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Sunrise from Mt. Massive

Sunrise from Mt. Massive, Mt. Massive Wilderness, Colorado

Sunrise from Mt. Massive, Mt. Massive Wilderness, Colorado

At 14,421 feet, Mt. Massive is the second highest of the Colorado Fourteeners, only twelve feet lower than nearby Mt. Elbert. Ascents of Mt. Massive are made more arduous by the relatively low elevation of the trailheads and the long summit ridge. “Any way you do it, Mt. Massive is a huge slog,” legendary ski-mountaineer Lou Dawson told me once. After examining my options, I decided on a one-day blitz on the southwest flank route. I checked out of my hotel in Leadville, drove to the trailhead, and pitched a tent for a restless nap before hitting the trail at 10 p.m. Once again I hoped to summit early enough to shoot a few Milky Way photos before the sky grew too bright to see the stars clearly.

It was June and large snowfields still draped even the sun-soaked southwest flanks of the peak. By midday those snowfields would soften in the sun’s warmth, making it easy to kick steps, but at midnight they were frozen as hard as a rock. Anticipating that diurnal cycle, I had come prepared with ice ax and crampons, which I needed as soon as the summer trail disappeared under the snow. My GPS receiver, loaded with a route downloaded from, helped guide me back to the summer trail when it emerged from the snow. I continued to plod upward in the cold, strengthening wind and finally reached the summit ridge. Another third of a mile of ridge-walking and easy scrambling over some big boulders, and I was on the summit feeling thoroughly exhausted and sleep-deprived. I shot a few photos of the Milky Way looking south along the summit ridge toward Mt. Elbert, then hunkered down behind a sheltering rock to escape the unrelenting wind and wait for dawn.

When dawn finally arrived, I reluctantly stepped out of my windbreak and tried to compose a shot that would capture the 100-mile view in every direction. The image that ultimately proved most evocative was this telephoto view of Snowmass Mountain and Capitol Peak, two of the Fourteeners in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness some thirty miles to the west.

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