I left the GoPro Mountain Games in Vail, CO around 10pm last Saturday night and headed towards Durango, CO to meet some Texas friends a few days from then to climb. I was ready to get to any destination and hike or climb just about anything, so I planned to camp somewhere along the way. I had been in the city for a week prior to the Games and was ready to be solo in nature. I had 14ers on my mind, but hadn’t had time to read up on one I could do on my route.
As I drove south on 24, I remembered Mt Elbert a 14er, was just outside of Leadville. So, I found Mt Elbert’s trailhead in the San Isabel National Forest on a map and made my way from Leadville down Half Moon Rd. towards it. I found a nice dispersed-camping spot perched above Half-Moon Creek, past the Mt Elbert Trailhead. The moon was bright, so the creek was lit up and I knew I would have a perfect view to wake up to in the morning.
I crawled in the back of my truck with book “Colorado’s Fourteeners”, by Gerry Roach and started to research the Mt Elbert summit trail. I was quickly reminded of how big and featureless Mt Elbert is and that the trail was long and drawn out over it’s broad mass. I’m sure Mt Elbert is a great summit, but I wanted to see what other nearby options I had. I then noticed that Mt Massive was to the north of Half Moon Rd and Creek with a trailhead not to far away from where I was. I started to read about the mountain, and learned that Mt Massive is part of the Mt Massive Wilderness, and has more area above 14,000 ft than any 14er in the 48 contiguous states, and is the 2nd highest peak in Colorado after Mt Elbert, and is the 3rd highest in the 48 contiguous states. I also read, the “Southwest Slopes” trail had some intermittent Class 2 on slopes to 35%. Class 2, meaning that there is off trail travel and some occasional scrambling. Also, the Southwest Slopes Trail is only 6.2 miles roundtrip making it the shortest trail to the summit, but at a fairly steep 3,960 ft of elevation change. Mt Massive seemed like a perfect steep sprint to me, and just technical enough for my first time at elevation since my previous August alpine climb up Mt Evans’ 2nd Apron. I’m sure the Mt Elbert trail is fun with amazing views, but it has never attracted me. My goal was set to summit Mt Massive, but it was midnight and I needed to wait until the next morning to scope out the amount of snow above the tree line.
When I awoke and crawled out of the truck I looked at Mt Elbert and turned and looked at Mt Massive and I made my decision before I could think. Mt Massive was definitely my choice. The amount of total snow above tree line seemed to be low from my point of view. The mountains seemed fairly dry altogether with only old snow still standing. I had just heard from someone that it had been a particularly dry spring in that part of Colorado. The weather forecast for that day was golden. I took a little longer than I would have liked to pack a day summit pack, because I had not pulled any winter outerwear or gear out of their bags since hitting the road. But I took as long as I needed to get prepared, no more, no less. I decided to use my Osprey “Atmos” 50L, because it is superlight and carries just what I need for a day of peak bagging. I decided to take my ice axe, but leave my crampons. I figured that if there was too much snow to get around at too steep of an slope then I would opt to not summit, even though not summiting is very hard for me to accept. I finally had everything packed up, and hit the trail at a very late 9am. Though, I knew the weather was going to stay clear, so I was not stressing any late afternoon thunderstorms.
I got about a quarter-mile up the trail and passed a gentleman that said, he had made his summit at night and was on his way down. I noticed he had crampons on his pack and I asked him if he needed them. He said, only because he’s old and came down in the dark. I could understand that, told him to have nice day, and kept hiking uphill. About a half mile after the tree line and getting to some of the first small snow fields, a group of 4 (2 couples), came from around a small ridge while hiking down the trail. I asked them if they had made the summit, and one of the ladies in the group said that they had seen a, Mountain Lion! “A Mountain Lion!?!?”, I said in disbelief. Then the guy leader of the group said, that he went to relieve himself off trail when they noticed the, “Mountain Lion” about 150 ft from the trail peaking out of a cave. In my mind I was thinking, there is no way they saw a Mountain Lion. You don’t see Mountain Lions until they are on your back eating you. They are the most illusive North American big predators and would not be 150ft from an active 14er trail with talking hikers. I knew that they were mistaking a Mountain Lion for a Marmot, which can be golden in color, be unexpectedly large, and can probably appear deceivingly big from far away with nothing insight to compare it’s size. I lived and worked Sequoia National Forest as a Wilderness Ranger in the Sierra Nevada. That is real Mountain Lion country, and there is scat and tracks everywhere, and you constantly have the instinctual feeling of the stealthy predators stalking you. Though, you would be lucky to get a glimpse of one a mile away. I never saw one then, and have only seen one in the field while hiking or camping. The only one I’ve seen is while hunting deer in Central Texas when I was 10 years old, and it vanished almost instantly. I then asked the couple if that’s why they were coming down and the leader told me it’s because they didn’t have crampons and they got up to snow fields they were unsure about ascending, and because of the Mountain Lion. I then thought to myself, what are these people doing out here? I asked them exactly where the Mountain Lion was, so that I could get a photo, and to humor myself. I left them and headed up the trail and right around where the group said, they saw a Mountain Lion, Marmot’s began running around, playing, and greeting me with their welcoming chirps.
Breathing was difficult as I expected, after not training or being at elevation for so long. Continuing upward, I used a bunch of snow steps made from hikers before me and climbed up rock when I needed until I reached the saddle at 13,900ft between South Massive and Mt Massive summits. There was a friendly group of 4 from Oklahoma that had just shortly arrived to the saddle before me using the long drawn out East Slopes trail on the opposite side of the Mt Massive from where I ascended. You do not need crampons for that side. They were eager to push on, because their decent was twice that of mine and the day was getting late. I was in no rush. I watched them until they were about halfway to the Massive summit and then started my ascent. I arrived to the summit just as they were tightening their packs and starting to descend. They left and there was a solo gentleman left on the summit who was waiting for the other 3 from his group to come back from a traverse to North Massive summit. We chatted for a bit then the rest of his group made it back to the summit, and they all descended together. I then had the summit to all to myself.
It then really hit me that this was my first 14’er summit solo, and I started laughing. I was exactly where I wanted to be, on top of a mountain in the Rockies, after hitting a trail on a whim, while cruising down the road with no one place I needed to be. I was in no rush to leave, so laid down in the snow with a view of the big valley and Leadville below. I dosed off for a few peaceful minutes, probably 5. Then I got up, felt that my energy had returned, and started my decent. I was probably on the summit close to a half an hour total. The summit decent was the best part of my day. The views from Mt Massive’s summit ridge are so beautiful and exposed in every direction. I made it to the saddle and started butt slides down the Southwest snow slopes using ice axe self arrests for probably about 1,200 ft total. This is always a fun way to get down, and I had the whole side of the mountain to myself, and I laughed and cheered out loud the whole way down. Again I was in no rush, there was not a cloud in the sky so I took my time, and enjoyed the beauty of the Mt Massive Wilderness. I hit the forest trail, and made it to the truck at the trailhead about 6pm. I unpacked, repacked, changed, hydrated, and snacked then decided that I was going to hit the road to Durango. I was very satisfied with my day and couldn’t have felt more excited yet relaxed. I said goodbye to Mt Massive, told Mt Elbert I would be back, and I hopped in the truck and headed south towards Durango and the San Juan Mountains, my favorite range in Colorado.
Check out my photo gallery Mt. Massive Summit.