Mount Massive

Mount Massive 14,421′

Colorado 14ers

Total Time: 8 hours

Roundtrip Mileage: 7.9 miles

Elevation Gain: 4010′

Crux: Class II-III

Trailhead: N. Halfmoon Creek- 4WD, no services

Companions: Jacob Hyde




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Mount Massive is the second tallest mountain in Colorado and third highest in the continental United States. Falling short of Colorado’s highest peak Mount Elbert by only 12′, many argue that Mount Massive is a much more worthy summit, named for five different 14k subpeaks that make up the truly massive mountain. In fact, in the early 1900s, there was a strong push to name Mount Massive Colorado’s highest peak, with proponents building large summit cairns to push it to the top. These were promptly knocked down by Elbert fans to help keep Elbert in the lead, and the whole would have been swept into the dustbin of history had it not been so ridiculous. Of my four days of hiking and climbing in Colorado, Mount Massive was the one I had wanted to bag the most, and one of the closer ones I had left to Denver. After a longer than expected outing on Evans the day prior, enthusiasm of a climb of the much harder Mount Massive had fizzled, and it was looking like it might not happen at all. But Jacob had restored spirits after dinner and beers, and we agreed to a 4AM wake up to take off from Denver towards Leadville and the trailhead. The drive to the dirt road towards Half Moon Creek took around 2 hours, and was another 30-45 minutes to the trailhead from there. We opted to take the Southwest slopes over the standard Eastern slopes for two reasons- the overall distance would be shorter (although similar elevation gain) and I was working on the assumption that the south facing slopes would have less snow than the standard East route.

Trailhead.

The trail was snow free as we set out on the trail west along Halfmoon Creek, slowly gaining elevation. Several avalanches had wiped out portions of the trail over the winter, and we missed the turn off for Massive, resulting in some uphill bushwacking to relocate the trail. We picked it up just below some low cliff bands, and spotted two climbers not far above, two dogs leading the way. The trail, although steep, was initially easy to follow beyond the avalanche path, having well defined rock steps throughout.

Trail towards Halfmoon.
Lower on the ascent.
First patches of snow.
Working across easy snow.

We had only ascended several hundred feet when we encountered our first small patches of snow, which were easily bypassed with some quick cross country. But as we ascended, we had to deal with more and more snow, and we abandoned the trail entirely, sticking to a grassy rise that split some of the deep couloirs holding much of the snow. We stopped for a break beneath some large boulders, and spied a couple of skiers higher up, looking to ski some of the steeper lines off a southern ridgeline.

Grassy rib splitting the snow.
Increasing consolidation higher up.
Looking west.

Our goal was to reach a saddle high above at 14k where we would intersect the East Slopes Route. From below, it looked like we could piece together an off-trail route that would avoid the deepest sections of snow, although some sections were out of view. We continued ascending the grassy slope staying near the snowfield, and reached a relatively flatter area at about 13,000′. Avoiding the snow was impossible at this point, and we immediately post holed in the softening snow, which had been receiving direct sunlight all morning. Crossing the snow we reached dry rock to the southwest of the saddle and starting climbing straight up in an attempt to intersect the ridge directly and avoid the steeper snow below the saddle. Unfortunately, as we ascended, the terrain became progressively looser, with a mix of shifting class 2 talus and one spot of sketchy class 3.

Loose snow and rock below the saddle.

We were probably only 50′ below the ridgeline when we encountered a particularly loose spot, both of us sliding with each step. We changed course, again traversing back towards the saddle and found more secure rock as we reached 14,000′. Since the saddle intersects the more popular East Slopes route, we suddenly found ourselves in a line with a number of other climbers, many of them starting far earlier in the day for the much longer (but less steep) route.

Reaching the summit ridge.
Looking up the ridge to the summit.

With only 400′ of ascent to go, we continued along the ridgeline encountering some more unavoidable snow higher up, these sections with excellent steps kicked in from the higher trafficked route. After a number of false summits, we reached the highpoint shortly after noon, taking 5 hours from the trailhead. The weather was much calmer compared to the wind we suffered through on Evans, and we sat among the rocks and had some fantastic chicken salad pitas that Jacob had whipped up the night before.

Summit ridgeline.
Snowy views.
Looking south.
Summit panorama.
View to the northwest.
View to the southeast.

We did not rush given the nice weather, and even got to enjoy a pair of other hikers singing and playing a ukulele while we ate. Some questionable clouds began moving in across the Arkansas River Valley so we headed off of the summit back towards the saddle. There were a number of glissade paths, and the snow seemed soft enough to safely give it a shot. So we traversed over to a spot with a safe run out, sat down, and dug in our trekking poles as a break. It went surprisingly well, the snow the perfect consistency where you could slide and not go too slowly, and not too hard where you risk losing control. We glissaded 400′ to the level of the saddle in about 10 minutes, which had taken about 30-45 to ascend. We tested the snow leading down the Southwestern slopes to see if the conditions were similar, and again found excellent glissading conditions. Unlike our ascent where we patched together lines of snow-free mountain, the next hour was spent piecing together various snow patches for long runs of glissading, dropping nearly 2000′ in just over an hour.

Glissade path.

Butts chilled, we were none the less sad when we ran out of snow and had to hike the remaining distance down. The last run had placed us below the trail, but we found a well defined use trail that led from an old boarded up mine, scattered mining debris along the way. That took us all the way to the junction we missed on the way in, followed by an easy 1.25 miles of trail back to the car.

Cliffs along the mining trail.
This missed cairn and turn off.

The mountain had taken us 5 hours to climb, and just over 2 hours to descend, making quick work of things on the glissade. The drive back to Denver ultimately took us longer than the descent, and we left the fair weather mountains for some blistering Denver heat and some beer with grilled wings.

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