Mount Massive is the second highest peak in Colorado and the third highest in the lower 48 States of the USA (i.e. excluding Alaska). Just as we tick off our lists of Munros, Corbetts etc etc, there is a list of 53 14’ers that provides a challenge, i.e. 53 peaks of over 14,000ft. Mount Massive is 14,421ft high and lies 5 miles from Colorado’s highest peak, Mount Elbert which is only 12ft higher. Just as once happened as with Ben Nevis and Ben MacDui the supporters of Massive tried to build large piles of stones on the summit in an attempt to boost its recognised height. Elbert’s supporters then demolished them!
Massive’s name comes not so much from its height, but more from its bulk. It has a three mile long summit ridge and five summits over 14,000ft. That means this mountain has more land over 14,000ft than any other in the lower 48.
I was here to acclimatise for later adventures. This is helped by the fact that the terrain beneath Massive is between 8,000ft and 10,000ft. Nearby (10 miles to the east) lies the town of Leadville.
Here are Massive (on the right) and Elbert (on the left) from about 8 miles to the east.
Leadville has a colourful history. The following sign summarises this.
It still has buildings from its hey day. Here is the Tabor Opera House.
Horace Tabor made his fortune during the silver rush and became an important businessman and politician. But he lost most of his money when the US government stopped buying up surplus silver so that the silver price (and the value of the mines he had stakes in) plummeted. The spirit of the “Wild West” is maintained by the saloon.
This is now an Irish bar – which rather spoils the effect!
There are some “character” properties.
And this is the Delaware hotel, full of character and creaky floorboards (but perhaps a bit behind the times when it comes to modern comforts).
If you explore, remnants of the “olden days” can still be found.
So spending some time exploring the history of this area can help benefit the body in its adaptation to altitude. Surprisingly, coming straight to 10,000ft from the UK did not give me any problems. It just shows because altitude has affected me at 9,000ft before.
So within 48 hours of arriving in Colorado I was starting an ascent of Mount Massive.
I was going to tackle a trail known as the East Slopes route. This is a 13¾ mile round trip with 4,500ft of ascent. Technically (other than coping with the altitude) the trail is straightforward. For the first 3 miles a long distance trail (the Colorado Trail) is followed.
This photo shows a typical section of the trail. I started out at 5.30am. In Colorado in the summer it is sensible to have early starts in order to avoid thunderstorms that often build up in the early afternoon. The trails are generally well marked. Here is the sign at the junction of the Colorado and Mount Massive trails (note the patriotic numbering given to the Colorado trail).
The thing about hiking (to use the American phrase) in the Colorado Rockies is that one spends the first couple of hours walking through the forest. This is quite pleasant early in the morning when it is fresh and the scent of pine fills your nostrils. Eventually you emerge above the tree line into open meadows. This was about a further hour after the junction between the Colorado and Mount Massive trails.
There were some delightful camping spots here and I had passed a number of tents amongst the trees. Certainly, in the US, there seems to be a greater tradition of camping. I saw quite a few people laden with heavy backpacks on my return. Just before I reached the tree line at around 7am I met a guy on his way down. He had been at the summit at 5am. He had started at 3am from his tent in the forest.
Mount Elbert came into view above the remnant trees.
The trail then eased itself up the open slopes. The summit (which is at the right of the picture below) is still two miles away.
Isn’t the sky great!?
The next shot is looking north towards a very distant Longs Peak.
The summit was slowly becoming closer. The summer flowers carpeted the ground. Shortly after then I was overtaken by someone running up the trail.
The route continued up a shallow bowl followed by a final steep but short climb up to the main ridge at 13,900ft. I stopped there for a drink and a bit to eat. A couple of other groups passed me coming down from the summit whilst I was munching some crackers. Even at that height it was warm in the sun. As I was enjoying my rest I saw some movement in nearby rocks. A couple of marmots were scurrying around.
Here was a view to the south from my rest stop of Mount Elbert and La Plata (with a bit of snow). After 20 minutes I started the final 500ft of ascent. It is a rocky clamber and you pop up at the end of a narrowish rocky ridge with the summit (of course) at the far end.
A 10 minute walk took me to the top. And here is the view along the same ridge but now from the summit of Mount Massive itself.
There was a keen chill breeze but there were plenty of niches to dip out of it and still be in the sun. There was a couple from Boulder at the top with whom I chatted. They were on their 42nd 14’er.
They left and others came. It was quite convivial really. People had arrived via different routes. I spent over an hour at the top – perhaps too long, as nearer the end I felt a bit nauseous. Anyway, here am I blocking the view to the north.
And here is a view to the west.
And here is Leadville to the east with Mosquito Range behind.
So I took how I was feeling as a big hint and started the descent. As I descended I knew I had not eaten or drunk enough. I was able to drink more but (a common effect of altitude) I did not feel up to eating anything. It was now hot, very hot. Although there was some cloud build up, there was no danger of thunderstorms. Here is a view back towards the summit.
And, taken a little later, one down to the meadows.
I was longing to be out of the sun. There was no breeze down here. Although I had covered up my skin and had a hat on, I felt as though I was frying. At the tree line I was able to find a convenient log to sit down on in the shade and to drink.
This did not immediately have the desired effect. I cannot remember the last time I have thrown up. But a wave of nausea overcame me. As I felt it coming on I was able to stand up and move some way from the trail. “Throwing up” is perhaps not the right phrase. Very little came out even though I had had a decent amount to eat at the col before the final climb to the summit. I lost a little fluid and gunk that happened still to be in the stomach. I was clearly out of practice in the being sick mode. My co-ordination between being sick and breathing was out.
I tried to breathe in and could not. I had expelled both what was in my stomach and what was in my lungs, but the passage to my lungs was blocked. So I tried to breathe in again but failed. Panic now started – I thought I was going to die. I stood bolt upright and threw myself backwards a little. Doing so I managed (whilst making what I thought was a loud noise) to get some air down what appeared to be the sides of the wind pipe. This enabled both oxygen to reach the lungs and sufficient pressure to enable a weak cough.
I repeated the procedure and more air entered the lungs with the same result. After a couple of more repeats I was able to cough and splutter in a way that I was used to when “something goes down the wrong way” when eating. I was able to sit down after this and, actually, felt a lot better in a short time. I was thankful that no-one had been nearby whilst this was going on!
After 20 minutes I moved on. Whilst hiking through the trees in the freshness of the early morning is good, when it becomes hot in the afternoon this can become stifling because the trees block out any breeze.
The trees also do not provide as much shade as you might think. Anyway, the ground was easy and I achieved a good time down. I passed several groups labouring in the heat with heavy packs. They were planning to camp before continuing to the summit the following day.
I was back to my tent by 6.30pm after a 13 hour day. I was now quite tired but pleased at what I had been able to achieve so soon after arriving in Colorado.
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