Continuing with baby steps up the ever-steepening slopes, I plod across an avalanche-scoured meadow strewn with boulders and felled trunks. After one last stand of pines, I finally reach treeline at 10:37 a.m. and celebrate with brunch. There are no elk to join me, but an odd chipmunk-squirrel chimera seems fascinated by my baggie of gorp. I layer back up and start the final 2,400 vertical feet.
The steeper the slope, the babier my steps become. Within another 10 minutes, sun-melting slush has turned into ice, then an inch of snow, then six. The path is barely visible, crisscrossing through outcroppings of windswept rock. By 12,500 feet, the air has grown noticeably thin. Perhaps it is hypoxia, but with each grueling switchback, I expect to see prayer flags and empty canisters of oxygen.
By the time I hit 13,000, the snow is a foot deep, deeper still in the frequent drifts. Twice I’ve had to guess which way the official trail goes; twice I suspect I’ve guessed wrong. The internet experts had all promised Elbert would be a "walkup" for 14er novitiates. I realize too late they meant a snow-free Elbert, an Elbert in the salad days of summer.
This is, alas, no salad day. I take refuge behind a boulder, my legs quivering, my diaphragm sucking in breaths as fast as it can. Readings now: 79/148. Inside my summer boots and cotton socks, snow has wedged itself around my toes, temporarily melted there while warm blood still circulated–and now refrozen with the closing of my arterioles.
I have developed, in other words, cold feet–that vanguard of self-pity and defeatism. For the first time today, I seriously mull the possibility of turning back. But then I take a look at the surrounding panorama, which is nothing short of spectacular. To the right and far below, at the base of a green valley dappled with wildflowers, sit a couple tjörns (better known to non-ancient-Norse laymen as "ponds"). A dozen miles in the distance, the town of Leadville–North America’s highest incorporated municipality–resembles a craft shop miniature of Whoville. Faced with such beauty, I’m rejuvenated. Soon, my oxygen is back in the upper 80s, my heart rate has settled under 110, and I’ve regained my will to summit. I’m just about to re-start when I see five young Marines descending toward me, the middle guy green-faced. "It’s bad up there," says one. "There’s a demoralizing series of false summits before you even see the real one."
They wish me luck and resume their speedy march towards less nauseating air. I resume my own slog in the opposite direction. In minutes, the snow drifts are so deep I have to posthole each excruciating step.