MOUNTAIN: Mt. Massive (14,421')
ROUTE: East Ridge from the Leadville Fish Hatchery (via the long way...)
RT DISTANCE: ~16 miles
RT GAIN: ~5,500'
RT TIME: 3.5 hours to camp, 11.5-hour summit day
CLIMBERS: Jeff (SurfNTurf), Rob J. (RJansen77), Brian (darkhelmet83), Rob (robco), Matt (Iman86), Greg (Summit Lounger)
(All photos by Jeff, Rob J. and Brian.)
The wildly successful 2011 Winter Gathering was my first winter camping trip. I eagerly awaited this year's edition. When Steve Gladbach announced Mt. Massive as the goal, the stars seemed to be aligned. Massive was one of my main objectives heading into this winter, as it would be a new peak for me and I'm trying to position myself for a September 14er finish. As Steve's proposed dates of Feb. 25-26 grew closer, Mother Nature had other plans. The forecast:
Saturday: A 30 percent chance of snow after 11am. Partly sunny, with a high near 11. Wind chill values between -15 and -25. Very windy, with a west wind 25 to 30 mph increasing to between 35 and 40 mph. Winds could gust as high as 55 mph.
As one of the main goals of the Winter Gathering is to help cold-weather camping/hiking newbies, Steve wisely canceled the trip. But a few of us persistent types remained interested -- especially since I'd long-ago taken Friday off work. Due to avalanche concerns, we shifted our route from the Southwest Slopes to the safer East Ridge.
Rob J. and Brian agreed to join for a backcountry camp. Matt, Robco and Greg would attempt a dayhike. With that plan in mind, the campers left Denver at about 11:45 a.m. Friday bound for the Leadville Fish Hatchery. We got geared up and hit the trail right about 2:30 p.m.
Brian and Rob gearing up at the Fish Hatchery.
The beginning section of trail is loved to death. Whether you're skinning, snowshoeing or walking, you don't have to worry about postholing here. We followed the easy signs toward the Colorado Trail, which can be reached via the Highline Trail or the Rock Creek Trail. The route for Massive's East Ridge is supposed to take the Highline Trail for 2.6 miles to the Colorado Trail junction.
As three sober 20-somethings in broad daylight are wont to do, we completely missed the Highline Trail turnoff (which has both an obvious bridge and a sign, as we noticed on the descent). We'd gone a while on the Rock Creek Trail before realizing our error. Because we hadn't noticed either a sign or a trench for the Highline Trail, we didn't want to risk backtracking for no reason if we couldn't find the junction anyway. Playing it "safe," we opted to keep going on the Rock Creek Trail until we reached the Colorado Trail, which we'd take south to the Highline Trail and the proper route.
"Safe" ended up meaning an extra two miles of installing a shin- and waist-deep trench. To anyone looking to hike the Colorado Trail near Leadville anytime soon, you're welcome.
Oh, this way to the Colorado Trail via the Highline Trail? Let's do the opposite instead.
Installing a trench on the Colorado Trail.
Darkness eventually caught up with us. We still hadn't reached the Highline Trail, and because we were worried it was both untrenched and not clearly marked, we didn't want to bumble around trying to find it at night. We found a reasonably flat spot at roughly 10,900' on the Colorado Trail, stomped out a waist-deep platform and pitched our tents.
The night was clear and cold. The overnight low in Leadville (10,200') was supposed to be 7 degrees, so I'd estimate we had temps around 5. As soon as we got situated, made dinner and melted a few liters of snow, we all dove into our sleeping bags and tried to keep warm. I've never had a good night's sleep winter camping, even in temps as high as 15 or 20. I did a few things differently -- wore my puffy and put chemical handwarmers in my socks -- and I was remarkably comfortable.
This is apparently my "why the heck do we enjoy this kind of thing?" face.
The alarms rang at 6 a.m. Snooze buttons, of course, were hit. We were moving around by 6:15 and started on the trail about an hour later. We were still extremely worried about both finding the Highline Trail and the weather, so I'll admit I started the day with low morale. We stumbled upon the Highline Trail and a fresh trench after only about 20 minutes of trailbreaking, though, and our spirits soared. We raced along and eventually caught Matt, Greg and Robco at treeline re-breaking Chicago Transplant's trench from two weeks prior.
Gaining the East Ridge from treeline was the sketchiest part of the day avalanche-wise. A loaded slope dominates the section, but after some discussion we found a safe line around to the right on grass and scree. The headwall gives way to a low-angle bowl, where we were treated to our first views of the ridge proper and Massive's summit.
Just above treeline, this tundra on climber's right safely avoids avalanche terrain.
Mt. Massive's summit comes into view as you gain the ridge proper. For reference, the two Robs are right of center.
The tundra bowl gained after the steep headwall at treeline. This photo was taken from near the notch.
The wind was obviously as bad as forecasted, if not worse. Many of the surrounding summits -- including North Massive -- sported impressive snow plumes that were hundreds of feet long. Occasional gusts sounded like a jet engine roaring mere feet over our heads. Miraculously, we were largely sheltered on the East Ridge. We could see and hear the gusts all around us, but barely felt them.
We walked briskly across easy tundra to a rock outcropping that features the route's famous notch. We scrambled up and through it, and then kept going on Class 2+/3 terrain on the ridge proper to avoid steep snow slopes. I was under the impression the notch was the only scrambly portion of the route, but sections of more difficult ridge climbing persisted until the final summit push at roughly 13,700'. From there, the final few hundred feet were an easy walk.
The slopes that make scrambling through the notch necessary.
Class 3 immediately after popping through the notch.
More scrambling on the ridge proper.
Brian and I working up the ridge.
Robco assesses the final summit push.
The end of the difficulties. From here, it's an easy walk up a few hundred vertical feet to the summit.
We summited for the most part between 12:30 and 1 p.m. Despite the wind, the bluebird day gave us endless and interesting views. Never before have I seen wind like that first-hand. Many of the high peaks had Himalaya-like snow plumes blasting from their summits, and La Plata was almost completely obscured behind spindrift. The roar was unbelievable. Even on Massive's summit, however, we were largely spared. We lounged for quite a while and took tons of pictures before starting down. Matt, Rob and Greg continued toward North Massive, but the campers were tired and wanted to break down camp (which was 20 minutes -- both ways -- away from our descent route on the Highline Trail) before dark.
Winds blasting the Sawatch.
Rob J. on the summit.
Brian's summit pose.
Me, lounging on top.
Leadville, Turquoise Lake and the Tenmile-Mosquito Range.
Rob and Brian celebrating an earned summit.
The Elks in the distance.
The traverse over Massive Green to North Massive.
Matt and Robco top out, as Holy Cross looks on.
La Plata and the Sawatch.
The closest thing we took to a group summit shot.
The winds really picked up on the descent. Looking down from above, we were able to spy an avalanche-safe line down across the tundra that skipped most of the difficult sections. We regained the ridge near the notch and continued down the way we'd come up. The swirling winds really knocked us around at that point, pushing us forward, backward, left and right. We were glad to get back to treeline and the snowshoe stash. Our thoughts went out to Matt, Greg and Robco, but they all got down safely and both Matt and Greg summited North Massive.
On the descent, we found a safe route down the tundra to skip the slow-going ridge.
Scrambling down toward the notch.
The notch, with the winds picking up.
One last look at the wind-slammed Mt. Massive.
"So, where do you guys want to eat?"
We got back to camp at about 4:30 p.m. We melted water while we packed things up and were able to get moving again at roughly 5:15, turning right back around toward the Highline Trail. It got dark right about the time we reached the junction we'd somehow missed the day before, which we now saw had an extremely obvious sign. Oh well. We got back to the car at about 6:45 p.m.
We tried to eat at the Dillon Dam Brewery on a Saturday night, but starving climbers can't wait 45 minutes for a cheeseburger. We instead went to Tommyknockers in Idaho Springs. Cocoa Porter = delicious.
So while it wasn't exactly the Winter Gathering we had in mind, it was a great day with great folks. Looking forward to 2013!
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):