| Back on the Horse: In Memory of Sean
MOUNTAINS: Missouri Mountain, Iowa Peak, Emerald Peak
ROUTE: West Ridge up Mizz, South Slopes down Emerald
RT DISTANCE: 11-12 miles
RT ELEV. GAIN: ~5,000 feet
RT TIME: 9 hours
I didn’t know Sean Wylam. I never hiked with him, had a beer with him, talked with him about sports or girls or mountains. I was, however, with him during his final hours, and I’ll remember him for the rest of my life.
I don’t want to go into too much detail, but if any of his family members read this, I want you to know I have so much respect for how he handled himself after the accident. He did everything that was asked of him without complaint; his toughness and positive attitude were inspiring. I have no qualms saying I wouldn’t have been nearly as courageous in that situation.
Sean’s passing was a shock and I didn’t know how I’d handle it. I'd never seen death up close. Not an hour passed this past week where I didn’t think about him, especially as I learned more about his life. He was 25. He spent a ton of time outdoors. He’d previously lived in New Mexico before moving to Denver to be closer to the mountains, and he was a long way from his family and home. All of that describes me, as well. I thought about my own mother and how she’d react if something like that happened to me, and my heart bled for Sean’s loved ones.
Initially I thought I’d take a weekend – possibly a few – off from climbing. As the week progressed, I realized that would almost be disrespectful to Sean. He loved the mountains even more than I do, and the last thing he’d want is for me to stay away from the peaks on account of him. The longer I waited to get back on that horse, the harder it would be. I got a text from Keri almost immediately after I made the decision to hike this weekend. These things happen for a reason.
The goal was Missouri Mountain. It would be my third attempt at what was becoming my nemesis. The first time I turned back because avalanche conditions were a little sketch (others pressed on and did summit, but I didn’t have a beacon), and the second I didn’t even make it to the TH because I injured my knee on Dead Dog Couloir the previous day (sorry Natalie!). Iowa and Emerald were also there for the taking, if we felt good and the weather cooperated.
I didn’t have much interest in returning to Missouri Gulch, so we camped at Rockdale and tackled the West Ridge. The creek fording was no issue in Keri’s stock SUV, but she didn’t make it far up the 4WD road. She found a good spot to pull off and we started hiking at about 6:30 a.m., still 2 miles or so below the 4WD trailhead and Clohesy Lake.
Take the left trail here, just past the gate
From the lake, the trail goes UP. It was one of the steeper ones I’ve been on. It fades away once you reach the broad grassy slope, but if you just pick your own line you’ll find the trail again on the ridge. It’s slow going. Every time I opened my mouth to complain, I thought about how much Sean would’ve loved to be there in my place and I held my tongue.
Trail up to the grassy slope, shortly before it fades
Ridge running is one of my favorite parts of climbing, and Missouri doesn’t disappoint. The trail mellows out almost completely after you gain a 200-foot bump on the ridge. Congratulations! You’ve intersected the standard route and it’s an easy jaunt to the summit. There is one somewhat difficult section where you have to drop down 15-20 feet, but it’s perfectly manageable with a bit of care. Hint: hug the rocks to climber’s left and use handholds while you’re downclimbing. The scree there is a little treacherous.
The remaining ridge after joining the standard route
Keri nearing Missouri's summit
We topped out at about 9:30 a.m. I thought about the last summit I’d been on: Snowmass, which I’d shared with Sean mere minutes before his accident.
Sean took this photo of Dan and I on top of Snowmass shortly before his accident. That's his red pack behind us.
Belford/Oxford, from Missouri
The weather was looking good and I was motivated, so after 15 minutes on the summit we took off for Iowa. It’s an easy walk and there’s a faint trail. Stay as high on the ridge as possible to avoid some scree. We got there after about 45 minutes at 10:30 a.m.
The route to come: Iowa and Emerald
Looking back on the route from Missouri, on Iowa
Keri on Iowa's summit, with Emerald in the background
Three Apostles, from Iowa
Despite the forecast, I didn’t see any troublesome clouds. I knew Emerald would take at least another hour – it looks pretty intimidating from Missouri/Iowa, even though the saddle only drops down to about 13,400. I consulted Keri and she was all for going for it, so off we went.
Again, there’s not much of a trail down to the saddle. This area is BEAUTIFUL. While we’d seen the hordes in Missouri Gulch and shared the 14er summit with several other parties, we didn’t see a single other person on the Centennials. It was a complete wilderness setting, one in which Sean would have reveled.
We didn’t climb Emerald dead on, but skirted a little left and gained a flat grassy step that granted access to the east ridge. From there, it was a talus-hop to the summit, where we arrived at 11:30 a.m.
Emerald, from near the saddle. We aimed for the spot on the lefthand ridge where the grass transitions to rock and went for the summit from there.
Emerald's summit register
Me, senior photo pose
Looking back on the day
We’d had about enough elevation gain for the day. Rather than going back over Iowa or Missouri, we took Emerald’s South Slopes route down and intersected the Pear Lake Trail. It added a bit of mileage but was a much more gradual, scenic descent. At the risk of sounding too much like Roach, it made a very satisfying tour.
Mining ruins at the base of Emerald's South Slopes
The wildfowers were awesome on the Pear Lake Trail.
We arrived back at Keri’s car at roughly 3:30 p.m., just as some light afternoon rains were starting up. I didn’t realize how exhausted I’d become because my mind was on Sean and the hike was gorgeous, but it was a delight to take off my boots and drink a celebratory beer.
Sean, I’ll remember you and the hours we spent together for the rest of my life. You’ve made me a safer, more aware climber. We had many similar goals and I’m sure you’ll be right there beside me as I pursue them. It’s a shame we didn’t get to have that beer I promised you when we got down. RIP, man.
Sean on Snowmass. Solo and climbing fast, just the way he liked it.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):