The Highest For Last: Mount Elbert

The Highest Dog in the World!

The Highest Dog in the Rockies!

I can’t believe my summer in the Rockies is almost over! I had time for one last big hike, so I decided to cap it off with the highest peak in Colorado: Mount Elbert.

At 14,443 feet, Elbert may be the highest mountain in the Rockies and the second highest mountain in the lower 48 (after Mount Whitney), but it’s  not the hardest to climb. In fact, if I hadn’t known it was the highest I never would have guessed it from the smooth, grassy slopes and wide, flat summit. Somehow I expected something more craggy!

The Way Up To Elbert

The Way Up To Elbert

I definitely felt the altitude, though. This was the highest I’ve been since summiting 19,347 foot Cotopaxi in Ecuador in 2008 and the uppermost switchbacks never seemed to end. By the time I arrived at the summit, I wasn’t crawling, but I was close.

The ability to travel at high elevations is a gift; Altitude is a tricky beast. The problem with altitude is not lack of oxygen – air at any elevation contains 20.93% oxygen, 0.03% carbon dioxide and 79.04% nitrogen, by definition – but rather a decrease in partial pressure: At sea level air exerts a pressure of approximately 760mmHg, but at the summit of Mount Everest, 29,028 feet above sea level, air only exerts a pressure of about 231mmHg. This decrease in pressure results in decreased absorption of oxygen into the alveoli in the lungs and thus, you get less oxygen entering the bloodstream with each breath.

I love this rock formation! This is the kind of feature I expect on the highest point in the Rockies!

I love this spiky rock formation! This is the kind of feature I expect on the highest point in the Rockies!

My first experience traveling at altitude was in Ecuador in 2008 during a two week climbing blitz up three very big volcanoes: 15,969-foot Gua-Gua Pinchincha, 18,996-foot Cayambe and 19,347-foot Cotopaxi. Our group of 11 college students and 5 guides all made it up Gua-Gua (pronounced Waa-Waa), but on Cayambe and Cotopaxi, I watched everybody but three of the five guides succumb to crushing headaches, crippling nausea, and general dizziness and disorientation, classic symptoms of altitude sickness.

Once altitude sickness begins, you can’t fight it and you can’t tough it out. The only cure is to descend. On Cayambe and Cotopaxi, one by one, all the other climbers turned back. But altitude sickness never came for me and I was the only climber on the trip to summit all three peaks.

I don’t know why I did so well at altitude in Ecuador. Before that trip, I had never been above 4,000 feet (no, that’s not a typo, I grew up on the East Coast). All of the other students on the trip were younger than me, college-aged to my 26, and most were in better shape; several were varsity athletes. But the physiological gift for traveling in high places is not one I have squandered.

Since that trip I have climbed many mountains and I have yet (knock on wood) to experience anything but minor headaches, fatigue and shortness of breath. I may have felt like hell on the final approach to Mount Elbert, but my legs, lungs and heart didn’t let me down. Here’s to one hell of a summer in the Colorado Rockies!

Summit Signs. Amazing how many summit have elevation signs tucked under a rock somewhere.

Summit Signs. Amazing how many summits have elevation signs tucked under a rock somewhere. I’ve packed out a few this summer that were looking weathered.

Dio ready to keep going down the other side. I'm always amazed by how totally unfazed he is by altitude. Then again, he doesn't know we're at 14,440 feet!

Dio ready to keep going down the other side. I’m always amazed by how totally unfazed he is by altitude. Then again, he doesn’t know we’re at 14,443 feet!

I’m done with the Rockies, for now, but I’m scheming some pretty sweet trips for this fall! Ireland, anybody?… Stay tuned! 😉

About theblondecoyote

Mary Caperton Morton is a freelance science and travel writer with degrees in biology and geology and a master’s in science writing. A regular contributor to EARTH magazine, where her favorite beat is the Travels in Geology column, she has also written for the anthologies Best Women's Travel Writing 2010 and Best Travel Writing 2011. Mary is currently based in western Colorado. When she’s not at the computer she can usually be found outside -- hiking, skiing, climbing mountains and taking photographs. Visit her website at
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15 Responses to The Highest For Last: Mount Elbert

  1. WestEastern says:

    Incredible views and an admirable feat! We will be returning to our beloved Colorado home soon and are itching to get out in TH mountains. The ability to handle altitude truly is a gift, as you said. I have to be very conscious of what my body is telling me once I start getting up there.

    Wonderful post!

  2. WestEastern says:

    I meant “the” – not TH. I blame early morning autocorrect!

  3. ritaroberts says:

    Great post Mary I also like the spiky craggy rock features they always look more dramatic.
    Good luck for your next venture. I will be following you. Thanks for sharing your wonderful travels.

  4. Nancy Beddingfield says:

    Haven’t seen Bowie in your recent Rockies posts. Is he saving his energy for lower altitude? We love your work in Idyllwild, Ca.

    • Bowie sits out the big hikes. He’s 11 now and in great shape for his age but I usually cap him at around 5 miles to spare his hips. He’ll follow me anywhere, but he’s so sore the next day. He’s not a morning dog anyway so he’s happy to stay in the Teardrop and sleep in. Don’t worry, he still gets an evening hike! 🙂

  5. Tess says:

    Looks like an incredible hike! I will have to add this to my bucket list! Plus nothing like a dog as the perfect hiking buddy! Love it!

  6. Amazingly awesome experience! And glad to hear that Dio handles the elevation so well!

  7. sundog says:

    Looks like you were done with the Rockies in the nick of time – hope you avoided the deluge!

  8. beachman says:

    loved this one..A lot of info about altitude that I didn’t know. Don’t ever plan myself going so high ( just in my mind ) and that’s why I luv ur blog with wonderful pics..:) I really appreciate you being being there for me Mary..Thanx…..

  9. johncoyote says:

    Thank you for the photos of amazing locations. I like the way you described the places also.

  10. Danielle says:

    I wish I did better on high altitude hikes! I feel like I can’t breathe at 9000 ft 🙂 I will blame it on my sea level living. We just hiked in glacier national park and every hike tried to kill me…

  11. Hi Mary, Sounds like your summer in Colorado has been wonderful. Oh, how I miss camping and hiking. Packing and moving are finally done, but we still settling in. Camping areas near Wallace are already closed for the season, which really surprised me. Guess I got spoiled by so many fall and winters in New Mexico where we could find some place to camp year-round. Best to your new travels, Carol

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