| Massive Mania--almost
Ever since climbing Mt. Massive three years earlier, I'd been planning to go back and nail the two 14K ridge points I‘d missed on that trip: North Massive and Pt. 14,169. Both were attractive, North Massive because it's "almost" an official 14er, and 14,169 (aka Hunter-Fryingpan Wilderness HP) because it's the only 14K point on the Continental Divide other than Grays and Torreys Peaks. With my regular climbing partner (trishapajean) out of commission for the week, a repeat 14er with a couple of desireable minor summits seemed like a good choice. Shamelessly taking a friend in Buena Vista up on an old offer, I arranged to be met at the southern trailhead, so I could do this spectacular ridge one-way.
Following Roach's directions, I arrived at the Windsor Lake trailhead on Lake Co. 4 just minutes before sunrise. To my surprise, the HUGE parking area was occupied by exactly one other vehicle--a large camper which may or may not have harbored any other living persons. Heading south from the road, the trail, as advertised, climbs steeply for about a mile to Windsor Lake. As I hiked, the rising sun began to illuminate the peaks of the Divide above me.
The trail seemed to fade out after reaching the lake and, as I had expected, so I just headed southwest and up to free-lance my way onto the Divide. There's one obvious low point visible from the lake, which seemed like the best target.
In retrospect, I don't really know if this is where I finally climbed onto the ridge crest or not. My chosen path led me into a section of massive boulders which cut off my view into the distance ahead. After that, I found sections of trail leading up the drainage, not once, but twice, but never discovered how I had lost the trail to begin with. When I finally reached the top of the drainage and the "Three Lakes," I had to re-orient myself, because what I had thought was west (over the Divide) actually turned out to be southeast (looking over a small branch ridge, down into the Arkansas River valley, with Mt.Massive ahead and to the right.
Crossing between two of the small lakes, I finally made the last climb onto the Divide, where I took a picture looking ahead to the first ridge point in my path. It may be Pt. 13,125 and, then again, it may not.
Whatever it is, you can see that the cloud cieling was not far above. In fact, ragged tendrils of cloud were partially obscuring all the high peaks, promising less than ideal weather. What you cannot see is that the wind was picking up considerably. I would deal with significant wind out of the west or northwest for the remainder of the morning. Occasional gusts undoubtedly exceeded 50 mph. Fortunately, though, there was no rain.
Once on top and headed south, it's just a scenic ridge walk until just before 14,169, with a few minor ridge points to climb or skirt. Pt. 14,169 sports a false summit on the north side, so you can't see the true high point until you're almost there. It's also so gently shaped that I had to get out the GPS to make sure I'd actually found it. It felt good to stand there for a few moments, but there's no picture because the unrelenting wind convinced me not to take off a glove or try fumbling with anything.
From there, I could see North Massive, my other big goal of the day, looming to the southeast. It, too, offered up a false summit or two, but the going was fairly easy--just low-angle scrambling--and I arrived at the top in less than 25 minutes, even with a few wind gust stops. To my surprise, this unranked summit sported a register, which I signed, sitting down to use my body to shelter my one bare hand from the wind, which roared on the whole time. I still didn't feel like trying to get a picture.
Then, it was time for the hardest climbing of the day: descending off the south face of North Massive. It's basically a broken cliff face, requiring solid Class 3 scrambling. Fortunately, the sun had mostly come out of the clouds, and the cliff itself blocked the wind, so I was able to concentrate better on route finding. Basically, I ventured off onto the eastern extremity of the summit area, then angled back down to my right through the face, to reach the first saddle just west of the ridge crest. Upon looking back, I decided that there are probably at least two or three feasible paths, both up and down, including one going right up the center, which I had rejected from the top. I could see Massive Green farther ahead, and also glimpsed a couple of climbers there, who seemed to be headed toward me. We must have passed each other on opposite sides of one of the small ridge points in between, though, because I never encountered them.
I bypassed those ridge points on the west (right), and then ventured off onto the east side of Massive Green for the final approach. When I reached the top, the wind had finally abated some, and it was just as gentle and vegetation-covered as I remembered. But it had taken me nearly 45 minutes to get there from North Massive, so I pressed on.
Almost seven hours after setting out, I finally got to the true summit of Mt. Massive for the second time. I actually walked past it at first, because the register has been removed (Thanks for nothing, FS!). It was hard to believe that I had this popular summit all to myself.
I didn‘t linger, though, as I now only had about four hours left until my scheduled pick-up at the Halfmoon Creek trailhead, 4,000 feet below--and I still hoped to tag three more high points on the way down. Upon reaching the Massive/South Massive saddle, I heard the first clap of thunder. Looking west, I saw a veritable wall of precipitation slowly advancing on me. Oh, crud. At that point, I decided to abandon South Massive, since I‘d already climbed it once.
Hoping to salvage the other two ridge points ("South South Massive" and 12,381), I dropped off the ridge on the east side, trying to to a slowly descending traverse under South Massive toward the saddle between it and "SSMassive." Within minutes, the precipitation reached me: graupel driven by a high enough wind to sting through four layers of insulation and my windbreaker. Boy, was I glad it was at my back!
It didn‘t really last very long, and the sky mostly cleared a bit later. But when I could visually check my bearings again, I found that I had descended too far, and was already below the saddle on the ridge leading to "SSMassive." With the clear possibility of renewed precipitation, and the clock ticking, that was when I decided to forfeit any remaining peaks, and simply take the most expeditions path back to the standard route Mt. Massive Trail.
It was the right decision, as the graupel did indeed return. In an odd twist, I knew my "shortcut" was actually adding distance to my originally planned route, although reducing the amount of vertical. So it‘s an open question as to whether I would actually have had time to get any or all of the other three peaks, had I pressed on with my original plan. Still, I couldn't see working to put myself up on another 14,000-ft. point with a potentially electrical storm moving in, so I don't regret my decision. I had accomplished my main goals for the day, and had now stood on all five of Mt. Massive's 14K high points. Plus, I had a glorious day of solitude hiking and climbing along the Continental Divide. I didn't see a single other person until after I had gotten back onto the Colorado Trail, on the last leg of the hike, back down below timberline.
Still above the trees, I took this parting shot of Mt. Elbert from the north:
The Colorado Trail section seemed to go on forever, partly because it actually climbs slightly in a couple of places on the way "down," but I made it back to the trailhead, under intermittent light rain, with twenty minutes to spare, and found my ride already waiting for me. A great and unusual day in the mountains!
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):