Monday, July 25, 2011

Redemption on Massive

Mt. Massive on a cool, June morning, 2011

In the midst of a 19-summit summer in 2010, our most disappointing day came in mid-July when my girlfriend and I were forced to turn around at 13,600’ on the east slopes of Mt. Massive due to weather. We were rejected on other mountains that summer: Lincoln, Bross, Tabeguache, Oxford, and Holy Cross, but on none had we invested so much time and energy only to come up empty-handed. So when we returned this spring for another chance, we were more determined than ever to make the top.

We planned our second attempt for mid-June 2011, anticipating some snow. We are comfortable with snow travel, and thought it might be fun to start our season with a bit of a challenge. All the preceding forecasts called for sunny skies with a (very) slight chance of late-afternoon showers, favorable for a summit bid. As it turned out the weatherman was wrong.

We made camp near the trailhead confident that we would be able to complete what we’d started almost a year before. That night, as we slept, rain came and went and I lay awake, struggling with excitement and anxiety, doubting more and more our chances at a successful summit bid.

When 4:45 am came, my alarm roused me from a pitiful, flaccid slumber. We choked down something resembling a breakfast and hit the trail as the birds sounded the morning alarm. We started down the trail feeling exhausted, eyeing the freshly glazed upper slopes of Mt. Elbert across the canyon with skepticism. It was clear that what had been rain for us had been snow above at least 12,500’. That should have been the first warning sign, that slushy, rain-mixed-with-snow we should have known had fallen, of the type of day we were about to have. The skies, however, were clear so we continued on ahead as planned.

On a good day in the summer, the standard route on Mt. Massive is a long, but relatively simple 13.6-mile trek on a good, consistent trail with the exception of the final ridge, which includes some class 2 and mild exposure. A long hike but little else. Today, however, we would encounter numerous obstacles not mentioned in any guidebook, that raised the scope of the day into something considerably more taxing.

For the first three and half miles, the standard route cruises along the Colorado Trail along a relatively gentle pace gaining almost just over 1,100’ unto it reaches a junction with a sign that points you to the Mount Massive trail. It took us just over an hour to reach this point. To this point it had been a morning much like many others: part excited, part anxious, part confused from being up so early, but shortly after leaving the comfortable Colorado Trail behind our lives became much less comfortable.
Mt. Elbert seen from the Mt. Massive trail
Mt. Elbert on the route to Massive. Note the fresh snow...
The difficulties began with intermittent blobs of snow blocking the trail. These were short and not too difficult to either trudge through or circumnavigate. Not far below treeline, however, we reached a drift at least five feet deep that seemed to stretch on into the distance ahead. Disappointed we hadn’t been able to get farther on foot, we strapped on our snowshoes and began trudging through what turned out to be rather treacherous corn snow that had melted in an ankle twisting array of divets and fissures. Even snowshoes weren’t always enough to keep us from post-holing to our waists. To make matters worse there were large fields of exposed ground and we had to work tortuous paths in order to avoid having to keep repeatedly removing and replacing our snowshoes.

Snow on Mt. Massive
Mt. Massive...already snowing
At treeline, we were granted our first view of Massive, and the sight wasn’t encouraging; large gray clouds were building around it and the top was shrouded in what appeared to be a snowstorm. At about the same time, we gave up all hope of staying near the trail and marched directly towards a bulge at the base of the ridge that separated Mt. Massive from its un-official southern rampart “South Massive” instead. By doing this we were able to cross much more consistent snow, but the going was certainly steep and already I was wishing I’d adhered much more vigorously to a strict training regimen. It was our first big mountain of the summer, after all.

After burning some serious calories on our fight through a long field of rotten, corn snow, we stumbled upon the trail at about 12,000’. Here we were able to stow the snowshoes for a considerable distance, growing more and more cocky about our probability of success. Big gray clouds were still building but it seemed as if Massive’s enormous massif was having the effect of breaking up the storms and scattering the clouds to the east as if in a giant stratospheric eddy. It seemed like all around us there was rain and fog, but in the basin which our trail navigated there was relative calm. We had seen this weather pattern before last summer, although eventually it built enough to turn us back. That time we had regretted the decision horribly until thunder started rumbling once we were almost back to camp. Call me conservative but certain past experiences have born a great dread of lightning above treeline in me that I can’t shake. Occasional bouts, however short, of blue sky gave us confidence enough to push on up to 13,600’ where we had turned around eleven months earlier.

It was also about here when life took a turn for the worse once again.
The rotten snowfields. This time it was impossible to follow even a contrived line that would make them consistent. Instead, it seemed to alternate every hundred feet or so between exposed rock and tundra and waist deep piles of the horrible rotten snow. You could either take a chance and try to float your way over it, hoping not to fall through, or strap on the snowshoes for what never amounted to more than a hundred paces only to have to take them back off once again. It seemed every snowfield had a different consistency; some we could walk across on foot without tribulation. Others, however, were a hair-pulling, swear-inducing, sink fest in watery corn snow. The wind intensified as we climbed, roaring down the slopes at 40-50 mph, enough to nearly swipe our balance during the strongest gusts. By the time we reached the saddle between Massive and “South Massive” at 13,900, we were starting to feel the strain of 6.25 miles and over 4,000 feet of elevation gain. The added work necessary to battle through the slop had certainly cost something extra.

Rotten snow on Mount Massive in Colorado
more rotten snowfields....
I drank a gruel-like protein beverage that was supposed to help my muscles maintain while we paused for a minute to assess the challenge still ahead of us.

In summer conditions, I am sure the final ridge is a relatively simple little jaunt up 500 feet along a class 2 boulderfield with pleasant and beautiful views, especially to the west and south. We could tell, however, that we were in for something a little more interesting. The ridge was covered, once again, in corn snow, although occasional spines of choss could be seen. The crux section appeared to be the last rock band not far below what appeared to be the top. It looked like the tracks of previous climbers scampered out to the right (east) of the rocks onto one of the steepest parts of Massive’s east side. Tumble potential was not huge but definitely present. I had my ice axe out at this point, but doubted my ability to get any confidence-inspiring purchase in the current conditions. The rock band itself looked like horribly rotten class 4 at best. To make matters worse, a particularly large, gray storm was closing in fast from the west. The valley between us and Mt. Elbert, where our humble car and tent sat, was shrouded in dark curtains of rain already. Deciding to take our chances, we pressed on up the ridge.

The final ridge on Mount Massive
the final portion of the climb up Massive
The 400’ climb to the crux was grueling. Time, it seemed, hung in the balance and no longer mattered. For a long time, we seemed to make no progress. The wind whipped around us, and the snow had begun to fall. We could no longer see Mt. Oklahoma to the west. North Massive, which should in all reality, be considered an official 14er and be on every aficionado’s list, looked rugged and unappealing in my current mindset. The fact that we’d considered attempting both today nearly made me nauseous. After what could have been an eternity, we reached the crux section and was, for more than a few minutes, stumped. The slope to the right was steep enough to get our attention and the rotten snow was bottomless. I started into it, thrusting my axe ahead in a vain attempt to gain some precious stability. As I had feared, however, this effort proved futile, and my movement became more akin to something resembling swimming than any of the graceful mountaineering gymnastics I’d seen illustrated in Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills. Quickly defeated, I withdrew back to the rocks, and we decided instead to take our chances with the short but gnarly choss pile to our left. Despite feeling less that ideal physically and also noting a certain lack of clarity that may or may not have been the direct result of 6 hours of grueling exercise on nothing but a bagel, 20 ounces of liquid muscle chalk, and a half hour of sleep, I was able to pick a way through the rock at no more than class 3 with minimal hardship. Once atop, however, we saw the actual summit looming off in what seemed to be a considerable distance.

The combined conditions—weather, physiological, psychological—had now necessitated a sense of urgency, and we pushed hard now along the final ridge to the summit. Although it was mid-June, it seemed that winter had returned. It was strange to think that only two days before I had been working a 5.10b at our local trad wall in 85-degree heat. The stark juxtapositions of Colorado are one of the things I love about this state. The final ridge went by in a breeze, as we basically ran, feeling as if some great tempest were chasing us from behind. We reached the summit at last and threw ourselves down behind some rocks for shelter to catch our breath. Clearly, it was not a day for summit lounging.

La Plata from Massive
The view southeast from near the summit
My phone rang, surprising me. The timing was almost too perfect to be coincidence. ‘Dad’s Cell’, I saw in the window.

“Hello?” I yelled into the receiver, wondering exactly what sort of noise was coming through on the other end. My dad knew we were going to be up here today. Over the wind all I could hear was something about rain.

“I’m on top of Mt. Massive.”
A gurgle of sounds resembling the word 'what?'

“I’m at the summit!” I yelled. “On top of Massive!”

Another, indistinguishable gurgle.

“I’ll call you later!”

I hung up, wondering what he'd made of the call.
We decided that only a couple of minutes on the summit was quite enough and faced a decision: we could return down the ridge, which had proven more treacherous than anticipated, or we could brave a direct decent down the east face on consistent snow back into the basin from which we’d came. Peering below us, we decided to attempt the direct decent in order to loose altitude as quickly as possible for the intensifying storm.

If only we had skis, I thought. Then I reminded my self that hauling skis up this mountain on a day like today would have been undoubtedly the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s (my) back.

The terrain was steep and feeling confident with some firmer snow, we decided to switch to crampons. I started with the old side-step technique, self-belaying with my ice axe as we dropped. Quickly, however, the corn was back and we were sinking back to our hips. Option 2: snowshoes. Snowshoes, however, were too unstable side-stepping, so I had to face the slope head on in order to get traction. The slope was just steep enough to make this uncomfortable. This led to option 3: the glissade. The glorious glissade! Why hadn’t I thought of it earlier!

Sliding down on my butt and losing eight or nine hundred feet in a few wonderful, non-energy-expending minutes might ultimately have been the savior of my day. When we reached the runnout at the bottom of the long slope at about 13,200’ we were all smiles and snapped a few photos. The wind had calmed now that we weren’t on the ridgeline and the fact that we’d had our redemption for last year caught up to us at last. And although we still had a joint mashing, feet battering, five and a half mile hikeout that included plenty post-holing too, we knew that we were going to return to camp safely and with one more great mountain off our list.

A mountaineering feel on Mt. Massive
After the glissade
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