Trailhead: Missouri Gulch, Elevation: 9,650'
Route: Northwest slope
Peaks in order of ascent: Missouri Mountain (14,067’), Iowa Peak (13,831')
RT Distance: 10.6 miles
Elevation Gain/Loss: 5,360 feet
I was returning to Missouri Mountain after 15 years but my goal today was two fold: hike two Centennials, Iowa Peak (13,831’) and Emerald Mountain (13,904’), and in the process complete 10 vertical miles of elevation gain for the season; Missouri at 14,067’ would just be the incidental summit. There have been varying accounts on the site recently regarding how much snow accumulation the Sawatch peaks had in the last week so I didn’t know quite what to expect. If you subscribe to the opinion, as I do, that the white powder is best appreciated with a set of skis then your high country hiking season, much like mine, is probably running on fumes, so this was a now-or-never situation for me, the season finale.
I had visited the Missouri Gulch Trailhead on Labor Day weekend, just five weeks ago to hike Belford and Oxford. On that day, the parking lot had been packed but today there was only one other vehicle. I started the hike around 8:20 a.m. with temperatures in the low forties, and the projected highs at 13,000 feet of about the same. In addition to warm clothing, I also packed my newly acquired Kahtoola microspikes (I finally have gear! 8) ...not that I know what to do with it ) anticipating some packed snow and ice on the trail. The only thing I was light on was food, the local stores having run out of the Odwalla protein monsters that make for great on-the-go drinks, especially when your heart rate is at a buck seventy and chomping on a power bar isn’t exactly fun. Being a fast hiker (I’d powered up Belford in 2:15 with similar elevation gain as Missouri), I figured I wouldn’t run out of fuel or time for that matter; an assumption that would indeed have been true under ideal conditions but today it would prove to be a gross miscalculation that would cost me both of my goals.
The first trace of snow on the trail came immediately after the creek crossing, an early warning and an indicator of things to come.
Packed snow on trail
I was still anxious to see how the slopes leading up to Missouri’s north ridge looked and I didn’t have to wait long to get my answer.
Snow covered east slopes
One look at the white stuff covering the slope that I would have to climb and I knew I would have a challenge on my hands, I mean, feet. My thoughts immediately went back to my last winter hike, also unplanned of course, when I took on Huron almost exactly two years ago when the generous cover of white powder had rendered an otherwise easy hike into a saga. Would today be any different?
The first challenge on the trail came in the form of a creek crossing, shortly after the Belford trail branches off from the Elkhead Pass trail.
What would be an innocuous crossing some seven hours later was quite a challenge with the ice on the rocks making for a very slippery surface. I had no choice but to step in the freezing water but picked a shallow spot thus avoiding the added joys of wet feet. But I wasn’t done with slippery creek crossings just yet!
No one warned me about this!
The water here was deeper so I bushwhacked some twenty feet to the left to a narrower crossing and stepped gingerly on the icy rocks but made it across this time without drama – but my joy would be short-lived as the worst was just round the corner, I mean switchback.
The trail through the basin is quite shallow so a good portion of the elevation gain on this hike occurs on the east facing slope leading to the saddle. As I started this ascent the snow was only a few inches deep and the trail relatively easy to follow.
Light snow on the early trail
I toyed with strapping on the microspikes but the terrain became somewhat inconsistent, transitioning from snow field to dirt to talus so I dispatched that notion.
More of the white stuf!
The snow quickly got deeper, with one to two feet of cover in several areas making progress slow and painful.
The snow was also fresh and thus devoid of any human tracks. At one point on this ascent I briefly went off trail, heading directly up the slope only to be summarily dispatched in a 20 foot “butt-slide” as I lost traction on loose scree under the snow.
These rocks stopped my slide
Realizing that I couldn’t afford to make mistakes under these conditions, I got back on trail and started a slow march through the long switchbacks. But this was still a case of so near yet so far as the snow cover seemed to counter every step I took with a rebuttal of its own.
The Centennials were no longer on my mind and, for that matter, neither was Missouri. I just needed to climb this treacherous slope and gain the North ridge before I could assess the situation further.
Traversing across the slope
After a long and painfully slow trudge across the east face, I looked back to survey the results of the struggle.
Trail across the slope
It was not until the trail wrapped around the last bluff that I could finally see where it reached the ridge, just south of Point 13,784’.
The saddle in sight!
Last pitch to saddle
The 1,100 foot hike from the base of the east face to the saddle at 13,700’ had taken me an hour and fifteen minutes, about twice what it would have a week ago, but this high station wasn't without its rewards!
Lovely Huron to the west
Belford and Oxford to the northeast
The smoke that had filled these skies all summer and most of the fall was gone, leaving the air clean and crisp, a boon for photographs. But while the atmosphere was free of haze, the winds that had been steady but bearable until now were now blasting away with a force that literally threatened to rip my hat off its straps. But it was the ridge walk that I was dreading the most, unsure of how much snow it would contain. Remarkably, the ridge was mostly dry with scattered patches of snow that were not deep enough to pose any issues and boy, was I thankful for that. Sure, it wasn’t exactly ideal for a ridge run but it appeared that the worst was over.
Ridge route sans much snow
The trail skirts Point 13,930’ to the west (right) and stays just slightly west of the ridge throughout this traverse, avoiding the craggy outcroppings.
Next on my mind was the 20 foot drop that dodges some ridge towers but this was completely devoid of snow and ice and proved to be a non-issue. There was more snow on the trail immediately after this, followed by another tricky class 2 drop to the west side before the trail regained the ridge for the final traverse to the summit.
My path down this chute
Three hours and fifty minutes after starting, I was on Missouri’s summit and my legs felt like they’d acquired a good bit more than just the 4,500 vertical feet that I’d climbed. I decided to take my time on this lofty spot and enjoy the views even as the winds howled around me.
Views to the southeast
The Apostles and Ice Mountain
The snow had definitely transformed the stark and barren Sawatch Mountains of a week ago into an alpine wonderland, another testament to the familiar adage that the mountains reserve their gifts for those that climb their summits.
I looked over at the two centennials that I’d set out to climb, a painful reminder that I'd hadn't hit either of my goals after nearly four hours into the hike.
This is what I came to climb
Iowa’s summit beckoned and I set out on the descent of Missouri’s southeast ridge. The trail was faint in spots and non-existent in others but this wasn’t an issue and neither was the snow, which was scarce save for a few shallow fields. The wind, however, was another story; the forecast had called for 20 mph winds but the gusts had to be in the high thirties. The saddle to Iowa is about half-way in distance so the descent to it is steeper than the climb to Iowa’s summit. I stayed true to the ridge crest braving the winds threatening to dislodge the lone climber that had come to visit today.
On the ridge to Iowa
By the absence of snow tracks on Missouri’s east slope, I knew I wouldn’t encounter a soul on this entire trip and on this count I was dead right. It was almost one p.m. when I stood atop the summit block on Iowa.
Yours Truly on Iowa
I looked over at Emerald Mountain, its steep north face uninviting, and the drop to the saddle depressingly deep.
Emerald - Not meant to be for today!
I was already stuffing my face with the last snack that I had and knew time wasn’t on my side. I also knew the ascent to Emerald would be hard without much of a trail and I would have to gain Iowa’s peak on the return so I decided to call it a day. I was disappointed but just a couple of hours ago, my derriere was unceremoniously planted on a bed of snow at 13,000 feet and even Missouri’s ridge looked like an impossible task then, so under the circumstances, I knew I’d done alright.
When I made it back to the saddle with Missouri, I decided to head east down to Missouri basin and join the trail to Elkhead Pass, thus making for a “Roach”esque tour of the region and also avoiding a re-ascent of Missouri.
Looking down at the basin
I knew I’d still have to gain nearly 500 feet but the basin looked more inviting and the gain would come at a lower elevation so how could I go wrong with that? Remember the loose scree and those snow fields on the slopes? Well, that’s how!
Sidehilling under Missouri's southeast face
Across snow fields and talus and tundra
Joking aside, I enjoyed this traverse the most on this trip. The views of Mt. Harvard from the basin were to die for.
Harvard, Thy Name is Majesty!
So I failed to accomplish my goals today, the mountains and the snow thwarting my feeble ambitions. But there is no such thing as a bad day in the mountains and I left with a smile knowing that I’d be back next season and that these mountains would still be there. After all, they are immutable in our fleeting temporal frame of reference.
One last look at the peak that wasn't meant to be!
Missouri's Notorious East Ridge
My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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