Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Mt. Massive season opener

June in Colorado. Summer. It is, without a doubt my favorite time of year. Summer's in Colorado have always been special to me mainly because they are so short. However, they took on a completely different meaning last year after I hiked my first two 14ers - Gray's and Torrey's. 14ers for those of you who do not know, are mtns that exceed a height of 14,000 feet. Colorado is home to 54 official (and 58 unofficial) 14ers and since climbing my first two last year it has been my goal to hike all of them. This is, of course, a lofty goal - but so is climbing Everest (my other dream). I set my sights on hiking at least 8 last year and I exceeded that limit by 6. This year I plan to hike 20...which would mean I would only have 20 left after this summer.

The key to packing in as many hikes as I can over the summer is starting early in the summer and then hiking often. Because of the tremendous volume of snow the mountains received I decided that my first 14er would be hiked at the end of June. I picked Mt. Massive for a season opener because it is ranked as a Moderate climb and I had some newbies to hiking who wanted to join me. Alas all those people that wanted to go changed their plans and so it was just the Magees (my husband, myself and our dog Bebe) left to conquer the mtn. on June 26th.

Mt. Massive is the second highest mountain in Colorado sitting at 14,421 feet. It's home is Leadville, Colorado, a city I have passed many times on my way to hike various other 14ers. Since I have already hiked Sherman and Elbert, which are also in Leadville, as well as all the Mosquito and Front Range (with Long's peak being the exception), Massive was the natural choice for a season opener.

(mt. massive as seen from leadville)

The first thing I do after I pick my mountain is consult
This is my go to guide for directions, trail reports and mountain advice. Most mountains have at least two routes to chose from and I always go for the shortest route in mileage. So I chose to hike Mt. Massive from the Southwest Slopes which was 8 miles in roundtrip length as opposed to the standard east slopes which is 13.75 miles roundtrip. This meant an elevation gain for us of 3,950 feet since the trailhead elevation is 10,500. After consulting various sources from to summit post I decided the best place to camp would be Halfmoon campground which followed the Halfmoon creek. There seemed to be ample free camping along the road to the trailhead and we decided we would just pick the best spot upon our arrival.

We left Saturday afternoon shortly after I taught my yoga class and headed to Leadville. I had pulled a muscle in my calf and was seriously hurting that morning but I prayed it would heal before our hike. Since it was just Chad and I and we were staying only one night, it made things easier as far as packing supplies (no need for lots of firewood, water or food). We stopped at which wich and picked up some sandwiches for the drive. Which wich has a deal where if you take the brown paper bag your sandwich comes in up to the top of a 14er and take a photo of it, you can bring that photo and bag in and they will give you a free sandwich. And hang it on their wall. Mini-celebrity stardom in the world of 14er hiking I love it. After about a 2 hour drive we arrived on the trail that lead to the Half Moon Wilderness area and Mt. Massive trailhead.

(our campsite at Half Moon)

The trail itself is not that bad at all in comparison to most 14er trails I have encountered. The road was dirt but there were minimal potholes which made for an easier drive. Along the 5 mile drive to the Massive parking area we saw campsites all over the place down by the water and alongside the road. This place was packed! We determined we would drive to the Massive trailhead then go past that and find camping. We didn't want to have to drive too far in the morning from camp to parking. Just about half a mile from the parking area we found a great site that looked like it had just been vacated down by the water. We had a spectacular view of Elbert and a nice flat spot to put our tent up. As the campsites are free you can't expect more than a fire pit but this is what makes it so much more fun and rustic.

(camping along the water- nature's sound machine)

Our alarm went off at 5am Sunday morning and we awoke to frost covering the tent. While the temps had gotten to the mid 70s the day before, overnight it must have dipped into the 30s (typical of camping at 10,000 feet!). A summer of previous hiking had taught me that while you may be cold in the morning, once you start hiking you warm up quickly so as not to overdress. As predicted within the first mile I was already shedding my down coat.

We walked through the forest for 1.25 miles where there were about three streams we had to cross. Because of the snow melt the water was really flowing so water proof boots were a must. We met two guys on their way down who had summited at sunrise and they updated us on the conditions that lay ahead. They said there was about a quarter mile of snow fields and gaitors were necessary (thank goodness I wore mine!) but that overall the trail was good.

(first stream crossing and first people we met who were on their way down)

After leaving the forest we reached an open area at 11,200 feet where we were treated to a better view of the southwest slope. We stopped to take a break in the meadow and then continued on our way up. Shortly after leaving the meadow is where we met our first snow field.

(this isn't as fun as it looks)

In my mind, having never hiked in snow, I had the delusion that while their might be a snow field it could be easily crossed and then you meet back up with the trail. I couldn't have been more wrong. Chad and I started across the snow, following in the tracks of others so we didn't have to post hole, and quickly realized that following the snow horizontal might lead us far off track. So we did the only logical thing to do which was to hike straight up until we met back up with the trail again. Chad didn't have gaitors so his feet got a little wet but I had minimal problems and since it was still early the snow was hard and stable to walk on for the most part. After meeting back up with the trail we continued our way up where the wind increased and made hiking more difficult. We traversed through two more snow fields on our way up to the ridge and followed the general rule of keep going up up up. The trail itself was a stream from all the snow melt and very muddy so we stayed on the outside of it not wanting our feet to get any more wet. The snow itself made route finding difficult and so we spent a lot of time going straight up than hiking the usual switch backs which somehow made the hike to me less tedious but more of a challenge.

(no snow up on this rock thank god)

At 13,200 feet we reached the ridge and were finally treated to views from the other side of the mountain. It's here where we relaxed for a bit, sheltering ourselves against the wind behind a pile of rocks and got a good view of what lay ahead.

(ridge relaxing)
From the ridge the route to the summit is not obvious in dry conditions, but because there was snow we could see a clear path that traversed along the side of the mtn. Here is where I started to get nervous. The sun was heating up the snow, making it more slushy and unstable and the drop off the ridge was steep. I was really not in the mood to make a misstep and go sliding down the mountain. Chad however, being the wonderful husband he is, talked me in to it posing the question, "If you think this is scary how are you ever going to hike Everest?" He had a point. So he went first and I followed. I was careful to walk in the footsteps of others, lean into the mountain, and went as fast as I could without thinking too much about the steep angle of the cliff I was on. As Chad says, you can't be nervous you have to think with a clear head in case something goes wrong. We used my hiking poles in place of an ice axe, gaining leverage against the mountain and before I knew it we had reached the other side.

(chad saying the traverse was no big deal)
This is where we met up with two other guys who were coming down from the summit. Thus far we had only seen one group while crossing the stream in the woods, and a guy and girl who were following behind us. I am not sure if the snow was off putting or what but this was the least amount of people I had ever seen hiking a 14er. As Chad and I continued on our way to the summit we watched the guys glissade down the mountain to meet back up with the trail below. Seeing the guys glissade with no issues and reach the bottom Chad said, "we are doing that!"

Around14,200 is where the summit ridge comes into view. We climbed over and around some rocks and gained a large false summit where we could then finally see the actual summit. From here the trail was dry even though there was snow on either side of the mountain. The wind which had been so frustrating earlier had died down and we reached the summit at exactly 11:30 finding ourselves to be the only ones on top.

The view from the top of Mt. Massive was spectacular and we could see for miles and miles. Since there is still so much snow on the mountains the scenery was even more incredible and we could see several frozen lakes below. Shortly after summiting, 4 more people joined us and we chatted and ate lunch with them before saying goodbye and heading back down.

(handstand at the top)

(after 6 hours we reached the summit)
Seeing as there were already glissade tracks and we had watched the two guys go down earlier, Chad and I determined it would be safer to do this than to traverse through the snow ridge again. Glissading, for those of you who don't know, is the act of descending a steep snow covered slope via a controlled slide on your butt (you can also crouch or stand). To preform this you have to sit down with your feet out in front of you and use your ice axe in a self-arrest position. We didn't have ice axe's but my hiking poles had handles that are shaped like an ice axe so Chad and I each used those. We took the handle part of the hiking pole and dug it into the snow behind us using it as a brake to slow our speed. Speed however, wasn't too much of an issue because as it turns out we didn't move too fast down the slope before we had built up enough of a snow pile between the legs to have to dig our feet in the snow, move over the hump and keep going.

(chad testing out the glissade trails)
Conditions for a glissade have to be perfect or you can really injure yourself. You have to have a good view of the slope you are sliding down before attempting this. You also should never attempt to use an ice axe unless you are experienced with one because it hurts less to fall on the snow than to fall on your ice axe. You also have to be wearing the proper clothing like waterproof pants which will make your slide faster as well. Always check your runout at the end too knowing if the snow ends on a steep hill or into the trees. We were lucky that ours gradually flattened out making for a very enjoyable albeit scary at first experience.

(check out my trail)
Glissading cut down on our descent time considerably and so we joined back up with the trail and continued our way down. It was on our way down that we got a good view of the initial part of the trail that we missed going up due to the first large snow field. The trail through the willows abruptly ends in snow so we bush wacked through the willows around the snow heading for the rest of the trail which we could see below. I decided to go through some of the snow instead of around it since I had gaitors on, which turned out to be a bad idea since I hit one snow drift and ended up thigh deep! No worries, I was able to pull myself out and continue on my way. Post holing was very tiring and I see why people dread it so much.

(about to head down through more snow fields.....yeah post holing)
Once we hit treeline again we felt the temps increase and ended up stripping down to tank tops. Again this is why you always dress in layers when hiking! The sun was brilliant too and while we had it with us, we both neglected to put on sunscreen resulting in a nice burn across our faces and necks. I should know better. On our way down we passed two girls back packing in for the night brining the grand total of people we had seen for the day to 12. Chad and I have never encountered so few people hiking before and relished in having the trail mostly to ourselves.

Mt. Massive was a great season opener and I am thankful that a combination of good weather and persistence allowed us to summit on Sunday. I am also glad that it was just Chad and I because the snow and wind were difficult to contend with and I don't know if some of my other friends would have enjoyed this so much. However, as I said before the snow was almost a blessing as it allowed us to pick our way up faster than maneuvering switch backs and it also allowed for a quick descent via glissading. I am actually eager to get out again and do some more hiking through the snow before it melts away! Gaitors were absolutely necessary on this hike and will probably be needed in the coming weeks but we did fine without crampons or an ice axe.

The start of 14er hiking and camping season is here and I cannot wait to see what the coming weeks bring!

(#15 down...39 to go)