Peak(s):  Mt. Massive  -  14,421 feet
Date Posted:  08/09/2013
Modified:  10/10/2014
Date Climbed:   07/19/2013
Author:  MtnHub
 James Nelson Tribute Climb - A Massive Alternative  

James Nelson Tribute Climb - A Massive Alternative
(March 3, 1979 ~ October 4, 2010?)

James Nelson was a young man who loved the trail. He was an avid and experienced hiker and had walked much of the Appalachian Trail in sections. On October 3, 2010 James took off on a solo 5-day, 25-mile hike in the Holy Cross Wilderness.

He was reported missing by his fiancé on October 8, but widespread efforts by SAR and the Vail Mountain Rescue Group, as well as many private individuals over the next several weeks, proved unsuccessful in finding any trace of him.

It was not until late May in 2012 that his campsite was finally discovered and his remains were found. In the journal that he always kept on his trips, he wrote that he felt the beginnings of altitude sickness setting in. This last entry was on October 4, 2010.

Below is the link to the thread that was started when a local news agency reported about James being missing:

Lost Hiker on Mt Holy Cross


July 18, 2013

Mount Massive – 14,421’ (Loop Hike Up the SW Slopes, Down the E Slopes)
South Massive – 14,132’ (Bonus Peak)

Climbers: MtnHub
Starting Time: 0345
Return Time: 1130

Mount Massive Trailhead
Approximate Length: 11.5 miles
Approximate Elevation gain: 4800’


I had never met James nor even knew of him until I starting reading the above thread. It is always saddening to hear news of a hiker or climber who’s been lost or who has perished in the wilderness. And maybe one might even say a silent prayer for their rescue or recovery or post a positive message of hope and best wishes. But unless you share some aspect or link to the person or place, it is easy to become distracted on some other pressing issue in your everyday life.

About midway into the thread, I read that although he was from Chicago, he grew up in Iowa City. This made me more interested in the developing news and I then started following it much closer. When the Nelson family held a memorial service at a local church, my wife and I attended, and I had the opportunity to meet his mother and sister.


For my 2013 vacation, I was planning to finally meet and climb with some members whom I’ve gotten to know pretty well over the Internet. One of these people was sunny1. Nancy was nearing the end of her quest of climbing all the 14ers and was planning to finish on Mt Holy Cross.

MHC would be a very special peak for her partly because it would be her finisher, but also because she would be doing it as a tribute climb for another fallen climber. Since James Nelson died in this same beautiful area, this put the idea in my head that I could also use it as a tribute to him. Even though I’ve done MHC twice before, I have always wanted to go back and do the loop one more time, but adding Notch Mountain at the beginning.

Late this spring Nancy and I began making arrangements to do the climb together. She had two climbs left, so in order for it to work, she would have to complete a successful summit of North Maroon prior to the July date we had set. But all the best plans can still fail to develop. Poor weather forecasts plus another late developing complication prevented us from keeping our climbing date. At the last minute we had to scrap it and find our own alternatives.

I was staying with my wife’s cousin in Leadville and had set July 19 free for a climb. I was still considering the Notch/MHC loop and even posted an invite in the Climbing Connections section of the Forum but did not get any takers. That was probably just as well as the weather forecasts were still pretty iffy. For this climb to be safe and successful, you definitely need a perfect weather day as you are above 13,000’ and therefore exposed to a lightning threat for a good 5-7 hours.

I finally decided to do a repeat of Mt Massive. It was very close to where I was staying and I was familiar with the routes, none of which are terribly long. It also offered many different bailout options should the weather turn sour.

The Climb:

I arrive at the Mt Massive TH about a quarter to 4:00. Although it isn’t completely clear by any means, I can at least see a few stars poking through thin wisps of clouds. Loading up my gear, I start up the 4WD road leading to the upper TH to the SW Slopes. This road is fairly level for the better part of 2 miles and parallels the Halfmoon Creek along which many campsites are located. When you reach a fork in the road you need to continue straight ahead. A Forest Road branches downwards and to the left and continues to follow the stream, while the actual TH lies upward another half mile or so. This last section is much steeper and I get my first introduction to actually ascending.

Stopping at the registry post, I sign in and reorganize my gear slightly. It is 0430 and I’ve made excellent time, covering about 2.5 miles in 45 minutes time. The beginning of the actual trail again traverses through the forest for a little over a mile at an easy, gradual incline. When you come to a small open meadow you need to be on the watch for the junction where the SW Slopes route diverges up and away from the valley trail.

By the time I reach the meadow, it is light enough for me to turn my headlight off. This is the time of day I especially love. The dawning twilight is enough to guide me and I love hearing the early rising birds sing their morning songs!

Just as I cross the meadow, now on the lookout for the trail junction, I hear voices ahead of me and see about a dozen or more tiny lights twinkling through the trees at the far end. I meet a large group of young backpackers right at the junction site. They are an Outward Bound group who have been camping in the North Halfmoon Lakes area and are now on their way out.

We chat briefly but then I start straight up the SW Slopes. The easy flat sections are now over and the trail climbs sharply non-stop. Initially the trail bypasses a few narrow cliff bands bending first to the left and then to the right. Trail crews worked hard on this part of the trail in 2007, and there are now many stone steps put in place which make progress fairly easy. That is, easy in that there are few sections of loose rocks and gravel to slip on but still hard work due to the steep incline of the slope.

Once I pass through a few short boulder fields and get above tree line, it is finally light enough for me to take a picture. I stop and aim for the saddle between the South summit and the main Massive summit. It is about this time when a trail runner passes me, heading for the same objective.

Looking up to the saddle.

By now the trail zigzags up the last part to the saddle in a seemingly endless array of switchbacks. It is 0630 when I reach the col and I again stop to take a few pictures. I estimate about another hour's worth of rock scrambling before I will finally reach the summit.

Looking NW along the ridgeline leading to the Massive summit.

Looking E towards Leadville, Turquoise Lake, and Highway 24.

Looking back towards the saddle and South Massive.

I continue to monitor the sky carefully. There are a few scattered clouds with a thin band directly overhead, but at this point they do not look to be threatening. As anticipated, I arrive at the Massive summit around 0730 and I’m pleased with my progress.

About 10 minutes later, the trail runner comes up to join me. He had gone over to South Massive first and was planning to run the entire ridge. He graciously stops long enough to take a picture of me on the summit.

I have him frame the shot so Mt Holy Cross would be visible in the distance. The Holy Cross Ridge can be seen on the horizon just to the left of my left elbow. That is where I was hoping to be this morning, and in hindsight, it now looks to be an OK day, but for now, this will have to do. I only have water to toast you, James, but I’m hoping you can see this beautiful sight from where you are and enjoy it all the same!

MtnHub on the Mt Massive summit; Holy Cross Ridge on the horizon. This shot’s for you, James!

I take a few more summit shots before I leave:

Looking NW along the rest of the Massive ridge (the trail runner can be seen about midway across).

Looking back towards where I ascended, South Massive, Pt. 13,630, and the Twin Lakes Reservoir.

Another view of the valley towards the east. I love the way the sunrays are piercing through the clouds.

South Massive, the saddle, with Mt Elbert in the center.

After a lovely and leisurely stay on the summit, I start back down. I meet a couple of other climbers before I reach the saddle again. The sky is still looking OK, and I get the idea of heading over to the South before aiming for the parking lot. I also consider taking the East route for my return and doing a complete loop. It would be slightly longer but more gentle for my knees. It seems a good plan and I continue up the ridge to the South summit.

From about halfway up the slope I stop and take a picture of the long ridge of Massive and the saddle I came up:

Mt Massive from the slope of South Massive.

I hit the South Massive summit at 0850. Grabbing a quick bite to eat, I take a few sips of water and take a quick picture but I don’t dwell long on the top. I can see a few clouds forming nearby and want to be in a more protected place in case they develop into anything nasty.

The eastern slopes of Massive from South Massive. MHC on the left horizon.

Cutting down the northeast side of South Massive, I eventually intersect the E Slopes trail. I can make good time on this trail, which is gradual and well groomed. I continue to meet a few hikers on their ascent. At around 13,000’ I turn around and note a huge cloud forming right above Massive. It may not amount to anything, but I’m still very glad to be where I’m at. It really is amazing how you can watch these things grow and expand upward right before your eyes!

A cloud building above Mt Massive.

With only a few exceptions, the rest of the sky still looks pretty clear.

Looking SE in the valley where Highway 24 runs.

Holy Cross still looks clear, but another big cloud is developing over the mountains just to its SE.

By now I don’t have to hurry as I have blue skies above me and I’m only a short hour away from being under tree cover. The east meadows of Massive are lush and beautiful and I stop frequently to take pictures of the flora.

Turquoise Lake in the upper right.


When I reach the willows I again turn around to evaluate the skies. The cloud is holding steady over the mountain but it doesn’t appear too threatening for anyone still going up. But that’s not to say that I’m still glad to be where I'm at. I’ve learned that weather in the mountains can change in an instant.


I hit the welcome cover of the forest when the sun is directly overhead. The East Slopes trail T’s into the Colorado Trail and I turn to the south on it and head for the TH. This is an easy trail of sandy dirt, needle-laden, and fairly rock-free, and my feet and knees are grateful. In a few places where the sun finds an open hole in the foliage and concentrates its energy baking the needles, I get a strong whiff of pine-scented incense. It is wonderful and intoxicating!

The gentle Colorado Trail just east of Mt Massive.

I reach the car at 1130. It is warm but not hot. It’s been a very lovely day and I thank God for His protection and for blessing me with another opportunity to experience and enjoy His creation.


Besides the wealth of information Bill has provided on this wonderful website, I think one of the things I appreciate the most is the people who use it and share it. I feel a very strong sense of camaraderie with this climbing community, and it has become my second family. We all share a true love and passion for the mountains and the beauty and peace the wilderness provides!

While I don't think anyone goes into a climb with the intention of not coming back out, reports of someone being injured or worse make it very apparent that this climbing sport can be very dangerous. But I also think most of us do take this seriously and make every effort to climb sensibly and safely.

But it also gives me great comfort to know that when something bad does happen to one of us, whether we actually know the person or party involved or not, the far majority of this community responds swiftly and with a generous outpouring of love and support to the family and survivors. The fact that the thread about James is 59 pages in length is a testimony to that. We are drawn together and I think our bonds and friendships are strengthened because of such an event.

I think it's good to remember those in our fellowship who did not return home to their family and friends: Steve Gladbach, (Terry Mathews), WyomingBob, Rob Jansen, TalusMonkey, Kevin Hayne, Bill Forest, PeakCowboy, Sean Wylam, Michelle Vanek, Mike Cormier, ChrisFol, Samuel Briggs, Michael Lepold, ... and James Nelson, (and many others who remain unknown to us). We hold them in our hearts and miss them, but we also know they died doing what they loved doing the most.

And I think it's good to remember them and reflect on our own mortality. They are reminders not to become complacent or careless on the trail. There are dangers and we need to be smart and proactive to keep the risk of these dangers at a minimum. So climb on, but climb safe!


James Nelson on a summit in the White Mountains of NH.

One of James' favorite quotes is by Edward Abbey:

"May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds."

That’s how I envision James now. I don’t see him “resting in peace.” I see him still pumping his strong legs and still climbing those mountains into and above the clouds!


(I wish to thank Cathy Nelson for sharing some personal insights and two photos of her son with me to include in this report.)

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):

 Comments or Questions

08/10/2013 02:17
Thanks for putting this up. I do remember clinging to James' thread when it was all happening. Just wanting to go out and look or help in some way. This community is like a kind of family for a lot of us and, you're right, it is reflected in many many pages dedicated to fallen climbers. Thanks for honoring James in this way. Good report.


Thank You
08/10/2013 02:50
Thank you so much for doing a tribute climb to my son, James. A very touching write up. Beautiful scenery. He would be very touched by your memorial climb. Cathy


You've outdone yourself!
08/11/2013 03:15
This is an excellent tribute to James. I love the pics.
I'm really sorry things went ”belly up” on our plans!
The Massive Alternative is perfect.
Superb report.
We'll try again next year!


Very nice report!
08/11/2013 21:52
Thanks for taking the time to write this up and make a tribute climb. Your kindness shows in your words.

Wish I lived in CO

08/12/2013 13:41
James looks at home in the first pic. Looks like he was my kind of guy - I can totally relate to taking in the outdoors while relaxing at camp over a good cigar! Thanks Doug, and climb on James!


Wonderful, Doug!
08/13/2013 15:00
What a well done trip report. I love the ”Godbeams” in Photo #9. And, your tribute to those lost is moving ... had no idea James Nelson was a ”cigar guy” ... I will have to tell The Man (as he partakes of those from time to time). Thanks for posting. Happy trails!

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