August 12, 2010
Today’s Miles: 11.4
Total Miles: 173.1
Breakfast Elevation: 10,280 ft
Dinner Elevation: 10,820 ft
High Point: 14,421 ft
There’s rain all night, with thunder and lightning developing in the morning.
When the weather finally seem to stop, I exit the tent and sit in the crook of a large tree trunk for my breakfast of bagels, peanut butter, and honey.
Just as I finish eating, another wave of storms blows in. I dive back into the shelter of my tent just in time.
I don’t begin hiking until 11am, when the weather appears to clear for good.
Today’s agenda is not to cover the linear miles on the Colorado Trail that will bring me closer to Durango. Instead, I’ve plotted a course for the next couple days on various trails through the Collegiate Peaks that appear to be more scenic than the official CT, within reach of a number of the famed “Colorado Fourteeners” – the 14,000+ foot peaks.
Climbing the 14ers is a popular activity in Colorado. There’s about 50 of them, and a lot of people like to dedicate their summer weekends and vacations to a lifetime mission to bag them all.
This would only really interest me as a concrete goal if I were to live in or near Colorado. For now it’s always fun just to climb a mountain. A lot of the CT has been in the woods so far, and I came to Colorado for the big mountains!
Mount Elbert, seen above from today’s approach to Mount Massive, is the highest point in Colorado. It’s the second-highest moountain in the 48 states.
The first fourteener accessible from the CT is Mount Massive, up a 3.5-mile, one-way side trail with over 3,000 feet of elevation gain – my chosen task for the day.
After a few damp, forested miles, I turn on to the side trail up the mountain. The wooded switchbacks are immediately steeper than any of the grades I’ve noticed on the CT, and the path soon breaks out above the trees.
The wind above the trees is incredibly strong and in my face, pushing me down the mountainside.
The weather isn’t especially ideal, but I have a wide view of the passing clouds, and some distant and not-so-distant columns of rain.
One thing I’d heard about the fourteeners is the “crowds” of hikers that I can expect to encounter. Maybe it’s the weather that’s keeping people away, or maybe these later hours of the day (It’s prudent to be off the summit of a Colorado peak by noon)… but I’m the only human being up here today.
I’ve entered the high grassy world where the marmot reigns supreme, scattering to and fro with loud chirps, warning others of my approach.
The view of the valley and town below is something that I’m going to become very familiar with, but I don’t know what town it is. Leadville? It’s gotta be Leadville.
Hiking up this mountainside is much more difficult than I’d anticipated.
The crest of the ridge as a goal is clear before me, but the thin air creates a scenario where I can only go about 15-20 steps before having to stop and catch my breath. Soon it’s down to ten steps, and even less. Mount Whitney wasn’t nearly this tough.
Things are not going well as the wind slams into me, opposing each step. To make matters worse, I’ve elected to haul my full backpack up here, rather than stashing the heavier items down below (Like five days of food, ouch).
With the foul weather it seems wise to keep all my gear with me. There’s no thunder or lightning anywhere to be seen, so I press on.
Each step is increasingly difficult, and it seems more as if Mount Massive is saying,
“No. Not today. Nooooooooo.”
I’ve never been the type of person to have a “man versus wild” sort of philosophy, but it sure feels that way here and now, mano a mano. I yell into the wind like a wild mountain man, and there’s no one around and it’s glorious.
I’ve been watching the clouds carefully, with a focus on the crest of the ridge ahead… the ridge I’ve been slogging up this massive hillside to reach.
Over the ridge there comes a swift gray cloud. It grazes the earth, riding as a quick mean fog bearing directly down toward me like an avalanche. I hurriedly put on my pack cover and jacket, keeping a firm grip as they blow up like parachutes. If I were to let something go in this wind, it’d be gone forever.
It’s a cloud of swirling, stinging hail. I stop moving forward and turn my back as it consumes me.
This would be a good time to turn around and go back down the mountain.
Something tells me to hold out for just a few minutes. After little more than five minutes of the swirling sleet storm, I squint my eyes toward the crest of the ridge above, and imagine I see blue beyond the cloud. Yes, it’s definitely blue.
Five more minutes, and the sun is shining again.
The system is blown on toward the right side of this photo.
Just look at that cloud. I’ve never seen anything like that.
The wind is just as ferocious as before, but I begin to feel the worst of the weather has passed. With a little luck maybe Mount Massive will let me continue after all.
After more high-altitude slogging I finally reach the saddle of the ridge. Above is my first view to the west of the Collegiate Peaks, and here the wind really smacks me in the face. The far side of the ridge is much steeper than the way I came, even sheer.
The weather looks okay, but still just a little questionable. That wind is fierce. The summit is along the ridge to the north, though I don’t know how far. Judging by the view from below, it can’t be too far.
The scene to west from here at the saddle is enough reward, but I’ve come this far and elect to go on. I grab a few things, wolf down a quick Clif Bar, and stash my pack behind a rock, out of the wind. What a difference!
Above is a view to the south, back down toward the saddle. You can see the immediate path on the ridge. On the east side it’s blocked from the wind, and silent and warm, but the route goes around many corners where the harsh reality of the wind is immediately apparent.
In some places I’m required to do some light scrambling. I grip the rock, moving freely without my pack. This is the best! Are we having fun yet?
That’s the top.
What a day. It’s just incredible and there are no words.
As I descend it becomes apparent that the weather is clearing for good.
…and the wind is at my back!
I retrace my steps back into the woods, and onto The Colorado Trail.
I go about a mile on the CT in the gathering darkness, before calling it a night at South Willow Creek. There’s a nice campsite, huddled down a steep hillside off the trail.
Tomorrow, Mount Elbert.