| Winter Ascent: North Massive
Winter Ascent: North Massive
Route: Northeast Ridge
Approach: Fish Hatchery
Length: 14 miles RT
Vertical: 4700 feet
Total time: 12 hours
Ascent Party: Ken, Dave, Jim
Making headway through heavy gusts and spindrift on North Massive’s northeast ridge, February 22, 2011.
Seems we’ve had some tough conditions lately. Lindsey's NW ridge is the plan for Monday, but by the weekend, winds look too high. Ken sees I’ve pulled the plug and recruits me for trench duty on North Massive. Ken’s had his share of thrills wallowing in chest-deep sugar in years past on this route, but keeps his sense of humor: “I have several times broken a track to treeline on Massive that is currently recorded under the Legendary chapter in the Book of Wallows.” Bracing for the worst, I do a little research, put together some maps, and imagine we'll figure out the rest when we're there.
First rays of dawn on the Highline Trail.
Ken enlists Dave Cooper, whom he describes as “the renowned author of several interesting Colorado guidebooks and an excellent photographer.” I recognize his name from the mountaineering forum and look forward to meeting him.
The plan goes like this. Ken has done some recon work over the weekend, finding the route pretty well tracked to the junction of the Colorado Trail, and untracked from there. He continues the trench to the big meadow at 11,200 on the Highline Trail. It doesn’t look all that grim, but conditions are going to be tough enough to preclude the traverse to Massive, let alone getting one summit. He plans to start with Dave at 4:00 am, suggests I come in an hour later, catch them at the 11,200 meadow, and from there, we start on the new section of trench.
Moonset over Massive
Tuesday morning, pre-dawn, Leadville Fish Hatchery. It's really cold. There's still a good moon in the sky. I take the road as an alternate, rather than the shorter "Nature Trail," to avoid any chance for error. It starts next to the Nature Trail right at the TH parking, but takes a little longer way around. I’m prepared for temps in the single digits. This morning, it’s about 10 below. The insulated hood is insufficient and my face is getting cold. I’d left the balaclava behind. I’m also in light boots; fast, but not as warm as the stiff boots. The cold night air burns my lungs as I try to hurry up the trail.
After an eternity, I hear Ken and Dave in the meadow. Ken provides the introductions. I find Dave a delightful fellow: warm, witty, and easy going. His slight British accent and sparkling eyes charm, as he jokingly explains his normally effective method of avoiding trench duty.
We take a quick break, get a few things in order, and start the new track toward North Massive. The route through the trees is not as evident as one might expect. I take the front, as Ken shout orders from the rear, deftly guiding us into the Massive amphitheater, where route-finding becomes more visually evident.
We get off easy on the trenching – snow conditions are not tough – but the feet are getting worrisomely cold. I excuse myself into the last of the trees, out of the wind, to make some changes. Breadbags serve as a featherweight vapor barrier liner, over spare liner socks, to cure the problem. I catch up; Dave lends a balaclava to top things off. Soon we're in the alpine, the feet are toasty, and pleasant conversation turns to photography. I find his setup interesting; he’s using a 50mm prime. The f/1.4 comes in handy for early morning and late evening, and the lens is light – fair consolation for the much heavier full-frame body. I can’t wait to see Dave’s photos.
Dave filling up that CF card.
North Massive’s classic angular features guide us toward the NE ridge.
We take a break, and study the ridge. After many attempts over the years, Ken has figured out that the safest and most efficient method to gain the ridge is from a rib roughly below point 12,632. It looks steep. Ken and Dave attack with snowshoes. Halfway up, I’ve had enough third class snowshoe practice, and find a large rock to sit on and change out to spikes and axe, figuring I’d rather be a live chicken than a dead turkey. I actually get Ken’s subtle nod of approval. How Ken and Dave tough it out to the top in ‘shoes is a little beyond me.
The rib getting to the NE ridge is fairly steep. Plumes above foretell the future.
At the ridge, we park ‘shoes, get something to eat, don windshell and hood, and hunker down for some wind.
Ken starts up the northeast ridge.
The ridge gets a tad “alpine” this morning.
Ken reveals his method for dealing with the banshies and plume-devils:
Well, normally I just aim for the biggest one, and the rest scatter.
Ken crests the summit of North Massive.
Dave enjoys a momentary break in conditions while topping out on North Massive.
We don’t spend a great deal of time at the summit, given the winds, though temps have become relatively mild. I take the opportunity to stick around for some recon shots of the traverse.
Kens gets started on the descent.
The “home peak” in the background, with Leadville at center.
Ken does his infamous snow de-levitation trick, losing 1000 verts in about ten minutes.
The beautiful NE ridge.
We get to the snowshoe stash, put them on our backs, and opt to descend the ridge a little further down. I find the line “interesting.” I’m never very concerned about danger with two fellows who have lived through just about everything in the alpine to tell about it. I’d likely have taken a more conservative line on the ascent, were I solo. Still, I’m pleased to be a contributing member of the decision-making party. Ken later asks me if I was concerned about any of the snowpack we traveled. I immediately recognize Master Po’s classic technique, and know what’s coming next. “Why, no, not really.” “Good. Because a guy would have to work pretty hard to get any of that to slide.”
Our ascent line is at far left, up the steep rocky rib. The descent line follows a diagonally descending rib to lower angle snow in the sparse trees at far right.
Reaching the alpine lake, I find Ken and Dave engrossed in something at the frozen outlet. I suspect it’s that photography addiction thing, and soon find myself mesmerized by the layers of ice, cleaved by serpentine cracks extending to the depths.
The Universe: Reflected in a Colorado pond at 12,000 feet.
I look back up to our ridge, fairly happy to be out of the pelting gusts and spindrift.
Devils dance boiling fiery brimstone above as we escape unscathed, chapped lips the sole injury for the ensuing work week.
Under much more pleasant conditions, we snack and delayer.
It’s a bit of a journey, but leaves the promise of a future ridge traverse. I take one last look back up at this beautiful mountain, as the three of us carry on to the trailhead.
Ken, Dave, thanks for a great trip.
All, thanks for reading. Hope you enjoyed the photos and report as much as I enjoyed putting it together.
Approximate route. (Image courtesy Ken Nolan.)