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Colorado: Exploring Mt. Massive

High in the Sawatch Range with Kim Fenske

A ptarmigan in winter plumage along the Mt. Massive trail.

Story and photos by Kim Fenske

Mount Massive dominates the skyline west of Leadville in Lake County, Colorado. The 14-mile hike up Mount Massive is considered a fairly easy trail during the short summer season, with a well-traveled path to the ridgeline. The standard route begins at a trailhead near Halfmoon Campground in the valley between Mount Massive, 14,421 feet, and the highest peak in Colorado, 14,433-foot Mount Elbert.

The winter trek can be a couple of miles longer when access may be restricted on the Forest Service road leading to the base of the mountain. When the road to Halfmoon Campground is completely blocked by snow, the National Fish Hatchery at the northern base of Mount Massive provides a longer access route along the Colorado Trail.

Mt. Elbert, Colorado's highest peak.

Watersheds on the east face of Mount Massive include South Willow Creek and Willow Creek on the approach along the Colorado Trail from the south and North Willow Creek to the north. These watersheds are important both to provide a drinking supply on an approach to the summit as well as ensuring orientation when the trail is obscured in winter. Since the Colorado Trail runs perpendicular to the waterways, roughly north to south, becoming disoriented is difficult even in winter. However, cut-over stumps and early settlement access routes add an element of confusion in the dense forest of lodgepole, spruce, and fir.

Alpenglow above the Arkansas River Valley, east of Mount Massive.

Beginning my hike on a clear, crisp morning after the first few snowfalls of the fall, I was bundled in a layer of down jacket and fleeces on my hike over the snow-covered road to the trailhead. The temperature rose above ten degrees on my ascent from the trailhead, allowing me to strip layers within an hour of my start.  With an ankle-deep layer of powder at the trailhead, I planned for a hike of eighteen hours and hoped to return in twelve.

Hiking north, I found the junction with the Mount Massive Trail and the Colorado trail at 11,080 feet, three miles from the trailhead. The ascent to this point took me two hours. I filled my water bottles at Willow Creek, which passes immediately south of the ridge leading west to the summit route. Once into the forest along the south face of the ridge, I lost any sign of a trail and continued up and west until breaking into an open area of willow and krumholz where the upper basin beneath the summit was revealed.

With the trail buried under snow, I found my own path crossing and ascending a slope along the southern drop-off into the Willow Creek watershed.  When I reached about 13,000 feet in altitude, I crossed the tundra snowfield to the drop-off leading to North Willow Creek Trailhead.

Along the way, I noticed a tiny movement in the snow a few feet south of my footprints and discovered a nearly-invisible, almost completely white ptarmigan scratching with his feather- sheathed feet into the snow. Noting a small bar of orange over the eye, diminished from the summer display when his mottled feathers blend with the rock fields on the slopes, I recognized this ptarmigan as a male.  I followed him and observed him snipping away at tundra plants and willow stems. Then, I continued to the saddle above me.

At 13,900 feet, I reached the exposed ridge after a bit of stumbling over small, scattered boulders hidden beneath the snow. The warm, calm afternoon gave way to a blast of wind across the ridge and the temperature dropped far below zero. Removing my mittens to take photographs from the ridge, I enjoyed spectacular views of Mount Elbert to the south as well as the mountain ranges west toward Aspen. I quickly numbed my hands as the shutter of my camera froze, locked by the cold. From this point, there was no discernable trail.  However, the final ascent to the summit requires route-finding up a steep climb of a quarter-mile, straight north. After gaining the upper ridge, there is a gradual slope to the summit about a half-mile beyond.

Retreating from the ridge, I enjoyed the alpenglow of sunset over the mountains beyond Leadville. Then, I followed my footprints in darkness to the trailhead, pausing to boil water at Willow Creek and enjoying a bottle of hot chocolate to defeat the chill of night.

Kim Fenske is a former wilderness ranger, firefighter who has hiked thousands of miles in the Colorado mountains. He has served on the board of directors of Friends of the Eagles Nest Wilderness Area.

Fenske has authored several hiking books filled with hundreds of photographs of Colorado wildlife, wildflowers, and scenery. His books are enjoyed by thousands of outdoor enthusiasts. His current electronic book titles are published on Amazon for Kindle, as well as Barnes and Noble for Nook. Search for these titles: “Greatest Hikes in Central Colorado,” “Holy Cross Wilderness Area,” and “Eagles Nest Wilderness Area.”

More stories by Kim Fenske:

Route to the summit of Mount Massive.

Sunset on Mount Massive.

Mount Elbert, 14,433 feet, from the ridge of Mount Massive.

Looking out over Leadville from the Mt. Massive trail.

 

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