Mt. Massive 14,421′ “Thy sea is so great…and my boat so small”


             Two hours of sleep is not enough to function properly for a normal work day. Unfortunately, today is not a normal work day. Those two hours of sleep are so light that I open my eyes to sound of Randy stirring, or I never really got to sleep. I say “Good Morning” and we go about getting ready for the day without pleasantries, food, or a warm beverage. We simply finish packing and double check our packs. Randy’s is 10lbs and mine 15lbs. I blame the 5 lbs difference on the fact that he is immune to thirst and hunger and I crave water and need calories to feed my body. We “walk” what feels like the longest ½ mile to the North Halfmoon Creek Trail Head, the pace feels more like a jog as I am mesmerized by the sound of the winter runoff to our left. The water seems to be fleeing the mountains that kept it prisoner all winter long, it sounds so reckless in its escape. Its sound is powerful and scared; I can relate to the scared part. I almost bailed on this trip 5 times before it even started. First it was my feet, which have hurt for weeks. Next my knee which has hurt since before I could drive, and finally the weather. All week Randy and I chicken hawked the weather like an important delivery, checking its status every 30 minutes. Rain and lightning with an 70% chance of making an already tough endeavor miserable, or worse, deadly.                  As we put distance between base camp and us, I could already tell that Randy was going to be looking over his shoulder for me for the next 8-12 hours. We were attached by an invisible rubber band – he would pull away from me, sometime out of sight, only to be pulled back by a sense of responsibility. The trailhead! Crossing it felt like the Rubicon in Italy; as we passed through it I muttered to myself “the die is cast. The point of no return.” 

               The night rain seemed to stick to every branch and leaf and as we made our way to the junction I could feel the water attempting to do what it has done for millions of years – penetrate…My backpack was drenched, I could feel the moisture on my gloves as I wiped drops from my face, and I hoped my shoes would hold the water at bay, or at least put on a good show, ‘til sunrise. A small creek crossing snuck up with great ease, as we couldn’t see more than what was in front of us and all sound was still drowned out by its big brother roaring to our left. All I could think with each creek crossing is “Don’t pull a Rose”. Fortunately, the rocks we stepped on gave solid purchase and the crossings were uneventful. Unfortunately, by the time we made it to the boulder fields, I was having dizzy spells and I had to resort to using my ice axe as a cane in with every step. Despite the trustworthiness of the ice axe, I managed to take several bad steps and even though I escaped injury, I knew that my fortune was being read to me and that the missteps would revisit me later in the day. It was in this boulder field that the tiny voice in my head, now joined by the booming voice of the mountain, suggesting that I should quit. “You are in over your head! You don’t belong on this mountain. A couch sounds really nice right now…!” In hindsight, I still don’t know if I should have quit then… The mountain wasn’t worried; it knew it would have other chances to get me to give up… Massive would lean on me at least 11 more times and remind me that I was only a man and that it would stand tall for millions of years long after the memory of me. That if I wasn’t careful, those million years would start today.

                At about 13,000ft I hit the wall. I crashed, I burned, and Massive sent a letter of condolences to my next of kin. I gasped for a moment, and when I realized that Randy was too far away, I yelled to him and asked for a break. I unclipped my Mountain Hardware backpack and stumbled to the closest thing to a sitting rock and tried to slow my heart. It is in these moments that I hate 14ers, but only because even when resting, my body is franticly grasping at air and even when just standing or sitting, you are doing so at a 30-degree angle above the tree line. There is no rest above 13,000ft – only postponing. Back to my poor excuse for a sitting rock. I looked at Mt Elbert in the morning air and wondered if I can’t handle Massive, how can I tackle my namesake? It was in this moment I either passed out or nodded off. Even today I am not sure which, but I do know I woke breathing as deep as a freshly revived drowning victim. Thirsty for the first breath of air, I could feel grey matter turning pink again and lungs embarrassed over being caught shirking their duties. I stood up before I knew where I was and placed the ice axe purposefully into the trail. I looked up and him, put my backpack on and started putting one step in front of the other before my mind could tell me to stop.

                “Can you make it to the saddle?” Randy asks as I approach him

                “We will find out.” I mutter with as little breath as I could. No sense in wasting it. I continued up the Mountain to the saddle between south Massive and North Massive knowing that I was leaving nothing in the tank for the trip down. I took each step up knowing that I had nothing left for the trip down. It was in this moment that I realized how easy it was to die on Everest. Climbers are too concerned with summiting and not concerned enough with the x2 factor. Every step towards the summit needs to be repeated on the way down. I kept telling myself that down is easier, but my knees and quads know that the way down is less mentally challenging but more physically challenging. 

                Despite our early start, we missed the sunrise. Approaching from the west side saved us mileage, but gave us more altitude gain in less time. I still feel guilty, my slow pace cost Randy his sunrise. He is a mountain goat; he is not of this world. To date myself, he is a terminator sent back in time to climb mountains. His heart must be the size of King “Fucking” Kong. Randy never showed any signs of fatigue. He actually ran up the side of Massive for 500 yards, with a 10 lbs pack at 13,000’. He only showed joy and a dedication and when we saw the wolves or coyotes above us on the trail, he lit up with such excitement. His excitement and patience gave me strength. His strength filled me with humility and a sense of awe, awe with what is possible, even if it is turning the corner to see Randy in the distance lying on a rock formation like a cat on a couch. He looked more at home than I have ever seen him. He is a mountain man, a climber, an explorer that should have been alive when lesser men were looking at these mountains saying that they couldn’t be climbed. If he would have been born in a different time, one of these mountains would be named after him.

                Seeing the town of Leadville from the saddle gave me a 12th wind and only the sight of the summit would put a spring back into my step. Randy stayed back as the summit bowed not to my strength, not my prowess, but to my ability to keep getting up. Like Cool Hand Luke I summited Massive with nothing. Like Vincent in GATTACA, I gave it all and left nothing for the swim back. On good days, I believe that Vincent/Jerome traveled out into space and came back and lived a life worthy of more stories. On bad days… Today, I allow myself to doubt Vincent/Jerome and I start to believe that his heart gave out on the mission and that he never made it back to Earth. I am already on Earth, but standing on the summit, I understand why most climbers die on the descent. They too left nothing for the “swim back.”

                I was lucky though, for three reasons. 1. Randy wanted to summit North and South Massive. 2. Joey the dog. 3. Anton Krupicka. A separate group summited ten minutes after Randy and I and when I complemented them on their dogs, they quickly explained that only one dog was theirs. They asked if I could take “Joey” because they would not be returning down the North Halfmoon Creek Trail that Joey seemed to run from, and I just so happened to be taking that trail down. So, I rested as I waited for Joey’s people to summit and for Randy to climb North Massive, which would turn into a two hour trek. After an hour and a half with no sight of Joey’s people and my core temperature starting to drop, I decided to head down and hopefully meet them or adopt a dog. Fortunately, Joe and I came across his people about an hour into the descent. Joey’s owner was so happy to see him that he didn’t even notice when I slipped away, because just standing at altitude seemed to be draining my energy. 

                What about #3, Anton Krupica? For those that don’t know, he is a legend who has won the Leadville 100 several times, and is famous for his running & climbing prowess. As Joey and I descended the saddle from the Massive summit, I could see a lone figure – maybe a sasquatch perhaps? Was it just the altitude playing tricks on me? When I looked up again, I thought the figure had vanished, only to see an 80% naked man running up the Massive trail. He was lean, sunburned, and more beard that clothes. He only had a ball cap, running shorts, socks and trail running shoes to his name. I moved Joey and I off the trail and he thanked us with a voice that seemed surprisingly calm despite the pace he was running at above 13,000 feet. Based on how quickly we saw him again on his descent, I assume that he summited, took a deep breath and turned right around. The second interaction reinforced one thing: people are amazing and capable of anything they put their mind to. I will make it down this mountain despite myself. 

                Thirty minutes later Randy overtook me, and I am thankful he did. My knee hurt so much, simply stepping down with any body weight on it was as damn near as close to torture that I have experienced. All those bad steps on the way up had finally caught to me. Shit, I was hoping that I would have at least made it to the boulder field before I broke down. I could write for hours but all you need to know is that my hips and my knee were done. With three or four miles to go, I made the only choice I had…keep putting one foot in front of the other and hope that this was enough to get me down. Survive simply because I didn’t know any better. Keep moving because the same stubbornness, tolerance for punishment, and plain stupidity got me up the mountain can get me down.

                With half a mile to go, Randy and I joked about Monty Python and the castle that never got closer and wondered out loud “Where is the fucking trailhead!” Those cries were echoed and eventually replaced by cries from both of us “Where is the Fucking Campsite!” Fortunately, we made it to camp and napped and chatted for a few hours before the afternoon rains and the call of home finally motivated us to pack up. As soon as we got in the car, lightning, thunder and a whirl wind of rain started. I hope the not-so-smart souls that we met climbing Massive as we descended were wise enough to take Randy’s warnings and turn around before the rains came. As we pulled over to take one last picture of Massive, lightning struck a little close and chased us off like kids from a barking dog. Randy drove all the way home.
                    Photo by Randy Smersh