Mount Massive is officially a single 14er, but it is truly a massive mountain, made up of multiple peaks all above fourteen thousand feet. It is the 2nd highest peak in Colorado (behind Mount Elbert (14,433′) – summited yesterday) and 3rd highest peak in the contiguous 48 states (behind Mount Whitney (14,505′), summit during PCT 2015 – day 37). This is truly a beast.
Mount Massive (14,421′)
Massive Green (14,300′)
North Massive (14,340′)
South Massive (14,132′)
- Sawatch Range
- 11.5 miles
- 5,500 feet elevation gain
- North Halfmoon Creek TH – Southwest Slopes Route and traverse across
- Class 2, Exposure 2 (and higher on traverse sections)
Yesterday I realized I was doubly fortunate to have my friend Blake join me for some hiking. Not to mention a side note about how badass he is. I found out Mount Elbert was his first major hike since a bad car wreck when he was hit by a drunk driver. In all his generosity he drove me out to the North Halfmoon Trailhead last night to camp so I could hike up a shorter route for an out-and-back traverse of the summits. And wow was that a good thing after finishing today!
I hit the trailhead at 4am and quickly made it to the trail junction where Mount Massive lies straight up in steep, boulder field switch-backs, and the N. Halfmoon Lakes continue on a gradual trail up the booming river. Almost right after heading up, I was startled by a jack rabbit who kept running up the trail in front of me, then I would catch up, then it would run up, and then I would catch it. It does’t sound as funny now, but I really felt like that rabbit probably thought I was chasing it down or something, like I could predict its getaway path.
As I noted earlier in the week, I am not really in peak physical condition, and I really felt that by the end of today. It felt like I took forever to make the saddle. And when I reached the top, somehow already filled with a group of young children wearing climbing helmets and having a reflection talk with their group leaders, I realized that was actually just a false summit. I quickly made it to the true summit but could still hear them chatting away, so I continued forward along the ridge line. My goal today was to traverse across all the peaks. There was a nice and easy down trail and climb back up Massive Green (14,300′). I was feeling good and made it across so quickly that I decided to continue all the way and then work my way back more slowly, enjoying the peaks as I returned. Leaving Massive Green, however, I realized I was going across a tricky, maybe class 3, ridge scramble. I think the traverse would have been super easy on the north side, it appeared to be nice easy scree, except it was still snow covered with a super slick hard shell of alpine ice. Instead I worked my way along the south face, which wasn’t super difficult, but was definitely dicey in a few places. Plus, here is where I felt my energy flagging from the week of hiking, of course. It was slow progress, but I eventually made it to North Massive (14,340′). I didn’t realize this until later, but I had meant to continue all the way to the “Far Northwest Massive,” but some confusion on my end with counting peaks leaves me one peak shy. I guess I will just have to summit Massive again someday to claim that final knob!
Anyway, that wasn’t the end of my efforts, you see. I then had to traverse back. The ridge the second time was a bit faster, but then all those easy downslope sections were steep straight up jaunts on the return. I should have eaten more snacks or something, but altitude really suppresses my hunger, so I ate some fruit snacks, sucked down water, and continued ahead. I did catch some great views back at Mount Massive along the ridge line from North Massive.
When I made it back to Mount Massive (14,421′), I was privy to the company of a marmot, posing for me on the highest rock at the peak. It so nicely stood its ground, preventing me from investigating the highest rocks as I began to search for the USGS marker. After literally 15-20 minutes of searching, I couldn’t find it. As a geologist, I feel like finding the markers is really important, but I searched everywhere. I crawled around the edges, tried flipping over a couple rocks. Nowhere! Giving up, I headed back to the false summit to prep for my last trek to South Massive. While eating a snack, two guys came up at the same time, both Coloradans. One had apparently been on Mount Elbert yesterday also. The other, a guy in his mid-to-late fifties, was summiting Massive for the ninth time, and was on his way over to Elbert for a second hike up. He has summited over 30 fourteeners for over 350 total 14er summits! Woah! I thought this guy was amazing! He claimed 14ers were nothing compared to me hiking the CT and PCT. We agreed to disagree. Since he had been up before, I instantly questioned his knowledge of the USGS marker. He claimed to know where it is, so I followed him back up to the peak. After an additional 10 minutes of chatting and searching, we both gave up, defeated. I guess it’s ok since I will have to come back some day for the missed peak to the farthest northwest.
Officially heading down to the south saddle to go up South Massive, I met a bunch of people finally on their ways up. At the lower saddle, I met these three Minnesotan guys out climbing 14ers for vacation. I chatted awhile and then set off. They continued up toward the main peak. I quickly reached what I decided was the highest spot on South Massive (14,132′). It felt like the easiest part of the whole hike so far. And then I headed back down the to lower saddle where I had met the Minnesotans. On my way up I eye-balled that saddle as a possible side trail to reconnect to the Southwest Slopes route to avoid climbing back up the ridge below the main peak. Unfortunately, in an effort to be a good trail visitor, I saw a sign that said that route was closed for restoration. Now I had been blazing my own trail the whole day pretty much, sticking to the main ridge line as much as possible, but I am also astutely conscious of the fact that this is a fragile alpine tundra. I always try to stay on the rocks as much as possible to prevent crushing of the thin vegetation that can take decades to recover. But when an active sign says not to go, I feel an overwhelming urge to obey the rules. So I climbed back up the ridge to the upper saddle. And to my surprise, I ran into the three Minnesotans. They were as surprised to see me as I was to see them. They had watched me head up the other peak, and I felt like I was moving so painfully slow, but I guess I was still moving pretty well. I passed them and made it to my trail connection, promised not to pass them again (they were feeling pretty sad about their pace to be beaten to the top twice, haha), and finally was on the route back down.
The route down was better than moving up, but it was still a tough trail. This mountain doesn’t have the jagged ridges of some of Colorado’s other peaks, but this beast still demands respect. I count myself as a fortunate person to have seen the views from the top. And I am pretty sure these views were actually better than the views from Elbert. Not to mention that the valley down to Halfmoon Creek might be one of the most beautiful approach trails I have ever had for a 14er. Granted these mountains aren’t necessarily known for beauty as they are for challenge. I think many would argue that there are a lot nicer hikes on 13ers than many of the 14ers. But I was awed by the views from Mount Massive.
This was my final day for adventures. I really wanted to pack my time in CO with non-stop excitement, and it has been one challenging week. My legs still feel good, and I am exhausted, filthy, and smelly. I feel so rejuvenated! I needed a little time in the mountains to recoup and refresh my brain. And now I am ready to spend the rest of the weekend celebrating the Ellerbluth wedding in Grand Lake! #LuthOrDare