Mount Massive trip report


After an aborted attempt to climb 14ers on Sunday (whole 'nother story), I decided to climb Mount Massive, the second highest mountain in Colorado. I wasn't real hot on being on the roads on Labor Day, but oh well. As far as I can figure, there are only seven 14ers whose names evoke something distinctive about the mountain. Mount of the Holy Cross (snow feature), Castle Peak (castle-like rock towers on it's south ridge), Pyramid Peak (obvious), Redcloud Peak (red-orange rock at the summit), Snowmass Mountain (obvious), Capitol Peak (resemblence to Capitol Building), and Mount Massive. Massive has the largest area above 14000ft in the continental U.S., and it's looooong summit ridge is the distinctive feature of the Leadville skyline. However, like the highest mountain in Colorado, nearby Mount Elbert, it's a walk-up.

The standard route starts on the Colorado Trail, after 6+ miles driving on dirt roads. Although the road is passible in normal cars and it's been well enough graded so that there are few rocks, it's slow going due to washboarding and pothole after pothole. In part due to the misadventure I hinted at in the first sentence of this report, I left Laramie at midnight after sleeping much of the day on Sunday. The parking area was nearly full at 4:30am when I arrived, but the most popular trailhead for Elbert is also here. I started hiking by headlamp at 4:39. The first 3.2 miles of the route is northward on the CT gaining 1200ft. About 800ft of the gain is in the first mile, and the middle mile has only very minor ups and down with little net gain. At the end of this stretch you hike down to Willow Creek, and then a few minutes later up to South Willow Creek, both labelled with signs, which was a nice touch. The first crossing was on a cute "bridge" with 2" diameter, 18" long sticks nailed to a couple logs.

I reached the junction where the Mount Massive Trail branches off at 5:50, and took a break about 15 minutes later near treeline at 11600ft. By this time, I could hike without the headlamp. Shortly before sunrise, I heard some animal sounds and when I turned to my right, I saw several elk in the distance (I'm pretty sure they were elk, anyway). When I looked farther down to the right, there were about a dozen more. This was a treat, as it's been a while since I've seen any big game animals on a hike. They weren't too happy with my presence, though, and continued heading down the slope away from me.

The summit area is visible most of the time above treeline, and at 6:38 the summit experienced sunrise; it came for me four minutes later. By this time, it had clouded up a little, but it was a very flat layer of stratocumulus, hinting that the weather would stay good. The interstices between the dense areas in the cloud layer created some wonderful visual effects from the beams of sunlight passing through them. Everytime I looked behind me, the sunbeam pattern was different.

The trail gets sketchy below the 13900ft saddle where you angle up to reach the summit ridge, but it is followable. A few parts of the ridge are Class 2 rock hiking and it mostly skirts the numerous ridge points. Good thing, too, as parts of the ridge crest are surprisingly rough. At one point, I crossed a small, icy snowfield. I had intentionally left my ice axe at home for the first time this year, but there were footprints to step in (if there hadn't been, I would have had to climb up above the snow). After passing a lot of false summits, I reached a summit marked by a cairn and a small pole sticking up at 7:57.

There was no summit register (unless it was very well hidden in the rocks), and I wasn't 100% sure this was the top. I decided to investigate a bit and spent a few minutes hiking to the next summit, leaving my pack (something I never do) at the real summit. It turned out that the next summit was definitely lower and the pole does mark the real thing.

With 42-degree weather and light winds, I hung around on top for a while, savoring the view and enjoying the solitude as I was by far the first person up for the day. Off in the distance, I could identify all six of the 14ers in the Elk Range. On the other side, Leadville is easily visible.

All systems were go, so I decided to visit South Massive. Since the trail near the saddle was sketchy, I decided to try my own way down. In a word: dumb. Nothing bad, just a little Class 3 scrambling, but it didn't help at all. I reached the trail about 40 feet below the saddle and climbed into the saddle. From here, there is a very faint climbers trail in places, but this part of the ridge is much less rocky than the main summit area. It only took from 9:05 to 9:17 to hike the 0.3 miles and gain the 240 +/- 20 vertical feet (on my altimeter; the USGS map gives 232 +/- 40). Again I wasn't sure of the summit and there is no marking for South Massive. Again I scouted around and found the summit to be at an uncharacteristic pile of boulders up to the size of an automobile.

I started down at 9:31, and shortly below the saddle, I finally saw people. After this pair, I encountered people on the trail pretty consistantly until about treeline (probably 2 dozen in all). I was actually pretty tired and my legs were sore, mostly from being couped up in my car so much on Sunday. It was a long hike out, but now I could actually see the surroundings. The last people I saw on the trail were a pair who didn't look very well-equipped and it was already past 11:00; I doubt they got much above treeline.

I finished up at 11:55am. The parking area was completely full and there were a bunch of cars parked along the road. I made a big mistake and tried to drive back to Laramie via Denver (remember, it was Labor Day). Fortunately, I was able to bail out at Georgetown and "only" lost an hour an a half or so; I heard on the radio that the 1.5 hour drive from Vail to Denver was taking 4 hours, and a new one hour traffic record was set at the Eisenhower tunnel. The real drive home on CO 9, US 40, CO 14, CO 125, CO 127, and WY 230 was nice, as usual.

To the chronological trip index

To the Mount Massive page

File last modified: 21 December 2004

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