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Thursday, January 17, 2013

Mt. Massive - a 17 hour adventure

Date:   January 16, 2013
Mission:  Summit Mt. Massive (elevation 14,421 ft.) in winter.
Who:  Josh Swift and myself
Length:  Estimated  10 - 11 miles
Elevation gain: Estimated 5400 ft.

"Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing." - Hellen Keller

This was a day filled with adventure from start to finish.  My climbing partner and I both overcame huge mental challenges and pushed ourselves further than we knew we could.  It was also a day that what could go wrong, did go wrong.  There were mistakes made by both of us, and I will write about them mainly so others can learn from our mistakes.

Getting there (01:30)

It started when my boss told me Tuesday, that I could take a rare comp day on Wednesday 1/16/13.  I decided immediately to take advantage of the decent weather and to climb Mt. Massive.  I put a post on at 7pm the night before asking if anyone would like to go last minute.  I fully expected no response, but Josh Swift decided to join me.  We decided at 10pm to meet at a parking lot along I-70 at 2am. 

Two hours of sleep later, I am on the road.  I meet up with Josh and it proceeds to snow much of our drive into the mountains.  The original plan was to hike the 13.7 mile standard route up Mt. Massive which is the East Slopes.  When we arrived at the Mt. Massive trailhead, and saw that I could make it up the snow covered 4-wheel drive trail further, we decided to see if we could make it to the Halfmoon Creek Trailhead to hike the Southwest slopes trail which is only 8 miles or so. 

The road turned ugly on a hill about 1/3 of a mile from the Halfmoon Creek trailhead, so we just parked in the middle of the road since it was clear that nobody had been up this way in weeks.  We started our hike at 5:15am.

The ascent (05:15)

Five minutes into the hike up the road to the trailhead, we had both of our headlamps batteries die within seconds of each other.  This was a sign of problems to come later on the descent.  After replacing batteries, we finished the hike up to the trailhead.  

We could not find the trail after about 50 ft. due to all the snow.  We just took a route through the snow that we thought was the trail, and we soon discovered it was not when we found ourselves bush whacking in knee or thigh high snow and thickets of aspen trees that were so thick we used our ice axes as machetes. 

As the first light of the day started to light the sky we saw the south ridge.  The south ridge leads to a point at 13,630 ft. (Gerry Roach calls this South South Massive) which is SE of the unranked S. Massive.  In order to get out of our bush whacking we decided to just hike this steep ridge.  So up we went from 11,000 ft. or so to 13,500'.  Josh was a bit faster than me on the ascent of this ridge and when I arrived at 13,500' he was just chilin in the sun waiting for me.

Josh trying to stay out of the wind.

Once up here we traversed the ridge to S. Massive at elevation of 14,132 ft.  The hike up to S. Massive was exhausting. 

Our route up the South Ridge (taken from the summit of S. Massive)
Josh enjoying the view on the summit of S. Massive

Views up here were amazing!

From here, it's still another drop back to a saddle and re-gain 500 ft. or so, to the summit of Mt. Massive which is .7 miles from S. Massive.

Josh climbing up Mt. Massive from the saddle between S. Massive

Me on the climb up Mt. Massive
On the way up Mt. Massive from the saddle, I hit a wall physically.  I was moving 3 steps at a time, I couldn't breathe, and I was just exhausted.  The early morning bush whacking and climbing of the steep south ridge had taken a toll on me.  Josh was a great partner and patiently waited on me to push through this wall. 

At one point, about 250' from the summit at 14,200' the exhaustion had got me so bad that I just told Josh to go tag the summit, implying I was not going to make it.  He made a comment about how much heart I had already shown on this ascent, and it was all I needed to hear to take a few more steps.  Eventually, we reached the summit at 14,421'.  I was on the verge of tears of joy because I had literally pushed myself beyond what I was capable of on this ascent mentally.

A well deserved smile on the summit of Mt. Massive
The summit high five!
A look back at our route (taken from the summit of Mt. Massive)
Sureal summit views.

We're the first to sign this summit register since Nov 2012.

Josh getting ready for our descent.
Massively pimpin'

The descent (14:20)

The plan for descent was to descend a known summer route down the SW slopes.  This plan quickly went awry when we discovered the trail was completely hidden by snow.  Josh had a waypoint set on his GPS for the Jeep, so we just starting heading SE towards the Jeep. 
After a glissade for 700 ft or so from the summit ridge we found ourselves in thigh high snow and decided that now would be a good time to put the snowshoes on. 
Josh making his way down with one snowshoe on and one in hand.
Josh was having issues with his snowshoes falling off thanks to a malfunctioning clip.  After about the 5th time his snowshoe fell off we just tied the strap with the broken clip to his ankle with some paracord.  This snowshoe snafu cost us some daylight and we were now losing light and we werén't even below 13,000' yet.
At this point Josh had completely given up on his snowshoes.
Losing light...
Night falls upon us while we are still at 12,900'

Cliffed out (17:30)

Josh's headlamp is not working at this point.  About ten minutes after nightfall set in, I'm still leading us SE per Josh's GPS and this is when I realized looking at a map prior to this might have been a good idea.  My headlamp can see a cliff in front of us, and to our east another steep snow covered avy danger slope, that might as well have been a cliff.  It was not something either us were going to go down in the dark.  This is when we broke out the map and stopped blindly thinking a point A (our location) to point B (the Jeep) strategy was going to work.
What we discovered when we looked at the map was not good.  We were in a bad spot.  Cliffs on the east and south, both sides of the direction of our Jeep. 
Here's where we got cliffed out and had to double back to the west.
We had to find a way around, and we discussed options that ranged from:
A.)  Re-ascending all the way, and back down the south ridge.
B:)  Find the path of least resistance, by doubling back to the west and down a gully.
C:)  Bivy for the night.
D:)  Go west (away from the Jeep) until we find the SW slopes trail, assuming we can find it in the dark, covered in snow.
After a brief discussion, we both agreed to option B.  What we didn't know until we got into that gully was that it was a creek, with running water under ice, under snow.  What fun this was.  We didn't know that the worst was yet to come.

Downclimbing snow and ice (18:30)

I am still leading the way down this creek gully since I have the only working headlamp.  When I get to a spot that literally stopped me in my tracks and the only words out of my mouth was "Holy shit dude, we're majorly screwed here.".  I took no pictures of this section simply from the fact that our lives were at stake here and the last thing on my mind was getting cool pictures of this for my blog. 
What I was looking at was a waterfall, albeit a mostly frozen one, but I could see and hear some running water underneath.  There was a right side and a left side separated by a big boulder in the middle about 30 ft down from where we were.  The right side of this was a sheer drop maybe a 75 degree angle.  The left side was maybe a 50 or 55 degree angle.  Getting out of the creek and going around is not an option since it's cliff walls on both sides.  Below this nearly man sized boulder wedged in the middle is what appears to be a snowfield that gradually flattens out. 
Josh catches up and we discuss options for about 30 seconds before he just says  "I'll downclimb it."  I immediately have visions of him falling and hitting that boulder in the middle of this creek.  Downclimbing ice with proper equipment is skecthy.  We were about to downclimb an ice/snow mix in the dark, with only a mountaineering ax and microspikes.  We did not have crampons, rope, helmet, belay device, harness, or technical ice axes. 
I suggest we at least use some paracord for a ghetto belay.  He agrees and with nothing to anchor it to, I just bury my ice axe into the ground and tie the paracord to it.  The length of paracord I had (after using some earlier to fix Josh's snowshoes) is not long enough to reach the boulder, so Josh just tosses it aside. 
Josh leads the downclimb very cautiously.  We know any slip here is potentially life or death.  He jams his ice ax into various spots trying to get an anchor.  Sometimes it hits rock.  Other times it slides easily through soft snow and thin ice and into running water underneath, then finally he finds some frozen vegetation and roots along the cliff side to the left that is serving well for an anchor.  Each foot hold is dug out then placed.  It's slow going, but finally Josh reaches the boulder, which he also tests before assuming it'll support him.  
Whew... a sigh of relief hits me when Josh tells me from there is just waist high snow to step/slide down and the angle is much less steep.  
Now it's my turn. 
I was paying close attention to which ice ax holds were working for Josh, and I followed cautiously, but much quicker since I didn't have to dig out the foot holds and I also had microspikes on my feet which at one point probably saved my life when my ice ax just came free.
I reached the boulder and sat on the deep snow and plunged my way down to Josh who was clearly relieved to see that I was still alive. 
The only picture I took after it got dark.  This was right after we got out of the creek gully.

Bushwhacking is psychological warfare (20:00)

From here we studied the map and discovered that we'd be fine in a straight SE direction.  So I broke out the compass, got a reading for SE and every time we'd go around an obstacle, I just remembered we're heading to the left of the Orion constellation which is always in the southern sky. 
We were now walking through the thickest bushwhack section of this entire day.  Aspens and other trees so thick that you cannot get through.  Thickets of branches, deadfall, creek crossings, the ice ax again became a machete.
It took us about 2.5 hours to go the 1.5 miles we had left going down in elevation because the bush whacking was so nightmarish. 
When we finally got to a clearing and realized we were on an old 4-wheel drive road or old trail, we both had an adrenaline rush like no other.  The adrenaline was a welcome thing, because we ran out of water around 21:00 and the fatigue was getting to both of us. 
We finally reached the Halfmoon creek trailhead at 22:00 and I literally gave the trailhead sign a hug.  We walked the road to the Jeep with joy and a comradaree that is experienced by few.
Without a doubt the most difficult thing I have ever done was this 17 hour hike.  I do not recommend this to anyone.  I wish nothing but safe trips to you all.  After reviewing the SPOT waypoints I was sending to my wife to let her know I was still alive, I put together this map of our route.  I do NOT recommend this route to anyone, I post it merely so others can say "Let's not do that ever".
Our route is in red.

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