Mt. Massive was not an extremely difficult climb, nonetheless the climb was a outstanding experience. I looked at the weather report in advance and for the first time thus far, it seemed as though the weather was going to put a kink in my plans. Rain and scattered thunderstorms were predicted to start at 1 pm. If I moved forward with the plan I had in place, I would not have had enough time to drive to the trail head and hike the trail before the rain began. If I was going to make this hike work logistically, I was going to have to set up camp the night before near the trail head. I decided this would be good practice and allow me to find a routine for the southern 14’ers that I have not yet started checking off my list. These peaks are too far from my home and require camping the night before in order to complete safely.
I arrived at the camp site near the base of Mt. Massive around 9:30 pm on Saturday, just in time to set up camp and lay my head down. I set my alarm for just after sunrise so that I could begin the hike at 7 am, allowing for just enough time to complete the peak and return safely to my car before the afternoon storms rolled in. I slept for what seemed like 5 minutes when I was awakened by a group of hikers packing up their gear for the hike.
Despite the brief sleep, I felt rested enough (or perhaps just too restless), and knowing I would not be able to fall asleep again easily, I packed up quickly and caught up to the group. All of this was a blur. Once I caught up, I glanced at my watch and realized the time was barely after 4 am. This group that I tagged along with was not planning to do the 14 mile route that I had on the books. Rather, they were headed straight up the mountain to catch the sunrise (an 8 mile route). It took only a moment to put all of the pieces together–It is 4 am. I am not on my route. I was going to get to see the sunrise–and in this moment, I woke up. I realized that I had packed all of my camping stuff in the car. I was hiking along a rushing river that I could not see. I looked up and noticed millions of visible stars with the only light coming from our headlamps. In the next moment, I paused, breathless and in shock. I was in shock because of the number of epiphanies hitting me at once, but more so because I had never in my thirty years seen so many stars visible in the deep black sky. As one of the hikers asked if I was okay, I came back to earth. I responded, “Yes, I’m fine” and continued hiking and quietly socializing with the group.
We passed the trail head, but I was unable to get a picture of the trail map to start. Nonetheless, I was able to study the new 8 mile route briefly, and I led the way from there. After one mile on the trail, we left the river’s side and headed up the rock face of Mt. Massive. In the pitch black darkness, 45 degree dry air, and soft breeze, I was dangerously playing the body heat game. It was important for me to stay warm, but I had to balance maintaining a comfortable level while not sweating, because once that happens, the game is lost– I would grow too chilled from the moisture on my skin and then run the risk of hypothermia.
Climbing the trail switchback after switchback at night was an interesting experience. Unlike the other routes I had completed to date, I had no perspective on where I was on the trail, how far I had progressed, and the distance that remained. I simply relied on the altimeter on my watch to gauge the altitude I had achieved. Then, as the first rays of sun light crept over the horizon to create a beautiful red, orange, and yellow glow, I was able to see the ridge line.
From studying the map, I knew that is where my adventure would become dangerous. Once I hit the ridge line, I would be over 14,000 feet and I would be there for over a mile of hiking. Hiking about 14,000 feet presents an issue for every climber. At this altitude, there is a much higher risk of falling to altitude sickness. I reached the edge of the danger zone just before sunrise and was able to bundle up and
hide from the wind while I ate breakfast and memorized the beauty of the sunrise. After I had a firm picture in my mind that I knew would never fade, I made my way down the mountain. On my return trip, I was able to photograph the sights that I missed in the dark.
What an amazing experience to see all of the cliff faces, protruding rock formations, and distinct ecosystems caused by the elevation.
I knew the ascension was steep, but once the sun hit the hillside, I was able to see exactly how quickly the elevation increased. Nearly to the trail head, I came across the river beside the trail that I was only able to hear before. I could see the tall evergreens that guided my path. I was able to stop and read a memorial at the start of the trail that was missed in the dark. It stands dedicated to four airmen who passed away as their helicopter crashed into the side of Mt. Massive in 2009.
I spent a few moments in silence and then continued my descent. On my way out, I was able to get my favorite snap shot of the trail map that I missed in the darkness on the way up.
From the top of Mt. Massive, I was able to see Mt. Elbert, the highest of all the 14’ers, as well as Capitol Peak, perhaps the most difficult climb of all the 14’ers. I was humbled to see both mountains standing before me, awaiting me with their troubles and their beauty. I imagined myself on each of those peaks looking back toward Mt. Massive remembering today and this experience. I am grateful for the idea, the opportunity, and the capacity to take on this adventure!