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A Massive Story

July 19, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

A Massive Story

Last summer I summited Mount Elbert, the tallest peak in Colorado.  One would think that on this summit a person would get a sense of superiority of the surrounding world.  I didn’t.  In fact, I felt unfinished.  What muted the experience was that all along the northeast ridge trail of Mount Elbert there is a view of Mount Massive with its five 14,000 foot peaks, demanding attention the whole way up.  Massive is indeed massive.  The mountain ridge is three miles long with more area above 14,000 feet than any mountain in the lower 48, even Mount Rainier.  It was as if she was telling me that she deserved my attention more than her neighbor Elbert.  As long as I had not summited Mount Massive, my Mount Elbert summit would be incomplete. And so on this weekend, as we did together with Mount Elbert, my friend Brian and I set out to complete what began a year ago: today we sought the summit of Massive.  

There were two choices: the shorter four mile and much steeper route on the southwest slopes or the gentler but nearly twice as long eastern slope.  I wanted to get some backpacking in this summer so Brian’s plan to camp at Willow Creek near timberline seemed like a great option – and it was.  Three miles and 1100 feet in elevation up the trail along a rushing clear mountain creek made for a great place to rest for a few hours before attempting the summit.  It was Friday night 8:30pm, time to lay down for a few hours’ sleep before our 1am rise and 2am departure.  

This was my first night sleeping in my new Hennessy Hammock Expedition Asym Zip.  That’s fancy talk for a hammock set that comes complete with a tarp cover and zippered netting to keep the rain and bugs out.  I don’t sleep well in a tent; a hammock was much more comfortable.  Some say hammocks give them the best night’s sleep ever. I wouldn’t go that far, but it definitely provided natural body positioning free of rocky, wet, or sloping ground, which I thoroughly appreciated.

The early morning was mild until we rose out of the trees and low profiled willows and into the alpine tundra where the wind blows without resistance, except for what us adventurous humans provide.  The frigid extreme drove Brian to use all of his clothing layers.  My hands were cold even with my normally capable wind resistant gloves, but other than that it was just a matter of dealing with the physical challenge of the increasingly steeper ascent and the unapologetic pounding of the wind.

Like most summits, there were false ones along the way.  The one just before the real summit in this case is only a few feet different in elevation; it’s impossible to gage the difference without tools.  We celebrated prematurely on the false summit before checking our GPS, which humbled us to continue to the next and real summit only a few hundred feet away.  

One rare claim is to be the first of the day to summit a 14er, especially in the summer months when the trails draw more crowds.  Today was our day.  Just a few minutes after the sun cracked the horizon we found ourselves claiming the rocky top to ourselves.  

Another set of climbers were 15 minutes behind us; they chose to stop at the false summit and head down before we did.  I suppose it could be regarded as cruel to track them down to tell them the news of what might be incredibly disappointing or might expose false stories of summiting Massive… I’ll let the reader decide what we might have done in this matter.
 
A 14er summit at sunrise is quite possibly my most memorable hiking experience.  Suffering through the winds, low temps, darkness, icy surfaces, etc. is all forgotten when the moment comes to witness all the vivid colors of a new day and sharing the first sunrays on one of the highest places in the country, this glorious Rocky Mountain landscape… truly a special moment.  

There was no place to escape the wind on this summit; it seemed to be coming from all directions.  No matter the harshness of the wind, I had to take a moment to focus on what beckoned this mountain trek.  Off to the south, just beyond Massive South (one of the 14er peaks on this ridge) was what appeared to be a softer face of Mount Elbert, still majestic and quietly boasting of being the highest (by 22 feet), but with less emphasis and meaning because now I stand on the one who has chosen me.

After a quick snack and some rehydration, we took a few more pictures and began our descent.  

On the advice of one very seasoned mountaineer, Brian brought his ice axe.  An ice axe might seem like an unlikely item to carry in the middle of summer, but it is quite versatile.  Brian used it for its primary purpose of an arresting tool while glissading a few hundred feet down a snow patch on the descent. It can also be a useful piece of emergency gear – think: self-defense, shovel, grappling device, etc.  Of course Brian, being a man that is careful not to miss a grand opportunity, took a few minutes to remind me on all the fun I missed out on for not bringing my ice axe.  That’s what friends are for, right?

Descents are a necessary evil in these journeys.  We make the most of them by experimenting with techniques in descent to create less stress on the knee and legs.  I haven’t yet come to a full understanding of these things, so I’ll save that discussion for another post.
 
We arrived back at camp and took off our boots for a short nap before breaking camp and heading back to end this epic journey.  The trailhead couldn’t come soon enough as descending with an extra 25 pounds of camping gear is all that much greater impact on the legs and feet.  

All told we covered nearly 14 miles and 4600 feet in elevation gain.

And so there ended what began a year ago with my summit of Mount Elbert.  It is now complete.  My internal Elbert-Massive conflict is resolved.  Let the rest of my summer adventures be the beginning of even more challenges in the great Colorado country.  

 


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