I grew up outside of Houston, TX (Elevation 50 feet), but since 2001 lived in Austin, TX (Elevation 150 feet). About a year and a half ago when visiting Vail and snowmobiling a friend pointed out Mount Massive and told how it was the 2nd highest mountain in Colorado; I naturally asked what is the tallest – Mount Elbert. When I made a comment about how difficult it must be to get to the top, he corrected me in saying not really it’s a day hike. Right then and there I decided I would be back in the summertime to climb it.
On Friday, 8/7/09, I left Austin in the afternoon and by 7pm I was standing in Leadville. I got out of the rental car and walked about 30 feet up a very small hill; I became very dizzy. To picture it just imagine when you stand up to fast (those first 2 seconds), but then it lasted about 45 seconds. My wife who was with me arrived in Denver on Wednesday, 8/5/09, on a work trip and was doing just fine at Leadville. I quickly came to the conclusion that I may of made a huge mistake going from 150 feet – to – 10,200 feet in less then 7 hours. Don’t get me wrong I am a healthy male, but altitude is a great equalizer.
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Throughout the night I had some labored breathing and likely over focusing on the fear of coming all this way and not being able to do the hike (kind of like when you want to go to sleep but all you can think of is that your not asleep). The morning came early and we made it to the trail head later then we wanted; we started the hike at 6:40am. Much to my happiness I was able to walk down the hotels stairs to the car without getting dizzy.
I read a lot of the reviews and trail reports that said it takes about 4 hours to go up. In the past when I have read trail times I can usually assume that I can complete them in 60-70% of the time it takes as I go at a more aggressive pace. This was not the case with altitude; it took us 5 hours to go up, 1 hour to take in the view, and another 2 hours and 40 minutes to come down; 8 hours and 40 minutes total time.
Due to the sheer time on our feet I would say this compares to running a marathon or riding a bike 100 miles. The part that made it so difficult was the effects of altitude. For the first 1.5 hours climbing we would just make sure to take a slow pace and if the grade pitched up we would take a breather once reaching the top. However the last 3 hours (pretty much once we exited the tree line) we would hike 100 yards then rest for 1-2 mins. Then as you go up the really steep parts it was more like hike 10 yards and rest 1-2 mins.
Altitude can affect you in a lot of ways (just google it), the effects I felt was mostly just dizziness and I likely pushed myself beyond where a company that would be liable would like. My wife eventually experienced symptoms as well once we broke through the 13k+ mark; she started feeling upset stomach pains. The great thing about both our symptoms was that once we rested for 1-2 mins they vanished (of course returned after 10-100 yards). The other great part is on the way down you can go as fast as your feet can take you without falling downhill.
In the end I would do it again in a heartbeat (or 50k beats) and recommend everyone to do it, maybe acclimate for more then 18 hours.