado Trail on the way back. He carried enough water for himself and I had extra  in my Camelbak bladder if he'd needed it.

There were several other dogs on the trail and at the summit and they all got along just great. I remember lots of dogs up there the last two times, also. Jim asked someone on the CT who had been up to Elbert today if they'd seen a woman with a black Lab and they said they'd seen several! I didn't see any other black Labs up there, but that doesn't surprise me.

Cody found only one snow cornice to play in on the way up the Halfmoon Trail, and none on the way down the Twin Lakes trail. There was less snow on Elbert than my two previous climbs -- very little is visible from the valley or on the mountain itself.

Which begs the question again of why Lake Creek is so darn high. It gets water from several creeks flowing off the southern flank of Mt. Elbert, but there just isn't much snow up there any more. Must be saturated ground from rain (this is the Western Slope's "monsoon season," after all).


Cody and I were done about 1 PM. I drove back to the camper to eat lunch, get cleaned up, and wait for Jim to call.

He finally had a good phone signal near tree line on Halfmoon Road. He kept running until I met him between there and the fish hatchery -- his GPS had just turned 32 miles. He was tired and glad to be done. He was a bit discouraged because his time was a little slower than he'll need to do in the race to stay ahead of the cut-offs in this section. That means he'll have to run faster before reaching Halfmoon on race day so he'll have more of a time cushion. He already knows he needs to leave both Twin Lakes and Winfield with a couple hours in the bank.

Jim saw several other LT100 runners training on the course today, including Terri Handy. They "ran into" each other on the way up to Hope Pass from the Twin Lakes side and ran/walked several miles together. It always makes the time go by more quickly when we can run a few miles with other folks.

Jim had already decided not to run down the south side of Mount Hope, preferring to do less "hill work" during his long run. He didn't spend any time on the pass because it was raining lightly and chilly. He got into some more sprinkles on the Colorado Trail but otherwise enjoyed the cool, mostly overcast day.

He didn't carry a camera today. The photos are ones I took. We both ran on the various CT sections I've shown in this entry, including these two views of perfect trail:


Jim turned around at the pass approximately fourteen miles into the run and headed back north another eighteen miles through Twin Lakes, up onto the Colorado Trail, and along Halfmoon Road. He stopped about six times to treat water, preferring to carry just two 20-oz. bottles instead of a Camelbak bladder (he wore his Blowfish pack to carry clothing and supplies). He got calories from Hammergel, Heed, and Perpetuem, which he mixed along the way.

Lake Creek was about the same depth and fast current as six days ago. Jim crossed the same place we did outbound last Sunday, getting in only knee deep. On the way back he could see the rocks more easily and forded the three channels in about the same manner. Some of the other runners we've talked to have preferred to cross upstream a couple miles at the bridge. Even though I forded the creek twice last weekend, I can't blame them for using the bridge. The creek is pretty dangerous right now without a rope, especially for folks who are shorter than we are. I'm 5'9" and Jim is two inches taller. The water is about knee deep on both of us. The problem is more how wide and fast it is.

Next entry: moving closer to Leadville and random musings about the race and life in a camper.

"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody, and Tater

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2007 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil