Saturday, September 29, 2018

North Massive (Point 14,340'), From Windsor Lake

Essence: Ascend a popular trail to exquisite Windsor Lake. Then climb in solitude off-trail to the Continental Divide, the principal allure of this out-and-back. Float along between 13,000 and 14,340 feet. Crest two peaks in the chain of five Mount Massive summits above 14,000 feet, unranked Points 14,169' and 14,340' (North Massive). You won't find social trails or even footsteps on this broad platform with fascinating rock features along the cliff edge. The divide is its own planet, dropping steep and deep on both sides. Tundra expanse devolves to fellfields and then talus. Spend the day in the Mount Massive Wilderness and San Isabel National Forest.
Travel: In Leadville, from Harrison Avenue turn west onto West 6th Street and start measuring from there. Turn right at a T intersection in 0.8 mile. This is Lake County Road 4 which goes all the way to the trailhead. In one block bear left at the Y. At 3.4 miles, the road splits. Bear slightly to the right, following signs for the Turquoise Lake Recreation Area. Cross the dam at 4.4 miles. At 7.9 miles the road splits; take the left branch toward Hagerman Pass (closed in winter). Lake County 4 turns into a good gravel road, 2WD suitable. Pass the Native Lake Trailhead at 11.5 miles. Go another 0.1 mile to a very large parking lot at the Windsor Lake Trailhead. No facilities.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 11.7 miles; 4,000 feet of climbing
Total Time: 7:00 to 10:00
Difficulty: Trail, mostly off-trail; navigation moderate; Class 2+ with no exposure.
Map: Mount Massive, Colorado 7.5' USGS Quad, or Trails Illustrated No. 127, Aspen, Independence Pass, CO
Latest Date Hiked: September 29, 2018 
Durango Mountain caballero
Take me for a ride
On the backbone of this mighty land
The Continental Divide
To the place where earth and heaven
Meet the mountains and the sky
In the heart of Colorado, Rocky Mountain High

John Denver

Gerry Roach said this trek is for "aficionados of the high and wild." A hiker stands on the Continental Divide and contemplates the steady rise to Mount Massive (14,421'), Colorado's second highest peak. (Thomas Holt Ward, photo)

Route: From the Windsor Lake Trailhead ascend southwest on-trail to the lake. Climb southwest off-trail to the Continental Divide. Walk south on the ridgecrest over five numbered points, turning around on North Massive. With a shuttle in place, thru-hikers could continue south to crest all five of the Massive summits above 14,000 feet.

In 1893, the Busk Tunnel Railway bored a passage under the Continental Divide for standard gauge trains traveling between Leadville and Aspen. The last train to travel through the Carlton Tunnel was in 1919. The tunnel is used today for water diversion.

From the signed Windsor Lake Trailhead, elevation 10,796 feet, cross the tunnel outlet on a combination of grates and planks beside a small black structure. The trail twists around in this constricted area. Following "Trail" signs carefully, cross a second stream, and enter the Mount Massive Wilderness.

Walk through a healthy mixed conifer forest. The trail splits at 0.3 mile. Take the left branch and cross Busk Creek, the Windsor Lake drainage. The path is quite steep in places. At 0.9 mile, pass a small unnamed lake which could be dubbed Lower Windsor.

Reach Windsor Lake at 1.1 miles, elevation 11,620 feet. The appeal is obvious. Even though the water is low in drought-stricken 2018, the gorgeous setting is undiminished. There are two white sandy beaches, vertical granite cliffs on the north shoreline, and the east wall of the Continental Divide rises sharply to the west. On this morning waves lap at the shore presaging a windy day up on the divide. (THW, photo)

As seen in the image below, lakeside is a good place to determine a route to the ridge. We decided to gain the divide north of Point 12,875'. A narrow grassy slope rises to a small gap at skyline right of image-center. We enjoyed this so much there was no need to seek an alternate route on the return. I expect the broader and lower saddle south of Point 12,654' would work as well.

Social trails radiate from the lake and then dissipate. As indicated on the map above we took different routes to and from the base of the ridge. There are extensive bogs in the region, the more southerly track avoids them. Ascend the grassy hillside shown in the center of the image below.

Walk southwest toward an interior ridge. Do a rising traverse to the ridgetop. We found a game trail there. This image looks back on the lake, the bog above the grassy hill, and the interior ridge.

Here's another look at the slope leading to the gap or notch where we met the divide, image-left.

The landscape with its granite boulders is reminiscent of the Sierra Nevada. The slope is both beautiful and friendly with excellent footing. (THW, photo)

Top out on the Continental Divide at 2.2 miles, elevation 12,680 feet. This very place is as constricted as the ridge gets throughout the hike. The west side plummets 2,300 feet to the Fryingpan River located in a trench between the divide and a string of unnamed thirteeners charging up the other side.

North Massive is 3.3 to 4.0 miles away depending on route. Turn south and do a Class 2+ climb up a 60 foot knoll.

Pass east of a prominent standing rock, a marker for the return trip. And then, VoilĂ ! Emerge on an exceptionally broad linear platform with chunks of embedded granite. Turf is plentiful at first but transitions to fellfields and blockfields as you travel south. On this day an icy wind blew consistently 50 to 60 mph. We agreed to take the most efficient route to North Massive as indicated on the map. On our return we explored along the escarpment. If you are doing a thru-hike, consider adding an extra 0.7 mile and walk along the sensational eastern perimeter. (THW, photo)

The image below was shot from about 13,600 feet. Starting on the left is Mount Massive, Massive Green, North Massive with three shallow humps, softly rounded Point 14,169', and conical Point 13,801'.

Watch for quartz chunks while doing a talus climb up Point 13,801'. At 4.8 miles, break above 14,000 feet. The Mount Massive ridge stays above this elevation for most of the next three miles. At 5.0 miles, top Point 14,169', the northernmost of the five summits. The east-facing glacier indicated on the 1994 topo has shrunk considerably. The ridge splits and takes the Continental Divide off to the southwest to climb Mount Oklahoma, shown. The Massive ridge swings southeast.

The north face of North Massive is a big pile of boulders. Notice the hiker beginning the climb.

North Massive has a roomy, flat summit. Reach it at 5.5 miles after 3,760 feet of vertical. The peak register contains three random scraps of paper going back to 2013. In contrast, we could see many people standing on Mount Massive to the south. In this image, a trail skirts Massive Green. (Who would want to miss the summit?) Mount Elbert is on the right. There are different strategies for cresting the five Mount Massive prominences. In 2015, we climbed the Southeast Ridge topping three. I highly recommend this thrilling and solitary hike.

We wish to continue but the high-velocity windblast is a battering ram and we've had enough. There is a short section of Class 3 between North Massive and Massive Green, shown. Some web entries suggest flanking this outcrop on the east side before returning to the ridge. The Leadville grid is visible below.

Descend along the east edge for a stellar return experience. This image was shot from the vicinity of Point 13,125' looking north. (THW, photo)

Gaze down on Pear Lake and Notch Lake. (THW, photo)

On a small jutting peninsula west of Notch Lake you will find a playful world of granite stacks.

Leaning forms frame Windsor Lake. (THW, photo)

Approaching Point 12,875', a golden eagle glided a few feet off the tundra piercing the intersect between mountains and sky on the Continental Divide.

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