Date Climbed: August 25, 2016
Some last minute decisions, a cup of coffee around midnight, and a quick job of packing, and I was on the road to Leadville. It was 2 AM and most people were just on their way back from the bars, but I was on my way up. Since I70 sounded safer than 285 this early in the morning (because of deer), I chose Massive over Mount Yale.
Unlike more recent climbs, I was not very confident in what I would find when I arrived at the trailhead. For one thing, this was a little used trail, well away from the standard Trailhead. Moreover, the forecast called for several inches of fresh snow, and even more throughout the day. I brought my micro spikes just in case, but it was Salix I was more worried about. Since this was an easier climb, I decided to bring her along; however, if it was as cold and snowy as forecasted, we wouldn't make it. But here's to hoping!
Just as the sun began to rise, we pulled up into the rather crowded parking lot. I had read that this route was not as popular as the standard route, especially midweek. Regardless, up we went, making very quick progress. Before long, tents began to pop up through the trees. Was there some kind of special event going on that I had not heard about? I didn't have time to stop and ask, especially with the forecast for early thunderstorms. Once beyond the trees, it was obvious that the first hours of the morning would be a bluebird day, and there was little evidence of snow, but thunder would be on the way.
Soon, we were at the base of the forewarned steep slope of Mount Massive. One of the reasons this trail was less popular that most was the extreme angle of the slope. Most 14ers involve some steep parts with some breaks along the way. The one word I found in common on almost every report I read was "unrelenting." This meant we would move slower. The slower we moved, the longer it took. The longer it took, the more likely we were to get caught in a storm, so we had to go full tilt the whole way.
On many of the photos, you will notice the white wispy clouds, which seem innocent enough. But this is usually an indication of moisture and energy building in the air; both of which produce thunderheads of epic proportions, and which have taken many lives in the Rockies. Usually when starting out so early in the morning, one would hope to see bluebird skies, with no clouds until around 10.
And so the grind began. First came the shaky, unrelenting boulder field. Steep and loose, I was very glad to have my trekking poles. Then came the grassy tundra, still unrelenting. Slowly, we weaved back and forth across the ridge, although the switchbacks were actually welcome sites, rather than a burden. On most hikes, switchbacks seem unnecessary and tiring. On this hike, a switchback meant a slight ease in the angle, making it a good place to drink up and catch your breath. I had never been up a trail that was so persistent. There were very few switchbacks, which meant it was a straight, uphill slog from bottom to top.
Ahead, the sunlight crept closer and closer. The promise of energy and warmth egged us on. These hikes require a sort of single-mindedness. A determination to suffer and continue, regardless of the cold, lonely, tedium of solo hikes like this. I have found that these steep hikes are the hardest, even more than class three and four climbs, simply because there is nothing exciting to break the slow rhythm of breath-step-step-breath-step-step. I have found it useful to recall the old saying, "It could always be worse!" The cruelty of winter has taught me to appreciate nice days like this, even though it's hard work. Plus, this view sure beats being stuck in the office!
Head down, and one foot in front of the other. That's the secret to these hikes. Just don't stop, or you'll never start again! We finally made it to the top of the slope and dropped over to the sunny, west side of the mountain. Sailix and I felt new energy with the sun, and make quick work of the broad summit ridge of Mount Massive. By far the largest 14er in Colorado (not the highest), its summit stretches three miles, all culminating in three distinct summits, with Middle Massive being the highest point and true summit.
We made it! And much sooner than I expected. Considering our hard work, I decided we had earned a break, so I found a nice seat in the sunlight out of the wind, sat my pack down and munched on pb&j sandwiches, Twix, and beef jerky.
Before long, the clouds began to thicken and lower, approaching from all sides. It was time to retreat. I threw my pack over my shoulders and began the trek back down. One by one, I passed a number of other hikers. Weather was still good, and they were close enough that I was not worried. But as I reached the halfway point, I passed a slow moving family. I said nothing, but hoped they would keep an eye on the weather. As we descended further, I finally found out why there had been so many tents: CTF was working on the trail. I had heard a lot about their work, but had never seen them in action. At this altitude, swinging an axe with all your might, moving huge boulders around seemed like very hard work. I would have offered them a beer if they had been on their way down. Since they were still hard at work, all I could offer was a measly "thank you for your work" as I passed each team. Once I am done with the 14ers, I will volunteer as well as a way of giving back, and if you have not, you should too!
By the time I reached the trail intersection at timberline, my shoulders and knees were sore from the steep descent. Thankfully, the trail eased off from there, and we quickly reached the truck. The worst part of the climb was driving back down the rough, narrow dirt road! But another one off the list, and one step closer to finishing the 14ers. Just as we exited the trees and entered the Leadville valley, the rain began to pour. Behind me, just a few miles from the summit, I could see a blanket of rain covering the once blue sky. I stopped to observe the storm from a safe distance. Suddenly, the rain appeared to change color, turning from a grayish blue to a dark white, indicating snow. The promised snow had arrived! In the distance I could hear the low rumble of thunder. I sent up a silent prayer for any hikers still on the summit and we continued home. One thing is certain; winter is coming!